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It takes a little over an hour to decide to do it, less than a minute to send the email and about a day to pack up her stuff.

The tricky part was never about the action itself; the thought alone had sustained her for years. No, the tricky part was why she’s resolutely ignoring the vibration of her phone as it hums irritably in her bag.

So instead Rukia focuses on the walls, the ceilings, the floors – the building is an old converted warehouse that fits right in with the neighborhood of other converted old warehouses that make up Rukongai district.

Some of the piping is artfully naked, running parallel to exposed red-face brick as large windows blink shadows through faded watercolor glass, she’s told that the building used to be a dye factory.

The unit doesn’t come with much by way of amenities if she goes for the cheaper unfurnished option, but she’s been told that regardless, they don’t offer a washer and dryer for private use because their laundry facilities are pretty good – “You only have to share them with the people on your floor” – and it probably says something about her that she gets a little thrill out of the thought.

It occurs, in a distant sort of way, that the novelty of it will wear off, and probably quickly given how convenient her life has been that she’s never had to worry about sharing a laundry machine before, but at the moment the thought doesn’t even occur.

Or maybe she’s just suppressing it.

Just like how she’s ignoring the way her bag is rattling.

Either way, she tells the landlord, a blonde man in a green lounger’s outfit and a bucket hat, that she’ll take it. Furnished, she adds, since she doesn’t own anything of her own that she didn’t squeeze into a taxi from across town, and it’ll make the move easier and faster if she can just set up as is.

With a flick of his fan and a cat-like smile, he practically purrs, “Perfect.”

And if she’s suspicious about that, she tries not to show it.

This place is set at a great price, by her estimates of the area.

It’s close to her new job and just a hop, skip and a jump away from the neighborhood scene of city markets, prohibition styled hidden bars and creative haunts she’s only ever seen on a travel blogger’s Instagram account. Not even a guy wearing green-tinted sunglasses indoors is going to ruin this for her, and he doesn’t seem to have any plans to the contrary. Right until he takes her cash deposit with a careless by-the-way, “Don’t worry about your neighbor, he’s not actually a serial killer.”

And that’s…that’s – “What?”

He waves off her bewilderment with another flick of his fan. “Just idle gossip. Nothing to worry about. 3B is mostly quiet.”

“Mostly,” she echoes, “and when he isn’t?”

“Well, then he isn’t,” is the reply before he shows himself out with a flippant, “Welcome to the building, Kuchiki-san.”

The door closes with a resounded thud, drowning out any follow-up questions namely – what the hell – except then she’s shaking her head and mentally pushing the niggling doubt and frizzle of fear with the rest of it – out of sight and out of mind.

Gently nudging her bag beneath the wooden dining table, phone still humming angrily, she takes stock of her new home with growing excitement.

The furniture itself is sparse consisting only of a queen-sized bed, a couch, a dining table with four chairs and a fridge, all in varying levels of distressed that looks equal parts purposeful and well used, it works with the industrial-looking space.

Mentally, she’s already picking out rugs and throw pillows, and deciding where to set up her work station. The bedroom, which is more of a gilded perch for the bed above an L-shaped staircase,  doesn’t have much room that isn’t for the bed itself so she’s thinking that the remaining space left of the first floor of the combined living room, dining room and kitchen will do perfectly, and with another bookshelf and table to go under the split level, the space will be rounded out and cozy in no time.

Oh! She could probably go to one of the local markets – they would sell furniture of some kind, surely – and get some artsy wall decals too.

Rukia has few doubts that she can’t get the remainder of the loft furnished easily enough within the next few days, it’ll be like she’s lived here forever, and with all the exploring she’s planning to do, she’ll make a local of herself yet.

Yes. Focus on the good.

This was a good idea.

She has a job, she has an apartment, she has – no food in the fridge. Right. Of course, she doesn’t, she just got here, and she didn’t get groceries yet because she didn’t have a place to live until about five minutes ago which is apparently long enough to have her brother call over twenty-three times since.

Ironic really, since her nii-sama isn’t the most talkative person to begin with.

There aren’t any other calls besides his, though, and exiting out of her call logs on her device, she searches up local food in the area. Upon finding a grocery store around the corner it seems like everything was going to keep coming up Rukia.

With a grocery basket in hand and her phone wedged between her ear and her shoulder, she’s greeted by her brother’s judgemental silence, before a stony, “Where are you?”

“I’m not telling you.”

“Rukia.”

“I just called to let you know I’m alright.” She’s getting groceries, she’s thinking about to make for dinner, look at her, successfully adulting! “You don’t need to call the cops, I haven’t been kidnapped or taken against my will, I’m fine. Really.”

“Rukia,” and though all he’s saying is her name, she can hear the nuances in his pronunciation, a mixture of exasperation and exhaustion with just a hint of worry.

With Byakuya, it’s always the little things.

“I promise I will call you if I need anything, okay?”

“Then why are you calling now?”

Rukia scoffs. Her parents might not know or care that she’s left, but her brother more than makes up for it. “So, you won’t make missing posters or put my picture on milk cartons?”

“No one does either of those things anymore,” he deadpans.

“That’s the spirit,” she teases. “Oh, I’m next in line.”

“For what?”

“I bought groceries,” Rukia says with a not-insignificant proud little puff of her chest.  “Did you know you could buy cheese in ball form because I didn’t!” When all he has for her is the same judging silence, she doesn’t let it deter her. “This is a big deal for me. I’m thinking about getting a cake from the bakery down the road, you know, to celebrate? Or, oh! Did you know they sell wine in a box? These are exciting times, nii-sama!”

She can tell he’s at least a little amused by her antics even as he sighs. Before, she hears, distantly from his side of the line, “Kuchiki-sama, you’re needed at the meeting” that his following exhale is decidedly less so. “I have to go.”

Her smile droops a little. “Yeah, I figured. I’ll call you when I get home, just so you know.”

“Good, that’s…good,” and that’s how the conversation ends.

It’s probably the most they’ve said to each other in a week, she pretends the thought isn’t bittersweet.

The lady at the counter double-bags her eggs – just in case, is the reason – before Rukia pays, looping the plastic bags through her arms to carry them which is when a yellow cat weaves himself between her legs.

“Neighbourhood scavenger,” the lady behind the counter tells her – she’s dark-haired and dark-eyed and looks fashionably bored. “Don’t get attached. He just wants you to feed him.”

Even with the warning, Rukia can’t stop the blossoming fondness for the creature as the cat follows her home.

And between the cat and the food she has planned for dinner – she’s thinking mac and cheese, the real kind, she got the cheese ball and everything – and the sudden and new changes to her life that have all been for the positive (she’s keeping that energy until proven otherwise) all in the span of a single day, Rukia can’t tell if it’s the best day of her life so far.

The universe empathetically replies No.

She catches the elevator just in time, sticking her hand to stop the closing doors before she slides inside with a relived, “Made it!”, Rukia has her favorite flavor of ice-cream in one of the grocery bags and she’s not risking it melting.

The yellow cat meows in agreement while the only other occupant – a tall, scowling guy with orange hair, grunts.

She gives him a brief smile – they live in the same building and it’s a polite enough reflex to have – only to double-take at the black eye he’s sporting.

“What the hell happened to you?”

For a second, his scowl wavers, brows furrowing in confusion before he grunts again, looks away and mutters, “None of your business.”

Which – fair, except Rukia’s never learned how to leave well enough alone – digging into one of her grocery bags she finds the cheese ball – a mini-cheese wheel according to the packaging, it’s adorable and has a Chappy logo on it – which she thrusts at him insistently. “Your eye looks like it’s going to pop out of your head.”

“You should see the other guy,” he deadpans, though bemused, he accepts the cheese ball, if only to get her hand out of his face which is when she notices the blood on his knuckles.

The yellow cat hisses in warning, and Rukia opens and closes her mouth wordlessly before she glares. “Don’t bleed on my cheese.”

He grunts again which she takes as an agreement before she faces forward again, hand reaching for the console to press the button for her floor when she realizes the only ring of light that’s illuminated is the third – where she lives.

Practically compelled by the foreboding she feels, Rukia glances back at him– covertly taking stock of him: The guy, who shall be henceforth referred to as Grumpy, is about her brother’s height though his shoulders are broader with a resting bitch face just as effortlessly vicious, she thinks it might just be because his cheekbones are sharp enough to cut someone on contact.

Rukia wouldn’t be surprised if he’d killed someone with them by mistake.

Then again, that was jumping the gun a little – there are three other loft apartments beside her own on the third floor – he could live in any one of them. Hell, he could just be visiting someone here.

Though, she shudders to think what 3B looks like if it isn’t this guy.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to ask, “Uh, so…you live here?”

The eye not covered by the cheese ball she’d forced on him, flickers to her briefly before flicking away again. “Yes.”

“Oh. Great,” she exhales, doing an admirable job of hiding her trepidation. “Nice to meet you, Neighbor.”

“Neighbor,” he echoes, though it sounds more like a statement than a question, even with the way his eyebrow arches.

“Just moved in,” she tells him, “3A.”

Rukia doesn’t think he’ll respond, and probably won’t at all when they reach their floor in relative, awkward silence with the cat Rukia had unwittingly taken home weaving himself between her legs and Grumpy’s.

Detangling himself easily from the cat’s tail, Grumpy walks out the elevator without further comment, and the tenant from 3D – juggling her own groceries and prying open her door – pauses to eye him suspiciously when he does.

Rukia winces when he walks past the door of 3C and doesn’t know what to feel when 3D gives her a sympathetic head shake.

God, that’s not good.

The orange-haired guy’s keys jingle in his wake as the door of 3B closes with a whine of its hinges.

It’s only when she’s standing at her own door – relieved that she got out of the interaction unscathed, and tense because she’s pretty sure those rumors about 3B are plausible – that she realizes he didn’t give back her cheese ball.

And that regardless of her warning, he’s probably got his blood all over it.

So much for mac and cheese.

To the empty hallway, Rukia scowls. “Son of a bitch.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The Skype screen is open for exactly two seconds before Tatsuki scowls. "For god's sake, Ichigo."

"It's fine."

"It's not," Tatsuki seethes, "you're an idiot."

"I can write with one eye." It isn't even that bad. A little purple, and still swelling sure, but the cold cheese over his eye a few days ago had helped. Besides, it's not like it's his first time dealing with a shiner, it'll be another week, tops, and he'll be as good as new.

"That's not the point, and you know it." She grimaces. "Can't you cover it?"

"I had it covered earlier." But then the cheese had gotten warm and he'd shoved it in the fridge again. "Besides, I was finishing off the chapter and I didn't want to use speech to text." Which is always easier except, "I got a new neighbor."

At that Tatsuki smirks. "Afraid to give them the wrong impression?"

"I've already scared off two in the past six months," he reminds. They'd have gotten along fine if they minded their own business. So, he's up at odd hours talking to himself and pacing, it's not like that's a crime, as a writer it's practically part of the routine. "Urahara's gonna make me pay a penalty if I scare this one off."

"Well, maybe if you weren't such a delinquent with your gross eye."

"She saw my gross eye and didn't care," he retorts.

Tatsuki raises a brow. "So…?"

"The eye wasn't the problem with the last two, and you know it."

"Right…right, the whole narrating-your-murders thing." Which again, they wouldn't have known about had they kept their ears off his front door. "For such a solid building, the acoustics are terrible," and she'd be apologetic about vetoing all the other options he'd had before moving here, but Tatsuki isn't the kind of person to apologize for anything. "Though, again, the gross eye does not help."

"It wasn't my fault."

"Did you, or did you not get in the ring of your own volition? And don't even think about lying to me."

"I was frustrated," he defends which only makes her roll her eyes.

"Then pulp a punching bag," she retorts, "I'll even get you one for home so you don't keep going to that shitty gym." Not like that'll make the 'noise' complaints go away. They'll probably get worse, it'll sound like he's actually killing someone.

Anyway. "The gym isn't shitty. Grimmjow's just a dick."

She grumbles something mutinous under her breath. "Whatever. Did getting your lights knocked out help with the writer's block?"

"Who said I got knocked out?"

"Did the doctor say you needed an eyepatch, yes or no?"

"No, and you're worse than Yuzu." He pauses. "Also, it was a draw, for your information."

"Kurosaki, I swear to God, I will fly over there and sit on you until this book is written," and since she's been responsible for the first three of his books being completed at all, Ichigo doesn't doubt it. It's why he was insistent that after he got the book deal that Tatsuki would be his editor. Not only is she liberal with a red pen, but she'll also happily threaten him into reaching his deadlines – it's been an effective relationship.

"I'm fine, by the way."

Through the screen, she crosses her arms and quirks a brow, all too used to his crappy attempts at diversion. "How many bodies did you drop this time?"

Ichigo thinks about not answering, but he's already moving the file into an email and she'll find out anyway, "Two, but they weren't important."

"Of course not," she grumbles, her focus shifting as her mailbox makes a whoosh noise. From her screen, he hears a few clicks as she navigates on her laptop before she's groaning. "Really, in a sewer? You dropped a body in a sewer?"

"No one would look for it there," he retorts.

"That's even grosser than the eye."

He snorts and is about to tell her all the ways in which – gross or not, a sewer makes perfect sense – when there's a knock at his door.

"The hell," he mutters and doesn't think to excuse himself from the Skype session when he gets up.

Tatsuki's still looking for the other body he dropped and considering her response to the first one, she definitely isn't going to like what he did with the second.

Besides, it's five in the goddamn morning.

Who even –

He leaves the chain attached when he unlocks the door, and peers around it with a grunt, "What do you want?"

The woman from the elevator, 3A, the one who'd given him the cheese, is standing there with a jar of peanut butter in hand, and dressed in a brown onesie, the hood (made to look like a bunny head with a floppy ear) drooping on one side of her face while the other is haphazardly pulled back revealing a tangle of black hair.

Ichigo thinks he's about to be subjected to some ill-timed "friendly neighbor" meet-and-greet until she squints at him – bleary blue eyes and a slight scowl – and gets a face full of peanut butter – the label of a black cat stuck to the glass jar, staring at him judgementally.

"What the -"

"Can you open this?"

"It's five in the morning."

"Yeah, and I'm hungry. Can you open this for me or not?"

When he's still too baffled to reply, she squints even more – trying to glare from over the bags under her eyes. "You still owe me for the cheese. I was gonna make that for dinner my first night here."

Opening and closing his mouth, Ichigo can't even refuse because – she's right, and she's probably why his eye doesn't look so shitty now – and he's maybe a bit sleep deprived too because that chapter took fucking forever – and he's already grumbling, "Fine, hold on."

Plus, he can't find a reason why he shouldn't anyway.

It's neighborly to open jars, right?

He shuts the door to take the chain off, and as he does, Tatsuki tells him, "I can't believe you put him in a woodchipper. A woodchipper, Ichigo," before she's quiet again, going through the rest of the document he'd sent her just as he opens the front door so he can get rid of 3A loitering behind it.

In a neighborly fashion, of course.

Which she might be taking a little too far given that she thrusts the peanut butter jar at his chest and wanders right in, heading straight for the kitchen where his laptop is propped up on the breakfast nook.

Most of the people in the building don't even look at him when he walks past, and beyond the nosy neighbors he's had pressing themselves up against his door to figure out what he's up to – no one's even seen the inside of his loft.

Ichigo knows the rumors, and he probably doesn't help them. Even barefoot, in a pair of sweatpants and a thin t-shirt, he's been told he's scary enough – the scowl is automatic and the eye – yeah, it doesn't help.

Still, 3A – tiny, chipper and apparently fearless – doesn't seem to care.

Or might be too tired and craving peanut butter to care.

"Isn't it a bit early for cravings?" he finds himself asking.

"Cravings don't operate under normal hours," 3A informs. "Besides, cracking open chests is hungry work."

"…that's an expression, right?"

She shrugs, and alright, he knows nothing about her. It might just be a sense of humor. It might even be an occupational thing. Doctors do that kind of stuff, right?

Ichigo shakes his head and follows, only frowning at the yellow cat as he darts inside.

The cat – Kon, Yuzu has taken to calling him – sneaks in whenever he can. Sometimes if Ichigo's feeling charitable he'll leave something out for him, but more often than not the creature is more than satisfied rubbing himself all over Ichigo's furniture.

Good thing he isn't allergic, he thinks with a roll of his eyes.

He doesn't know where the cat goes into the loft, but the lid of the peanut butter's too tight for him to turn so he grabs a dishtowel in the drawer beside the fridge just as she opens the door of it.

On seeming autopilot, she peers around, the blue-yellow glow of the fridge light illuminating her pale face before she liberates the cheese ball with the Chappy logo from the shelf, crowing, "Aha!" before she shuts it close.

From over her shoulder, he can see Tatsuki raising a brow from the screen, as his neighbor examines the state of the cheese ball which – alright fine, he might've had some. He's been holed up in the loft for days and he ran out of food that wasn't takeout around the same time he got the cheese ball ergo –

The now open jar of peanut butter is removed from his grasp with a mumbled "thanks" before she leaves, front door closing with a quiet creak in her wake.

Oh. Kay.

"Ichigo."

"Eh?"

Tatsuki frowns. "I think…I think she was covered in blood."

His brow raises. "What?"

"Under the onesie," Tatsuki verifies, gesturing at where the zipper of 3A's had been.

From the split level where his bedroom is, the yellow cat meows for attention, the underside of his tail flickering, the hairs looking damp and a little – He steps forward as if he could get a closer look from where he's standing except then he's stepping in something wet and sticky and red.

Oh.

Oh.

With a huff, Tatsuki muses, "Well, no wonder she's not scared of you."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The extent of the rumors about 3B arrive at her door at the end of her first week in Rukongai, accompanied by a plate of store-bought cookies from 3D who's name Rukia doesn't catch before the woman launches into (what she probably thinks) is helpful warnings about their fellow Floor 3 dweller that goes like this:

"Momo-chan, she used to live here, used to say she could her hear him pacing at all hours!"

"Maybe he couldn't sleep?"

"We saw him through the balcony once, he was moving his head up and down for no reason," she continued, sounding practically scandalized, like it was a crime to – what is likely – headbang with earphones on in the sanctity of your own property – and Rukia would go on a tirade about right to privacy, and you shouldn't be looking at people through their windows in the first place, except, "Wait, the loft has a balcony?"

3D ignores her entirely, looking grim. "We've heard him muttering too whenever he's out and about – he gets all fidgety when you try talking to him – starts talking under his breath -"

"Really?" Rukia says, already distractedly looking over her shoulder at the windows of her loft with fresh eyes and wondering how exactly they open up to a balcony when she muses, "He doesn't seem like the type." Glare at you until he has an aneurysm, maybe.

"He may look like a regular ruffian," 3D says, looking passionately convinced, "but he's calculated that one!"

Blinking, Rukia furrows her brows. "I'm confused, you just said he was nervous and fidgety."

3D flushes, bright and angry. "Well, I would be nervous too if I was worried about someone finding the bodies!"

Almost casually, 3B says from his own doorway, "You too, huh?" and 3D immediately looks like she's seen a ghost.

Rukia coughs to cover a laugh.

3D, however, clearly has no shame, and starts to hiss while 3B locks up his loft, "See, he leaves at all hours too. Who goes out at ten in the evening anyway? And! He comes back all bloody, and covered in bruises like he's been in fights! And he doesn't like it when people look at him – doesn't even greet people! So rude! There's a pool going in the building – the biggest bet is that he's a gang member or some kind of cage fighter! Though I have my bets that he's a serial killer." Which the landlord clearly knows about given that he'd so casually mentioned it after taking Rukia's money. 

"Really," Rukia echoes again, resisting the urge to roll her eyes, "because I've been at his and he's got a floor to ceiling poster of the Lord of the Rings in his kitchen." Which is probably discriminatory in some way – gang members, cage fighters and serial killers could like geeky stuff like that too if they wanted – though Rukia isn't personally sure how.

She tried to watch the movie once and fell asleep half an hour in. And what's worse is that she woke up an hour later, they were still in the shire! Then again, maybe the frustrating drove him to violence – that, Rukia would get.

3D blinks owlishly, absorbing the information at a rate that reminds Rukia of one of those old dial-up internet connections before 3D gasps like she's been shot. "You've been in his loft, girl?"

"Rukia," she corrects, patiently impatient in the face of this woman's everything. Seriously, nii-sama would be so proud of her for keeping her composure. "And yes, I couldn't open my peanut butter jar this morning, and I was starving."

It was an awful idea – in hindsight – to knock on your neighbor's door at that hour, but she'd heard him puttering around and figured – strong, independent woman that she is (and she is!), she should know when to ask for help.

And there was no way she was waiting for a "normal" hour to eat.

She'd stayed up until two to finish the chest plaster cast she was working on for the new exhibition, and if she even thought to sit down she'd probably die there, even going so far as to stay standing to do the details of the art piece in order to reach the deadline without accidentally falling asleep.

That she'd been both too tired and too hungry to care that she had gotten paint all over herself before she stumbled through her front door with her peanut butter is another matter entirely.

3B should've just been glad she'd put on her onesie after she'd cracked the chest cast open or she'd have gotten white debris everywhere.

Though, of course, he didn't see it like that.

"You took my cheese," 3B interjects.

"It was my cheese, and you didn't listen to me – I had to wash it to get your blood off the plastic," she informs him, shooting him an unimpressed look even as he turns to walk away, completely ignoring her now that he has no leg to stand on.

With a huff, Rukia doesn't even regret barging in this morning. Even if she'd run out of strawberry jam and had to eat her peanut butter sandwiches without it. She should've taken his in retribution, it had been right there on the shelf next to her cheese. Though, to his retreating back, she tells him, "And don't think I didn't notice the chunk of it missing you-you cheese stealer!"

"You're still alive," 3D says, dazed.

With furrowed brows, Rukia finally feels a tendril of concern as the elevator at the end of the hall dings to announce its arrival. "Why? Did someone go in there and not come out?"

"Well, no…"

"Well then, maybe you're worrying for nothing." She shrugs. "So, he's a little eccentric, having no sleep schedule and interesting choices in hobbies does not a gang member, serial killer or cage fighter make. And the last one isn't even illegal anyway. Though, I'm very tempted to complain about the cheese thing – seriously, who does that?"

The fridge door closes with a clatter from her kitchen – Rukia had binge-watched Marie Kondo instead of working, and transferred all her condiments into glass bottles – so much prettier! – which distracts 3D back to the present as she perks up in interest. "I didn't know you had a roommate."

"I don't," she says, shortly. Nevermind, nii-sama can be disappointed in her.

The longer she stands here with this gossipmonger, the more Rukia doesn't want this woman to know anything about her.

Talk about nosy neighbors – she probably starts all the rumors in this place.

Rukia can't wait to hear the ones about herself by when Rangiku decides to walk past the door carrying the mold of her head that they'd been working on, which looked startling lifelike.

The fact that Rangiku's actual head was covered in paper mâché, and that she was breathing through a tube would probably make the rumors more interesting than something as benign as being a cage fighter or a gang member; jury might still be out on being a serial killer though.

That the other end of Rangiku's mouth tube was stuck into a jug of grape juice like a straw, which Rukia is willing to bet is eighty percent the box wine she bought and twenty percent actual juice, would honestly just be icing on the cake.

To 3D's slack expression of disbelief, Rukia gives her an awkward smile, "I should go."

"No – wait, what is -"

Hark! There be disembodied heads and people wearing flesh masks in 3A, Rukia thinks with a chuckle as she closes the door.

"You can keep your cookies," she tells 3D from the other side. "I've got the same ones in the cupboard."

"No, you don't," Rangiku tells her via the text to voice app on her phone, "I ate them all."

With a roll of her eyes, Rukia opens the door to find 3D still standing there; shoots her another smile, takes the offered plate, and shuts the door again before turning her unimpressed expression to the figure model she'd hired from the gallery. "I told you to stay put."

"I was thirsty," is the digital, deadpan reply.

"Seriously, Ran, you have to stay still. I don't want the paper mâché to dry weirdly," Rukia reminds, crossing her arms, and then making a face as Rangiku shuffles around the space, practically crab-walking to feel her way around with her knees since her hands are full with her realistic head mold, her phone and her jug of wine.

With a sigh, Rukia asks, "Why are you carrying around the head?"

When Rangiku finally reaches the couch and can use her fingers to text again, the app on her phone blandly replies, "She looked lonely."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

There’s a rumor that 3A is a serial killer, and Ichigo would be miffed about it (really, what are the chances that there’d be two serial killers living in one building?), except that he’s pretty sure she’s a bad one.

It’s an odd turn of events if he’s being honest, but no less amusing.

(He should probably seriously consider the therapist Tatsuki keeps none too subtly recommending him. No normal person should be amused that their neighbor kills people.)

It isn’t like its Ichigo’s fault, though.

Watching her lug around a body is hilarious.

3A is short, a full head shorter than Ichigo himself, with a delicate frame and practically no muscle to speak of given the way her red sweater hangs mostly limp around her frame, provided shape only by the denim dungaree where the outline of something long and thin is present in the pocket of it. Likely the murder weapon, if he had to guess.

Maybe she killed them with a knife or a poker.

Seems a little violent and unexpected for someone that looks so…harmless; youthful, even with rounded apple cheeks and a constant pout shaping a rosebud mouth. But Ichigo knows that those serial killers are always the ones that slip in undetected – overlooked for their ability to look innocent.

Though he’s going to be honest, they’re usually not so…brazen.

The body she’s lugging around looks heavy, and it’s covered in black plastic bags, legs and ankles taped together with brown scotch tape.

She couldn’t have made it more obvious if she tried.

Which automatically makes it suspicious because as unassuming as she appears – she’s standing in the elevator with a body dressed for disposal at her feet – and 2B looks about ready to pass out, she’s even squished herself near Ichigo, which is definitely a strange turn of events considering she used to live in 3A before she took the apartment directly below his.

He thinks the girl’s name is Momo, but he doesn’t really care.

Current 3A is much more interesting of a neighbor.

He overheard her using a rotozip yesterday, and 3D didn’t even barge into her loft to complain about it.

Ichigo almost regrets not sticking around the other day to eavesdrop on 3D’s “welcome to the building, beware 3B” speech because clearly, it did not go the way she expected it to.

And it’s not like he wants to be impressed, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is.  

Or that he’s curious, because while listening to her using a rotozip yesterday had provided him with the equivalent of white noise to drown out his own annoying thoughts to reach Tatsuki’s word count for the day, he can’t shake the question of what she was using it for if not to (loudly) dismember her victim.

So, he asks, “What’d you do with the rotozip yesterday?”

“Oh.” She blinks, reddening a little in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were home. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known you were around. Please don’t complain to Urahara, I won’t bring my work home with me again.”

Seriously, she thinks he’s concerned about a noise complaint?

He grunts, impatient. “Whatever.” Though, with the way Momo shrinks further, biting her lip to suppress her whimper, Ichigo would bet she has feelings to the contrary.

“I was doing the other one,” 3A eventually says, her momentarily awkwardness giving way to her frustration, and Ichigo isn’t surprised except he is because she really might be a serial killer, holy shit. “I was going to do this one too, but I’m experimenting.”

 “Oh?”

“Yeah,” she says with a careless shrug and a slight smile, “you know what they say, more than one way to skin a cat.”

Which is when the elevator doors open, Momo stumbling out before outright fleeing, only to almost trip over Kon as he saunters in.

Though 3A is startled by Momo’s exit, her attention is diverted quickly by the cat. “There you are,” she greets, stooping down to pet Kon’s head with a coo of, “I’m sorry kitty, I have to go to work now.”

And though Kon clearly disagrees with this, rubbing himself between 3A’s knees and purring loudly, she resolutely rubs between his ears once more before turning to grab her victim, dragging them just far enough that the elevator doors won’t close on her, and then huffing, dark brown hair fluttering over her forehead, and then cocking a brow at him. “Can I help you?”

“What?”

“I’m not blocking the door,” she points out, then pauses and rolls her eyes. “I know it looks ridiculous, but if you aren’t going to be a gentleman and offer to help, you don’t need to stare.”

“Maybe you should’ve thought of that before you decided to drag a body down to the lobby,” he returns. “You do know we have a garbage disposal that goes straight into the basement, right?”

Baffled, 3A asks, “Why would I want to throw away my art?”

Art, he thinks, mentally repeating the world like his brain is stuck on a loop, before he decides, “Someone has a high opinion of their crimes.”

And then for, apparently the first time, 3A looks down at the body, and with growing horror, she goes, “Oh, my god, no.”

He raises a brow and replies, “Yes.”

When she only continues to stare, like she wasn’t even aware she’d been doing what she’s been doing, he says, “Is this an ‘I didn’t know I was a serial killer’; body snatching or multiple personality stitch or…”

She still doesn’t reply, before, pointing at him, “I’m not a serial killer, you are.”

“The only people I kill are fictional,” Ichigo deadpans, looking more pointedly down at the body she just left lying on across the door of the elevator. “You, on the hand.”

Her mouth opens and closes wordlessly before, her eyes narrow in realization.  “You dick, you did that on purpose.”

“Did I?” he asks all innocence.

“It’s not, it’s not a body, body,” she says, curiously in a whisper like she’s embarrassed all over again. “It’s for work, a project, it’s -”

“A mannequin,” Ichigo guesses.

That would fit. It’s proportional to a human, close enough anatomically. Though, now that he’s really paying attention, the body’s too rigid, and once putrefaction sets in, a corpse is a lot squishier, and also, smellier.

“No,” 3A says, offended, and then she’s reaching over to part the black bags at the face and it’s – it’s a person, certainly, no one he knows – unfortunately – the features aren’t particularly memorable, he can’t even tell if it’s meant to be male or female, its  features androgynous in nature with some pretty extreme detail, Ichigo could count the individual hairs that make up the person’s eyebrows if he wanted to.

“That is uncannily lifelike.”

She huffs. “Thank you. It took almost an entire week.” Then, she’s muttering, “A mannequin, seriously?”

“Oi, like I could’ve known it was anything else,” Ichigo argues, “it’s – you’re carrying it around like you’re preparing to dump it in the river.”

“Is that where you get rid of yours?” she asks sweetly.

 “Hah-hah,” he deadpans.

“For your information, it’s clay. And it’s heavy, so.”

“You didn’t think through possible transport options,” Ichigo asks, brow cocked in disapproval. “That’s just irresponsible.”

At that, 3A crosses her arms with a huff. “Yes, I know. In my defense, I’m used to having people do this for me.”

He holds his hands up. “Excuse me, Ms. Murder.”

 Rolling her eyes, she asks, “Are you done?”

When he makes an ‘eh’ expression, she huffs again and goes back to dragging the body out of the elevator, Ichigo following after at a leisurely pace.

He doesn’t know how she got from one end of the passage to another without going red in the face, though the answer to that is she didn’t. 3A gets halfway across the lobby, huffing and sweating a little before she stops, scowling at him.

“You’re enjoying this.”

“I’m amused,” he admits.

Resting her model? sculpture? against her leg, she narrows her eyes. “You’re going to make me ask?”

“It would be polite and neighborly,” he graciously allows, and in the face of his assholery, 3A only exhales heavily before conceding defeat, “Please could you -”

“No.”

She goes right back to scowling. “You’re such a dick.”

Ichigo shrugs, letting the door swing closed behind him.

He can live with there two would-be serial killers in the building, god knows if everyone else will.

Chapter Text

 

 

It doesn’t take very long to regret being an adult.

Rukia still enjoys it – as a whole: a place of her own, the ability to eat whatever she wants, going out without having an excuse to do it, working on her art pieces at all hours. It’s great. Really. But there are always downsides, namely who pays for all of it.

Rent, while good for the area, is still an expense she’s expected to pay without negotiation, and food, entertainment, and art supplies do not come cheap.

Especially given her natural inclination for the pricier things.

What? You can take the money from the rich girl, but not her taste.

She pouts a little at the spreadsheet on her computer, her rudimentary attempt at a budget set up with the upcoming month’s bills against her salary from the gallery.

Rukia knows she can easily access a bigger pool of money from her trust account, but she’d wanted to do this on her own, and that included using the money she’d made herself. She’s glad she’d kept her paychecks from the law firm she’d interned at before turning tail and bailing, she had a cushion at least, however meager it was.

“Ah, I shouldn't have eaten out so often,” she scolds herself, squinting at the numbers, only to get momentarily distracted by the smell of someone’s dinner wafting through the open window. It smells like pasta, and melted cheese and –

“You have food at home, Rukia,” she berates under her breath just as her stomach growls which she only looks down at like its betrayed her.

“I’m so lazy to cook though!”

 The empty loft yawns at her, the smell of cooked food lingering like a taunt. With a huff and a roll of her eyes, Rukia sets aside her laptop and drags herself off the couch.

The cupboards are empty of immediate sustenance, the junk food long eaten during frenetic art episodes and snuck in between the gallery tours she gives. There are only ingredients, and the thought of what she could make from them is making her stomach growl.

Even the cookies 3D had come with are gone.

Fucking Rangiku, she thinks mutinously, regretting how she’d so easily said yes to the price the figure model had named, and had been too much of a gracious host to deny her a glass of wine or two – which had quickly become a bottle, or seven.

Being nice to people is expensive, she huffs, before opening the fridge to find it in the same state.

She’s got eggs though. That’s easy enough.

Oh! Past-Rukia bought mushrooms and they’re still good! Score!

“I’m thinking mushroom omelet? Or maybe some scrambled eggs with some mushrooms sautéed on the side? What do you think?”

The cat jumps onto the counter to sniff her offerings before meowing disinterestedly and slinking away. Rukia sniffs. “Fine, you weren’t getting any anyway.”

She doesn’t cook the mushrooms enough, and the eggs are a little overcooked, but it’s not the worst attempt she’s ever made.

A few days ago, she made ramen – or tried to. It had overcooked and clumped together, and it was like eating a ball of starch.

It was pretty filling, in her defense, if not on the bland side what with all the stock cooked off.

She’s in the middle of sending a picture of her success (and it is one, no one is going to take this from her; she’s going to be Master Chef levels of good in no time!) to Byakuya – Look, I can cook! – before an alarm shrills so loudly that she startles, and drops her phone on her plate with a clatter; eggs flying everywhere while the mushrooms make a sad squelching noise beneath her screen.

Fuck, so much for that.

The noise doesn’t stop, and on opening her front door to find out what’s going on, she sees the occupants from her floor loitering in the hallway. “What’s happening?” she asks above the shrill.

“Fire alarm,” 3D declares, looking disgruntled. “It’s probably that-that Ryoka in 3B.”

Though Rukia rolls her eyes on a movement that’s mostly a reflex whenever 3D talks, she notices the asshole with the orange hair isn’t among them, and that his door is still closed. However, when she makes a move to knock, 3C, a nervous, young man with a nametag identifying him as Hanataro pinned to his convenient store uniform, stutters a warning that, “Kurosaki-san doesn’t like people bothering him.”

“Well he’s the only one not coming out, and I think it's coming from his unit anyway so -” Her minuscule edge closer only leads to more yelling, this time with 3D joining in to declare, “It’s not safe to go in there!”

“He could be hurt,” Rukia argues.

At that, 3D only huffs, and 3C looks torn, and that’s as close to an agreement as she’ll likely get from either of them. So, she knocks. Once, twice, and then calls over the alarm’s shrieks, “Oi! Is everything okay?”

There’s some cursing on the other side, so Rukia assumes the answer is yes, which satisfies 3D enough that she flounces off back to her unit while 3C shuffles nervously beside her. “Do you think…he’s hurt in there?”

“We know he’s not unconscious, and,” seeing the lack of smoke trying to escape from under the door, and testing the knob and finding the handle cool, Rukia assures him, “Not a big fire then.”

To 3B, she yells, “Hey Killer, do you need help?”

“Ah,” Hanataro stutters, “maybe you shouldn’t -”

“I’ve got it, it’s fine,” 3B answers before there’s a crash and –

“That doesn’t sound fine,” she informs him to his irritated groan, before he reluctantly as the shrieks of the alarm die down, 3B admits, “I think…I think I hurt my ankle.”

Exchanging a look with Hanataro, Rukia confirms, “I have your permission to come in?”

A pause, and then, a grudging, “I don’t…I don’t think I can get to the door.”

“Oh, it’s cool, I’ve got that covered,” Rukia waves off before gently gesturing Hanataro aside, taking a breath and spinning a kick at the door which – ah hah!

Hanataro’s mouth gapes, similarly to 3B’s and then, 3B is yelling, “How the fuck did you…?”

“Twelve years of taekwondo,” she declares with a confident brush of her shoulder before she takes in the sight of 3B’s apartment, nose crinkling, “Why does it smell like death in here?”

“Doesn’t matter,” 3B informs from the floor nearby a chair that’s toppled over, cheeks red, “are you gonna help me or not?”

“Since you asked so nicely,” Rukia says with a roll of her eyes, and gesturing Hanataro forward, “C’mon, this traffic cone is too heavy for me to carry alone.”

“Oi!”

“Ah-ah-ah, I’m helping you of my own free will buddy, I can leave you like this too.”

Hanataro still hasn’t come around to help though, still shuffling nervously in the threshold before 3B barks, “Come in, already.”

“Ah, yes!” he agrees, finally coming closer and taking his other side as Rukia herds them onto the couch where his own laptop is set up, a screensaver of what looks to be a family – two young women and an older man smiling on the screen, arms looped around one another. Their genes are pretty strong, it’s obvious they’re all related, and if not for their grins, Rukia would say the same of 3B.

“We should elevate his ankle,” Hanataro is saying, already arranging pillows to do just that and then darting off into the kitchen with a declaration of, “Ice, he needs ice!” Like all he needed was 3B’s permission to start making himself at home, and that includes almost tripping over the fallen chair that seemed to have been in the middle of the room, and…is that a broom?

Whatever he was probably trying to manually switch the fire alarm off and fell.

Though the question remains why the fire alarm had gone off at all. There’s nothing on the stove plate.

“Alright, what the hell have you been doing?”

“None of your business,” he grumbles, and that flush on his cheeks only grows darker until it turns practically purple when Hanataro discovers, “Ah, Kurosaki-san, I think…I think your cookies are burned.”

“Cookies?” Rukia echoes, her smile turning wicked, and this time when Kurosaki starts shouting, he’s stuttering and blushing all the way down his chest which is – oh, he’s half-naked save for a comfortable pair of sweats, huh. “I’m sorry,” she teasingly, doing a fantastic job of pretending not to notice the treasure trail of hair leading into the waistband of his pants, and the tightness of his stomach as she coos, “did you have company or were you…” she sends a significant glance to the set up laptop. To her amusement, he gets even more embarrassed.

“That’s not – no! I was – look it’s just -”

“Oh, you don’t need to explain yourself to me, you’re clearly a healthy young man with some…strange hobbies, and other…not so strange hobbies.”

Hanataro blushes before retreating with a bow, “You should keep your ankle elevated! And-and take some anti-inflammatories! Keep it iced, and-and you should be fine! I’m gonna…I’m gonna go now. Hope you feel better, Kurosaki-san!”

Rukia’s still grinning at Kurosaki by the time Hanataro leaves, even as 3B glares, the effect significantly reduced with his embarrassment so obvious. “You know, that kid’ll probably never be scared of me again,” he accuses mulishly.

“He might even greet you in the elevator,” Rukia agrees in cheerful sobriety.

“I hate you.”

“I know,” she sighs happily, “and it pleases me greatly.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Ichigo’s day has gone to shit.

He knew it would.

Urahara had shown up that morning to flick his fan, peer at him musingly through green-tinted lenses and declare that Ichigo wasn’t getting his deposit back: “First the alarm and then the door? Tsk, tsk, Ichigo, and here I thought your ryoka reputation was all just rumors. Are there any other sins you’d like to confess while I’m here?” And when he’d answered with a disinterested grunt, unable to slam the door and lock it because 3A had broken it coming in to save him from himself, Urahara only hummed out a sigh and declared, “Well, at least you haven’t chased away Kuchiki-san, that would be your third neighbor in four months. I didn’t forget, you know, and you’re going to find another utility on your bill labeled ‘un-neighborly behavior’ if she moves out. So, be good.”

On top of that, not only was Ichigo’s black eye taking forever to heal, he had a swollen ankle on top that.

Sure, he could hobble well enough, and he didn’t actually need to go anywhere. But going to the gym was out of the question.

Kenpachi, the gym’s owner, liked Tatsuki more than him, and after she’d forbidden him from taking his writer’s block out in the ring, Kenpachi had refused his entry into the building entirely in solidarity.

Renji and Grimmjow had given him shit from the window of the gym for about ten seconds before the rest of Kenpachi’s crew had dragged them in for a brawl of their own making, and Ichigo had been forced to leave to the chorus of a bunch of gym rats arguing themselves into a frenzy, “You think you can take me? Huh? Say it to my face, you fuck!”

Ichigo didn’t even have the pleasure to contribute beyond smirking thinly and walking off.

It would’ve been the perfect way to take out his aggression, but no, he’d busted up his ankle, he still couldn’t see out one eye and Tatsuki had said no.  

As if it couldn’t get worse, the Universe empathetically replied Watch it, and it started to pour in thick sheets of rain.

The water hit the ground so hard it slammed into the pavement in giant splashes as the darkened sky tore itself to pieces overhead. Ichigo’s only saving grace had been that the loft was just around the corner. Though, it didn’t stop the admirable job of the weather in soaking him straight to the bone.

Grimacing against the soggy feeling of his sock tightening around his swollen ankle, Ichigo manages to get into the elevator without issue, leaning heavily against the wall while his hair dripped through all three layers of his clothes.

With an annoyed exhale, the elevator chimes in closing just as a hand shoots out to stop it, and 3A, Kuchiki, is sliding in with a labored breath of her own.

She gives him a passing smile in greeting, an automatic response apparently before she snorts. “You look like a drowned cat.”

He grunts in acknowledgment, ignoring the way his cheeks warm and resolving to ignore her entirely.

Kuchiki won’t move out if he’s just rude, and even if she did, Urahara can’t seriously charge him for that, can he? He should probably ask Karin. His sister would give him shit for chasing his neighbors off, but she’s gotten quite the reputation for terrifying her desk mates herself, and he’d just love to remind her about people in glass houses throwing stones. It’s his brotherly duty to annoy her, after all.

Kuchiki hits the button for their floor, and though she pauses to wait for someone to join them on the elevator, 2A takes one look at the two of them and immediately excuse himself with, “I’ll take the stairs!”

“Uh…are you sure?” she asks, eying the number of packages he’s balancing and the way he’s somehow sweating through the rainwater, even as Kuchiki herself shivers underneath her wet coat thanks to the front door of the building their neighbor has left open in his wake.

He stutters out some kind of reply that Ichigo ignores as he leans over to press the button to shut the doors and initiate the elevator’s ascent.

“Rude,” she scolds, the glare she throws him accompanied by the rain that clings to her hair.

“They were never going to get in,” he tells her, leaning back with a grunt. “Wasn’t going to waste my time getting colder and getting sick on top of everything else.”

At that, Kuchiki pauses, her glare softening as she takes him in with an almost cursory sweep of her eyes. “How’s your ankle?”

“Nothing broken,” he tells her, though that was completely dependent on whether or not Tatsuki was serious about flying down to finish the job – “You’re like the most annoying little brother,” she’d scolded over Skype, “I can’t leave you alone for one fucking month without you hurting yourself!”

“At least the eye is looking better,” Kuchiki tries to comfort which is unnecessary, he doesn’t know her well enough to care for her sympathy, even as she continues to scrutinize his face. And Ichigo’s probably getting sick, damn it, there’s no reason his face should be getting so warm –

“What the hell are you looking at?” he snaps.

 “You, obviously.”

His brow wrinkles in a what for expression which she evidently finds annoying given the exasperated sigh she lets out before she tells him, “I’m just wondering if it’s the eye that gives you the reputation or if it’s just your normal face.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re the one that was dragging a body around.”

Kuchiki scowls. “One time, it was one time.”

 “And for your information, thanks to you, it’s neither.”

“What?”

“3C won’t stop talking to me,” Ichigo practically spits.

Hanataro had been, at the very least, intimidated by him before, but ever since the Cookie Incident yesterday, he’d moved from a low-level fear to just enough to be polite. And as she predicted a day ago, Hanataro found it prudent to greet him when they ran into each other in the evening, and for their usually nervous neighbor to give him medical advice.

On the plus side, Ichigo had found out, thanks to 3C’s rambling, that he was a paramedic in training and was working at the nearby convenience store to help pay for school.

Maybe Ichigo just needed to ask him some totally normal questions relating to accidents to get them back on track. But that would require actually contributing to their conversations, and Ichigo isn’t entirely sure it wouldn’t encourage the kid to think they’re friends or something.

“Oh, you poor antisocial hermit,” Kuchiki coos.

“Shuddup.”

Despite the growl, she only laughs, and Ichigo doesn’t have the time to curse his stupid biological response because his face won’t stop getting warm, what the fuck, and he can’t decide if he’s blaming it on the anger or the embarrassment of it all, but it turns out he doesn’t need to decide: The lights go out, and the elevator abruptly stops.

“What the -?”

Pushing the emergency button doesn’t do anything except produce a clicking noise, and while 3A keeps at it, Ichigo struggles to get his (slightly damp phone) out of the pocket of his wet jeans. He grimaces against the brightness of the screen as he navigates his contacts to get to Sandlehat’s number before pressing it to his ear.

After two rings, with a non-sequitur, he informs, “We’re stuck in the elevator.”

“Power’s out, that’ll happen,” Jinta, Urahara’s kid, tells him disinterestedly. “Once it’s back on, you’ll be good to go. Try not to kill whoever’s in there with you.”

Any further conversation in that vein ends with the dial tone making Ichigo scowl. “Great.”

Beside him, Kuchiki makes an inquiring noise, and he relays the information with an added layer of displeasure.

“Well, hopefully, it won’t be long,” she tries to soothe, though whether it’s for his benefit or hers, he can’t tell, though he’s starting to suspect the former given the way she’s trying to subtly keep him standing.

Stupid ankle.

“I’m fine,” he grunts.

“At least sit,” she argues. “Why are you even up anyway? You fell yesterday.”

“It’s not that bad,” he defends. “It’s not even broken.”

“You realize damaging your ligament isn’t a consolation.”

“Are you a doctor too?” he demands which she answers instead with, “Would it kill you not to be a dick for five minutes?”

His jaw clamps shut, and before his screen dims out from inactivity, she looks almost impressed that he’s capable of silence, if not pleasantry.

But he can’t have that.  

He lets at least a couple of seconds pass before, “You gonna waste these five minutes or what?”

In the dark, she sighs. “You suck at this.”

When he doesn’t reply, Ichigo feels her move, nudging him to sit and then she’s saying, “Stretch your leg out – no, your other leg, the one that’s hurt.”

“It’s just my ankle,” he protests. “It’s not even sore -”

“Shut up and stretch it,” which is followed by the strange feeling of his foot being lifted before coming to a rest on top of something weirdly shaped.

“What is that?”

“Me,” she grunts, her hip pressed against his thigh. “Well, my ankles, I’d have elevated it with my bag but I didn’t bring it. And I’m not putting your muddy ass shoe in my food.”

He ignores the strange squirmy feeling in his chest and is grateful that it’s too dark to notice how bright his face probably is considering how it feels. “You left the house without a bag?” He asks instead. Yuzu often informs him of the impossibility of such a feat, “Girls’ clothes don’t actually have pockets, it’s a conspiracy to force us to buy bags.”

“I just ran out to get some groceries,” Kuchiki defends like she’s well aware of the dangers of just carrying your belongings before she perks up. “Which is a good thing for both of us.”

There’s some rustling before she offers, “Oreo?”

They’re sitting close enough that she practically shoves it in his mouth, and if she startles at the sudden crunching near her ear from him chewing, he politely pretends he doesn’t notice. Which only makes her grumble, “Ass.”

Around his mouthful, he grumbles back, and for a blessed five minutes, neither says anything.

Until he mutters, “…Thanks” which she answers with a bob of her head he feels more than he sees.

At least for now, Kuchiki doesn’t run off with the inch he’s given her, but he finds himself annoyed about it too.

From the little he knows about her, and the little he’s gotten to experience of her, Kuchiki doesn’t seem like the type to just let things be. She’s annoyingly persistent that way – the first time they met in this elevator when she’d still been wary, and the first time she showed up at his door demanding he help her with none of her earlier concerns, prove it. Her silent acquiescence now is…almost…infuriating.

He knows it shouldn’t, and it doesn’t make sense.

Everyone else he’s ever been nice enough to keep demanding more of him – Hanataro, to a small degree; Momo, before 3D had gotten to her; Inoue, at the deli counter of the supermarket he doesn’t go to anymore if he can avoid it; his sisters.

It’s why he likes being a jerk. Everyone leaves him alone.

But Kuchiki? She just helps him and then doesn’t say anything?

He huffs out an irritated breath through his nose.

Fuck.

She’s gotten to him.

And just as he thinks that he snaps, “What?”

“What?” she returns, bewildered.

“That’s…it?”

“I’m sorry, was I supposed to say anything else?”

The yes is on the tip of his tongue. He’d expected some barb about him even knowing how to be polite in the first place, not just – “You’re not usually quiet.”

“How would you know?” she asks, genuinely confused. “It’s not like we talk when we get our mail at the same time.”

The darkness is comforting as he grunts through his burning cheeks. “Shuddup.”

There’s another torturous silence wherein Ichigo can hear her brain working, before, “…Were you…trying to start a conversation?”

“No.”

“Good, because you suck at it.”

Silence.

“I can hear you sulking,” is what she follows up with.

“I’m not,” he mumbles, and it’s a damn miracle he isn’t keeping her warm with the sheer force of his stupid face alone.   

Though, she might be aware of it now that she sounds amused and indulgent, “Sure, you aren’t, Kurosaki.”

He exhales. “I’m not…that bad on purpose.”

“At social interaction or…Okay, I can feel you judging, ignore me, continue,” she waves off with one hand that he feels shifts the air with its movement.

“I don’t see why I should.”

“Oh, come off it Grumpy, you’re the one that wanted to talk.”

His grudging silence is admission enough and so, finally, he admits, “I’ve got writer’s block.”

He can practically see the way her expression feigns concern as she prods, “Always, or…?”

“Hah.”

He feels her chuckle, and then he sees it as the lights above them flicker on in a slow blink.

Her eyes are too blue to just be blue, and the curve of her smile is punctuated by a dimple at her cheek, pink tongue darting out before her brows quirk mischievously. “It’s a good thing for you that I’ve got just the thing that’ll help with that.”

Despite her size, she hauls him up easily, and when the elevators reach their floor, he’s too surprised to stop her as Kuchiki pulls him along by the arm down the hall to her loft, to the look of scandalized conflict on 3D’s face.

Ichigo has the strangest feeling that his day isn’t going to end as badly as it started.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Rukia has exactly a minute and a half to regret dragging Kurosaki into her loft, and in his defense, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with him so much as it has to do about him.

She may know he isn’t actually some serial killer (ish?), but she also doesn’t even know his first name, and that seems like an important precursor to bringing someone into her home and telling him to take his clothes off – He’s dripping all over her floor!

He’s peeling off his layers by the closed front door, expression set in a grimace as the material clings persistently against his jacket onto the floor in a puddle with a loud, wet squelch that she belatedly realizes this might not have been the best idea.  

“Don’t move,” she orders anyway as she heads over to the small washroom near the kitchen and snags the towel on the rack – it’s just a hand towel and it won’t help with much of the damage from the rain, but it’s better than nothing.

By the time she’s thrusting it at him, he’s managed to toe his boots off, and is trying to remove the flannel while trying to peel the layer beneath it off at the same time, teeth set into the hem, and brows furrowed in adorable concentration.

Rukia might even coo and pat him on the cheek for it.

If – maybe – she hadn’t gotten an eyeful of tanned skin and flash of hip bone, and what were the muscles of his abdomen even doing? Jesus.

“You know, I can just go next door and change, right?” he says around the material of his shirt as he struggles out of it, completely distracted from the fact that Rukia’s brain had gone dial-up for exactly twenty seconds and that her face was probably redder than a tomato.

“Yeah, right, and then you’ll lock yourself in there and never come out, and you’ll be stuck in your creative rut forever,” she says in a huff, and climbing the stairs to get to the split level. “I know exactly, how to help. Trust me.”

“I have no reason to do that,” he deadpans.

“And yet you took off your clothes just because I asked,” she reminds in a singsong which she thinks is proof enough when he can’t do anything more than grumble under his breath.

By the time Rukia’s dried and changed into her jean dungaree she uses for painting  – Kurosaki is still grumbling.

And he’s shirtless.

Because why would she expect otherwise?

He’s running the hand towel over his damp hair, miles of tanned skin flecked with goosebumps from the slight draft in the room, with his jeans hanging wetly from sharp hips and clinging to thick thighs, bare toes flexing against the floor. Seriously, who is this guy even? She throws the bath towel she snagged from her bathroom upstairs, over his head, and leaves some clothes on the barstool closest to the washroom nearby.

“It’s my brother’s, it should fit you. Let me just get the rest of the stuff.”

Peering through the folds of the bath towel, hair peeking out in fuzzy spikes and expression disgruntled, he frowns at her. “I don’t do any…stuff.”

“Stuff,” she repeats as she sets up one of her plaster models on a stool atop a white trap. “What stuff?”

“…drug related stuff.”

Rukia bodily pauses. “What?”

He huffs out a breath, looking a little uncomfortable now. “I know what I look like, but I don’t do -”

“No, no, don’t say it again. I’m still a little convinced 3D bugged the loft,” she says, throwing a suspicious look around the space. It wouldn’t be beyond 3D’s capabilities, Rukia is sure, the woman always seems to catch Rukia doing the worst things – you know, when you’re lacking the context of artistic creation.

She shakes her head. “Don’t worry, I’m not offering you drugs. Although, wouldn’t that be something?” Rukia thinks aloud, “I had to sit through so many just say no to drugs school assemblies, and they’ve severely oversold how often it would happen because I’ve never been offered drugs once. Except by a doctor, but you know that’s not what I meant.”

3B looks a combination of unimpressed and embarrassed which Rukia just waves off with a scoff. “Go change, or you’ll complain about being sick, and I already have to listen to all your murder stories at two in the morning, the walls are so much thinner than I thought they’d be.”

Huffing out a breath, Rukia is answered by the washroom door closing, and his muffled retort, “You know, most people wouldn’t be so calm about that. My neighbors before you all thought I was a serial killer.”

“What kind of shitty serial killer recites their crimes for their neighbors to hear, anyway?”

“Exactly,” he says, “Thank you!”

“Oh, so you are capable of being polite, good to know,” she says, and then the washroom door is opening with a squeal of its hinges before being followed by Kurosaki’s somewhat bewildered expression.

“Is there a reason your brother has a hazmat suit, and why you own it, period?”

“It’s not a hazmat suit. Well, not really. My brother used to do some intense paint jobs when he was super stressed out, and he’d rather cut off his arm than wear ‘painter’s rags’, ergo,” she handwaves over him in demonstration to his eye roll as he comes to stand beside her.

“Whatever you say, Breaking Bad.”

Rolling her eyes in kind, she complains, “I can’t believe I’m helping you.”

“Sure, you are,” he says, eying the set up skeptically. “What is this, exactly?”

Taking it in, Rukia settles on, “Artistic fury.”

“I’m not following.”

“Use your imagination.”

“If I had any to spare, I wouldn’t be struggling with writer’s block,” he grumbles.

“See, that’s the problem: You’re so caught up in your medium and the little box that is your story that your brain’s feeling all claustrophobic,” she says, “You need a new perspective, air out the old noggin.”

“And I ‘air out my noggin’ by doing something with this…doll?”

“Don’t make it weird.” His look is withering, though it does nothing to dim her enthusiasm. “Just give it a try, come on, you know you want to…” She’s waving the paintbrush in his face, already dipped in paint, and after a moment’s contemplation and a long-suffering sigh, he moves – though, not to take the offered brush, but to grab one of the open cans of paint Rukia had pulled closer to the space, and proceeding to dump it over the seated model.

“Well, you don’t go halfway, do you?”

Standing over the model, who’s dripping in red paint, Kurosaki gives her a blank look. “It didn’t work.”

“Only half of the fun,” she retorts, “observe.”

Reaching for a dart on the table, she shoots it close enough to him that he almost trips trying to dodge it – though it lands its target regardless – one of the inflated pouches of paint that practically explodes as it pops, spraying blue paint over the model, and a little on Kurosaki.

“What the hell -”

“Bet you can’t hit more than me,” she says, wiggling her brows in challenge.

He narrows his eyes, approaches cautiously, before grabbing a handful of the darts and going to town.

“No fair!”

“It’s not my fault you’re slow,” he retorts.

“Clearly you’d have to go faster because you can’t aim for shit,” she volleys back.

He scowls back, and the game is on.

They spent ten minutes trash talking before Rukia asks, “What are you writing anyway?”

“What do you think?”

“I’d go for a crime book, but from what I’ve heard you’ve dropped waay too many bodies. Unless you’re writing about actual serial killers.”

Huffing out a breath, Kurosaki replies, “Good guess, but no.”

“No?”

“It’s a horror.”

Rukia perks up. “Really?”

His ears are red, though she can’t tell if it's from exertion or not, but he’s also resolutely avoiding her gaze before he huffs again, “Yeah.”

“That’s all you’re gonna give me?” she pouts.

His cheeks fill with a flush, and he pauses to rub the back of his neck. Uncomfortable. “I don’t really…talk about it. My editor does that. I just write them.”

“You any good?”

“I do it for a living,” he says, “so, I guess.”

“Huh…have I heard of you?”

“At two in the morning like clockwork.”

“You’re hilarious,” she deadpans to his smirk.

It takes at least twenty minutes for all the pouches of paint to be popped – it turns out both their aims suck – and an extra twenty to flick the brushes clean of paint on it.

“What exactly is this anyway?” Kurosaki finally asks when they take a breath.

“A sculpture,” she answers with a noncommittal shrug, and at his blank expression, Rukia shrugs again. “It’s not my favorite type of art, but I drew the short straw so to speak. Better than having to organize an actual performance art piece.”

“Not a fan?”

“Don’t know any performers,” she admits. Despite being in the heart of the creative hub of Soul Society, Rukia had been too busy trying to meet her deadline to explore much of Rukongai, and hadn’t met any other creatives beyond those that frequented the gallery. “Maybe I’d have convinced you to do a reading of one of your bloody books?”

Snorting, he turns away to say, “Don’t know if that’s a pun or not.”

“Well, all you’re giving me is horror as a genre, and a mind-numbing amount of dead bodies; I’m taking creative liberties here,” she informed primly.

There’s a noticeable pause that Rukia can actually feel, and she thinks what he’ll say next is an announcement to leave, instead what she gets is his quiet, “You think there are too many dead bodies?”

“Wouldn’t know, what’s the context?”

“Cult.”

“Huh…go on.”

And even though their ‘artistic fury’ is over, Kurosaki stays an hour more – Rukia makes hot chocolate and they finish the Oreos she bought until they’re juggling ingredients and arguing over cooking methods because:

“What are you doing?” he’d asked, sounding offensively incredulous.

“What does it look like? I’m making pasta.”

“You’re doing it wrong.”

“What the –”

“You’re supposed to – no, god, how haven’t you set the fire alarm off yet? Give me that, go – over there, I feel like you’ll cause the food to spoil just looking at it.”

“I’m not that bad! And you should talk about making food spoil, you glare any harder and you’ll make the milk go off!”

And that’s how one hour turned into two.

Rukia’s pretty surprised at the ease with which it happens.

Between their joint attempts at cooking – and okay fine, he’s comfortable enough in a kitchen – Rukia didn’t think that her invitation would last very long, but Kurosaki doesn’t look like he wants to bolt out the door whenever a gap presents itself to leave, and isn’t that a surprise on its own?

Beyond his snarky quips, and for his constant scowls and monosyllabic grunts, Rukia didn’t expect Kurosaki to be much of a talker, but she’d been wrong. His train of thought runs in every direction imaginable, and while he might not always be particularly articulate in getting his points across, he manages fine enough that Rukia’s already trying to figure out how to get him to give up the name he writes under just so she can read his work.

“Why do you write under a pseudonym anyway?” she asks, twirling her fork around the spaghetti. They’re seated diagonally at the corner edge of her dining table which she’s appropriated as another work surface, his injured foot elevated on the chair beside her, she nudges his knee with her own as she takes another mouthful of their dinner because see, I told you I cooked it right!  

“My dad.”

Immediately sympathetic, she asks, “He’s not supportive?”

“A little too supportive, actually.” And his cheeks are flushed again as he shakes his head. “It’s…a lot.” To that she doesn’t know what to say, though she crushes the envious curl in her stomach. Fortunately, Kurosaki isn’t done. “And what I write isn’t exactly…healthy. He’s an idiot, but he worries.”

“You’re a fully functioning adult, with your own place and a career writing from home, I don’t think he’d worry too much,” Rukia decides. “Besides, I think it’s sweet that you worry about your dad.” The look he gives her is forcibly deadpan, but he can’t hide the redness at his ears if he tried which only makes her smile saccharine as she teasingly whispers, “It’s too late, I already know you’re a huge dork.”

“Really,” he says blandly, “and what gave that away?”

“I don’t know, maybe it’s the fact that you spent five minutes lecturing me on how to properly cut onions -”

“Only because you were going to cut yourself,” he protested, though she speaks over him to continue like he hadn’t spoken at all, “and then you went on for another ten minutes about onion growing.”

“Leftover research knowledge; when was I ever going to get the chance to tell anyone about it?”

At that she wiggles her brows as if to say See?

Kurosaki’s response is to sigh like he’s greatly exhausted which is something he almost chokes on when there’s the loud creak of her front door which is frankly so rude, what the hell – who immediately goes to open someone else’s front door without knocking anyway? Which is what Rukia would have gone on her own tirade about if 3D wasn’t currently holding out the cat-like she was trying to re-enact the Lion King.

“Your vermin of a cat won’t stop scratching at the door and it’s -”

“It’s…?” Rukia trails off, brow raised unimpressively, but all 3D does is stare.

And Rukia looks around, tries to think back on what awkward thing 3D is possibly being a witness to now except – except it could only be one of two things: the product of her and 3B’s artistic talents is still on display like a person they’ve both collectively bludgeoned in paint, and Kurosaki himself – looking comfortable in a red-stained painting jumpsuit, only looking all the redder in appearance thanks to the whiteness of the white vest he’d made visible by unzipping the jumpsuit when they were cooking and –

Almost stiffly, 3D begins, “Are you two…”

“Having dinner?” Rukia finishes, “Yes.”

“You can put Kon down,” Kurosaki adds, turning his head for just a second to acknowledge their little art piece, catching Rukia’s eye and smirking. “He knows better after last time than to go near the bodies.”

With a slackened jaw to match her slackened hold, the yellow cat hops merrily onto the floor. He greets Rukia and Kurosaki both with an incessant rubbing of their legs and a meow that sounds almost like a scolding which could’ve just been the sound of the front door hinges whining as 3D makes a hasty escape.

Rukia’s too busy snickering to take it seriously because The Big Bad Serial Killer of 3B actually named the cat?

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Ichigo learns that his neighbor's name is Rukia.

She's an artist with an assignment on body art, debuting a gallery showing of her own in a week at the studio she also acts as a curator in. At least that's what the flyer the kid around the corner, handing them out, had said.

The paper is glossy and features one of the models Ichigo remembers seeing, the one she'd dragged into the elevator and out the door almost two weeks ago. The address for the show is listed to the corner of the art district where the hipster restaurants bisect where the Friday markets are usually held, and he shoves the flyer into his pocket as he goes.

He thinks that it's impressive, given that it's been about a month since she's moved in, and presumably gotten the job, but he doesn't know anything about the art scene any more than he knows what colors you need to mix to get green.

(Yellow and blue, apparently.

Once the question had come up, he'd been so irritated with himself he'd opened up Google, to his determent, and fallen into an unnecessary research spiral.

He, also, now has a stance on the Anish Kapoor vs Stuart Semple debate.

And no matter how much Tatsuki had raged about it, Ichigo didn't regret the two hours he spent snickering at tumblr posts.)

Anyway.

It explains why he finds a lone arm in the hallway – abandoned and unattached to a body.

Rolling his eyes, he stoops to pick it up, and just as he straightens, he finds 3D peeking at him suspiciously in the crack of her door.

With a lazy smirk, he lifts the hand in a mock salute and walks on to the sound of her indignant huff, the rattle of her door chain and the sound of her already hissing into her phone, "He's a criminal, Urahara, you need to do something!"

He's halfway to a good mood already.

He's practically whistling which is probably why Kon appears, rubbing himself all over Ichigo's legs as he walks down the hall, and Ichigo doesn't even try to step on him.

Using the extra hand he's picked up, he knocks on the door to 3A, and finds himself unsurprised to hear music thumping just beyond it.

If it weren't for his bid to refocus his attention by taunting Grimmjow for thirty minutes in the ring, he'd probably be doing what she was: working.

They had similar schedules after all.

After realizing she was an artist, it made sense; twilight hours and early mornings are for creatives and insomniacs.

Besides, the music provides a good cover for all his pacing and mutterings about gruesome deaths, and the out-loud musings he makes over his questionable knowledge of the history of cults.

And if on relistening to the audios he makes, he can hear her diverse playlists in the undertow and it takes him more firmly back into the mindset he'd been in when he'd recorded, that's his business.

And if there's no repeat of the Cookie Incident since Rukia had dragged him to her place, all the better.

(Screw it anyway, he was ahead of Tatsuki's schedule now and he could afford to waste a few hours catching up on art drama he didn't even know existed.)

Though, now that he's thinking about it, his kitchen is empty.

He'd used the last of the eggs in the aforementioned Cookie Incident, and while he's hit his groove in the last week in terms of word count, he could hit another roadblock any day now, and if he does, he'll need ingredients.

Even with his black eye finally healed and his ankle no longer swollen, Tatsuki's explicit and violent instructions forbidding Ichigo's boxing during the lulls until the deadline has resulted in no other outlet for his frustrations, and god knows what he'll do if he can't at least bake the stress away.

(And if he considers, even for a second, going over to Rukia's to annoy her, he pretends it's only a fleeting thought, and that he dismisses it immediately.)

Unfortunately, he can't go shopping until he can get rid of the arm.

Where the hell is she? He thinks with a huff when he's still standing outside her door with no reply.

"Oi," he calls, banging against the wood with his fist, he follows up with, "I know you're home, Midget."

That, satisfyingly enough, is when he hears the chain of her door rattle as its removed before it's thrown open.

He recoils before he realizes he's doing it.

"God, who died?"

"My sanity," she informs in a deadpan, making a valiant attempt to glare at him through eyes swollen with lack of sleep, and ringed with bruises, dark hair hanging limp and frazzled over her pale face. "What do you want, Kurosaki?"

He waves the arm at her which waves too, and she sighs – in relief or exhaustion, he can't tell – before she's reaching for it, her hand dropping like a stone at the added weight before she drags it inside, knuckles dragging on the floor.

The door slams in his face before he can say anything more.

Kon meows piteously beside him before scratching at the door with another yowl.

Furrowing his brow, Ichigo considers knocking again, but clearly – clearly, she doesn't want to be bothered.

By the time he reaches his own door, his good mood is gone.

Going grocery shopping doesn't help.

He has to go to the one two blocks away because they're closed, and not only is the other grocery store the one he tends to avoid – Inoue at the deli counter is a little too interested in Ichigo's day – the store itself has changed its layout since the last time he was there. Granted, that was at least six months ago, but now he can't find anything.

He's scowling at what was once the cereal aisle – because his kitchen cupboards are literally empty of anything that isn't flour and sugar – and considering if he could get away with living off just that out of spite.

"As thrilling as your grocery saga is," Karin drawls, "why did you call me, exactly?"

"Tatsuki is at a meeting. Chad's at the studio. Grimmjow's knocking Renji out."

"Ah," his sister exhales, "and you don't have any other friends."

She doesn't say it like a question so he doesn't do her the honor of replying beyond an eye roll.

"Tatsuki says you kicked your writer's block in the balls."

"For now," he grumbles, working his way through the tinned can aisle and wondering aloud what possessed anyone to put an entire burger in one.

"Always the pessimist."

"I'm realistic, it's different."

"Well I liked you better when you were kicking it in the balls, you were much more cheerful," she informs with a sigh, and Ichigo spares the thought that she's probably still in the office – lawyers have no concept of quitting time when they have a case to win, or so she says. "But you don't even have writer's block right now," Karin recalls, "so, what gives?"

"Nothing, just – this grocery store has gotten even more inconvenient than usual."

She hums in what would be a consoling way if he didn't know her as well as he does.

Not for the first time, he curses Uryuu; if it weren't for date night Ichigo would've called Yuzu instead, she's much more forgiving of his shitty attitude.

"I'm just wondering you know," she trails in feigned curiosity, "what changed? Oh! I know!"

He grumbles mutinously under his breath; knowing exactly where this is going because –

"Could it be your new neighbor?"

"Stop talking to Tatsuki."

"But nii-chan," she teases, and Ichigo definitely should have interrupted Yuzu's date for this.

"We're friends." Ish? Ichigo hasn't brushed up on his social protocols since high school so he isn't exactly sure what the etiquette is for the neighbor you talking shit with, and get caught doing questionable activities with, and whether or not it actually makes you friends.

"Ah, but you're never friends with your neighbors," Karin reminds, and he can practically see her eyebrows wiggle. "What; is she too busy to hang out today?"

"She's got a deadline, and she looks like hell."

"So…either you're worried about her or annoyed that you don't get a monopoly on her time or both, which means -"

Again, a mutinous grumble, and then, "I don't know why I talk to you."

"Because you love me, and you know I'm right."

"I'm hanging up now."

"You do that," she hums, "say hi to Rukia-chan for me."

"Wait, how the hell did you -" He's cut off by the dial tone, and stares at the screen of his phone in belief. God, girls could be such stalkers.

He almost jumps when Inoue's voice comes up from behind him to ask if he needs help, expression hopeful, and no-no, he's good.

When he gets back to his building, Kon is still sitting outside Rukia's door, looking appropriately put out.

Ichigo lingers with his keys, and grocery bags in hand; makes a 'psst' noise at the cat, and tilts his head at his door in silent invitation. Kon looks begrudgingly at Rukia's door one last time before following Ichigo into his loft.

He finishes unpacking his groceries and putting out some cat food when he notices the time and wonders how long it's been since Rukia had taken a break.

It isn't that he's worried.

At least that's what he tells himself.

He knows what it's like to be on a deadline and that it usually isn't good.

No immediate excuse comes to mind for why he's checking on her with Kon at his feet and a tray of homemade ramen in hand.

Though any explanations he tries to grasp doesn't seem to matter when her door opens, and she looks like she's on the verge of crying.

Intelligibly, he greets her with, "Uh…" and she answers with a sniff, a harsh rub of her face with the sleeve of her sweater, and a shudder of an exhale while Kon winds himself around her legs and meows.

"Dinner?" he finally manages, and though she sniffs again, she chuckles weakly, and lets him in.

The paint fumes fill the space, the music pounding along the wall in accompaniment to the headache he can feel creeping along the inside of his skull; Ichigo doesn't know how she's been working like this.

He doesn't shut the door.

Rukia crosses her arms and manages a somewhat choked, "Thanks," before leading him towards the kitchen.

"Owed you for last time," he gets out.

"No, you don't."

"Shut up and eat your noodles."

She huffs out a laugh that seems to surprise even her as she ducks her head, cheeks warming from the steam coming off the bowl.

"You okay?" he ventures to ask.

A tiny shrug is her answer, admitting, "Just stressed out."

Ichigo nods his understanding. He knows what it's like – his own deadline is approaching like a freight train, and he can feel the tiny spikes of adrenaline hitting him at the oddest times. He's glad for the surge in creativity a week ago, it's saved him the fate Rukia's clearly in. Though telling her so seems unnecessary, she seems well aware of what being behind schedule feels like. With nothing else to add to the conversation, he doesn't say anything, but Rukia doesn't seem to mind.

She adds, "It's my first show."

And he doesn't say he knows because that's creepy, so he just nods again.

"My brother…my brother might come."

Ichigo isn't sure what his face is doing so his eyes don't leave his bowl. "Is he supportive?"

"He is," Rukia hurries to say, "the rest of my family…isn't. But he is…so…so I'm nervous." He doesn't have to contribute to the conversation for it to move along, Rukia tells him in bits and pieces about leaving home, about how her parents still haven't noticed she's gone, about how she didn't want to get into the family business so that's why she's here and why she needs this to go well, and how she wants to make her brother proud because he's the only one who's opinion she actually cares about and –

Her exhale is shaky when she finishes; her bowl is empty.

He doesn't know how she managed to talk and eat at the same time, but he silently takes her bowl and his, and turns for the sink – full of dishes. Some of the cupboard doors are ajar, empty. And the little pot plants scattered everywhere look a little wilted.

Ichigo starts in on the dishes.

Quietly, Rukia tells him, "You don't have to."

His back to her, he replies, "I know."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Byakuya-niisama can’t make it.

Rukia. Rukia is surprisingly okay with it.

Is she disappointed? Sure, absolutely. Is she surprised? A little. Her brother has always made a point of showing up for her when their parents didn’t, and she’s done the same for him – though, she’s heard people tease him about it, having your kid sister be your biggest cheerleader is probably a little embarrassing, it isn’t like he’s ever told her to behave differently.  Still, Rukia thinks it's for the best.

The litigation case he’s working on had hit a snag, and it’s all hands on deck. They need him.

And Rukia. Well, Rukia’s too busy freaking out about her debut to really notice.

(She’s lying a little, but who’d really know anyway?)

Besides, it turns out he didn’t need to come, and Rukia didn’t need to freak out about it.

The show goes off without a hitch, and her boss, Hisana, is so impressed with the concepts she’s come up with in so little time that she’s waiving the probation period and welcoming Rukia as a permanent contributor alongside her curatorship.

Rukia’s excited, of course she is.

But she’s also a little drunk.

It’s Rangiku’s fault.

The figure model who’d played the star of Rukia’s debut plied her with drinks to soothe her nerves and then disappeared amongst the crowds to giggle and charm everyone not distracted enough by the sculptures Rukia had lovingly and painstakingly rendered. Rukia’s grateful for it, she is. But now she’s sitting on the floor of the bathroom at her first show, shimmers of navy blue, purple and red artfully splashed against the backdrop of her black dress as the material spilled onto blinding white tiles, and over naked legs and bare feet and staring up at the ceiling light almost blankly, half-empty glass of wine in one hand, and shoes in the other.

She’s gotten what she wanted, she thinks – a gallery showing of her own, her own art littering the floor, people coming to see her work, and she’s-she’s alone.

Rukia hadn’t expected it to be this way.

She thought there’d be more people.

She thought she’d be happier.

But the thought of getting up, of going out there, playing the audience as easily as Rangiku does, makes Rukia think of a time, not so long ago, when she’d been doing her art on the side and faking a smile through the mixers and corporate events held by the firm. She doesn’t feel as real in the small corner of the world she’s made for herself as she thought she would; she doesn’t feel any realer than she had in the life she’d left behind.

Her mind races, frenetic and nervous, searching for excuses for the dullness she feels lurching in her chest. The only thought that settles with any kind of weight is that she wants to go home.

The hinges on the bathroom door squeak as it's decided, and she turns her head to apologize for her state, but her lips just part silently, and Kurosaki looks just as surprised.

They’ve both got their reasons, of course.

Her appearance, for one.

And his, for another.

Unlike the other times she’s seen him, he isn’t dressed in sweatpants or basketball shorts. He’s wearing jeans, sure, but it isn’t the faded ones he favors, and he’s wearing a shirt with actual buttons on it. He’s even gotten rid of his dirty converse for the occasion, his boots are a polished black and made of leather. It matches his jacket.

Rukia admits, perhaps only with her wine-colored glasses, that he looks like every bad boy on the cover of a romance novel; shoulders broad and features sharp and dangerous, contrasting the soft halo of his hair, the gold of his eyes.

Then there’s the issue of this being the ladies’ bathroom.

A beat lapses, and then another.

“Occupied,” she tells him, though it sounds more like a question than a statement.

He stares at her from the door jam. “Why are you on the floor?”

“Existential crisis.”

“Ah.”

He shuffles, reaches back to rub his neck with one hand as he looks over his shoulder; looking nervous and bashful. “Great show.”

“Thanks,” she echoes, blinking up at him wonderingly. “I thought you didn’t know anything about art.”

“I don’t,” he admits, “but it looks cool.”

Her lips quirk. “Thanks,” she repeats and he nods a little jerkily, before, “You sure you’re okay?”

Sighing dramatically, she turns her attention to her bare feet and wiggles her toes. “I’m having a grand time, can’t you tell?”

“Between your shoes being off and sitting on the bathroom floor, I had no idea,” he snipes, and then, “You want some company?”

“You want in on this action?” she teases even as he moves to sit beside her, his shoulder nudging hers as he shrugs.

“You look pretty entertained.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

He snorts.

“What are you doing here anyway?”

From his pocket, he produces one of the glossy flyers advertising her show, the lines are deep and white - he's opened it and refolded it a few times. “I was in the neighborhood.”

She teases around the bubble of a laugh at her throat, the warm flush against her neck and pressing into her cheeks. “So, you just casually dress like a greaser? That’s who you are as a person?”

“Says the one wearing her tarp as a dress,” he snorts.

Gasping, hand to her heart, she tells him, feigning offense, “Hey, this is high fashion, I’ll have you know.”

“Sure,” he says with an agreeable eye-roll. “It’s why you decided to forgo shoes.”

“Do you have a thing about feet, is that it?” Rukia wonders.

“You’re barefoot in a public bathroom, you’re gonna catch something,” he tells her testily. “Did your heel break or something? Is that why you aren’t wearing them?”

“I’m not wearing them because I’m drunk and I’ll fall and hurt myself.” She offers one of her shoes in demonstration – and it’s alright – it’s black and matches her dress, and also has a heel sharp enough to stab a man through the eye and kill him instantly, or lobotomize him, Rukia considers asking Hanataro what the accuracy of that would be if only to see him squirm.

“Well, no one can say you aren’t practical,” he drawls, getting a nudge of her shoulder in his in retaliation.

“I don’t need this you know – I’m a big wig now, I’m famous, I’ve got my own show and everything” she declares, nose in the air.

“And yet...”He trails sending a significant glance around the bathroom they’re in.

“Shut up,” she huffs, “why am I even friends with you anyway?”               

“We’re friends,” he deadpans with zero inflection but with a slight twitch of his brow like he’s trying not to have an expression which is just so typical of him, seriously, Rukia thinks with a roll of her eyes.

“Don’t play games with me, you came to my show,” she reminds. “You went to my place the other day and brought me food. And you washed my dishes.”

Of course, he's got an excuse for that. “If Urahara finds your dead body in the loft, people will think I’m the one that killed you. I’m just protecting my reputation.”

“Nope,” Rukia sings. “Can’t fool me. You’re a softie and you like me and we’re friends.”

He sighs, dramatic and begrudging and not at all pleased – you can’t fool me, Kurosaki, I know an almost smile when I see one! “Do I have a choice?”

“Were or were you not just lecturing you about public health and safety?”

“Athlete’s foot, Rukia. It’s a thing,” he insists like the giant nerd he pretends he isn’t.

And she’s probably a lot drunker than she thought that she doesn’t question that he knows her name, and is asking instead, “How’d you know I was here?”

“The blonde,” he says with a nudge of his chin towards the door. “She said this was where you were."

“Were you looking for me?”

“I told you I don’t know anything about art,” he reminds, if anyone were to ask her, the wine is the reason she coos, “Aww, and you came anyway?”

“Besides,” he says louder as if to talk over the embarrassed blush on his cheeks, “you were pretty wired about your brother coming to your show.”

Her face falls, and Kurosaki grimaces. “He didn’t show.”

“No.” And then she’s babbling, twirling the stem of her wine glass, watching the crimson liquid swish about, “I get it though. Byakuya-niisama has work. And he can’t let our parents down. I’ve done enough of that as it is. It’s not a big deal, he’ll come to the next one.” Probably. Maybe. He’d been regretful about it, that much was obvious, but there’d be no telling if his case would be closed by then, and even if it were, there’d be no guarantee that another emergency wouldn’t take place and he’d be eyeballs deep in paperwork.

“It’s just…going out on my own. I didn’t expect it to be this…lonely,” she finishes into the rim of the glass, and she must’ve tipped it too fast and a made a face to boot because Kurosaki’s taking it from her and putting it on his other side, out of reach.

“You don’t have anyone else?” he asks, brows furrowed, and her hands itch to steal the glass back just for something to fiddle with.

“Don’t have a good relationship with my parents, and everyone I’ve met since is out on the floor. Except for you.”

A silence passes in comfortable silence before he clears his throat, and says, “You need better friends.”

“I have you.”

He snorts. “Like I said, better friends.”

It takes at least ten minutes to get on her feet once Rukia remembers that she wanted to go home, and it another five for her to get her shoes back on –

“But I don’t wanna,” she complains.

“Put them on or I will carry you; I swear to god.”

She pauses. “Like, bridal carry or like a sack of potatoes?”

He pops an eyebrow in challenge, making her wave her hands, “Fine, I’m just saying. I’ll probably throw up on you either way. Do the buckle up,” she orders, and when he continues to look at her, unimpressed, she crosses her arms. “Do you want me to wear my shoes or not?”

With a roll of his eyes, he gets on knee to help her into her shoes, Rukia holding his shoulder to stay balanced which is when the bathroom door opens again with a squeal, and Kurosaki lifts his head wrong, getting a face-full of Rukia’s dress which is immediately followed by a scandalized gasp and a trail of apologies before the door closes again.

 Rukia just blinks down at his head.

“Kurosaki?”

His ears are really red from his angle, she decides offhandedly before she lifts the skirt of her dress out of the way and then straightens the material out so he isn’t almost under it, and then hums, “Better?”

He grunts, and the red doesn’t recede.

Rukia decides she kind of likes it.

After her shoes are on, she drags him out the door, makes a turn about the room to thank Hisana for the opportunity – Kurosaki holding her waist to prevent her from toppling the entire time – and then nudging him around to lead him to the exit.

During the walk home, she whines about it being too cold.

“Didn’t you bring a jacket?”

“Maybe,” she admits looking thoughtful and confused.

Rolling his eyes, he slips his jacket off with no small amount of complaint, grumbling, “Why am I friends with you?”

“You admit that we’re friends?”

Now, he looks uncomfortable. “You said we were.”

She brightens. “Yes, we are! I’m glad you agree, Kurosaki!”

Leading her by the waist again towards home when she almost stumbles over the pavement, he avoids her eyes as he tells her, “Ichigo.”

“What’s Ichigo?” Rukia wonders a few steps later.

“My name.”

Blinking widely at the profile of his face, she enunciates, “I-chi-go.”

He looks adorably serious as he nods once, and she decides more firmly than before, “I like you, Ichigo, we’re friends now.”

 

   

Chapter Text

 

 

Despite Rukia being able to hold her liquor at the gallery, she’s completely useless once they arrive at their building.

Ichigo had his suspicious, of course.

She’d gotten more confused on their walk home, and while she didn’t stumble, she’d started to talk an awful lot. He didn’t think she really regulated her words around him before, but now they’re spraying out of her like a hose pipe.

“I’m angry at my brother,” she admits, but then makes a face and waves it off. “It’s stupid. I know he didn’t mean not to come, and emergencies happen, and-and – especially with my mom owning the firm, it’s not like he could’ve said no to her, and with me not being a part of it anymore, even though she hasn’t even noticed. But Byakuya-niisama did at least call me to tell me he wasn’t coming which is a huge deal because he’s like – allergic to making phone calls – and he at least noticed, and remembered you know? How important today was that it at least warranted a phoned apology, but I’m still – I’m so mad.” Though she says it like she’s confused and horrified, and then she’s shaking her head so hard she almost brains herself on the wall of the elevator and he has to drag her back so that she’s leaning against him.

Though her arms are like limp noodles at her sides, she burrows herself securely beneath his chin and says in a muffled whimper, “It was always just the two of us when I was back home, what if he forgets next time? What if he stops calling to apologize? What if he just…stops caring? Did I make a mistake? Did I lose him too?”

Ichigo squeezes her shoulder, but doesn’t say anything to the contrary, doesn’t know if he’d be right and it would help, so instead, he tells her, “C’mon, let’s get you home.”

 “Kay,” she mumbles back, and he tightens his arm around her as she blinks the tears from her vision and absently rubs her nose until its red and she’s sniffing.

He pinches her side, a reflex from having scolded the twins not to growing up because it always gave them headaches after.

Rukia squirms with a huff of a laugh, and just like that, the moment’s passed.

The elevator dings to announce their floor and he ushers her out easily enough, even as she distracts herself with the buttons on his shirt, informing him aloud, “You look pretty in this. Makes your eyes pop,” which she mimics with a ‘pop’ of her lips before that too distracts her and she’s making popping sounds like she’s surprised by the feel of it.

All the better, less time for her to notice how red in the face Ichigo feels, even as he mentally grunts his appreciation at Tatsuki for making him buy the shirt in the first place.

His best friend had said the same – it brings out your eyes – which while flattered, hadn’t been the deciding factor as to why he’d purchased it. Really, it had been the fact that they’d been in the store for an hour and he wanted to Not Be Anymore.

“Oh,” Rukia adds, surprised, “They also make your arms look huge too. You give good hugs, by the way, no wonder you’re always scowling, people must ask you for hugs all the time.”

At his door, Renji and Grimmjow snicker and just – god fucking damn it.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Ichigo snaps at them and winces a little as Rukia stiffens up beside him.

The redhead raises his hands in defense, tattooed eyebrows lifting in feigned surprise. “Just wanted to find out whether your thing was over and you wanted to hang out.”

“You couldn’t have called?” Ichigo grunts.

To which, Grimmjow scoffs, the ridiculous number of chains he uses to accessorize with jingling almost menacingly from their positions around his wrists and hanging from his belt loops. Which is at least half the reason why 3D thinks Ichigo runs with a gang, he recalls, resisting the urge to physically facepalm.

God, he can’t even blame her for that one.

 “Like you’d agree unless we were already outside your place. Although, this time, I’m inclined to forgive you,” Grimmjow declares with a suggestive wiggle of his brows, and a sweeping look at Rukia.

“Please tell me she’s not drunk,” Chad, ever calm in the face of the other two’s bullshit, deadpans.

She is just fine,” Rukia informs sounding surprisingly steady despite the fact that Ichigo can feel her hand scrambling behind his back for support as she straightens beside him. “Ichigo was just walking me home.”

“Oh ho, so this is the neighbor,” Grimmjow declares all sharp teeth and shit-eating grin and fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Kuchiki Rukia,” she introduces, undeterred, unaffected and looking almost as unimpressed as Chad, “and you are?”

“Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez,” he replies, smile smooth with still too much teeth for Ichigo’s liking. Throwing a thumb over his shoulder, he adds, “That’s Abarai Renji and Yasutora Sado, but we just call him Chad. We’re friends of Ichigo’s.”

“By a shoestring,” Ichigo grumbles.

“Aw, don’t be like that,” Renji teases, throwing an arm over his shoulder. “You’ll hurt our feelings!”

Scowling, Ichigo informs them, “The only one I like out of the three of you is Chad.”

Chad, who’s looking at Rukia seriously and then saying the words, “Your art debuted at the gallery tonight, didn’t it, Kuchiki-san?”

And Rukia, with no idea about the Pandora’s box she’s about to open, nods her head in agreement (luckily only a little so as to not lose her balance), and says, “It did, thank you for your help.” Which what?

Fortunately, Ichigo isn’t the only one who’s surprised as Grimmjow looks between them, “Eh, you know Chad?”

“I used him as a model for my debut,” Rukia answers with a shrug. “Chad was the perfect contrast to my female model. She introduced us actually.”

“Really,” Renji trails, tone laden with faux confusion “why ask someone else when Ichigo was right next door?”

And it isn’t that Ichigo is thinking the same thing. Except he is, and he’s a little…hurt? That Rukia hadn’t thought to ask him, even as she shrugs the shoulder not pressed into him and says, “He helped me with one of the other pieces so I didn’t want to be too much of a bother.”

Which is when he remembers: The “artistic fury” session they had – the model had been set up to look like a man standing on the sidewalk, an umbrella overhead while the backdrop, the effort of their childish competition to hit the most paint pockets, looking like both rain and falling stars.

Ichigo remembers the murmurs of interpretation he’d overheard; that sadness was rain and stars, that existence was contradictory in its metaphors but beautiful if you knew how to look at it, that you could always protect yourself from the rain and the stars both but just like the man with his umbrella, but it would always find a way to reach you, and still you’d be out on that sidewalk anyway.

The title had been Things You Didn’t Know You Needed, so he supposes they weren’t too far off.

Oh, do tell,” Renji prompts to Grimmjow’s frankly terrifying look of delight and the curious amusement from Chad.

Bastards.

-

-

-

It takes 3D glaring at the lot of them in the hallway, and then pointedly calling “security” about the “ruffians” to get rid of them.

Ichigo’s never been more grateful, even as Renji tries to invite Rukia along by ditching Ichigo himself because “He’s grumpy as hell.”

“I’m aware,” she’d hummed, tugging Ichigo along insistently, “I think I’ll keep him.”

Over her head, Ichigo stares blankly at the suggestive looks thrown his way and the incredibly unsubtle hip roll Grimmjow mimics and the equally vulgar tongue flicking Renjji does, coupled with the winking and its damn miracle Ichigo doesn’t just punch them both in the face.

Fortunately for them both, Chad drags them away even as he throws a thumbs up in both a goodbye and an approval, and that’s – really?

 “Ichigo,” Rukia whispers aloud, “are they gone?”

He pauses, waiting to hear their voices get drowned out by the ding of the elevator and the doors shutting before he replies an affirmative causing her to slump in relief. “Thank god.”

Looking at her in amusement he asks, “You alright?”

“I’m so smashed.”

 “Really?”

“I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, but I know you’re wrong because I’m a champ at faking sobriety,” she informs primly even as she leans against the wall to get her bearings now that she isn’t leaning on him for support.

“I thought you’d sober up.”

“Well I didn’t,” Rukia snaps, “I feel like the alcohol’s been fermenting in my body and making it worse.” She squints at him suspiciously. “Why are you moving so much?”

He frowns, brows furrowing in concern. “I’m not – shit.

-

-

-

Ichigo ends up taking Rukia into his place.

He didn’t want to dig around her bag for her keys for one thing, and couldn’t find it in himself to just leave her there anyway, for another.

So, he carries her in and puts her on the couch, and after a call to Yuzu to confirm that this is a normal black out and not a hospital visit required blackout, he’s still reluctant to leave her alone.

Even after placing a glass of water nearby, and (as an extra precaution) a bucket, Ichigo’s still restless enough to grab a blanket from the closet, tuck her in and then proceed to set up camp in the adjacent lazy boy by her head with his laptop and an overflowing arch lever file of research material.

He’s still short twenty thousand words for the initial draft, and while he’d gotten far enough to avoid Tatsuki’s wrath, he can’t afford to waste the increase in productivity.

That he’d gone out tonight had been an indulgence at best, and a distraction at worst.

That Rukia is here now, doesn’t bode well for any real designs of getting any work done. Even if all she’s doing is sleeping.

He sighs, and tries to focus.

The loft is quiet save for her breathing, and he finds himself filling the silence with mutterings about plot points and one-sided character conversations, and then abruptly shutting up when Rukia stirs.

It’s a cycle that goes on and off for an hour until she throws the blanket off her with a sigh as she rolls over, the strap of her black dress sliding down with the movement – pale arm giving way to the curve of her shoulder down the winged arch of her back. It gives him pause, reminds him of the models he’d seen of hers at the gallery; it’s a testament that Rukia looks just like them, frozen in time, caught between one breath and the next.

Until she exhales with a murmur, and it’s his turn to hold his breath.

With a persistent nuzzle into the throw pillow beneath her head, ducking for a warmth she’d thrown off and offering the pale curve of her neck to the cool air of the loft, her back curved protectively inward, she stills.

It’s automatic and far more intimate than it needs to be to reach over, to tug the blanket back into place and touch her shoulder over the material so she’ll relax.

Rukia will probably have a headache regardless come morning, but sleeping tensed up won’t help either.

Fortunately, she sighs, pliant and willing, and uncurls.

Her lashes flutter against the apple of her cheeks, rosy pink as her lips as she lets out a snore that makes him snort.

He retreats to his chair, goes back to typing, and at Kon’s curious meow at his elbow, appearing from god knows where – Ichigo absently runs his fingers through the cat’s yellow fur and lowly informs, “She’s resting, don’t bother her.”

Kon meows once more and headbutts Ichigo’s arm a few times until Ichigo sighs and moves his arm leading to Kon to climb onto his stomach, paws kneading, before he plants himself down and turns his attention to the screen of his laptop.

When Ichigo doesn’t move, Kon meows again, questioningly, and Ichigo rolls his eyes, weirdly fond as he gets back to work; the scene a picture of perfect domesticity.

Ichigo doesn’t know how it happens, and with no one around to judge him, he doesn’t have to pretend that it’s a bad thing.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

When Rukia wakes up it feels like her entire body has collapsed onto itself, and her brain is being squashed beneath the weight of her own head. She doesn't realize until she's stumbled into the washroom passed the kitchen that one, she didn't sleep in her bed and that two, she didn't sleep in her loft.

But her eyes feel like they're going to throb right out of her sockets so she puts the thought aside for the moment, and tries to empty the tap dry in a bid to rehydrate her body back to life.

Through the wall of the bathroom, over the quiet rush of water, she hears someone whistle cheerfully as cupboards are opened and porcelain is clinked.

She stares at her reflection in momentary confusion before she finally realizes what she's wearing – the dress from the gallery.

Ichigo.

Groaning into her hands to the sound of his whistling, Rukia manages a scratchy wail against her palms, "I have so many regrets."

Casually, words muffled but inexplicably curling around a smirk, he says, "If it's any consolation, you didn't look like an ass to anyone."

That, at least, she can count on.

After years of feigning interest at her parents' business gatherings and working lunches, passing herself off otherwise is something she's practically a professional in, even intoxicated. Still, "I'm pretty sure I was rude to your friends." Rukia's wincing just thinking about it.

Their names escape her right now, but she'd remember them if she saw them and that's close enough.

"They're assholes, they respect that," Ichigo informs in continued amusement before going back to his whistling which is quickly drowned out by something sizzling and the smell of food cooking which is distracting enough except –

After meeting his friends, the rest of her night is a worrying blur.

"Are you…god, are you making breakfast?" Rukia demands, incredulous in her own growing anxiety of why can't I remember anything else?

"It'll help with the hangover."

Shutting her eyes, as if it'll protect her from seeing her own embarrassment, she complains, "I'm a mess of a human being, and you're cooking breakfast."

The sizzling stops, then, "I was hungry."

Face washed and feeling a little more human, arguably a little too much, she nervously steps back into the hallway. Peering around the wall into the kitchen to find him still standing by the stove; hair sticking out on one side, barefoot, plaid pajama bottoms hanging off his hips and a faded t-shirt, washed to the point of being threadbare.

Despite seeing him shirtless at one stage, seeing him like this seems even more intimate.

She doesn't think she's ever seen him look quite so…soft.

And that's saying something given the not-inconsiderable curve of his bicep as he brings the apple he's eating to his lips with one hand and pokes at the contents of the frying pan with a spatula with another.

Rukia feels like a deer caught in headlights made even worse that Ichigo isn't even paying attention to her.

Which isn't to say he doesn't realize she's there.

Sticking the apple between his teeth, he grabs something on the other side of the stove plate, and hands it to her without an acknowledging glance, and she so thrown she doesn't do much more than accept it and stare as the bright yellow yolks of the eggs stare at her from atop a golden-brown piece of toast. "Uh…"

"I can actually cook, you won't die of food poisoning," he tells her with a snort when she doesn't move.

"I know that I've had your ramen. Besides, you've eaten my food before, and you were just fine," Rukia retorts taking her plate and seating herself at the breakfast nook.

Just because he cooked for her again (and she really did like his food), she doesn't say anything to his lack of remark about her own cooking and digs in.

Eventually, he joins her on the opposite of the breakfast nook, choosing to stand while he eats his own plate of eggs and toast, apple core thrown away. They eat in comfortable enough silence despite the buzz of questions in her head.

"So," she begins, "last night…"

He pauses, gaze flickering to hers, then goes back to eating.

"Is there a reason I can't remember anything after we met your friends?"

Ichigo chews, swallows, then, "Probably because you passed out."

Oh. Oh, that's just so inconsiderate of her. "Oh my god."

"I called my sister to make sure you didn't need medical attention, but she said you were good and just needed to sleep it off. You didn't use the bucket anyway, if that helps."

"Oh my god."

"So I've heard," he says blandly.

"I met your sister last night too?" Rukia exclaims, embarrassment making her hysterical, "Oh my god, was she visiting? Did I totally ruin your whole night?" She glances around his loft for any sign of her, but finds nothing in the open plan to indicate someone else besides them – maybe his sister is sleeping in his room?

Impatient, he tells her, "No, Yuzu lives on the other side of town."

"Jesus, you called your sister all the way from across town?" Oh god, what kind of state was she even in that Ichigo needed to call someone for help? Rukia needs to send his sister a gift basket or something if she made the poor girl come from all the way across town to –

"It's called a phone and it doesn't require her physically being here to help." He mumbles the rest, "She just laughed at me anyway so I assumed you were fine."

At that, Rukia stares at him which he pointedly ignores to give entirely too much attention to his eggs.

Then with a smug smile, Rukia declares, "You were worried about me."

He grunts.

"You were worried about me enough to call your sister, at what was likely, an ungodly hour just because I passed out."

"If you died on my watch I will literally never hear the end of it from anyone," he tells her.

It's too late. "Can't fool me, Kurosaki; we're friends now."

"Ugh."

Feeling better now that she knows the gist of her missing hours, she continues to grin at him through the rest of breakfast.

"Are you close with your sister?"

"Sisters," he corrects, "I have two, they're twins. And I suppose we are."

"How big is the age difference?"

"Four years. But the youngest, Yuzu, she acts like she's the oldest of all of us, half the time."

"Bossy?" Rukia asks.

"Overly responsible," he answers, shoulders lifting in a shrug. "People tell her a lot that she looks like our mom, even when she was a kid. I guess a part of her took that for more than what it was, decided she needed to take care of everyone after our mom died."

Her brows furrow in sympathy, but the way Ichigo says it – partly careless, partly guilty, makes Rukia decide not to broach the topic further and ask instead, "What does your sister do that you called her for help?"

Shooting her an exasperated look, he replies, "She's a nurse, but she recently moved into being a primary caregiver; more personalized, I guess."

"Did she get tired of you asking her gruesome questions for your books?" Rukia asks with a quirk of her brow that matches the slight curve of his, and doesn't deny it.

Later, Rukia tries to do the dishes – "You cooked, it's only fair." – Ichigo had waved her off and told her instead, "Please get changed, you smell like the floor of a bar bathroom."

"A classy one," she corrects even as she takes a discrete sniff of herself and decides he's exaggerating because friends or not, he's still a dick.

"Go."

Rolling her eyes, Rukia hip checks him, and stopping to refold the blankets and fix the pillows she used last night on the couch over his protests that it's his goddamn house and it can be a mess if he wants it to be even though I made the mess, I can fix it, Rukia heads out, but not before Kon greets her with a meow, and rubs himself between her legs and looking up at her imploringly.

With a chuckle, shoes in hand, she squats to pick up the yellow cat and says as she heads out the door.

"You stealing my cat too?"

"Oh, so you admit he's yours?" Rukia teases.

And when he only looks over his shoulder from where he's busy at the sink, she snickers. "Well, Kon likes me better anyway. We can share custody. Say bye, kitty," she says, coming to stand beside him.

To her amusement, Kon reaches over to bat at Ichigo's shoulder and then does an excellent job of managing to rub himself all over his collarbone and neck with Rukia laughing at the face Ichigo makes as he tries not to smile.

With a final purr, satisfied that his goodbye was thorough enough, Kon flicks his tail over Ichigo's face like an obnoxious feather and dives right back into Rukia's chest.

"Dumb cat," he complains.

"You say with love," she sings, rearranging Kon so he won't fall. "Thanks again, for you know, last night. Coming to my show and everything."

"Yeah well. You're welcome," he says to the dish he's washed at least twice more since she came to stand by him.

She doesn't think the heat on his face has anything to do with the barely tepid water he's using, and with a hum and a smile, Rukia says, "I'll get out of your hair."

Just as she's out the door, he tells her, "Bring back my cat."

"Aye, aye! Thanks for breakfast!"

Shutting his front door, she isn't even surprised to find 3D staring, scandalized. For a second, Rukia is offended – what is with this lady? – until she remembers what she probably looks like leaving an apartment that isn't her own in clothes wrinkled from the night before with her hair still a mess and her shoes in hand and, fine, this time 3D is perfectly in her rights to make judgments.

And it isn't like Rukia has anything to sniff about, really.

Even if she had slept with Ichigo and is doing the walk of shame, Ichigo would be the type to make breakfast after – grumpy attitude aside.

Plus, objectively, he's a good-looking guy, and with the hour between a nightly encounter and the time of her departure, there's definitely suggestion in there that he'd be considerate enough to let her sleep in.

Whether that translated in other departments would be purely up to the imagination, and let's face it, Rukia has a lot of that, and frankly so has 3D considering how long she's kept Ichigo's serial killer reputation going.

Smothering her smirk with an innocent smile, Rukia tells her, "Don't worry, he's good at more than just making eggs."

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“No.”

“Yes.”

“Ichigo.”

“No, just – no.”

“It’s your picture in a book jacket,” Tatsuki reminds annoyingly patient. “I’m not asking for your firstborn.”

Ichigo huffs out a breath. “What’s the point of having my picture if I’m writing under a pseudonym? Besides, you’ve managed me just fine without my face for the past three years, what makes this year so different?”

“It’s the trend – the public needs more than just your words. You don’t even provide any input for your social media, the least you could do is show your face.” She isn’t much taller than him, but even if they hadn’t had a history of Tatsuki kicking his ass as a kid in karate class, Ichigo knows better than to tempt her wrath.

He tries to bargain, “If I agree to run my twitter account will you drop this?”

“No,” she drags the word out, “because the publishing house wants it, and you signed the contract to do whatever it is they requested in terms of marketing. You’re lucky they even agreed to the pseudonym in the first place.” He knows it was nothing short of an act of god that Yoruichi had agreed, and Ichigo suspects it had something to do with why his agent had walked funny for a few days after, it’s also why he’s tried to scorch that memory from his mind ever since. “But now that you’ve mentioned it,” Tatsuki continues to Ichigo’s mournful groan, “your Instagram account could use a more personal touch.”

Ugh.

“I should’ve just stayed indie,” he complains.

“If you did you wouldn’t be able to afford this nice apartment,” she points out, and yes, okay, that is why he agreed to send his manuscript in the first place. Ichigo wasn’t a particularly gracious starving artist. “So, your picture on the jacket, yes or no?”

“Well, you aren’t giving me much of a choice.”

“No,” she hums, “but I like the verbal confirmation.”

Rolling his eyes, he grumbles, “Fine, fine. Whatever just – god, I don’t know, don’t make me look like an idiot, alright?”

Entirely too obliging, she replies, “You do that just fine on your own.”

“I hate you.”

“Sure,” she nods, smirking. Sliding a business card across the counter, she taps on it with her index finger. “Address is on the back.”

“You’re trusting me to make arrangements on my own?”

Tatsuki scoffs. “Do I look like a shmuck to you? Your appointment with them is tomorrow. Look nice.” Then she pauses and says, “You know what? I’ll send you options for what shirt you can wear closer to the time.”

“I can dress myself.” She gives him a cursory glance, her expression belying her disagreement at his threadbare t-shirt, the logo almost entirely washed out on the front, paired with a pair of basketball shorts. “I work from home,” he defends.

“I’d think with that new neighbor of yours you’d at least put a little more effort,” she sniffs. Before he can deny it (because he will) she interjects, “Basketball shorts, really? When was the last time you even played?”

“Not since high school, but they’re comfortable.”

And Rukia doesn’t care what he wears.

He’s caught her looking on almost every occasion they’ve spent time together, even when he’d been soaked through that day he went over to her apartment, and wearing the exact same ensemble he’s wearing currently. And while she hadn’t been entirely sober, she appreciated his attempt to look fancy as Yuzu approved, the evening of her debut.

Ichigo’s tempted to walk around in his most eyesore shirts just to see if it would elicit any other reaction from her besides her silent, subtle consideration. Though he pretends he doesn’t give that more thought than he actually does.

 “Mmm,” Tatsuki hums, “and the fact that those ridiculous shorts make your ass look fantastic is just a coincidence?”

He makes a face. “Gross, you’re like my sister.”

“That’s on you, I’m still attracted to dick even if it’s not yours.” She smirks as he fakes a gag. “Oh, and by the way -”

“Fuck, I hate it when you start conversations like that,” he groans, “it usually means you already agreed to something I’ll hate.”

She ignores him, as she always does, and barrels on, “Since you’ll be unveiling your ugly mug to the public with your next release you’ll be going on tour.”

“No.”

“Contract.” He opens his mouth, and Tatsuki puts words in them, “You’ll just do a reading, a short Q and A, and some book signing. You won’t need to go to a convention until the end of the year.”

I have to go to a convention?

“Again, I’m not asking for your firstborn.”

He protests, “The girls and Dad will find out -”

“And if they do?”

“You know what’ll happen if they do.”

She rolls her eyes. “It won’t be the end of the world if they did. And I’m sure they’ve accepted by now that you’ve figured out ways to cope. I mean, you actually went to therapy. Your dad’s been trying to get Yuzu to go for years and she still hasn’t.”

“I don’t want to worry them.”

“Uh that’s what family’s for, or did you miss that memo?”

He huffs out an annoyed breath, but before he can complain further there’s a knock on his front door. Tatsuki gets up before he can – not that he was going to as he drops his head to rest on the counter and groans – and she lightly punches his shoulder as she passes.

He hears her open the door and then: “Hey, Ichigo, I – oh, sorry!” His head snaps up from the counter, something in his head screaming no, no, no as a look of recognition alights from Tatsuki’s expression which quickly morphs into mischievous delight as Kon meows his greeting from the nest of Rukia’s arms.

“Why, Ichigo,” Tatsuki begins, all mischievous twinkle and curling smirk. “Is this the neighbor you’ve been raving about?”

Oh god, no.

“Arisawa,” he begins warningly.

Turning the charm all the way up, she practically beams at Rukia. “I’m Tatsuki, Ichigo’s best friend.”

The startled confusion on her face lifts a little, apparently still hesitant as her gaze flickers to him curiously and back at Tatsuki before she smiles back. “Rukia,” she replies, “his other neighbor.” The cat meows again which is when she adds, “And this is Kon.”

“Oh, you’re definitely the neighbor,” Tatsuki insists even as Ichigo huffs out an annoyed breath and climbs to his feet.

“Really, I thought you were telling her all about 3D,” Rukia teases even as she shifts uncomfortably next to Tatsuki.

He doesn’t blame her.

Tatsuki, as it is, is a scary enough presence. Even Yoruichi had been wary of her when they’d first met, and Ichigo’s pretty sure Yoruichi actually kills people who displease her.

Nobody as Tatsuki had been when she signed up to be Ichigo’s editor, she didn’t flinch once when Yoruichi had challenged the stipulations they had come up with when they’d joined the publishing house. Even if after, Tatsuki admitted that she was this close to shitting a brick the entire time.

While “friendly” Tatsuki isn’t trying to prove herself this time around, he knows that protective slant to her grin all too well.

Protective Tatsuki in any form is terrifying.

“Oh, that old cow’s been giving Ichigo shit for years,” she’s saying with an extravagant eyeroll. “I told Ichigo when he chose this place that she’d be a problem, but what do I know? Anyway, what brings you by?”  

“Uh, just wanted to drop Kon off,” Rukia admits though Kon seems entirely too comfortable in her arms to leave, even as she says to Ichigo, “I told you I’d bring him back.”

“Like I had any doubt you’d want to keep him,” Ichigo smirks, “did he run his claws down your curtains yet?”

“He would never,” she declares, petting Kon in such a way as to seemingly cover the cat’s ears from Ichigo’s assumed heresy. “Though now that I think about, it explains why you have none. Not even blinds, what’s up with that?” Rukia pulls a face like her brain can’t compute why he doesn’t want to cover up his windows which he doesn’t understand.

The giant windows is one of the best things about the loft, and completely nixed the downsides of having thin walls and 3D tattling on him at every opportunity. “Why would I waste natural light?”

“Uh, because people can look into your windows?”

He shrugs, remembering how she’d brought up his previous neighbor seeing him from her place. If people didn’t want to see things, they shouldn’t look. “Why you got something to hide? More bodies, maybe?” he teases.

“One time,” she reminds. Then, “And, I’m done with that anyway.”

Before he can ask what she means, Kon meows, uncurling from Rukia’s arms and makes to leap at Tatsuki who accepts the load gracefully enough even as she makes an ‘oof’ sound in surprise. “Hey buddy,” she greets, “not feeling old grumpy pants over here, huh?”

“Oi,” Ichigo protests, drowned out by Kon’s purring which sounds suspiciously like an engine of a car as Tatsuki showers the yellow cat in pets and affection.

Rukia clears her throat, flashes a smile and retreats. “Anyway, that’s all I came to bother you about. I actually have to go.”

Ichigo opens his mouth but doesn’t know what to say when she waves half-heartedly and is out the door a second later. He stares at the door in disbelief for a few seconds before, “That was weird, right?”

Tatsuki clicks her tongue. “Ichigo, you’re denser than cement.” By Kon’s meow, apparently, he agrees.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Rukia makes it to the studio on the other end of the art gallery lot in record time, but she attributes it to the lack of foot traffic rather than the fact that she’d left her building like a bat out of hell. Pointedly, she ignores her phone as it rattles around in her bag as it’s been doing since this morning, and steps into what she’s referred to as the “holy land” with her best attempt at a smile.

She’s an old hat at faking everything being alright, and when it comes to her parents, even more so.

None of the other artists is any the wiser, and wave or nod at her in recognition before she finally reaches her own room.

Now that she’s officially part of the gallery family, Hisana allocated a space just for her and given her free reign to create whatever she wanted for next month’s exhibition. She’d been on cloud nine the entire weekend since her successful debut and was looking forward to going back to her watercolors and charcoal, her two mediums of choice.

She brought new supplies and everything, and they do nothing but mock her now, sitting innocently just outside the door, still in their boxes and marked with her name. Rukia had been looking forward to setting it all up, making up her own space as she had with her loft. Turns out, she’s not even going to get the chance.

Shutting the door behind her, she leans against it with her forehead, a sigh that’s choked and shaky.

Her bag lands beside her in a thump, her phone still vibrating needlessly.

What was she thinking? This whole thing was an awful idea.  

And not only are her parents furious, but she’s going to disappoint Hisana when she finds out that Rukia can’t stay.

Not unless Rukia can find someone kind enough to let her crash on their couch; there’s no way Rukia will be able to afford rent (or food, for that matter) for long, not unless she moves to a cheaper area and leaves her job at the gallery behind which she doesn’t want to do.

Not that it’ll be better if she goes back home either.

Her parents will bring up her rebellion every chance they can get, and there’s no way they’d allow her to take her art supplies back either. Chances are, they’d leave all her stuff on the curb, and Rukia will just watch it shrink away from the rearview of her father’s town car.

Even as she clings to the door like it's her only tether, her mind races to come up with solutions – a compromise – but she has no one.

In the almost two months since she’s moved to Rukongai, she doesn’t really have friends. Acquaintances, work associates, and models that help her with her projects, sure. But friends?

Rukia had thought Ichigo was her friend, but she didn’t realize until she was at his loft and met Tatsuki that she doesn’t really know Ichigo either. She likes him, of course, but she doesn’t know him, no matter how much she thought so.

It’s frankly embarrassing that she’d thought to go over there in the first place, she thinks, flushing in shame.

She can’t even turn to Byakuya-niisama because he’d been the one who told their parents – and – he’s still calling – Rukia can hear that annoying vibrating of her phone as it skitters around in her bag

She huffs out a breath and struggles to find another, her chest feels caved in; lungs deflated underneath. She’s trapped and suffocated, and she wants nothing more than to scream and cry, but all she can do is suck at breathing and blink against the burn of tears that don’t fall.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not –

The door is pushed open from the outside, and Hisana’s cheerful face peers out from around the corner.

“Good morning Rukia-chan, just wanted to check in with you to make sure you’re settling in okay! You should really take your supplies in you know, that's like leaving everyone's favorite pizza out in the open and – Oh, my god, why are you crying, what’s going on?” Rukia’s got Hisana’s arms around her before she can even process the panic of it all, but she sinks in relief at the feel of someone else’s comfort – their care.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not –

“Rukia-chan, what’s going on?”

“My parents cut me off," is her strained reply.

“What?” Hisana asks in a gasp, “Oh god, that’s terrible. What happened?”

“They didn’t – they didn’t know I left, and they found out and they want me to come home,” Rukia stutters on hitched breathes, realizing in belated embarrassment that she’s finally crying, and it isn’t pretty. Though Hisana brushes away the stray droplets, she doesn’t seem particularly concerned about them, and for all that Hisana is only a few years older than her, she appears almost achingly motherly. “They told me if I don’t, they’ll cut me off, and I can’t – I don’t have enough -”

“They just found out you left home?” Hisana asks, eerily calm.

“They don’t really…pay attention to me, until they do.” And that’s an awful thing to think, isn’t it? That you aren’t important or worth noticing until it’s suddenly inconvenient that you aren’t around. Rukia wonders bitterly what Byakuya-niisama had to gain from telling their parents her whereabouts.

“Do you…want to go back there?”

Her laugh is incredulous. “It's not even a competition. I was never happy there.”

“Is this them calling?” Hisana asks, gesturing at the phone that’s managed to vibrate itself out of her bag and rattle around mindlessly on the floor.

Rukia nods jerkily, and Hisana pulls away with one final squeeze before picking up the phone, pressing it against her ear and telling Byakuya-niisama, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re missing out on a talented, amazing person. Rukia-chan deserves better. Keep your money, she’s staying with me.”

She puts the phone down without another word, fiddles with it, and then hands it back, saying, “I blocked them for now. You can talk to them again when you don’t look like you’re going to collapse.”  

And Rukia can’t help but be both grateful and filled with disbelief. “Hisana -”

“You’re either going to yell at me about being too harsh or say something ridiculous like I didn’t need to do that -”

“You didn’t -” she interjects with a ridiculous urge to laugh and a cry at the same time to which Hisana smiles and brushes it off simultaneously brushing aside a stray strand of Rukia’s hair, sweeping it behind her ear and smiling.

“I can do whatever I want. And the offer is real, by the way. You’ve been like the little sister I’ve always wanted since you got here,” she says. “And I know exactly where you’re coming from. If you need a place to stay, if you just need help or a hug, I’ve got you covered.”

The weight feels less crushing, and the happiness is so sudden that Rukia’s head spins with it. “Hisana – thank you.”

Rukia puts aside her own embarrassment at clinging, Hisana doesn’t seem to mind it and squeezes her right back as she soothes Rukia with quiet remarks about her apartment – where Rukia can stay – how her parents will come around, and even if they don’t, Rukia isn’t going to be alone: “We’re artists, Rukia-chan, regular vagabonds, you know? Most of us left behind unsupportive homes. We’re family now.” – before it all devolves into shushing as Hisana rubs her back and lets her cry out whatever’s left of herself.

Hisana never makes a move to leave.

Rukia doesn’t realize how glad she is for it.

By the time the end of the day rolls around, everyone from the gallery comes by to see how she’s doing, give her kind words – “It’s hard to try, Kuchiki-san, you’re braver and stronger than you realize.” – and extend offers to hang out that seems more insistent than it had in the beginning –“We didn’t want to scare you off,” Rangiku divulges with a wink – and Rukia doesn’t know how such a crappy day turned around so completely.

She’s so emotionally exhausted by it all that she feels like a breeze could knock her over which is why it’s no surprise that at the end of the day when she goes back to her loft that the sight of her niisama and Ichigo squaring off in the hallway almost bowls her over.

“What the hell?”

“Rukia,” they greet in creepy unison though with varying degrees of emotion, though doubtless they both sound pissed, and even as they turn to acknowledge her, they’re glaring at each other from the corner of their eyes.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Who is he?” Her niisama tacks on looking cold and unimpressed, and you know what? Rukia is too.

“My friend, he lives next door,” she huffs and makes the conscious decision not to approach her door – Byakuya-niisama isn’t coming in – she isn’t going to let him into her home and have him…sneer at her life and tell her to go back to their parents. “How did you find me?”

He shifts, discomforted but equally resistant as he approaches her. “I had a private investigator -”

“You can hire some stranger to follow me, but you can’t show up for my debut?” And oh, she is actually still angry about that, who knew?

“Rukia, that isn’t -”

She interjects to accuse, “You told our parents!”

“Not on purpose,” and now, satisfyingly enough, he sounds contrite. “I wanted them to go – to see your show – so we’d all go together to support you.”

“And yet none of you showed up.” She’s still so indignant, so betrayed, she’s shaking with it because, “I told you – I told you they wouldn’t support this, support me. And you know why I didn’t want you to know where I was, or where I lived because I know you weren’t convinced I could do this -”

“Rukia, they’re cutting you off if you don’t -”

She scoffs. “I know. But I have – I have money of my own.” She falters. “It won’t…it won’t last for long but -”

“Come home, imouto,” he tells her quietly, as close to begging as he’ll ever be, and Rukia swallows around the lump in her throat, the fight leaving her to ache in its sudden absence.

“I can’t, niisama, I’m sorry. Even if I can’t afford my place here anymore, this won’t be the first home I’ll leave behind. I’ll…I’ll be okay. I’ll find a way. But I can’t move backwards. I can’t go back to the life they want me to have instead of the one I want.” She shakes her head, and Jesus, is she crying again? How much crying can one person do? “I won’t ask you to understand, and I’m not asking for your permission, but this is my choice and I’m making it.”

“Rukia -”

 “I’ll be okay,” she might not entirely believe it yet, but she will. “Don’t worry about me anymore. Go...go home, and tell them I’m sorry I couldn't be the daughter they wanted."

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Despite Rukia’s dismissal, her brother doesn’t leave. He doesn’t try and force his way into her apartment either, he’s not actually an idiot even if he’s made some questionable decisions where Rukia is concerned, but he doesn’t make to leave.

Ichigo wonders if he disappeared into his own apartment instead of standing around to make sure he leaves, what her brother would do then.

As it is, he just sort of stands there; face contorting minutely as the man mentally contorts himself to the options laid before him – between trying to reason with her and disappearing into the night like he’d never darkened her door in the first place.

Eventually, 3D threatens to call the cops.

For once, Ichigo’s on her side.

He watches Byakuya enter the elevator, doors closing between them even as they exchange glares in the distance before Ichigo huffs out a breath and considers the door behind him.

No wonder she’d been weird earlier; having her parents give her such a shitty ultimatum right after her excitement of getting her own space at the gallery, and then having her brother show up? It’s a lot to process. It’s a damn miracle she’d even managed to go to work today.

Kon meows by his feet and Ichigo’s brain is slow to process why the damn cat is so important until he realizes fuck, was this why she came over this morning? God, I’m a shitty friend.

Wincing, he raises a fist to knock on the door, and when he doesn’t hear her approach from inside the apartment, Ichigo rubs the back of his neck. Clearing his throat, he offers, “Your brother’s gone.”

Ichigo isn’t expecting her to answer, but he doesn’t expect her quiet sniffle through the door, before she finally replies, “Thank you.”

Kon paws at the door and meows piteously.

He swallows the guilty lump in his throat, echoes an, “Ah” in acknowledgment and waits for a beat, two, three.

Eventually, he picks the cat up and heads back into his apartment.

He doesn’t bother to close the door behind him in case – in case.

Ichigo sets up his laptop by the kitchen counter, closest to the front door, and tries to get some work done. He fails spectacularly. His stomach feels tied up in knots, and to say he’s distracted is an understatement. He alternates between looking out into the hallway, the blinking cursor of a blank document, and the time on his phone which does nothing but make him worry more as one hour, and then two crawls on, and also makes him realize that for all the time he and Rukia have spent together he doesn’t have her number.

God, the shittiest friend, I am the shittiest friend, he thinks resisting the urge to drop his head on his keyboard in embarrassment and shame.

Kon, clawing at his legs insistently, agrees.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Ichigo huffs before he sighs once more, stares at his screen blankly before he opens up his web browser and searches how to comfort someone which gives him a wikiHow on how to console a friend.

Close enough, he thinks.

An hour later, after much debate and fussing over the stove, he’s standing outside her door with Kon at his feet and a tray of food in hand. It’s the second time he’s done this, but for some reason this time around, he’s nervous.

Twice is a coincidence, he tells himself when his knock gets no response and he’s starting to sweat with the stress of it all. Friends do this. Friends –

The door opens with a creak of hinges and Rukia appears through a slither.

She looks like she’s been dragged halfway to hell and back; her eyes are puffy, eye make-up smudged against her cheeks like she’d cried ink rather than tears, but she looks fierce rather than tired, her chin is notched, her shoulders practically at her ears. “What?”

He makes his most contrite expression – given that he can’t raise his hands in surrender – and replies, “I come in peace.” When she still looks suspicious, Ichigo maneuvers Kon forward with his foot. “I bring food and this annoying cat you seem to like a lot.”

Of course, she softens at the cat.

People expect cats to be assholes, but they expect better from their friends. He clears his throat. “Can I come in?”

She sniffs a little, rubs at her nose almost absently and then steps aside.

“Only because you brought me food.”

“We’ve established I can’t let you die.”

She snorts, and any other reply he has in mind dies on his tongue when he notices the boxes. The loft still looks whole, thankfully, but there’s already one box sealed up and marked, and another that looks half-open – a mixture of her art supplies and some kitchen utensils scattered nearby.

“Going somewhere?” he asks.

“You heard what happened,” Rukia says carefully, and there are no pretenses now, she takes the tray from him and goes to sit on the couch in the midst of a pile of clothes she’s either planning to donate or pack into the box at her feet. Kon follows after, rubbing at her legs, completely oblivious to the fact that Rukia is planning to leave. “I won’t be able to afford this place soon, not without the account.”

“I thought you weren’t using your trust fund for this?” he asks, and he should feel awkward just standing there as she slurps up the chicken noodle he’d made up.

“I’m not,” she admits, “I used the money I made working for my family. But they’re closing that too.” With a huff, she says, mostly to herself, “I should’ve placed it under a different name, but I never thought they’d go so far as to –” she shakes her head and eats with more gusto.

He prods, “And the money you make from the gallery?”

“It’s good, but not this apartment in this area good,” and then she’s grimacing, “and I put the money I’ve made so far in that account too so…”

He doesn’t know what his face does, but she’s quick to defend, “The interest was really good! Not that it’s much help to me now.” Nodding at her kitchen counter, she adds, “I ran the numbers and even if I cut out things that aren’t necessities, it’ll be pretty tight.”

At her apparent invitation, he sifts through the papers spread out on the counter.

Ichigo doesn’t do his own accounting. Not if he can help it. He speaks two languages, and math is not one of them. Still, he gets the feeling that Rukia’s been through some growing pains of leaving home for the first time, and while her spending has slowed down since she’s set up house, there’s a red flag he can’t ignore, “You pay how much for rent?”

“Exactly why I can’t stay here,” she tells him with a grumble like he’s rubbing it in.

 “No, just – I don’t pay this much.” Granted, he and Urahara had an arrangement – Urahara had been his agent before he’d become his landlord too – Ichigo had a discount of sorts but he knows for a fact rent shouldn’t be that high. Unless. “Your last name, what is it again?”

“Kuchiki,” she answers before waving it off flippantly. “It’s not a big deal. I mean, Hisana-san said I can stay with her until I can get back on my feet.”

Regardless, he pulls out his phone, searches the name and – “Your family’s a big deal, right?”

She shrugs.

“Well, Urahara knew that and that’s why he inflated your rent.”

She sets aside the bowl. “By how much?”

His math isn’t great, but even he can do the calculations on this, “If you stop buying needlessly expensive shit, and stick to a budget? Enough with how much you’re making at the gallery.”  

“I can…stay?”

“Yeah, yeah you can – oof!”

He doesn’t know how she managed to get the momentum to practically launch herself at him, so he’s got handfuls of her hips, but it’s not like he’s complaining.

Against his neck, she breathes, “Thank you, thank you, Ichigo!”

Snorting a little in his disbelief, he steadies them both, running a hand up her back soothingly. “Yeah, yeah, just – let me talk to Urahara and get this sorted out yeah?”

“Thank you,” she’s saying again, and she’s shaking and fuck, he made her cry.

“Whoa, hey, no,” he’s pressing the back of her neck until she’s curled against him and panicking a little when she sniffles and – “God, I am the shittiest friend.”

“Shut up, oh my god, just shut up,” she orders, pulling away and rubbing at her eyes furiously, “there are happy tears, you idiot.”

“Oh…” Oh. He visibly relaxes. Thank fuck. “Okay, good.”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Rukia scolds. “You check up on me and yell at my brother and bring me food and now…you’re the best, and I shouldn’t have doubted you.”

“You doubted me?” he asks in fake offense that isn’t entirely fake, but she waves it off.

“Not important.”

“Disagree.” She’s still in the circle of his arms, and it’s easy for him to cup her face and rub the ruined makeup from her cheeks, and musing, “What is this?”

“I’ll wash it off,” she says batting at him uselessly, though graciously allows him to rub at the worst of it and make it even worse. “You suck,” she complains.

“Well, don’t wear this shit then,” he retorts, “Was this supposed to be waterproof? Oh my god.”

“Shut up, it makes me look prettier.”

“Bullshit, you’re already pretty,” he’s saying before he has time to think about what it sounds like it.

“That’s why I said prettier, got ya there, Author-san,” Rukia teases, but there’s a blush on her cheeks and though her eyes are still shiny, there’s a smile at her mouth and she looks – she looks happy – Ichigo did that.

“I said what I said.”

She huffs, rolling her eyes and lightly pushes at him. “You think you’re so smooth.”

You think so,” he points out, cupping her cheeks again and squishing.

Rukia doesn’t try and wiggle free just squints her eyes and mockingly glares at him. “Worst, you’re the worst.”

“According to you I’m the best, and you shouldn’t have doubted me,” he parrots to her dramatic groan.

Like a reflex from all the time the girls used to give him shit, Ichigo plops a kiss on the crown of her head, except it isn’t quite so platonic when Rukia’s pressed against his chest and Ichigo’s pretty sure she can hear his heart pounding between them and – “Get cleaned up, I can…I can get started on helping you unpack?”

Rukia doesn’t push away from his arms, seems to burrow in instead, as she mumbles, “You don’t have to do that.”

“Yeah, but I can.” Now, despite the distracting thump-thump-thump against his ribcage, Ichigo pulls away to smile at her. “Go, I’ll be here.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

This day is weird, she decides with a bemused smile as she heads upstairs to the en-suite bathroom. Even as she recoils at her appearance – her bloodshot eyes, the mascara leaving stains on her cheeks and her eyeliner askew – and begins cleaning up, she feels like she’s in a haze, like she’s watching herself do things – removing her clothes and stepping into the shower room.

Thankfully, under the rush of the water and the warm steam, she feels more present, less like she’s dissociating.

Unfortunately, her improved sense of awareness is twofold, and as her consciousness resettles, the memories of her day slough through her mind like molasses until it’s all she’s thinking about; rerunning everything repeatedly in excruciating detail like the worst highlight reel in the history of ever.

Everything worked out, that’s what she tells herself.

Her day sucked, but things are significantly better now. She wouldn’t recommend the rollercoaster of her day to anyone, but things worked out.

They aren’t perfect. Rukia always knew her parents were only going to make her life difficult once they found out, but they didn’t show up to make a scene and drag her out of here kicking and screaming, and that’s really the best she could’ve hoped for.

Sure, it’s still awful in hindsight. She essentially kicked her nii-sama to the curb and if there was anyone Rukia thought she’d always have in her corner it was him. But Rukia isn’t going to have to leave her loft, her job, the life she’s been slowly building for herself, and she doesn’t have to leave Ichigo which brings her to her current dilemma: Ichigo.

She doesn’t know exactly when it happened that she started thinking of him as someone she could rely on, but it’s happened.

When everything went to shit this morning the first person she thought to go to was him.

Rukia didn’t expect him to fix anything, but she’d wanted something from him that morning and looking back on when she’d left him downstairs, she realizes she got it: the care, the attention, the concern.

But Hisana had shown Rukia the same, and it wasn’t – not that it wasn’t enough – but that it wasn’t the same which leads her to the conclusion that she thought of Ichigo differently to Hisana.

Rukia doesn’t have to examine it for too long to figure out why.

With a groan and a light thump of her forehead against the tile, she curses her obvious attachment issues. Christ. She makes a friend of her own that isn't from work or someone her family is connected to, and her dumb brain decides that she likes him way more than a friend.

She kind of wants to crawl out of her skin. She kind of never wants to leave this shower which she can’t actually do because she has the water bill to consider now, and she jerks the handle off abruptly like she’s been burned.

Groaning again, she realizes that she didn’t plan to take a shower and didn’t bring clothes in with her.

Rukia doesn’t know how long it’s been since she left Ichigo downstairs, maybe he left already? She thinks hopefully so she can freak about her revelation in peace, except, he said he’d stay and-and –She shuffles barefoot in the bathroom in her indecision before deciding that it doesn’t matter, the towel will cover what it needs to, and it isn’t like he’ll see her anyway.

“Did you drown in there?” he calls from downstairs, words curled in a tease, and she feels a mixture of relief and horror.

“Yeah – no – I just – shower,” Rukia stutters and throws on some clothes before she thinks about Ichigo happening to see something, and her skin flushes.

She contemplates making up an excuse to send him away, but Kon’s judging her from the staircase and – she huffs out a breath. Stop being an idiot, she scolds and heads downstairs before she can talk herself out of it.

It’s not like she needs to make this weird.

It isn’t like Ichigo is the first person she’s ever liked. Rukia’s had boyfriends before, she’s been on dates, she’s been at both ends of the “unrequited love” spectrum. She’s just – never really been friends with the guys she’d liked or been involved with, and it didn’t bother her when she never spoke to those guys again.

But she can’t do that to Ichigo.

Logistically, she can’t – they live next door to one another and operate under similar hours. She’s not going to move in with Hisana just to avoid him. (It’s childish, she admonishes the part of her brain that whines why not?)

Plus, he doesn’t deserve that.

First and foremost, Ichigo is her friend and she’s not going to treat him differently just because she likes him.

She huffs, shakes her head at herself and decides she’ll deal with it later – just – all of it, she’ll deal with it later.

Ichigo’s got one of her boxes unpacked and is digging into the second one when she meets him downstairs.

“Thought I was gonna have to fish you out of there,” he says with a snicker, running his knuckles over Kon’s head as the cat pounces onto the couch to join him.

“Hah-hah,” she mocks and she waffles a little between sitting on the same couch to at least pretend to be normal or to sit across from him, but he saves her from having to choose when he moves some stuff away to make room beside him and says, “You gonna stand there looking pretty the whole time?”

She huffs out a breath. “You keep telling me I’m pretty, I’m going to believe you,” she warns. He snorts, and doesn’t reply, only passes on the stuff in the box he was sorting through, which prompts her to remind, “You don’t need to help me unpack, you know.”

“Yeah, well, I’m here. Might as well,” he grunts, and she thinks he sees his cheeks darken, but Rukia’s too biased to be trusted with deciphering what that could mean.

So, she decides to go to her default with him: tease him about it. Nudging his knee with hers, she declares, “I knew you’d miss me, Kurosaki.”

“Please, Urahara told me if you moved out, he’d charge me for chasing another neighbor off,” which he follows up with a scowl, “though with how much he overcharged you for rent, I’m not opposed to kicking his ass anyway.”

“My hero,” she fakes a swoon to another of his sighs, dramatic and longsuffering.

“Rukia, shut up.”

She snickers and turns her attention to sorting through the art supplies in the box in comfortable silence, punctuated by Ichigo’s complaints, her remarks, and Kon’s purring. It’s easy and familiar, and Rukia wonders why the hell she’d want more anyway. Sure, she likes Ichigo more than a friend, but telling him wouldn’t change anything when she’s happy enough with this.

“I’m sorry I didn’t notice something was wrong.” She blinks. “Earlier,” he offers in explanation, “when you came over to mine this morning.”

“Oh.” She shrugs. “It’s not a big deal. I didn’t get a chance to tell you anything so how would you have known?”

“That isn’t -” Ichigo sighs, frustrated. “That’s not the point, I knew you were being weird.”

Making a noise of acknowledgment, relieved that he’d gotten the vibe that she wasn’t okay. No one’s ever really known her well enough to get that about her, no one but Byakuya-niisama. She internally berates herself for ever thinking that Ichigo wasn’t her friend.

“It’s okay, I mean, you had Arisawa-san over,” and she applauds herself for saying so without any kind of inflection even if she’d chosen her words carefully.

Truthfully, Rukia doesn’t remember much about the other woman only that she was dark-haired and had a devious twinkle in her eye and an equally sharp tongue for Ichigo. Rukia doesn’t want to draw comparisons between herself and Ichigo’s best friend, but it’s hard not to when she’d (really stupidly) assumed she was Ichigo’s best friend.

At that, he scoffs. “The only Arisawa-san either of us knows is her grandfather, she’d probably insist you call her Tatsuki.”

Rukia snorts, knows the feeling, and decides there must be hope if Tatsuki can be as close to Ichigo as Rukia is, and not be in love with him. It’s a fleeting feeling, she comforts herself, liking him more than a friend could be like a passing phase.

“She’s a terror,” he complains.

“Oh?” Rukia prods with a smirk.

“I’ve known her since we were kids and she was beating me up," he divulges.

“What?” she chokes. “I mean, I can believe it, but…” At his look, she raises a hand in defense. “What? You’re a total dork.”

“I don’t know why I like you,” he deadpans.

“Neither do I,” she adjourns flashing an inane smile and a shrug even as her mind gets going to exclaim oh my god, why would he like me?

Ichigo rolls his eyes and nudges her with his shoulder. “Don’t be annoying. Anyway, Tatsuki hasn’t gotten bored with being the bane of my existence, and she wants my picture in the book jacket.”

“Does that mean you’ll finally tell me what pseudonym you’re writing under?”

He huffs out a surprised breath, glancing over her carefully from the corner of his eye. “You still care about that?”

She gives him an incredulous look, adjusts herself on the couch beside him so that she’s facing his side. “You went to my debut and you don’t know anything about art.”

“Not true,” he defends, and says with utmost sincerity and seriousness, “I know that when you mix blue and yellow you get green.”

“You’re a real connoisseur,” Rukia declares with an eye roll and a chuckle. “The point is, you make the effort for me. I make the effort for you.” At that he moves to mirror her, sorting through her boxes forgotten, and feeling the atmosphere in the room change for some reason, Rukia defaults, “Besides, I can’t make fun of you properly when I don’t know what I’m teasing you about.”

“You’re annoying,” he accuses, and it’s not Rukia’s imagination that he sounds and looks fond, and despite ordering herself not to care and not to look too deep, she feels herself smiling softly in reply even as she snickers.

“When’s photo day?”  

“Tomorrow,” he huffs. “I hate photos.”

“Of you or in general?”

“Me,” Ichigo replies, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know how to pose or smile or – I’ll look stupid.”

“You’re good looking, just smolder at the camera and you’ll be fine,” she soothes patting his arm comfortingly.

“What does that even mean?” he scoffs, his skin slightly ruddy as he looks away determinedly.

“Just like…” Rukia pauses to consider her words before giving in and instructing, “purse your lips a little like you’re pouting.” And she mimics the movement when he turns to look at her, his expression conveying open judgment.

“Are you serious?”

Returning his look, she deadpans, “No, I’m doing this for fun.” She pats his arm insistently, and with a roll of his eyes, he concedes.

“Okay, less lip – a little bit more – yeah! Like that, it’ll emphasize your jaw. Alright, now, lift your chin a little, no – not,” Rukia smothers her giggles as she reaches over and adjusts him just so, hooking her thumbs over his ears and running her fingers through his hair a little as she moves him a little. “Alright, now eyes – you could get away with just looking at the camera, or just look slightly to the left or right of the camera, in this case: me. That way you don’t blind yourself when the light goes off.”

She leans away, sliding her hands from where she’d been holding him and parsing it through his hair to carelessly adjust it before cataloging his appearance approvingly.

With the reflection of twilight from the nearby window against his skin, his hair casually tousled; he looks almost achingly perfect, a subtle lift to his mouth and a softness in his eyes, Ichigo looks what comfort and intimacy feels like. Contrasted by the defiant tilt of his chin and the purse of his lips; his face look a little narrower, his cheekbones a little more defined and his jaw sharp enough to cut glass; beautiful and untouchable, and Rukia wants to draw him just so he could see himself how she’s seeing him.  

Internally, she shakes her head for the thought and outwardly grins.  “You just have to do that face, and they’ll tell you how to pose.”

“What face?” he asks, still looking adorably confused and a little breathless like he’d been looking at her the same way she’d been looking at him.

“The face you were making just now,” she waves off, scooting a little further away as if she could physically distance herself from the dangerous tint of her thoughts. “Just, I don’t know,” Rukia sighs, a little frustrated with herself and a little frustrated with him for making her feel this way. “Just think about something that makes you happy.” She clears her throat, smiles through her awkwardness and tells him, “You get…like a little lift right here,” and she’s reaching over to press her thumb a little against his cheek. “Like you’re almost smiling.”

“But I shouldn’t actually smile?” he asks, and his voice comes forth quiet, hushed.

“You could,” Rukia says, breath hitching as she realizes that they’re drifting closer like two opposing magnets, set to collide and then she’s mumbling against his lips, “you could.” 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Ichigo knows things are different.

He’s certainly come across the topic enough both in literature and real life that he knows how things usually go.

Admittedly, he didn’t have any actual expectations about kissing Rukia beyond what he pretends he doesn’t think about when he’s alone. He didn’t even know this would be a reality he’d find himself in living it.

Saying it’s different to any kind of fantasy or work of fiction is simultaneously the most eloquent and most inadequate way to put it.

Instead of fireworks and overwhelming lust, kissing Rukia feels like fanning out in a patch of grass with the sun warming your skin and a cool breeze ruffling your hair. It’s lazy, casual contentment, a sense of peace personified into a press of lips that’s far too gentle and tender for what they aren’t yet – but Ichigo isn’t complaining.

Or wouldn’t, if he was still in that moment and not glaring at the photographer who insists he finds a mental happy place so he doesn’t look so severe.

He’ll be the first to admit that he’s a fucking sap that his mind goes to last night at the prompting for a “happy place”, but there’s no one to judge him for it but himself.

It’s not his fault that he’d much rather be anywhere but here, and is openly pissed off that he isn’t either alone, writing or with Rukia instead.

But he knows he has to get his shit together, if not to go home, then to avoid Tatsuki pulling through with the threat of making him attend a convention. Having to discuss his books is one thing, having to sit at a stand at a con and debate with every Tom, Dick, and Harry whilst being expected to sell the books to them is a punishment Ichigo never wants leveled his way.

While Urahara’s been trying for years, as Ichigo’s agent, to get him to go, Ichigo’s more likely to punch Sandlehat in the head than do anything he says – especially after finding out about the inflation on Rukia’s rent.

Which helps just a little to lighten his generally displeased expression into a smirk which is arguably better, but still not the “look” the photographer wants.

Whatever.

Giving Urahara shit this morning ensured Ichigo didn’t completely regret leaving his loft, and they sorted out her issue in one visit too, even getting Urahara to put the extra money Rukia had given him and using it as ‘rent paid in advance’. Ichigo couldn’t physically get her the cash back but at least she wouldn’t be paying rent for two months – enough time to make up a comfortable cushion.

God knows Rukia will need it.

He should get her some basic finance books before he heads back to the loft, she definitely needs it now that she doesn’t have her parents’ money to fall back on.

While she got lucky that her rent could be adjusted, and that she’d made sure to scare Urahara shitless based on her own merits of quote, unquote “being done letting people walk all over her”. There’s no guarantee that her next money problem could be so easily resolved.

Surprisingly enough, she hadn’t been as broken up about her money problems as he thought she’d be.

In her words, she had expected it to happen one day, but the fact that they closed her account had blindsided her entirely.

“Your parents are dicks,” he informed making her sigh.

 “It’s why they’re the best lawyers in the Sereitei. Honestly, I’m more angry at Byakuya-niisama,” and at that she’d wilted all over again, and Ichigo didn’t even have to question if it was okay to put his arm around her or not because the action came anyway – automatic and comfortable – as she muttered into his shirt, “It’s always been the two of us, and now…”

Ichigo rubbed her shoulder and pressed his lips against her temple. “Don’t count him out yet. He made the effort to be here to tell you to your face, to try and talk to you.”

She sniffed. “I know that, but…”

“He did something dumb,” Ichigo began with the obvious. “But he didn’t intend it maliciously. Really, who thinks their parents will cut them off just because they’re trying to be independent and have a life of their own?”

Rukia snorted. “For someone who looked like they were going to throw him out the window, I can’t believe you’re defending him.”

 “Protective big brothers like to think their younger sisters will always need them, even when they don’t.”

“Speaking from experience?” she prodded, poking at his cheek which leads to him playfully biting it to stop her. And though Rukia was smiling and laughing and better now, the Rukia from earlier who’d been furious and tearful was still clear in his mind as he answered her tease with an honest admission, “My other sister, Karin, she’s always handled things her own way. After our mom died – she kind of – pretended she was okay when she wasn’t. For a long time, she accepted that me, Yuzu and Dad would always be protective of her for it. Until she thought she wasn’t pretending anymore, and I didn’t really handle it so well.”

Her brows furrow in thought. “What happened?”

“She didn’t speak to me for a year.” Rukia stared at him in disbelief, and he shrugged. “I found out she was fighting at the same boxing ring I was, only after hours with only the creepy owner for company, giving her tips.” He huffed out a breath. “We’re from a small town, people know everyone’s business, but also pretend to mind their own. Everyone knew that the guy who owned the boxing ring was the slimiest, handiest bastard on this side of Japan, and when I found out Karin was spending her time with him alone? I lost it, yelled at her, she yelled back, and no matter what I said, or what I did, she kept going.”

“There weren’t any other female led-classes she could take, as a compromise” he continued, “and none of the male-only classes would take her. Tatsuki had moved by then so there wasn’t anyone me or Dad really trusted, so we just – we told her to stop.” He sighed. “In hindsight, not a good plan: she’d been angry for a long time and fighting was the perfect way to channel the energy. Having it taken away made everyone tense all over again. And then, suddenly it wasn’t anymore.”

“She was fighting again,” Rukia surmised.

“Yeah, and it was even more shady than the first option; some goddamn underground fight ring.” His breath next is sharp, and Rukia at his side,  thigh pressed against his as if to anchor him through the worst of her imaginings, and then: “She got hurt, and because the whole thing was illegal, they didn’t want to be responsible for her so they just – they dumped her in some alley. If I hadn’t been looking for her that night she could’ve -”

He cuts himself off when Rukia reaches for him as she had earlier, hands cradling his face, eyes sympathetic and smile quick, reassuring as her lips parted, “But she didn’t. Nothing bad happened to her. You found her, and things turned out okay, right?”

“It took a while for the both of us,” he admitted. “There was a lot of…other stuff that made it worse.”

She doesn’t ask, and he doesn’t tell her, not yet, even as he thinks – he could.

That he could say, “My mom was fetching me from karate practice when I was nine, and she was late and – They found her near the convenience store a block away. Someone probably followed her, wanted to rob her, and-and she died in some nowhere alley. And finding Karin like that? I could – I couldn’t fucking breathe. She didn’t talk for almost a month after it happened. I couldn't even look at her. That’s why we didn’t talk for a year because neither of us could look each other in the eye without feeling like we’d relived Mom’s death all over again.” And Rukia wouldn’t think anything of it – of him.

She’d just – she’d be sad like she was when he’d told her about Karin, but then, “You really went all out on “scaring me straight” to forgive my brother, huh?”

He held his hands up in defence. “I’m just saying to think about it. You don’t need to forgive him today or tomorrow or next week, but just – think about talking to him about it. He’s the only one in your family you care about, and no matter how stupid his choices, he had his reasons too.”

“Ugh, I don’t know why you have to be so reasonable,” she complained.

“Because I’m clearly the adult in this relationship.”

She snorted but didn’t disagree, and that was as much of a conversation as they had about what it is they are now. If they are actually a they.

Jesus, were they?

Sure, people kissed all the time, but that doesn’t automatically mean – They were together.

Fuck, was it possible he sucked socially to the point where he genuinely didn’t know he was in a relationship or how any of it even worked? Was he going to have to call the girls and ask? Or, oh god, his dad?

“Kurosaki, you’re killing me here,” Yumichika declares to the ceiling. “I didn’t think it was possible, but you’re looking uglier and uglier by the second!”

“Oi!”

“Tsk, I can’t work like this,” the other man says, shouting over his shoulder, “Hisana! Take this man away – he’s doing unparalleled damage to my camera; its memory will never be the same! Look at that scowl, the jawline, god, it’s like you want me to do mugshots for serial killers! Is this a punishment? Hisana!”

Huffing out an annoyed breath as the photographer continues on his tirade, Ichigo privately admits that he isn’t trying very hard to get through this.

And even with Rukia’s instructions in mind, his focus flags and wanes, circling back to her and what everything means because he’s secretly a sixteen-year-old girl with his first fucking crush. Christ.

“Ayasegawa, some of us are trying to work here,” a blonde appears at the door to declare, body draped in a barely clinging white robe of sorts. “Oh, hello, you look familiar!”

Yumichika ignores her words entirely as he continues to gripe, “Rangiku, look what I have to work with!”

“Pfth, he’s already doing half the work,” she waves off. “I mean – look at that bone structure!”

“Who is the art and who is the artist?” the photographer demands.

At that, Rangiku sniffs and says, “Let’s ask for a second opinion. Rukia-chan!” And it isn’t a minute later that the woman herself shows up, summoned by the boisterous blonde and the loud arguing from earlier.

Ichigo should’ve known Tatsuki picked this photographer for a reason.

“Hey, what’s – oh, picture day?” Rukia greets, and though Rangiku had been the one to appear in a glorified tarp, it’s Rukia who makes him scramble to say something that he internally begs, won’t be stupid coming out of his mouth:  “Crying again?” which, seriously?

She blinks, startled before her cheeks flare and she’s stuttering, “No – no! It’s – it’s charcoal, not – shut up!” She rubs futilely at her skin where a black streak slices her cheek and joins the strands of dark hair she’s tied up haphazardly in a bun.

Though it's easy for them to tease and snipe at each other, to fall into familiar patterns, there’s also a noticeable way that she drifts and then stops before crosses her arms self-consciously, and it’s both a relief and not; the undercurrent of things have changed and we're something more now

So, things weren’t all clear between them. But she’s just as awkward about it as he is so that has to count for something, right?  

“Picture day! Rukia-chan, this is serious,” Yumichika exclaims, dragging Ichigo’s attention back with his outrage which makes both Rukia and Rangiku roll their eyes with varying levels of amusement and annoyance.

“I cannot work with this!”

“What’s the problem?” Rangiku huffs.

“His face!”

“Oi!” Rukia snickers and Ichigo turns to her with a grumble. “You said my face was fine.”

“Yes, if you made the same face at the camera that you made to me last night when we were practicing,” she says.

Rangiku perks, saddling up closer. “And what kind of face is that?”

Expertly, Rukia ignores her and approaches him instead, more confident than when she entered as she presses her palms against his shoulders and says, “Relax, Yumichika and his camera won’t hurt you.” He grunts, and she amends with an amused grin, “Your feelings and self-esteem, maybe. But physically, you could take him.”

Yumichiki sniffs. “I’ve met him, the grumpy asshole, and he isn’t taking me anywhere.”

 “I don’t think it’s you he’s interested in, Scrunchies,” Rangiku says with a wink Ichigo’s way that he pretends he doesn’t see with Rukia in front of him instead.

“Just – soften, here,” she flicks his forehead, and he recoils in surprise.

“Hey, what the -!”

Turning to look at Yumichika who’s behind the camera again, she asks, “Did you get that?”

“It’s better,” he begrudgingly replies. “Let’s try for less surprised, shall we? We don’t want people thinking he’s some wide-eyed thing when he could be the poster boy for angry criminal.”

She snickers at the little inside joke even as Ichigo grumbles. “Well, he’s secretly a giant dork under the death glare, so if we’re going for realistic…”

“Kuchiki,” he warns, and she drops it easily, rubbing his shoulder with one hand comfortingly, feeling how quickly he’d gone tense.

Rukia may have the unique ability to see through his bullshit, but not everyone deserves the chance. She’s quick to realize it, accept it, adapt: “How about you just look at me?” she offers quietly.

“So, I can glare at someone other than Yumichika?”

Despite his gruffness, she chuckles. “For a start.” And when he meets her eye, fully intending to glare at her in demonstration, his gaze softens a little as hers does. “Just look at me, okay?”

And his face must be doing something right because the photographer mutters aloud, “Thank baby Jesus.”

Rukia tries not to smile too much at that as she steps back, closer to the camera but out of the shot. And it’s easier somehow to just look at her, knowing from experience that she’ll take his shitty attitude and his cranky behavior and his emotional baggage, and all she’ll do is snark back at him, touch his face, and tell him to watch her stay anyway.

The camera flashes.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Be honest, do I look like an idiot?”

Rukia’s gaze flickers from the laptop, Yumichika’s email and the pictures he’d taken earlier that day taking up the screen, to Ichigo’s somewhat irritated expression. Despite her smile being smothered it peeks treacherously at the corner of her mouth. “I think you look distinguished.”

“So, an idiot,” he deadpans.

Rolling her eyes, she tugs insistently at his wrist. “C’mon, just look.”

He resists, protesting, “No, it’ll be weird. I always look weird in pictures.”

“These aren’t your gym selfies, Kurosaki. Yumichika’s a professional.”

“A professional pain in the ass.”

“I’m sure he’d say the same about you,” she soothes playfully. “And you don’t deny taking gym selfies.”

“Why do people even do that?” He’s so sincere and so adorably baffled at the very concept that Rukia’s tempted to go onto a tangent about it, but she stays focused. Ichigo needs to O-K the shots and pick three to send back to his agent, as per Tatsuki’s instructions after the woman’s scolding over the phone of him for irritating the photographer, and how I pulled so many strings, oh my god. You better have seen Rukia and gotten a date or something, or I will ask her out for you. Don’t tempt me, Ichigo!

He’d abruptly ended the call after that and studiously avoided looking at her.

Rukia’s pretty sure his ears will stay red for the foreseeable future. It clashes with his hair and makes it look impossibly brighter, but she thinks it’s cute. So, if she bats her eyes at him innocently, and he gets redder, she’s going to pretend for his sake that she doesn’t notice.

“Just look – and then we can pretend this didn’t happen,” she bargains.

“Rukia -”

“C’mon,” she whines, starting to pout, and daring to push, “for me?”

“Don’t,” he scowls, but he’s already allowing himself to be pulled closer, basically shoulder to shoulder with her as he peers over at the screen.

In victory, she clicks excitedly between the slides. Yumichika had taken plenty but edited ten. It was still a lot and it was going to be hard to narrow it down. She clicks through them quickly, making him snort. “I can’t see shit if you don’t stay still.”

“Yeah, but then you’ll stare at them trying to find a flaw and -”

“My eyes look weird in that one.”

“Oh my god.”

“Are my nostrils really that big?”

“Ichigo!”

“God, what is my mouth even doing?” He’s clearly talking shit because he’s got that half-smile thing going on and it softens everything about him: his eyes, his brow. Ichigo looks – he looks good.

She smacks him away, trying to hog the screen from him. “Forget you, I’ll pick.”

“No, what the hell, it’s my face on the jacket,” he complains, adjusting so he’s resting his chin on her shoulder. Rukia grumbles.

“At this rate, it’ll be a stupid blank thumbnail. Or whatever photo Tatsuki has of you.”

“God,” he groans, and on her shoulder, his chin is replaced by his forehead like he needs to physically hide from the very thought of it. “Why would you say that?”

“Because Tatsuki seems like the type.” She pauses. “And I would approve.”

He groans again, his breath warm and distracting against her neck. “Why do I like you?”

“You know what? You keep saying that, and you’re going to hurt my feelings,” she warns half-heartedly, and for all her teasing, Rukia still has no idea what exactly they are – if there’s even a they in the first place. It’s not like they’ve really talked about it. For all the time they’ve spent together, she thinks the not-feeling-platonically-about-each-other is new. At least, she thinks so. She can’t quite remember when she started to think of Ichigo differently, only that she’d kept him rather strictly in the column she puts other attractive people she thinks she doesn’t have a shot with.

Though, it does bring the question of why she doesn’t think she has a shot with him now, all things considered.

They did kiss, and he wasn’t revolted.

And during his photo shoot, he’d look relieved that she was there, hadn’t taken his eyes off her even when Yumichika complained, and Rangiku tried to distract him good-naturedly with a flash of cleavage.

Ichigo had taken Rukia to lunch after, even.

They argued over side orders, then shared them because he didn’t believe her when she said the onion rings were better than the ones he usually got from that American place near their building. (She’d been right, and she rewarded herself with a generous serving of the macaroni balls he ordered. He only pretended to complain about it.) Ichigo paid, remarking that if she really has an issue with it, she can pay next time. It was basically a date, right?

Hisana and the others had watched their whole goodbye after when he walked her back, pressed against the glass ridiculously as if they could hear just a bit better if only they were a little bit closer.

Not that anything of interest to really hear except for their redundant replies that they’d see each other later.

There was a lot of lingering, and Ichigo waited until she was inside the building before he left. And Rukia had kept turning back to see.

It was all very high school.

She’s embarrassed by how giddy it makes her which is nothing compared to how she feels when Ichigo presses his lips against her cheek. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

Pushing out a huff to hide her squirming and distract from her blush, she mumbles, “Well.”

He considers her for a moment which is a terrible idea given how close they are, and though his eyes narrow thoughtfully, the redness at his ears are still bright, and he says, “We should…probably talk?”

She wants to panic, avoid it, brush it off.

She’s not good at talking. She’s good at – at doing.

That’s why she didn’t bother talking to her parents about doing this: about doing her art professionally, about leaving home, about having a life of her own. The suggestion alone had been met with derision and she didn’t want to face that disappointment and anger in an actual conversation of this is what’s happening – this is what I want to do, without the chance to look away. Even with what they’d done in shutting her account and telling her to come home; that was easier to take with the distance, easier to say it didn’t really hurt because she couldn’t see how much she’d failed them.

She can’t do that with Ichigo, obviously.

She can’t just walk out and give answers to him through the wall. That’s just – so incredibly dumb. Not being able to have a relationship, romantic or otherwise, without ever talking doesn’t make sense especially factoring in their general proximity to one another.

They live next door to each other. They share a cat. He’s right in front of her.

“Do we have to?” Rukia ventures to ask.

His lips pull, and though he retreats to rub the back of his neck that embarrassed flush at his ears presses against his collarbone. “I don’t really want to,” he admits.  “I’m better at words when I don’t have to say them.”

She makes a face like yes, I know but. “You did say you were the grown-up in this relationship.”

“You can’t use my words against me, that’s not fair.”

“Fine.”  With an eye roll, she tugs at his shirt to reel him in, cranes her neck and is validated by his immediate response to press his lips against hers, to cup the back of her head with his palm and press, and press, and press until she licks her lips and accidentally traces his with it.

Then it becomes something else entirely.

Her heart feels like its humming in her chest, the voices full of doubt in her head going quiet with every flick of his tongue, every brush of his hand over her skin as the heat of him moves – his thighs against her knees to get closer and she’s this close to letting him step closer, have him in the V of her legs.

But then he retreats with a noise of surprise, and they both look down to find Kon meowing at them, a hint of teeth as he reaches up on his hind legs and bats at Ichigo’s legs, trying to gain purchase, as if he wants to climb up to their level just so he won’t be forgotten.

Ichigo groans, and he’s close enough that when he drops his head in embarrassment, he’s resting on her shoulder. She chuckles, “So, that’s me.” And winds an arm around him, holding her to him and twining her fingers through the soft hairs at the nape of his neck. “What do you think?”

“I think, we need to use actual words.”

“Boo,” she complains, “I thought I made a good argument.”

“Which is…”

Rukia rolls her eyes and huffs out a breath, hiding her bashfulness with annoyance. “I like you; you like me.” She looks pointedly at the kitchen counter. “You came over to make me food. We’ve helped each other for work. We’ve been supportive of one another. We kissed. We were just kissing.” Finally, Kon manages to get up on Rukia’s lap and meows his greeting which makes her gesture. “And we have a cat together.”

Sum of their parts, it should be obvious, but actually saying the words feels – official somehow, and Ichigo still hasn’t really agreed to any of it until, “How long have we actually been dating, exactly?”

Huffing out another breath, more relieved than anything, she muses, “Well, when you put it like that.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Ichigo is not fond of how today has worked out because to put it simply it hasn’t. “I’m not just talking shit,” he protests.

“I know that,” Tatsuki repeats placatingly, her voice is in that usual infuriating calm in the face of his annoyance. And he’d be embarrassed about it if he didn’t care so much that this didn’t happen. Though, by the way things are already in motion, it doesn’t look like he’ll have a choice. “What do you want me to do? Urahara’s your agent, and he’s done what he can to get Yoruichi off your back.”

“Well, he’s not very good at it.”

She sighs. “Don’t be like that.” Over the line, there’s a rustle of movement, then, “Just…figure something out, okay? Urahara got you out of doing a con, and that was your biggest worry, right? A few book readings won’t kill you. We can’t change it happening anyway so you just have to make the most of it. Yeah?”

He grunts, and that’s really all the agreement she needs before she tells him that she’ll have a press team over the day of the event to prep him, and telling him not to worry so much – he’ll do great – then putting the phone down before he can tell her otherwise.

With a sigh, he runs a hand through his hair and exits the elevator.

His expression, however it appears, does not bode well, and given that 3D doesn’t even side-eye him and opts to pointedly avoid his gaze, Ichigo probably looks like he’s on the verge of a murder spree.

He shuts his door with finality, collapses on his couch, and stays there, staring at the wall placidly, knee bouncing in his discomfort.

He’d head to the gym but knowing both Grimmjow and Renji, they’d much rather try and knock him out than be mindful of the fact that he needs his face intact for an event. If anything, they’d aim for his face specifically – break a nose this time, maybe. Wouldn’t be a first with either of them. Or if they’re feeling generous, land as many body blows as possible and bruise a rib. That’s always fun.

With another annoyed breath, he resolves himself to stewing until the “Big Day”, and contemplates going to the gym anyway: get his ass kicked and be excused on the grounds of medical reasons.

He’s sure Tatsuki and Urahra would love that. Ichigo’s convinced Yoruichi will legitimately scalp him, and that’s the last thought he remembers having until he’s roused by an insistent knocking on his door.

The shadows were few when he came back from his meeting, but now the room is drenched in darkness. He didn’t even realize he’d fallen asleep. But now that he knows he’s not, he feels like he is.

The world feels muted, wrong.

Disgruntled and dazed, he stumbles to his feet, wiping at his mouth absently, he turns on the kitchen light. Against the sudden brightness, he grimaces before turning to the door. “I’m coming,” he barks already going through his mental Rolodex of ways to get rid of whichever neighbour is bugging him now.

God, if it’s Hanataro Ichigo’s going to throw his body out the window.

When Ichigo very casually asked the kid about slightly dubious (and pointedly violent) questions relating to his medical expertise in the hopes of undoing the damage of Cookie Gate, Ichigo thought he’d scare him off. Instead, Ichigo had inadvertently invited Hanataro into telling Ichigo about his studies when they run into each other in the elevator.

At one point the kid walked Ichigo to his door just so he could finish his story.

(And yes, fine, Ichigo found himself interested, but that’s not the point. Ichigo has a reputation, damn it.)

Ichigo doesn’t know why he’s surprised that Rukia is standing there instead, her hair tucked into a careless bun behind her head, pale cheek marred with a splash of soot – charcoal, his mind supplies as he reaches over to brush some off with his knuckle. She crosses her eyes to watch him do it, then rolls them in mock annoyance; neither of which diminishes her chipper smile, or magically disappears the box of pizza she’s carrying.

 “You’re supposed to be budgeting," he tells her.

“Well, I figured you were in a writing hole, and I didn’t want to cook in your kitchen and distract you – ergo, pizza,” she says, and at his silent invitation inside, she pauses in the doorway. “Your laptop’s not set up. Are you writing by hand?”

“Wasn’t writing,” he grunts, reaching over to close the door behind her as she walks further into the loft and sets the pizza up on the small table in front of the couch.  She turns on the lamp, and Ichigo has to suppress the urge to hiss as the room is illuminated. He probably looks like shit. He feels like shit.

It’s only been a few days since they became…whatever they are…it’s probably a bit too soon to give her his worst side.

“Something wrong?”

“Everything,” he finds himself replying anyway, and as she approaches him, she informs, “Dramatic and vague of you.”

“So, I’ve been told,” he sighs and she stops just half a step too short, expression concerned but also amused, fond.

She tilts her head, prods, “What’s going on?”

Ichigo shakes his head, reaches to rub the back of his neck. “Nothing – just the photo for the book jacket went down really well.”

Rukia brightens. “That’s great!” At his expression, her enthusiasm dims. “Or not? It’s bad? We were going for bad?”

“No, no – we were – fuck, I don’t know. I thought if it turned out okay, they’d change their mind about me doing a reading.”

“And they didn’t,” she guesses, and he sighs.

“What do you think?”

Even if the question is rhetoric, and Rukia knows it, she answers anyway, “You were sitting in the dark for what was probably awhile, so I’m going to go with no.” At his unimpressed look, she flashes him the same cheeky, unapologetic smile which makes him soften just enough that he’s just peering down at her, trying to figure out if it’s normal to want to kiss someone to get them to stop being annoying. Or whether that’s even something he’s allowed to do. They’re…whatever they are. They can do that, right?

“You think any harder and you’re gonna give yourself a headache,” she teases.

He huffs out a breath, cheeks going flush, finds himself apologizing without even thinking about it.

With a shake of her head, she bites her lip thoughtfully before asking, “Can I hug you? You look like you need a hug.”

His face feels hot, figures yes, okay, asking, that I can work with. I can do that. And in turn to answer her question, he nods. Her smile goes sweet, and instead of wrapping her arms around his waist, she loops them around his neck, pressing her cheek against his and says quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“For what,” he mumbles.

Her shoulders move in a shrug, but she doesn’t let go. “That you feel like shit for having to do this reading, I guess.”

“You don’t even know why." Yoruichi certainly hadn’t and told him take his temper tantrum elsewhere. "I could just be a brat."

“Doesn’t matter,” Rukia decides with a squeeze. "It bothers you, and I'm sorry." Ichigo finds his breath leaving him in satisfying whoosh that ruffles her hair, something like relief blooming unexpectedly in his chest.

He doesn’t know how long they stay like that, but he’s the one that pulls away first – just enough that their noses brush, and he’s asking quietly, “Can I kiss you?”

With another smile fit to bursting, she nods, and he presses in closer, his hands anchoring themselves at her hips while hers tug him down from their spot still looped around his neck.

He doesn’t know where the concept of separating for breath came from in romance novels because Ichigo’s breathing just fine; every inhale comes with the scent of her faded perfume, her shampoo, and every exhale makes her shiver, pulls him closer.

He obliges, feels himself warming and waking everywhere they touch; the world moving syrupy slow as it rights itself from the inside out.

Tilting her head just so, Ichigo licks at the seam of her lips, and groans at the heat that welcomes him. Rukia murmurs back, and her hands move, running blunt nails through his hair while the other trails down his chest distractingly. Though, he admits, not as distractingly as when she tugs his lip into her mouth, sucks, and then releases it with a pop that’s get drowned out by her surprised gasp – his thigh nudging between her legs as he lowers his head to catch her lips in another kiss.

But with the hand that’s been trailing and teasing and tracing his chest through his shirt, she uses it to lightly push him away. He doesn’t go far. Their foreheads are pressed together, and her words are still shared in the scant air between them, “The pizza’s gonna get cold.”

“Fuck the pizza.”

Her laugh is husky, her eyes bright. “No, no, you don’t do that with pizza.”

Rukia,” he practically whines which only makes her chuckle.

Brushing her lips against his in a chaste kiss and withdrawing a little, she pats at his chest. “C’mon, you should eat.”  

Even though he grumbles, he follows after her, and a night that would’ve been spent wallowing in anxiety is instead spent sitting hip to hip on the couch, talking shit and eating pizza. Kon eventually joins them, draping himself in an annoyingly loving show of affection all over Ichigo’s shoulders until he’s wearing the yellow cat like a scarf.

Rukia snickers, gets up to throw away the pizza box and wash her hands which is when Ichigo says, sans nothing, “I used to read out loud to my parents a lot when I was kid, once I learned how anyway.”

She hums in acknowledgment, and then with a sigh that’s far shakier than it has any right to be, he admits, “When my mom died, I just…couldn’t. And my dad was so focused on taking care of the girls, I don’t think he really…noticed that I didn’t do it anymore.”

He chances a glance up, and in the kitchen, she blinks at him owlishly. He turns his focus to Kon. “I don’t know if I can.” Ichigo keeps talking to the cat, even as he hears her approach, “And thinking about going out in public, having people know that I’m the one who writes my books, having to read it to them…”

Surprisingly, he isn’t startled when he feels her hands in his. He’d felt her warmth before her touch, seen her mismatched socks in the corner of his vision. Rukia hadn’t wanted to startle him, or interrupt, probably afraid he’d clam up. He thinks he would’ve if she hadn’t made her presence so obvious.

Her hair slides past her cheek as she dips down to kiss his temple. The charcoal mark on her skin is still there.

She sits down beside him, his back to her chest, her arm wound around his torso, her chin propped upon his shoulder. He doesn’t realize how glad he is for it until he melts into her; feels her press another kiss to the side of his neck in comfort, her hand lightly rubbing circles over his heart as if to slow it down, to calm it.

He twines his fingers between hers over it, lifts it to press his lips against the back, gets her kiss on his shoulder in return.

Time slips away from him again; he thinks he likes this alternative better.

“Would it help…maybe…reading to me?” Rukia eventually offers, quiet, kind.

“I don’t know…I’d need to…to be in front of you,” he points out hesitantly.

She doesn’t move away, squeezes him again in this jetpack of a hug and says, “This is practice. You don’t need to do it like you’re going to do it there.” Glancing over his shoulder at her, she flashes a smile and promises, “We’ll work our way up to it.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Reading, it turns out, is like riding a bike.

There were a few false starts, some stuttering, annoyed grumbles and a huff or seven, but Ichigo takes off easily enough.

Rukia had insisted he read his actual book to practice because it seemed of vital importance that he’s confident enough to read his own work which devolved into this exchange:

“You’re just saying that so I’ll tell you my pseudonym.”

“I’m going to find out eventually,” she pointed out to which he sighed, heavy and reluctant and said, “Fine.”

“Really?” Rukia asked, hooking her chin on his shoulder and grinning. “That was easier than I thought! So…what is it?”

“Shiba Kaien.”

She blinked. The silence lapsed, then, slowly, “The character? From that horror movie?”

“That was famous like twenty years ago,” he had the nerve to defend.

“Wait. Wait,” she said, “And no one realized you were using it as a pseudonym?”

“Of course, people know,” he said, all offended because he’s a giant nerd and thinks everyone is as nerdy as he is. “That movie was a cult classic.”

And fine, okay, “Stain” was a pretty big thing back in the day but, “The sequels sucked.”

“The second one was the best,” he defended because he would. The character got to actually save the girl in the second one, even if they ended up having to separate considering the girl was an angel and couldn’t stay. People were convinced it was the first and only attempt at a horror-romance that had potential, but alas, the angel didn’t make a return in the same way as the first two movies, speaking of:

But the others.” Rukia shuddered.

“Some of them had their moments,” though he didn’t dispute it entirely and for that alone Rukia will cut him some slack in his choice of names, if only to ask, “Why Shiba Kaien though?”

He shrugged. “Dad was a fan. He took my mom on their first date to the first one in the series.” Then with a snort, “Mom had me in the cinema of the second one.”  

Rukia gaped. “Seriously.”

“Seriously. And by then, my mom was really into the film and basically told my dad that they had at least a couple of hours before the contractions got too bad so.”

“They finished the movie,” she surmised

“They finished the movie,” he confirmed with a chuckle. “The credits rolled, and I crowned. Or at least that’s how my dad tells it,” and there’s that fond little half smile at his mouth, and Rukia spent entirely too long just admiring it before Ichigo shook his head in embarrassment. “Anyway, that’s the story behind that.”

“Is that why you write what you write?”

“I guess,” he admitted. “Both my parents liked the genre. I was a pretty big cry baby though, didn’t take to it until after Mom died.” Though his good cheer dimmed, his smile only softened like the memory of her isn’t so tainted.

Rukia tightened her arms around him, and gently prodded, “Read them to me?”

It became somewhat of a routine after: Rukia would come over, they’d have lunch or dinner or even breakfast, depending on the hour, and he’d read aloud for her.

At first, they stayed in the same position, Ichigo reclined against her as she played with his hair or distracted him with questions when he’d either get frustrated with the way he tripped over his words, or when he’d wonder what the hell he was thinking with the book he was currently reading. Eventually, Ichigo moved to sit diagonal from her, and she’d taken to drawing because he was still a little weird about having attention directly given to him when he was reading.

Sometimes, they even try other spots: he sits in the kitchen, practices projecting his voice while she works.

There’s even been an occasion when they’d had a late dinner, and he’d read to her on his bed – it had been her suggestion that though she liked his couch, she wasn’t a fan of sleeping on it no matter how little drunk her complained – and it was like having someone read her bedtime stories. They’d even, without any ulterior motives apparently, slept side by side after, and Rukia had made him read news headlights while she made breakfast.

It was one such time when he was reading to her while she lay on his bed, and she was so absorbed by the soothing timbre of his voice, and so caught up the portrait that she was doing that she didn’t realize when he’d stopped reading until it had gone on for too long.

Blinking in confusion, she looked up and found Ichigo’s phone pointed at her from where he was seated on the chair at the end of the bed. “Hey, what’re you…?”

He smiles, lifts his brows at her and says, “You’ve got charcoal on your cheek again.”

“Ugh,” she groans, rubbing at it with the back of her hand, and as she scrubs at her cheek, he sets aside his phone and gets up to sit in front of her, Rukia folding her legs to make room she doesn’t need for him.

Cupping her cheek in his palm and rubs at it gently with his thumb. “I swear, you’re always covered in this stuff.”

“At least 3D’s stopped thinking I’m a murderer,” Rukia informs with a pout before she’s spluttering with a laugh at the look of concentration furrowing his brow. “Is it not coming off?”

“No,” he huffs a little, “and it’s literally everywhere.”

“No, it’s – oh,” it’s all over the outside of her arm, her skin grimy and dark from the residue of the charcoal.  

Ichigo sighs. “How did it get on your neck?”

“On my neck,” she echoes, incredulous, and just barely suppresses a shudder when he touches the mark firmly and brings it for her to see. “Hilarious,” Rukia groans, “ironically, I was probably busy with your neck.”

“My…what?”

“Oh, meet my new art model -” Raising her sketchbook for him to see, she wiggles her brows and he deadpans to mimic, “Hilarious.”

What – I can see the resemblance!”

“It’s Shiba Kaien,” he informs flatly, resting back on the balls of his feet as he lets the sketchbook rest on her lap.

“So, you do see it!”

“Why does he look like me?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Rukia teases. “I think if you dyed your hair black, you won’t even need your real name. But seriously, it’s you. If it wasn’t, I would’ve shaded the hair, and I’m really offended right now that you didn’t think it was you.”

He looks openly baffled now. “You…drew me?”

“In my defense, I have art supplies and no sense of boundaries. Plus, you were right there,” she reminds, pouting a little more in light of his unreadable expression.

Ichigo turns the page, finds the other portrait she was doing of him, with Kon curled on his lap, fingers in his fur as he balanced the book with one hand. Another page. Another. Another. “They’re not all of you,” she says half to tease him and half to defend the sheer amount she’s drawn.

She did him justice.

Not to mention, he told her to stick to a budget, and using him as a model – for free, and without requiring anything for his part – seemed like the best bet.

It really isn’t Rukia’s fault that the light hits him just right all the time – having no curtains really does wonders for the lighting in the loft – and he’s got such an interesting face; all sharp angles in the mouth, chin and cheekbones, but softer curves around his eyes, his cheeks. Though, she supposes with how withdrawn he is he might not appreciate her attention…she bites her lip.

“I’m sorry, I should’ve asked first -”

“There’s none of you,” he says sounding put out.

“I don’t really do self-portraits,” she explains away. “I mean, I do my hands sometimes when I’m bored.”

“Huh.”

Uncomfortable suddenly at the mere suggestion that she’d overstepped a boundary, she tentatively closes the book, sets it aside. “I’m sorry, really – I don’t mean I’m going to put you up on a canvas at the gallery or anything. I just – I like drawing you.”

Ichigo’s still there in front of her with those same golden-brown eyes and that same unreadable expression until he closes his eyes, hums, and then reaches up to kiss her cheek with a mumble of, “You’re too much, you know that?”

“Hey,” she protests, soft and not as indignant as she’d like as he cheeks flare. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Except he doesn’t answer, just presses another kiss, and another and another, a dizzyingly distracting path from her lips to her cheek to her ear to her neck where the teasingly light pressure to the sensitive skin there makes her toes curl. “Ichigo?” she murmurs, soft and questioning.

He presses his lips more insistently, sucks, grazes teeth, licks right over where a mark has probably been made.

Body slack against his headboard, her fingers tangled in his hair, lax and breathless, head tilted in invitation, she’s almost embarrassed by how soft her voice sounds, “Ichigo?”

Against her neck, his words move in a ghost of a kiss, “I’ve been watching you sit across me for a full week.” His own breath is ragged as he moves to another spot before he divulges, “and that’s not even taking into account before…before we could do this.”

Rukia runs her fingers through the soft hair at the nape of his neck, scratches a little, asks, quiet and secretive, “And what are we doing now?”

He moves back up the same trail, nudging gently here – there – until her legs are bracketing him and he’s pressed almost as close as he can get, and his nose is brushing hers, and he’s teasing, “Whatever you want to do.”

It’s easy to kiss him, to slide her tongue between his lips, to moan as he sucks at it. It’s easy to adjust – rut closer, press firm pulsating want between them.

It isn’t as easy to get rid of his shirt. They have to stop kissing for that, and though he’s kept mostly quiet, he makes a noise of surprise when, after he gets rid of his shirt, she presses him into the mattress.

But its easy for him to roll them over, to tug at the buttons of her shirt loose and tug her bra impatiently away to mouth at the peaks of her nipples, to hold her breasts in his hand and tease the tips with a roughened thumb.

It’s easy, natural for the only thing Rukia thinks about is the way it all feels so good that everything is just a haze of warm skin and delicious fullness bathed in the dying sunlight.

She isn’t really saying his name so much as she’s moaning it, and for no other reason than that’s the only thing that’s on her mind – Ichigo, yes – Ichigo, there – Ichigo, more – Ichigo, fuck, I –

Rukia lays practically boneless beside him, head lolling to the side to watch him catch his breath before he grins dazedly at the ceiling. She muffles her laugh, still breathless and reaches over to tap at his nose.

“I got charcoal all over you.” Then, with a bit of a frown, she tugs the sheet beneath them and says, “I’m pretty sure I got charcoal all over your bed…”

He huffs out a laugh, interlacing their fingers on his stomach and says, “Worth it.”

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"You're gonna have to answer your phone eventually."

He grunts.

"Don't make that face at me," Tatsuki orders, "no one told you had to post your girlfriend as part of your Instagram take-over."

"It was the last day," he protests. Ichigo figured they'd have lost interest in him by now regardless of the surge of new followers on the app when he'd introduced himself.

"Yes, and while I appreciate your posts of your very aesthetic looking writing spaces, your cat, and infuriatingly vague captions to boot, Rukia is the first person you featured."

He gives her a blank look which she huffs at.

"The first person with a face and not some voice behind a camera," Tatsuki corrects, and she'd been pissed that he didn't show himself on camera, choosing instead to point the camera at his couch, Kon curled up on the cushion, mug steaming on the center table with the bookcase behind it. Ichigo should get points for how good he made it all look.

Though, he did. Technically.

Yuzu and Karin had found out, somehow.

And while they praised his composition – really, Rukia got the credit for her suggestions – it hadn't been pretty.

There was yelling involved, and threats to travel across the country to yell at him in person because apparently our big brother is a bestselling writer and we're still taking the bus? Ichi-nii, you're the worst!

While he worried they'd have opinions about the content of his writing, they hadn't brought it up, and after the initial introduction he'd posted after taking the social media account off the hands of the media team from the publishing company, the twins' only actual thoughts were about his recent post: A photo of Rukia propped up on his pillows, sketchbook in hand, brows furrowed adorably with her cheek streaked with charcoal, pink tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth. He'd captioned it simply as my captive audience.

It had only been a day since that post was put up, and the comment section and his Instagram inbox were completely nuked.

He silenced everything in response, though it certainly hadn't stopped his sisters from calling his personal phone ever since.

He knew it was futile, of course, but he told himself he was only putting it off until after the reading was over.

There'd be a big stink about it since, as Tatsuki said, no one had seen him yet, and really, Ichigo's strategy amounted to hiding from headache to headache, but no one said he was good at this.

His only saving grace was that Rukia hadn't said anything about it, and she would've by now.

She'd been over at his loft practically every day.

Though, he hadn't seen her since this morning.

She'd burrowed and hoarded his sheets the night before, but come morning Rukia had been sun-drenched, golden light warming pale skin and spilling shades of blue and brown into her usually black hair. She'd made a face at being stared at, even in her dozing, before she squinted at him in disgruntlement, she mumbled in complaint, "You're being creepy" before she eventually rolled over to climb out of bed.

He'd been baffled, at first, at how disciplined she was to get up as soon as she woke, but he hadn't found room to complain when she'd wander to the bathroom as naked as when she'd gone to bed.

He'd heard the shower go, and he must've dozed again because by the time he opens his eyes, Rukia is leaning on her hands on their mussed sheets to kiss him good morning and goodbye before wishing him a good day, and he'd been in bed after since.

Probably why Tatsuki had grumbled and complained about his laziness, having barged into the loft to find him still in bed like a total slob, god, it's a miracle you get anything done, Kurosaki. Before she reamed into him about the Instagram thing and well –

Here they were.

Three hours later, and a whole new location on top of that, and she was still giving him shit. Ichigo can blame at least half of that on the twins.

"I can't believe you didn't tell them you and Rukia were a thing," Tatsuki grumbles, and despite her bitching, he knows her phone's been suspiciously quiet this entire time too.

"It's been like two weeks, forgive me for wanting to keep her to myself," he defends.

"And yet you showed her off to your 50k followers," Tatsuki deadpans.

"It's a complicated feeling," he admits. It wasn't like he confirmed they were together, necessarily. But his sisters knew how closely he guarded his space. If he let Rukia in it, and she was as comfortable as she looked, well.

"You're actually so dumb," Tatsuki marvels.

"Thanks, really," he says flatly, any other retort interrupted by the door opening, Renji looking a little bewildered.

"Dude."

"What?"

"There's like…a shitton of people out there," Renji informs, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. "I didn't know you were that popular. Grimm looks like he's going to get run over, and he's this close to just throwing himself in traffic to avoid it altogether."

"Seems counterinitiative," Tatsuki hums, then turns to Ichigo to prompt, "You ready?"

"Wait, how many people are out there?"

"Couple hundred," she shrugs like it's nothing.

Ichigo protests, "The venue's too small for -"

"Yeah, most of them are crowded out on the sidewalk," she waves off, again, like its not a big deal. "Why do you think we went through the back?"

"I thought you were just being dramatic," he answers blandly.

The look she sends him is flat, though it shifts when the bookshop owner peeks around Renji in the doorway to ask, "Everyone ready?"

Tatsuki opens her mouth to say yes, but Ichigo isn't.

Renji, thank god, interjects with, "Let's give them a couple of minutes to calm down." Like it's the people outside that are freaking out and not Ichigo himself.

Tatsuki, fortunately, doesn't disagree, only sighs and says to Ichigo, "Five minutes. Do not run."

He mumbles, "I wasn't going to."

To her credit, she doesn't grace him with a disbelieving look and only leaves him to sulk, dragging Renji off because, "Grimmjow can't be trusted around normal people, god, I hired you both for a reason. The two of you only amount to half a decent human being."

The door shuts, and the room suddenly feels even more suffocating than before now that he doesn't have Tatsuki giving him crap and distracting him with everything but the reading. He can't decide if it was a genius move to get him to leave his house and to the venue, or she just knows him well enough that he needed the distraction.

Though, now that there's nothing to side-track him and he can feel the anxiety rising in his chest like a tide.

It crashes with the door opening, Rukia appearing in the reflection of the mirror.

"Hey," she says, smile cheerful, but voice low – like she's talking to a small, nervous woodland creature. With the size of his eyes, he wouldn't blame her. No one but his mom had ever called him Bambi, but Ichigo probably wouldn't blame anyone for trying.

Rukia isn't fazed when he doesn't reply, only drapes her arms around him from behind, rubs his shoulder on one side and tucking her face on the other. It's only when the added weight of her presses his shoulder down from where they were touching his ears, does he actually realize how tense he is.

He sighs.

Finally, "I'm okay."

"I know," she replies, pressing her lips against the apple of his cheek, smiling against his skin as he huffs out a breath that's the most cursory of complaints.

"What are you doing here?" he asks, and though he means for it to sound accusing – Rukia hadn't said she'd be coming – instead, the question comes out like a bashful whine. His cheeks betray him too.

She kisses the same side again, hums. "You think I'd miss this for anything?"

Squeezing his shoulder and locking eyes with him in the mirror, she adds, "Hisana came with which is a relief because Byakuya-niisama is here too."

"What?"

With another hum, she says with a bit of a laugh, "It turns out, brother dearest is a fan of yours." Ichigo is so startled by the revelation he snorts, and Rukia continues in amusement, "Right? Anyway, he saw me and Hisana, and after I introduced them Hisana wanted to have words with him."

He perks. "Are they gonna turn the bookshop into a battleground? Does she need back-up? Renji and Grimmjow will throw down, just say the word."

"You're just suggesting that so you won't have to do this reading."

He groans.

"And yes, I do know you that well," she teases, pulling away just enough to lightly work at the tightened muscles of his shoulders.

Rebelliously, Ichigo tries not to melt under her hands, but Rukia's had his number since day one, and he's more relaxed and stupider for it, almost believing the tiny voice in his head that tells him it'll all be okay. Which is exactly when Rukia drops the bomb, "Your dad is here."

"What."

"He's super nice, looks just like you," she tells him casually as she continues to rub his shoulders.

"How did -"

"He wanted me to tell you that your sisters are terrible at keeping secrets." Pauses, then, amused, "And that he now knows how to Instagram." Lower, "I think he has a hashtag problem."

"Oh god." Ichigo wants to ask so many things that only his dad could probably answer, though he has no doubt that Rukia may know more than she's letting on given how his dad tends to be an oversharer.

Jesus, he wouldn't put it past the old man to have shown a few people his baby pictures already. He groans at the thought.

"He saved me a seat while I came to calm you down," Rukia finishes, a smile still curling her worlds as she drapes her arms around him again, cheek to cheek with him. "Like I said, he's really nice. Careful, Ichigo, I might just leave you for your dad."

He huffs. "You're the worst."

"It's called having taste; upgrading," she teases, and though he tries to look unimpressed, his lips pull into a half-smile, and she leans over to kiss it in something chaste and sweet.

Their foreheads are pressed together when she pulls away, but their mouths are still too close that they're practically still kissing with every word, Rukia tells him, quiet but firm, "You'll do great. Just look at me."

.

Three months later, it's finally over.

Ichigo is finally back from the grueling press junket Yoruichi imposed after the success of his identity reveal: live readings, book signings, media interviews, and a couple of meetings with directors about selling the movie rights to one of his books. He's exhausted, and while Urahara's already talking about the next book's launch despite Tatsuki still editing it, Ichigo's firmly on the route of taking this one day at a time.

He carries some mail in, drops the carry-on he'd brought with for his last event onto the floor, and breathes in the smell of pizza warming in the oven.

Despite only being away for a day – it feels like he been gone longer. Probably because he's been a certifiable homebody ever since he'd managed to eke a living off his books. Now that he's gone public, those days are probably behind him.

At least for three months of the year.

In any case, the loft looks just as he'd left it: His laptop is still set up on the dining table, a screen saver collection of photos of his family, Kon, Rukia and them together in varying degrees is flashing across the screen; the throw blanket Rukia usually had over her legs because she was always cold is folded, her sketchbook set on top of it along with her charcoal; and he's satisfied to find that the artwork he'd put up of hers – sketches she'd snuck into his carry-ons whenever she couldn't make it for his readings – are still in their proper places despite her threat to take them down.

On one of the barstools Rukia brought to replace his one after a particularly adventurous evening, Kon meows, and Ichigo spares a moment to scratch at the yellow cat's head.

Upstairs, his shower is running.

A "welcome home" placard on the kitchen counter greets him against a neat pile of his books; all books Rukia showed up with at almost every reading she could attend to get him to sign. Even though his eyes roll, he smiles.

Setting aside the mail, the utilities and rent bill catches his eye enough to get him to consider swinging by Urahara's downstairs to pay it. He double-checks it, as always, and finds an extra charge that gives him pause: Vacancy of apartment 3A with a sidenote that declares, just ask her to move in already, would you?