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Yearning

Chapter Text

I.

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Kuchiki Rukia is a lieutenant of the 13th Division, and the sister of the Kuchiki Clan head. As such, she is bound by a thousand tiny invisible ropes that she dare not snap.

To be a leader in her squad, she must command the respect of her subordinates and superiors.

To be a Kuchiki daughter, she must always be above reproach, both in the family and out.

To be a Shinigami, she must be a warrior, ready to die for the Seritei.

Sometimes Rukia forgets she is a woman too; one made of flesh and bone. And her thoughts tend to stray towards a certain direction.

She tells herself she is just concerned as a friend. And she feels responsible because she got Ichigo into this whole mess. That is all.

Rukia remembers the look in his eyes in the afternoon sun, when the last of his reiatsu drained out of him. He said goodbye, with an odd gleam, as if he wanted to say more. Then he could no longer see her, and turned away, as if she didn't exist anymore. It is only because Renji was with her that she holds her grief in. It is strange. Ichigo is the one who has lost his reiatsu, but Rukia feels a different kind of loss that she cannot understand.

But that night, in her own room in the Kuchiki Manor, Rukia cuddles into her Chappy The Bunny plushie. Even then, she is careful to keep her sobs quiet. Kuchikis do not cry.

 


 

Flying under the radar into the world of the living is difficult, but not impossible. Rukia asks Rurichiyo Kasumioji for permission to borrow her family's senkaimon, explaining that it has been a month since Ichigo lost his powers, and she just wants to check on him. The little blond girl nods, grave and aloof. She understands the position that Rukia is in, and wants to help her friends.

Rukia only means to visit once, to make sure that he has recovered, both physically and mentally. Moving quickly to avoid detection by Urahara and Yoruichi, she lands on the street outside the Kurosaki Clinic. Hastily, she masks her reiatsu, peeking inside the window.

Ichigo lies awake, staring at the ceiling. When Rukia sees him she is not prepared for the avalanche of emotions in her chest. He looks so young, bundled up in his pajamas, back in the life she ripped him from. He turns to look out the window, and for a brief moment, Rukia thinks he can see her. Panicking, she throws herself against the wall, out of sight. Then she shakes herself, realizing he cannot.

When she peeks in the window again, he is still staring through her to the night sky. Rukia watches him, until his whiskey coloured eyes drift shut, and his breathing evens out. Finally getting the courage to come inside, she sits by his bed and watches him sleep. The sky is lightening when Rukia heads out. As she stands on the windowsill, preparing to depart, he breathes her name out. She runs away without looking back.

 


 

Her next visit happens three months later. Rukia has not been able to sleep well since that night that Ichigo called out for her in his sleep.

She is assigned to patrol duty by Ukitake, who notes that his lieutenant has been a lot less animated lately. Thankfully, Urahara is out of town, so there are no awkward questions. She avoids the school as well, because somewhere in her chest is a big mess of emotions that she is not ready to untangle.

As if it were fate, she runs into Ishida and Chad arguing about Ichigo on their way home. She ducks behind a tree as they pass, but trails behind to eavesdrop. Chad is frustrated that Ichigo is spending his time auctioning off his skills to the athletic teams instead of trying to revive his powers. Ishida points out that if Ichigo was doomed to failure, then maybe he is better off trying other things. Rukia follows them at a distance, unable to reveal herself, and then, as if drawn by magnets, her feet lead her to Ichigo's window.

He is studying for a book report, the set of his brows a testament to his concentration. Rukia sits beside him in silence, just absorbing his presence, trying to feel whole enough to make it through the next few months without him. A hidden part of her acknowledges the gravity of her need for him, but she

Finally she raises a hand to brush a lock of his hair behind his ear, half-hoping he feels it. He doesn't.

Instead, he opens his desk drawer right through her torso, feeling around for a pencil. She looks down ruefully, and then realizes the drawer is full of her notes and drawings. The distinctive Chappy drawings mark all the creased sheets in there.

When she still lived there, he kept this drawer closed, and it had never occurred to her to look inside. He takes one out, rubbing the sheet flat, and smiles to himself, touching the bunny drawing with the pad of his thumb. It is a note she had written months ago, telling him she would be heading to Urahara's shop for some supplies. There are probably dozens of such notes, she estimates, and the drawer looks pretty full.

Ichigo smirks to himself and mutters aloud, "Well, I hope she's learning to draw over there." Then very carefully, he puts it back in the drawer. The tears surprise Rukia, and she struggles to hold them in. "Ichigo, you idiot."

When he sleeps, she kneels beside the bed, watching his face again. The night takes it's toll on her, and she lays her cheek on the bed as she drifts off into sleep. It is the best night's sleep she has had in months.

When Rukia wakes, their fingertips are touching.

Ichigo murmurs her name again in his sleep, causing her to jump back like a frightened rabbit. He stretches and yawns. Rukia knows she must go now before Isshin or Karin see her. She takes one last look at Ichigo, and flees out the window. She lived with this boy for years; why now? But something inside her has changed.

 


 

The following weeks have Rukia in a daze. She throws herself into her work, running drills with the squad and writing reports that have the bureaucrats singing her praises. Rukia represents her captain at the meeting of the Captains. Admiring words are spoken about her conduct and bearing; she smiles brightly but does not hear any of it.

Nobody can tell how distracted she is; nor that her thoughts are faraway, centered around one ex-substitute shinigami.

 


 

Her third visit happens soon after, an addiction that is slowly building.

Rukia finds Ichigo in the playground where he performed his first Konso on the little boy. He sits on the swings by himself, watching the families.

Rukia sits down on the swing next to him, her feet dangling. It is a windy day, and he has his collar turned up. Her swing starts to rock back and forth. She sits there contentedly, enjoying the warmth of the sun, and the sounds of children playing.

Ichigo stops and stares at her swing, a faraway look in his eye. She gazes back into the amber depths of his, wondering if she has ever had the opportunity to stare at him for so long. His eyes really are beautiful, she thinks.

A toddler ambles up to her, staring. Children are sensitive to supernatural things, Rukia remembers, smiling at the little one. He stumbles in front of Ichigo, catching his attention as the boy bursts into tears, pointing at her. Ichigo picks up the wailing child and hands him back to the mother, not noticing the child's source of terror. Slipping his hands into his pockets, Ichigo walks home, whistling.

Rukia does not follow him. She is confused by how peaceful he seems to be. Does he not feel this gnawing emptiness without her? Is she the only one feeling this?

She sits on the swings till the sun sets.

 


 

Byakuya is waiting for her when she returns home. He knows. But then again, there is little that he doesn't. Wordlessly, she stares at him, feeling all her emotions well up.

"Oni-sama...," Rukia bursts into tears, rushing into his pats her awkwardly, once or twice, then settles into a comforting hug.

"Let it out," he murmurs, holding her.

 

She falls asleep while sobbing on his shoulder. She wakes up in her own bed with her plushie Chappy tucked in her arms.

Chapter Text

II.

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Ichigo stumbles home, exhausted, after an ordinary day of school.

One year ago today, he stood in front of his home, looking up at the sky while the last of his powers faded. He watched Kuchiki Rukia fade away, and that hurt more than the loss of his reiatsu.

Briefly, he wonders what she is doing right now.

The sky is grey and heavy with the promise of rain. Ichigo sent a silent prayer of thanks to the Gods for this. The threat of a summer downpour has people rushing home instead of inviting him to hang out or play sports, and today, Ichigo wants to be alone.

He unlocks the gate, noting that the wind has picked up. The front door has barely closed behind him before a loud rumble of thunder fills his ear. The house is empty, and will be for another two days. His father and sisters have gone to visit their maternal grandmother.

Isshin, sensing Ichigo's disquiet, pretends that he is grounded and cannot accompany them because he has missed so much school. Ichigo, for once, is grateful for his father's perceptiveness. The gratefulness evaporates when Isshin attacks him with an uppercut on their way out. An ordinary family, and an ordinary life.

Ichigo has battled things beyond imagination, and does not resent the loss of his powers and the burden of responsibility that came with them. No, he is happy that he is ordinary, that his biggest concern is that his bento leaked sauce all over his notebooks, and that he does not have to live a double life anymore. When his comrades at arms look at him with pity in their eyes, he does not have to fake his acceptance of his fate.

He does miss Rukia, though. Terribly.

Ichigo rummages through the fridge, finding the last yogurt drink with a note from his sister Yuzu:

Make sure you eat more than this for dinner. I made some food for you in the container below.

He smiles in spite of himself.

Some days he is man enough to admit it hurts when Chad and Uryuu and Orihime rush out the door, blurting excuses. But there is a big part of Ichigo Kurosaki that is relieved it is no longer up to him. And a smaller part of him is wondering if Rukia is present. He tries not to listen to that smaller part.

The rain starts coming down in sheets, cooling down the humid heat of summer. He climbs the stairs to his room, sipping his yogurt drink. Tomorrow is a holiday, so he doesn't have to study.

Instead, he curls up in his bed, watching the afternoon shadows race across the room. By the time twilight falls, Ichigo is asleep, dreaming the ordinary dreams of a seventeen year old boy.

Sometime in the midst of his dreaming, he gradually becomes aware of a warmth in his arms, as if someone was snuggling up to him. The familiar clean scents of cucumbers and strawberries tickle his nose.

Ichigo has had this dream before. He is half-asleep, aware of the thunder and lightning outside his window, and still dreams of a girl in his arms who has never lain there, not like this.

Every time he dreams this particular dream, he fights not to wake up because he knows she will be gone when he opens his eyes.

His fingers tingle, threading through silky hair on a head tucked under his chin. He cups her head gently.

Ichigo imagines he can hear her soft breathing. He imagines she can hear the pounding of his heart, being so close to his chest.

He slides his other hand to the small of her back, pulling her closer.

He feels her small fingers on his cheek, cool and comforting, touching his eyebrows, tracing his nose. Ichigo fights not to smile, fights the wave of yearning that might force him awake and break the spell.

He wraps himself around his dream-girl, burying his nose in her hair, nuzzling her temples, locking her knees between his.

He's had this dream often enough now that it's become a game to him, to see how long he can make it last before he wakes up.

Her fingertips circle his lips lightly, tracing the crease, flowing down to his chin. He presses light kisses on each fingertip.

Her huge eyes darken, he thinks, as he leans forward. He moves forward against her lips, not-quite-kissing with only her fingers between them. Then she closes her eyes and takes her fingers away, letting him take possession.

She slides her impatient arms around his neck, whispering his name on a sigh.

A crack of lightning makes his eyes fly open. This time, he hopes desperately he'll see her purple eyes looking back at him, even for a moment.

But his arms are empty and his heart is full of grief.

Disoriented for a moment, he sits up, and puts his head in his hands.

Ichigo has asked Urahara many times if Rukia Kuchiki ever visits since she left. The answer is always no. After the third dream, Ichigo stopped asking.

He scrubs his eyes with the heels of his hands, hard enough that he sees fireworks when he opens them again. "Definitely a dream," he tells himself. "She would never."

Ichigo leaves his room and heads downstairs, hungry as only a teenage boy could be.

When he closes the door, a flash of lightning illuminates the room, revealing a girl in a black shihakusho. She hugs her knees, her lips swollen and her eyes wet.

 

Chapter Text

III.

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Ichigo feels like he is going crazy. His dreams of Rukia have stopped. It's been one year and one month since he lost his powers, and he coasts through his days at school. It's not in his nature to mope; instead, Ichigo has stopped feeling anything.

It is strange. He thought he was happy to be ordinary; suddenly, one year and a month later, he is not.

Since the loss of his Hollow mask, Ichigo has another mask that he uses around other people. He smiles politely when Orihime goes off on one of her tangents, or scowls when Tatsuki is lecturing him. Sometimes he thinks he's turned into a robot, going through the motions of living. He speaks when spoken to, eats at appropriate times, ducks when Isshin attacks, laughs when Yuzu jokes, and nods when Karin says anything. Still, he tells himself, at least you're not dead.

Some days he wishes he was. He thinks about the last battle with Aizen, not regretting that he won, but wishing he had died with his powers. At least if he were dead he would no longer get the looks of pity from his friends. He cannot even spend long periods of time with them anymore. Ichigo gets exhausted listening to the endless chattering of Orihime trying to fill the awkward silences. Even looking at Uryuu's face makes him tired.

Lately he has been spending time alone in his room, sitting in his bed, staring at the shadows. He does not want to admit, even to himself, that he is trying to get even a trace of the scent of cucumbers and strawberries, or a memory of a dream of purple eyes darkening. So Ichigo stares at nothing for hours at a time, his mind blessedly blank.

 


 

The summer nights are getting longer and the leaves are starting to turn gold. The end-of-summer festival has everyone wearing their best yukata and going to the nightly street fairs, culminating in a parade of lanterns. Ichigo accompanies his sisters and friends, but is deaf to the sounds and blind to the colours.

In the crowds, Ichigo starts to feel panicky. There are too many people and they are too exposed. If a Hollow attacks, he cannot defend his family. The lights are too bright. Why won't his friends walk together in a group?

His hand itches for Zangetsu's handle.

There are too many people. It feels like the swarms of hollows he faced in Hueco Mundo. But these people are laughing, without a care in the world. As if the world had not almost ended.

A pushy vendor grabs his shoulder, and Ichigo swings at him. Thankfully, Urahara is there to deflect his fist. With a hefty tip and apology to the man, Urahara herds him to a mostly empty sidestreet. Ichigo cannot breathe. His chest is too tight, his blood is too hot. Urahara pounds his back, trying to loosen his shoulders. Finally the black spots in his eyes disappear. Ichigo leans back against the wall.

"How long has this been going on?" Urahara asks, offering him some water.

Ichigo starts laughing bitterly. "Since the day I met Rukia Kuchiki and she stabbed me in the chest." He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and leans his head back. "Don't worry about me, Urahara-san. I'm already nobody."

Urahara watches him stagger back into the crowds, a worried look in his eyes.

Ichigo heads back into the crowds, searching for his family. Suddenly he spots a familiar head of dark hair on a petite woman in a pink kimono. She turns her head and Ichigo's heart speeds up. Could it be - He starts pushing towards her. The woman is tiny, and it is hard to keep up with her in a crowd this dense. "Please, wait," Ichigo calls out desperately, stepping around people, squeezing between carts. It is as if the world has gone silent, waiting for him to catch her. He finally makes it to touching distance, grabbing her hand. She turns, eyes wide. But it is not Rukia Kuchiki.

Ichigo lets go with an apology on his lips. The world is at full volume again, as if nothing happened.

His father is easy enough to hear in the crowd with his big booming voice. Ichigo rejoins his family. Karin is with her posse of boys, but she can sense Ichigo's disquiet. She looks at him and fakes a headache, begging him to take her home.

That night, he dreams about drowning in a sea of sand with everyone watching him and applauding.

 


 

Three months pass.

Each day blurs into the next. Ichigo is waiting for the day when he can leave this godforsaken town, and go to a college where nobody knows him, and people will leave him alone. He immediately feels guilty for even thinking this, knowing how much Ishida, Chad and Orihime have been through because of him. Chad has stopped speaking to him. This barely registers on Ichigo's radar, and he is vaguely saddened by the loss of his friend, but he doesn't know what he can do for Chad when he can barely help himself.

Slowly, things settle down again, and all of them try to ignore the new holes in their lives. He gets a job, simply because he has to get away from all the heavy looks and sighs and pity. A single mom, Ikumi Unagiya, runs an odd-jobs service out of her home.

This is exactly what he needs as most of the odd jobs do not make him interact too deeply with people. He can do the job, collect his money, and be done for the day. But every day, after he goes home and has dinner with his family, he goes to his room, and slips off his mask, sitting in the dark.

It is now early winter, and there is frost on the windows. He presses his hand to the icy glass, watching the crystals melt. Yuzu enters the room, asking if he can help her with homework. He sighs, pushes his face into a carefree smile, and turns to face his sister. "Sure," he tells her.

Yuzu settles on his floor, cross legged, and hands him a sheet of questions. "What are these for?" Ichigo skims through them, confused.

His sister blushes. "Well… we have to write a report on our personal hero and… oni-chan, I picked you."

Ichigo feels an uncomfortable lump growing in his throat. Of everyone around him, Yuzu was the only one who did not know about his substitute shinigami life. He stares at her. "Why me?"

She picks at the edge of her notebook shyly. "Because you take care of Karin and me. And you're always so nice to everybody, even people that are mean. And you care about all your friends, and they love you in return. You are always helping people, oni-chan."

Ichigo is uncomfortable, and touched. "That's not true… I'm always getting into fights." He ruffles her hair affectionately.

Yuzu smiles as she writes into the sheet. "Yes, but that's because you're always trying to help people, like Chad-san. And you brought Rukia-chan here when she had nowhere else to go…"

"Well, Rukia was a little more complicated," Ichigo, to his horror, is blushing. "Anyway, don't make me out to be a hero. Really, I'm not that special."

"But you are," Yuzu insists, still scribbling away. "I think one day, you will save the world. You're my big brother, after all." She ends the interview with a smile. Ichigo smiles back at her. He feels like this is the first time he has actually smiled in months. "By the way, oni-chan, what happened to Rukia-Chan? Did she find a place to live? Can we visit her? Karin and I miss her."

"Well," Ichigo looks at the drawer on his desk where he keeps all Rukia's notes. "She had to go somewhere else. I don't think we'll be seeing her again anytime soon." He sees Yuzu's face fall, and says, "But maybe you can write her a letter! It's almost Christmas so you can probably send her a letter."

Yuzu claps her hands together excitedly. "Oh, do you have her address?"

Ichigo rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "No, but I know someone who may be heading to her town. It's a - er, small town, so I'm sure they'll be able to find her."

"Great! Let's put a Christmas package together for Rukia-chan!" Yuzu pauses, and sends him a sunny grin. "See, I knew you were my hero for a reason."

Ichigo watches the door close after his little sister, feeling better than he has in weeks.

Yuzu takes this project to heart with scary efficiency. Within a week she has letters and presents from Karin, Orihime, Tatsuki, even Keigo and Mizuiro. Isshin sends a box labeled, To My Third Daughter.

"You're the only one left, oni-chan," Yuzu admonishes. "Can't you write her a letter too? You were her closest friend!"

Ichigo procrastinates as much as he can, uncomfortable with the idea of contacting Rukia. He is too busy anyway, he tells himself, as he works through the chill of early December.

His work schedule has picked up, since the holiday season has people sending presents via messenger. It makes it easier for him to avoid Yuzu's nagging.

Finally, Yuzu gives up. She asks Ichigo to send the box, which he brings to Urahara's store after school.

 


 

The older man eyes the hefty box. "Are these all from you?"

Ichigo scowls. "No, they're from my sisters. Can you make sure Rukia gets this?"

Urahara beams. "Of course. Will you be sending your present to Rukia separately?"

Ichigo shakes his head. "Why would I send her anything? Since I lost my reiatsu I've been dead to her and the rest of Soul Society. "

Urahara strokes his chin for a moment, then grabs Ichigo by the ear and drags him into a room.

"What are you doing?" Ichigo tries to escape the painful grip the older man has on his ears.

"Oh, stop being such a drama queen. Just fill out a card. On the house. It's on the table." Urahara slides the door shut, leaving Ichigo in the room with pen and paper. "And slide it in the door slat. I'll let you out afterwards." Expletives greet his pronouncement. "Watch your language, there are children present!" Urahara smiles to himself, though. He has seen more spirit in Ichigo tonight that in the whole year previously. It is heartening to see.

Thirty minutes minutes pass. A sealed red envelope pops out from between the door slats. Urahara grins, and slips it in the box. Ichigo yells, "Can I get out now?"

"It's not locked," Urahara hollers back, sealing the box with packaging tape. A red-faced Ichigo stumbles out. "I didn't hear you unlock it." He tells the older man, slipping on his shoes.

"Ichigo, it's a sliding door. It doesn't lock," Urahara beams at him. Flustered, Ichigo pulls on his winter coat and heads for home.

 


 

After a particularly busy day at work, Ikumi sends Ichigo home later than usual. Night has fallen, and people are rushing home.

Ichigo stops by the park playground, and settles on the bench, enjoying the solitude. He puts his headphones on, zipping his parka all the way up to his chin. A snowflake floats down, landing on his cheek. He looks up, surprised, and smiles in spite of himself.

The tiny white flakes dance down slowly, turning the park into a snowy wonderland. It is the first snow of the year.

Ichigo sits, eyes skyward, his orange hair peeking out from under his hood, looking peaceful for once. Briefly, he wonders if Rukia received the package, and if she has read his letter.

Karin is walking home from soccer practice. As she is walking home in the snow, she glances over at the park bench and spots her brother.

A few inches beside him, Rukia sits, hands primly folded on her knees, looking up with wonder. He puts his hand down on the bench right where hers is, causing Rukia's eyes to jump to his face. He is blissful in his oblivion. Rukia looks back down to their joined hands.

Karin watches them for a moment, then turns away, feeling as if she is interrupting something private. She stomps home, muttering about her idiot brother.

 

Chapter Text

IV.

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Rukia remembers the first time she had coffee, in the world of the living. It was disgusting, dark and bitter and strong enough to make her choke. Only her shinigami training had kept her from spewing the vile liquid out, and she watched Ichigo warily, wondering why he was trying to poison her with this. He had taken one look at her eyes though, and realized something was off. Then instead of making fun of her, as she had expected, he patiently showed her how to add cream and sugar.

It was like a whole new world had opened up in her cup, and suddenly this coffee was not so terrible. He had smiled and watched her drain the coffee, meeting her eyes over the rim of the cup. Rukia's heart had started palpitating at that moment, confusing her.

"This gigai-" She had put the cup down, her brow furrowing. "It seems to be malfunctioning."

"What is happening?" Ichigo had asked, concern on his face.

Rukia took his palm and put it on her chest, eyes wide. "There is a pounding in my heart. Can you feel it? I have not done anything and it is pumping so fast as if I just ran a far distance."

Ichigo's cheeks had flushed a bright red and he snatched his hand back. "That's what coffee does, Rukia. This is why humans drink it." He explained. "That's the caffeine in the liquid."

She started to feel slightly dizzy, and a buzzing was ringing in her ears. Ichigo had taken her hand. "Come, you need to walk this off. You're not used to caffeine yet."

Rukia suddenly felt like she could see EVERYTHING. She pointed out the line of ants dragging a piece of bread, and the flowers blooming in the jasmine bushes, and the man across the street with his hair combed over, and three red cars in a row. Rukia could hear the jackhammer two streets down, the line of kindergarteners holding hands and crossing the streets, and the mad thump thump thump of her own heart as she skipped down the sidewalk. To her horror, she could not stop talking about anything and everything. It was like some other thing had taken control of her body and was making her say everything that crossed her mind.

But Rukia had also started to feel a strange euphoria, and she had looked down to find her fingers laced with Ichigo's. It was strange. All her senses were super magnified but she had not noticed that she had been holding Ichigo's hand for the past half-hour. Her feet had stopped.

"What is it?" Ichigo had asked. She stared at their intertwined hands for a moment, then looked up.

Rukia had underestimated their height differences and brushed her nose against his. She watched, fascinated, as Ichigo's whiskey coloured eyes had dropped down to her lips, and then slowly slid their way back up to hers. Heat had shot through her, swirling from the base of her stomach to spread through her system. She had pulled away, shaken, her heart pounding louder than ever. "Pervert." To mask her suddenly fluttering insides, she had punched him in the face - hard- and scampered away, feeling oddly exhilarated.

And yet the next day, she had another cup of coffee, and the next, and the next, learning to appreciate the rich dark flavour (which she also killed with four heaping teaspoons of sugar.) But she had never been able to duplicate the thrill of that first cup.

 


 

Right now, Rukia thinks, she would kill for a cup of coffee. Okay, maybe not kill, but horribly maim and disfigure. She lets out a disgusted sigh at her own weakness.

"So, want to tell me what's going on?" Renji crouches next to her on the snowy rooftop in Karakura Town. It is New Year's Eve, and they have been dispatched to the World of the Living to assist the shinigami assigned there. The large gatherings of people would be irresistible to Hollows. The angle of the roof has them standing on the peak, watching the big crowd gather in the town square.

"Humans like to celebrate the passing of the past year and the arrival of the next by counting down to midnight." Rukia says absently, her hands on her hips. "They also like to use fireworks. I think it's a superstition."

Renji stares at her for a moment. "No, idiot, I know what New Year's Eve is. I mean, what's going on with you?"

Rukia turns to him, eyes carefully blank. "What do you mean?"

Renji settles on his haunches, elbows on his knees. Rukia can't help but smile. Even as a child, Renji always sat this way. "Well, instead of freezing our butts up here, we could be down there in our gigai hanging out with the Kurosakis and Inoue and Ishida and the rest of the crew. Why are we up here? You know our Captains said it was okay."

Rukia faces the crowd again, arms crossed. A memory flashes across her mind, of warm hands cradling her face, and lips gently pressing into hers. She shakes her head to clear it, hoping Renji doesn't see her blushing.

"You are welcome to do just that," she says icily, scanning the horizon. "I just think we have a better viewpoint from up here. And I know you aren't cold. If you were in your gigai you would be freezing. Please excuse me for being responsible."

Renji mocks her, tilting his head back and forth. "Please excuse me for being responsible." He shoots her a smirk. When she doesn't respond, he sighs. "We can at least say hi, can't we? This is the first time we've been back since-"

She thinks of the box, unopened, sitting in the corner of her room.

He watches her bite her lower lip and set her jaw, a sure sign that Rukia is about to dig in her heels. "Okay. Okay, we'll stay up here then."

A minute passes before Renji tries again. "Are you avoiding anyone?"

Her head jerks to look away from him. "No." Her cheeks are a telltale pink, and as she said earlier, he knows it is not from the cold.

"Is it Ichigo?" Renji studies her intently.

Rukia is glad for her years in the Kuchiki household. The elders drilled into her the importance of an impassive face, no matter how violently the emotions boiled inside. She puts this to good use.

"No." Now the only sign of agitation is the mild furrow on her brow as she sweeps the area. "I think I see something over there. Let's go." She flash-steps to the next rooftop.

Renji is at her side in moments. He is trying to hide his smile. "Oh, you can run but you can't hide from me. So, why are you avoiding Ichigo? I would think you'd have missed him by now."

She clenches her fist around the hilt of Sode No Shirayuki. "Can we not talk about this now? We are working!" It starts to snow again, lightly.

Renji settles back into his crouching position, sulking. "Fine."

A long silence passes before Rukia snaps, "What do you want from me? What do you want me to say?"

Renji looks at her and very carefully, says, "I want you to be happy, you idiot. And you aren't happy."

Rukia rolls her eyes, scoffing.

Renji sighs. "What the heck, it's New Year's. Let me get this off my chest." He rises to his feet, and grabs both her wrists in his hands, forcing her to look him in the eye. "Rukia, I love you."

She goes still. "What."

Renji wrinkles his nose. "AS A FRIEND. I LOVE YOU AS A FRIEND," He clarifies, clearly uncomfortable.

"And in all that time growing up in the Rukongai, and later on at the Academy, I -" He swallows hard, "had feelings for you. And then you got adopted by the Kuchikis, and then you were gone."

Rukia's eyes are wide, and her face is quite literally frozen as the red-haired man pours out his heart. "And part of the reason I worked so hard to become fukutaichou was to become worthy of you."

He gives her a half-smile, still gripping her limp wrists. "But the day I was promoted, you were sent here. I thought I had time, time to tell you how I feel and oh my god I am so sappy."

She gives him a ghost of a smile at his self-disgust. "Anyway, that day, I had a three-hour window of time to find you before you left, and I decided to wait until you came back."

Renji gives her a bittersweet smile. "And if I hadn't waited, maybe our lives would be completely different right now. But I did. That night Byakuya Taichou and I retrieved you, when that strawberry fool tried to save you, I was happy to cut him down. But then you came with us to save him, knowing you would be facing execution," he shakes his head at her and continues. "I knew then, that I was too late.

"And you, fool that you are, you run away from things that scare you, even if they are good for you. You keep yourself locked away in here," Renji flicks her forehead with a finger, earning a scowl. "And you ignore your heart. Don't wait too long, Rukia-chan." He hugs her abruptly, planting a brotherly kiss at the top of her head. "Anyway. It's been a really long time since that night, and the point of the story is, I thank the gods for the close escape I had," Renji finishes. "And that I have since come to my senses and realized there are way way better-looking, taller, hotter women out there."

Rukia smiles weakly at his joke, punching him in the arm. "As if I would ever accept you."

He winks at her. "You don't know how persuasive I can be."

They stand in silence, both lost in their own thoughts as they observe the crowd below start to chant the countdown.

15... 14... 13... 12...

"Oh, there he is." Renji points out a familiar orange head, standing at the edge of the crowd, three storeys down.

Rukia looks at Renji, her hair blowing in the wind. He smiles angelically at her.

11... 10... 9...

"Happy new year, Rukia! I'll see you at the gate in two hours." Renji shoves her abruptly off the edge of the building, waving as she falls.

The wind whips her hair around her face as she plummets, and she sees Renji's outline waver against the full moon as he flash-steps away. Rukia sees the falling snowflakes suspended as she falls faster.

8... 7... 6... 5...

Gathering her reiatsu, Rukia regains her balance and lands on one foot, in the middle of the chaos. People have started to hold hands, kiss, and laugh, as the countdown approaches zero.

She knows, without looking, where Ichigo is. Renji's aim is true, and she lands right in front of him.

4...

Ichigo stands under a street light, eyes closed, fists clenched, tension etched in every line of his body. Something is wrong.

3...

Rukia stands in front of him, her brow furrowed.

Around them the noise is swelling to fever - pitch, and people are getting ready to pop noisemakers. He is too still, Rukia thinks. His breathing is tight.

2...

She reaches a hand out to try to touch his face, when he opens his eyes suddenly. Startled, she pauses, her fingertips a few inches away. "Ichigo," Rukia murmurs, trying to soothe him.

The fear and anxiety she sees in his eyes breaks her heart. His eyes widen.

1...

"Happy new year, Kurosaki-kun!" Orihime runs right past Rukia, barreling into Ichigo. She plants a kiss on his cheek, close to the corner of his mouth.

Rukia watches the look in Ichigo's eyes change, as he turns to look at Orihime. His hands slowly unclench, and his eyes soften. He raises one of his hands to Orihime's waist.

She hears Renji's words echo in her head. "I knew then, that I was too late."

There is a coldness in the pit of Rukia's stomach. She backs away into the ecstatic crowd, before Orihime can spot her.

 


 

Renji is talking to Zennosuke when Rukia appears at their meeting place much earlier than he expected. He looks hopefully at her face first, and sees the grimness in her eyes. He does not say anything.

Their communicator beeps. A group of hollows have appeared.

Rukia is off before they can even agree on a plan, and by the time he tracks her down, the hollows are shreds of black smoke, trailing upwards.

"Dammit, Rukia," Renji scowls, slightly out of breath. "You could have saved some for me."

But when he turns to look at her, he sees the grief on her face for one unguarded moment. Then her face is carefully blank again.

"I apologize, Abarai-kun," she says politely, sheathing her sword.

Zennosuke bows to both of them, and they bow back.

Rukia opens the gate and hops inside the sliding doors. Renji turns to Zennosuke. "Better not let them know that we were here."

Afro-san nods, waving them off.

 


 

The next morning, at Kuchiki house, Rukia requests the staff to stop serving her coffee for breakfast.

 

Chapter Text

V.

.

.

Six months have passed since New Year's Eve.

Rukia wakes up at dawn and heads to the east gardens to do her morning warm-ups before breakfast. She pulls out her Zanpakuto, stretching her arm out in front of her. First position. Second. She blanks her mind, counting her breaths. In. Out. In. Thrust. Parry. An image of Orihime rising to her tiptoes to kiss Ichigo enters her mind. She drops her Zanpakuto mid-thrust, cursing as it clatters to the ground of the rock gardens. Emptying her mind again, she raises the sword and goes through her exercises, feeling a soothing calm blanket her.

"My lady." A servant appears, with a tray holding a glass of water and a towel. "Lord Byakuya is summoning you to the receiving hall. You have visitors."

"Who is it? Do I have time to change?" Rukia asks, sheathing Sode No Shirayuki. She uses the towel to mop up the sweat from her exertions.

"You have guests from the world of the living, as well as Abarai Fukutaichou."

A quick shower and hasty toothbrushing later, Rukia flash steps to the doorway of the receiving hall, running her fingers through her dripping hair to dry it.

"Oni-sama." She bows to Byakuya, who eyes her wet hair impassively.

"Rukia. Please have a seat." She sinks gracefully into seiza position, bowing to Urahara, Yoruichi and Renji.

"Kuchiki-chan," Urahara smiles excitedly, gesturing to the box beside him. "We may have found a way to fix Kurosaki."

Rukia blinks, unable to comprehend what she just heard. Byakuya thinks she is exercising excellent self restraint, and nods approvingly. But Rukia is not exactly sure what she is feeling now. "How?" she asks, her gaze dropping to her hands.

"Well..., " Urahara goes into the details of a sword and reiatsu and talking to the Soutaichou. Rukia listens intently, but all she can think of is Ichigo, and how happy he would be. That thought lifts her spirits.

"So, we will need to talk to Yamamoto-dono first, of course," Urahara beams. "Kuchiki-dono, if you could please inform Soutaichou…"

Byakuya nods. "A butterfly was sent as soon as you came in. We should be hearing from them soon."

"There is another matter," Yoruichi's golden eyes gleam. "The first substitute has made contact with Ichigo. Even now he is training him, trying to trigger his Fullbring."

"What does that mean?" Renji asks.

Byakuya steeples his fingers, his brows gathering, before he turns to his sister. "Don't you need to get to your division, Rukia?" Rukia knows a dismissal when she hears it. Still, her face remains expressionless as she rises to her feet and bows to the room.

As she walks away, Yoruichi asks in exasperation, "Oi, Byakuya, are you seriously going to try to keep her out of this?" She does not hear her brother's reply.

She resents his interference, although she knows it is only because he wants her safe. But she is a warrior. Still, Rukia knows he is only trying to protect her. Byakuya is probably the reason she has not been assigned any missions to the world of the living, not since New Year's Eve. Even her promotion to Fukutaichou was a bone of contention between him and her Captain, but he accepted her decision gracefully. There are few things that Byakuya Kuchiki does that are not graceful. He can, however, hold grudges. Up to now, he avoids Ukitake.

 


 

It is high summer now, and her Captain does not deal with heat well. She assists the third-seats, ignoring their bickering as they approach the room where their captain lies, laden with pitchers of ice water.

"Taichou." All three of them go on one knee before the bamboo screen. It rolls up slowly, revealing a flushed Ukitake smiling benignly at them.

"Ah yes. Kuchiki-chan. Captain Commander Yamamoto just sent me a message in regards to your friend in the world of the living," he beams, dismissing the other two with a smile. "It seems that someone we have been waiting for has come back and made contact with him."

He brings her up to speed on Kugo Ginjo and the significance of the substitute reaper badge. Rukia absorbs all this information with tight nods.

Even here, she thinks, she cannot escape Ichigo Kurosaki.

 


 

It takes a few weeks for Urahara to push through the red tape of the Seiritei bureaucracy. Now it is in the Central 46's hands.

The question of Ichigo Kurosaki's mental state comes up. Is it even worth reviving his powers? Or will he turn into a power-mad renegade like Kugo? Urahara provides medical and psychological reports from Isshin, and the Quincy Ishida. More testimonials come in, report cards are read, videos are shown.

Everything about Ichigo Kurosaki, after all, is unprecedented, and the Gotei 13 is frankly at a loss on how to deal with him.

 


 

Rukia is summoned by the Central 46 to testify about Ichigo's mental state after the battle with Aizen. She enters the enormous dark hall, lit up only by the 46 desks in front of her, and sits at the witness stand. Renji and Rangiku are also summoned, but they are not allowed to enter the hall while she is giving testimony.

"Please state your name and rank."

"Kuchiki Rukia, Fukutaichou for the 13th division."

"You are close to the ryoka from Karakura town, are you not? What is your relationship to him?"

"In the process of completing my assignment as the Shinigami of Karakura Town, I gave Ichigo Kurasaki my powers, causing him to become the substitute Shinigami," Rukia answers as honestly as she can.

A quiet buzz greets her words. She hears snippets of disapproval. "The gall!" "How dare she bring that up here?" "Does she want to be sentenced again?"

Rukia keeps her head held high. "And I take this responsibility seriously. We are close friends, but my duty is first and foremost to the Soul Society. I kept tabs on him for months to make sure he did not abuse the powers I lent him temporarily, even if this, too was against the law."

"You are the shinigami who knows him best." Rukia nods. "What can you tell us of his character?"

"Ichigo Kurosaki is loyal. He will always fight for what he believes is right, and he will fight with every atom of his being. He will always try to protect those weaker than him. In all the months that I have known him, even with his extraordinary levels of reiatsu, never once have I seen him abuse his power, or take his responsibilities less than seriously."

"How do we know that these are not the words of a lovesick girl?" another voice sneers. "After all, you lived with him for months. You could just be saying this to save your lover. Did he not storm the Seiritei to save you from your execution?"

Offended, Rukia draws herself to her full height, and channels Byakuya's 'I am a Kuchiki' stare. "My words are merely words, this is true, but you have all seen his actions. He did come to save me from my execution, yes, but in doing so he exposed the plot that three Captains had hatched to destroy the Seiritei. All of your predecessors paid the price of this plot with their lives."

A whisper runs through the assembly at her words. "And he did it because he thought there was an injustice being committed. If he was trying to save me because he loved me, then should he not have forced me to go with him to the world of the living afterwards? I told him I would remain here, because this is my home, and my duty as a Shinigami. Ichigo Kurosaki walked away from that and from me, knowing that justice had been satisfied. He assisted the Soul Society with the Bount threat, the Vaizards, and the Arrancars. He did the same for Inoue Orihime, in Hueco Mundo, and defeated Aizen Sosuke when we should have. And he has paid a higher price than any of us, physically and mentally.

"You would not all be in your seats right now if Ichigo Kurosaki had not defeated Aizen Sosuke." Silence greets her pronouncement. "He was our strongest hope, and he is not a shinigami. What will you do if one day a stronger enemy comes?"

"Can you guarantee that Kurosaki will not become our enemy?" Another voice counters. Rukia's eyes narrow, but she is interrupted before she can say anything.

"Ichigo Kurosaki will one day regain his reiatsu. If not through this process, he will do it through another way. And he takes his debts seriously," Urahara speaks up from the corner. "Will you risk him owing another this debt of honor?"

"Silence. You are not giving testimony. We will speak with you later." The speaker shuts him down. Rukia thinks Urahara may have winked at her as he is escorted out, and feels better.

"This human," Rukia says thoughtfully, answering the question. "We have known him for years now. Not just myself, but numerous captains and vice captains, Shinigami who are excellent judges of character. As long as the Seiritei does what is just, and right, he will be our ally."

"Thank you, Kuchiki Rukia. You are dismissed," The head judge intones. Rukia rises stiffly, bowing to the room, and follows her escorts out. Her eyes blink at the sudden brightness of the hallway, and then she lets out a small gasp as she realizes she is standing in front of Byakuya, who is staring at her impassively.

"O-oni-sama," Rukia stammers out. He gives her a slight nod, then walks away.

 


 

The order comes down from Central 46 the next day: Ichigo Kurasaki's reiatsu is to be reinstated with assistance from the Gotei 13.

 


 

The Captains meet a day later and are ordered to put their reiatsu into Urahara's magical sword.

Some of them do because an order is an order, but the Captains most vocal about their misgivings are Kurotsuchi (who thinks they should just dissect Ichigo) and Soi Fon (who is paranoid that this is all another plot).

The Captain Commander silences their protests by putting his own reiatsu in the sword. A few of the vice captains also volunteer their own reiatsu, including Renji and Rukia.

The next question that comes is, who should bear this supercharged sword to the world of the living?

Because of its immense power and Urahara's history of volatile inventions, most of Captains volunteer to escort the sword-bearer, but the Captain Commander decides on three Captains. It would not do to leave the Seiritei with too few captains.

As for the choice of the actual person to carry the sword and commit the act of transferring power, Uruhara cautions against using a Captain as if something backfires, Ichigo may drain that person's reiatsu entirely instead.

The matter of who gets to carry the sword takes another few days of discussions and bickering.

 


 

Rukia is summoned to the next Captain's meeting. She enters the double doors to find all the Captains staring at her expectantly.

"Because of your relationship with Ichigo Kurosaki," Captain Yamamoto intones, making her wince slightly at the wording, "And at the recommendation of Captains Kenpachi, Hitsugaya and Unohana, you are ordered, Rukia Kuchiki, to bring the sword into the world of the living, and to wield it so that Ichigo Kurosaki shall receive the reiatsu that is stored therein. Once it is spent, you are to return it to Urahara, who shall destroy it immediately."

The words sound like a sentencing; Rukia remembers her own death sentence, intoned by that same voice. She nods obediently, her heart pounding as the significance of this hits home.

"There is a chance you may lose your reiatsu entirely," The Captain Commander says gravely. "With a transfer of reiatsu as unprecedented as this, the ryoka may override the safety measures we have set in place and drain your reiatsu. This is why we cannot hand over the responsibility to a Captain. Are you willing to take the risk, Kuchiki Fukutaichou?"

Rukia does not waver. "Yes, Captain Commander. When must we leave?"

She will see Ichigo again. And he will see her again. And now Rukia is not sure if she is ready. Urahara eases the box into her suddenly sweaty palms. Rukia hopes she has time to figure out what to say when she sees Orihime and Ichigo together.

Captain Commander Yamamoto looks at her, snowy brows set in a straight line. "As soon as possible. I understand that the boy is in a precarious situation right now and it could tip at any moment. You will leave immediately. You understand, Fukutaichou, the importance of your task. This sword cannot be intercepted by anyone else; it cannot fall into the wrong hands. You will keep it safe."

"With my life," Rukia vows.

Renji stepped forward. "I will accompany them through the gates, Soutaichou."

"And I," Madarame smiles in anticipation. Three captains rise to accompany them; Kenpachi, Hitsugaya, and Byakuya.

"Go ahead with Urahara," Captain Commander Yamamoto orders. "Is the Senkaimon ready?"

"Yes," Urahara responds, leading the group out the door. "Isshin Kurosaki and Yoruichi Shihoin are on the other side, ready to meet us."

"Captains- Please stay a moment. I have another matter to discuss with you," Yamamoto turns to the group of vice-captains, addressing them. "They shall join you shortly. Go ahead to the world of the living. And good luck. " Rukia watches the door close behind them as Urahara jams his green-striped bucket hat on.

"Let's go." The group of four sprints to the gates. Rukia holds the sword's box tight in her hands as she steps into the light. Renji catches her eye, and smiles encouragingly.

'It's only Ichigo,' Rukia thinks to herself. 'Even if he is in a relationship now, he is still my friend.' With a look of resolve on her face, she steps through the shoji.

 

Chapter Text

VI.

.

.

Ichigo can only stare in shock at the sword in his chest. It has pierced his lung; he can feel the air seeping out slowly from the hole it made. But there is something very wrong with this sword.

He has had worse injuries before; in fact, he has died many times, but the finality of the cold steel and the hot flow of blood down his human chest makes this injury a lot more difficult to ignore. Adding insult to this is the knowledge that the sword belongs the man Ichigo thought was his friend, Ginjo Kugo.

Ichigo is on his knees now, bearing the weight of the sword as Kugo laughs, triumph gleaming in his dark eyes. He wonders how he had never noticed the malice in them, but the older man's face is twisted in a smile that can only be described as evil.

Ishida is cut down by Tsukushima. He gasps out that Kugo was the one who had put him in the hospital. He calls out an explanation; that Kugo had Tsukushima cut him so that he could recruit Ichigo convincingly against a perceived threat; that Kugo was the mastermind.

'Too late to tell me this, you idiot,' Ichigo tries to say, his lips moving but not producing any sound.

Ichigo struggles to lift his hands, to push the sword out of his chest, but his arms fall limply to his sides. He is in his own vulnerable human body, after all, not his shinigami form. Behind him, he hears the man in the white shirt approach, but cannot even turn his head to look. Tsukushima is the windmill that Ichigo tilted at, not knowing that the true monster was at his side all along.

 


 

Shukuro Tsukushima studies the broken boy and, almost as an act of mercy, explains to him what his Fullbring, the Book of the End, does. He hopes it would bring the boy comfort to know that the betrayal of his friends was not their fault; that they had merely been pawns, completely helpless in the game of his and Ginjo's making.

Ichigo cannot do anything except listen, but even then, he is already drifting in and out of consciousness. His mind goes back to earlier that day, when he came home to see his sisters fawning over the stranger, their eyes completely normal as they told him he was a relative.

He remembers the sense of betrayal rising in his stomach, as everyone defended the bastard from him. Even their classmates, Keigo and Mizuno and Tatsuki, who were in his house as if it were normal for them to be there.

Even Orihime, with her guileless grey eyes. He had never seen a fiercer expression in them, not since that Arrancar had died, crumbling into ash as she had reached for him.

Even Chad, who had told him it hurt him to see Ichigo so powerless, raising his armor to fight him on behalf of the man smirking at him.

'Rukia would never have caved to the Fullbring,' the thought comes into his head, unbidden. 'Rukia would have killed the man first.' He thinks of the purple-eyed girl and another pain blooms in his chest.

'The cliches are true,' Ichigo thinks. 'Your life does flash before your eyes.' He looks at the conversation that Ginjo, Tsukushima and Ishida are having without him, the roaring in his ears drowning them out. 'Oh, don't mind me,' he thinks almost hysterically. 'I'll just sit here and bleed to death.'

 


 

Ishida mentions his name. "Ichigo - reasons - reiatsu-"

"I don't care what his reasons are. We set him up to make sure he came to us for help releasing his Fullbring. All of this, all of the moving parts, the conversations, the attacks, all of the planning led to this moment," Kugo's voice is a low rumble, but because he is next to Ichigo, the redhead hears every word. Then he pushes the sword in deeper. The world fades into greyscale, and now Ichigo can only hear his own strangled gurgles. To his horror, he feels his new fullbring melt and get sucked into the sword currently occupying his chest.

After interminable seconds, Ginjo draws the sword out of him, taking everything. Ichigo collapses, dropping his Shinigami badge on the ground. It starts to rain.

Somehow, all the anxiety and pain and frustration of the past nineteen months have come to a boil now, to this moment. He feels the last of his hope drain, just like his powers, and now there is nothing left, not even his pride. He bends over forwards, his forearms bracing for impact as he fights to breathe. This is it then.

All of it, gone forever. Just when he barely had his Fullbring up and running.

He pounds a fist against the ground in helplessness, the rain slowly drenching him. This is worse than dying, this last death of his hope. He is never going to be able to protect anyone again. He is never going to see Rukia again.

Ichigo remembers the feeling of impotence that overtook him in the 17 months before he met Kugo. He was able to find some semblance of peace, but even that is gone now. Once again he is reduced to being a powerless teenage boy. The grief surges through him, drowning him. He is not even aware that he is howling in his sorrow; his bone-chilling lamentations are heartbreaking in their honesty.

Tsukushima looks at him, feeling guilt for breaking the infamous Ichigo Kurosaki and reducing him to this. He wonders, for a split second, if he is doing the right thing.

 


 

Ishida remembers Ichigo's battle with the Arrancar Ulquiorra.

The Hollow Ichigo had already beaten Ulquiorra, who lay dying. Then he had raised his Zangetsu, aiming the sharp tip to cut into the Arrancar's throat, and mutilate his body in front of the shell-shocked Orihime. Ishida saw the look on her face, and intervened, preventing Ichigo from doing this last act of desecration.

"You will never be a human again if you do this," Ishida had told the Hollow Ichigo, trying to get through to the man beneath. This was the same thing, Ishida thinks, trying to cover his ears to block out the unearthly sound of Ichigo's grief. The rains only amplify the misery in Ichigo's sobs. Kugo starts to walk away, his power source now used up and discarded. With this last act, Kugo might as well slit the boy's throat. It would be a mercy.

And just when Ishida thinks to try to crawl over to Ichigo, he hears it. "Please."

No. This is not possible. Ichigo Kurosaki is begging. Ishida averts his eyes, unwilling to witness this final humiliation of his friend and adversary.

 


 

"Please. Give my powers back," Ichigo grinds out. He is, at the end of the day, just an ordinary boy, albeit with an extraordinary fate. "Please. I need to see her again." It is a testament to how tired he is, that he lets this slip.

The older man pauses and turns to the downed boy with a sneer. "What are you babbling about? You got your powers back in the first place because of me. You should be thankful I'm leaving you with your life."

Ichigo rises slowly to his feet, sheer determination the only thing keeping him upright. "I said, give me back my powers."

Kugo is genuinely confused by Ichigo's persistence. "Seriously? What are you going to do?"

"Give it back!" Ichigo has found a last source of strength in his fury. "Ginjo!" After all, he has nothing left to lose.

Then he smells it first; cucumbers and strawberries in the wind. The scent is so familiar to him it almost brings him back to his knees.

The glowing blade of a sword slices into him from behind. The cold rain on the hot blade causes steam to rise from it.

Ichigo manages to turn his head, to see his father and Urahara standing there, watching. The thought crosses his mind that getting stabbed in the chest is getting old. "Dad- Urahara- Not you too…"

His dad glares at him. "Idiot. Take a good look at who's holding that sword. We're way over here." Ichigo sighs inwardly, as deeply as he can, impaled on a sword. Even as he is dying, his dad insults him. What would it take for his dad to ever take him seriously?

Then he sees a lock of hair, melting into a shadow, taking the form of a figure that has his blood roaring in his ears. The dull ache in his chest intensifies, completely unrelated to the blade currently in it. Ichigo's eyes widen as he sees her slender wrists take shape around the handle of the glowing sword. Tiny elbows locked in position. The graceful curve of a black-clad shoulder, the now-sharp angle of her hair brushing against the stubborn jaw. He can barely bring himself to raise his eyes to hers, but when he does, she exhales, as if she had been holding her breath for a long time.

"Rukia," he whispers her name, feeling relief and a strange emotion fill him. She has shorter hair now, and her dark locks fly in the breeze. She gives him a half grin, purple eyes locking onto amber as the sword glows brighter, expanding in his chest. A strong gust envelops the two of them, blocking out the rest of the world. Unconsciously, he reaches a hand back, to brush it against the back of hers. Her skin is like silk, cool and smooth. Then the world explodes.

Ichigo closes his eyes as the first surge of reiatsu breaches, and then it just keeps coming. The gust forms into a twister, reaching up into the sky. When it clears, he is back in his shihakusho, with a new incarnation of Zangetsu in his hand.

The rogue shinigami takes a step back, shocked. "What- Impossible."

 


 

Ichigo ignores him, whirling around to face the one person he needed to see.

"Rukia," he breathes, hoping against hope this isn't a hallucination. His fingers itch to touch her again. It has been too long and her scent is driving him mad.

I missed you so much.

Thank you for saving me.

"Yes. Long time no see." Rukia gives him her usual smile, but there is an uncertain look in her eyes. He isn't quite sure why.

"Ichigo." Even watching her lips enunciate his name makes his stomach jump. "You've grown strong and mature since the last time I saw you." Almost as an afterthought, she follows this with a kick to the face. Ichigo smiles at the sting, glad to take even kicks from Rukia. He is just so happy to see her again. "Crying like a pathetic fool. You turned into a wimp the moment I stopped keeping my eye on you," Rukia rails at him, but Ichigo can't stop smiling at the underlying concern in her voice. He puts on an indignant face as he gets back to his feet, feeling the warm familiar glow of reiatsu sparking in him.

"Urahara told me about the powers of that Tsukishima dude," she continues, her face sobering. "He can rewrite the past. That is indeed terrifying. But so what?" Rukia places a tiny fist on her hip, chin up and channelling Byakuya's disdain. "He can rewrite your past but he can't change your future. Lost bonds can be forged again. Am I wrong, Ichigo?"

The scowl she sends him makes Ichigo want to do things to her, crazy, naughty things. He gives himself a mental shake, confused by the direction his thoughts are taking. 'Focus, Ichigo,' he tells himself.

"Rukia, can I say one thing?" he gives her a serious look. "He didn't change my past, you know."

Rukia lunges at him with the glowing sword. "You idiot. What is with that serious face?"

"Hey stop waving that thing around, it's dangerous!" Ichigo backs away, matching her scowl. They stare at each other for a long moment, gazing into each other's eyes and settling back into old habits almost immediately. To his surprise, Rukia flinches, and breaks his gaze.

"The sword has no blade," she says, tucking her hair behind her ear nervously. She launches into an abbreviated explanation of his newly restored powers.

This is new, this suddenly skittish girl. Ichigo files that away in his head, promising to get back to her after all of this is over. The other Substitute shinigami butts in, demanding his attention.

"Rukia. Dad. Urahara-san," Ichigo says casually over his shoulder, returning his grip to Zangetsu. "Go find out what happened to Inoue and the others, ok? I'll catch up with you after this." Chad can probably take care of himself, he figures, but Orihime has always been too kind for her own good, and who knows what Tatsuki and the others are up to now. And his sisters need to be accounted for too. He doesn't see the light go out in Rukia's eyes, or the way she stills.

Chapter Text

VII.

.

.

The door in the sky opens, revealing three Captains and two vice-captains. They offer him a brief explanation about the sword and reiatsu transfer, and Ichigo is awed and humbled by the extent that the Gotei 13 has gone for him.

Then Ginjo Kugo makes his move. Ichigo's Getsuga Tensho slashes the building diagonally. "Sorry, I missed," he tells the older man.

The other Fullbringers come out in full force. From the corner of his eye, he watches Rukia nod to Isshin and Urahara, then rise to join the others, the lieutenant badge gleaming on her left arm. He makes another mental note to ask her about it later.

Right now, Ichigo will fight this battle. Now that he has his best friend- his friends back, he can focus on one foe and not worry about the fate of everyone else.

 


 

Orihime is crying, confused. She cannot understand why Ichigo is fighting against Tsukushima and Kugo.

"Aren't they supposed to be friends?" she sobs, wiping her eyes with the heels of her hands. Chad frowns, scanning the skies as the bright flashes of light mark the skirmish above their heads. "Why is Ichigo-kun doing this? Why aren't the captains stopping him?" Orihime wails.

"I think they are there to stop... Kugo-san," Chad mutters, surprised. Tsukushima appears behind them, placing a warm hand on their shoulders.

"But… Ichigo," Orihime holds her head as a barrage of random memories floods her mind -

Tsukushima rescuing her from her parents in the middle of the night;

Orihime looking up at the moon through iron bars;

a hollow version of her brother dragging her outside;

a cold expressionless voice telling her to eat or else she would be force-fed;

Tsukushima sitting beside her in class;

a hand reaching out to her before crumbling into ash;

Orihime herself pushing through people, spotting Ichigo and feeling determined to kiss him when the clock strikes 12 for the new year. She whimpers as Ichigo's face morphs into Tsukushima's, but there is something wrong, he has a skull fragment on the left side of his face, and black tear streaks appear on his cheeks.

Tsukushima-san.

Dimly she can hear Chad groaning beside her.

'What is going on?' she wonders. She doesn't want Ichigo. She wants Tsuku- no, that name is wrong. Ulq-

Orihime feels her head splitting open, with the force of something that should not be there. Then Urahara-san is beside her, and everything goes black.

 


 

The Captains have defeated their respective Fullbringers and headed back to the Seiritei, leaving Renji and Rukia to witness the final battle between Ichigo and Ginjo Kugo.

It has been a long, difficult battle and both opponents are completely exhausted. Ichigo deflects the last desperate blast from Ginjo in his bankai form, absorbing and diffusing the angry red energy with his hand. He counters it with a diagonal slash across Ginjo's chest. The blood spatters across his face.

There is no triumph in Ichigo's face. He does not want to kill Ginjo, even after everything the man has done to him, but he knows his duty. He knows this man must be stopped. The injured older man plummets out of the skies, leaving a blue streak that other observers would think is a meteor. He lands on his feet, breaking it with his impact.

Their swords meet with a loud clang. Ginjo's moves are getting more and more desperate, his grunts and growls filling the night.

Ichigo has found a strange calm, his eyes ever watchful. He parries each thrust, sparks flying. Finally, Zangetsu breaks off the tip of Kugo's sword in a mighty blow. Kugo falls, almost in slow motion. His red eyes stare up at the heavens, a trail of blood slowly making it's way down his chin.

"Ichigo," He whispers. "If you had been the first, and I the second, would our roles be reversed now? Would you have become like me?" His bankai form melts away, leaving only a broken body and an imminent death.

Ichigo approaches, his features set in stone. But in his eyes, there is only pity for the fallen man. He pays his respects to his enemy at his last moments.

Ginjo Kugo, the first substitute Shinigami, is dead.

 


 

The sound behind him has Ichigo whirling, a millisecond too late. Shukuro Tsukushima, blinded by grief, has drawn his sword, with the intent to kill the boy who murdered his mentor.

Ichigo can only watch as Rukia throws herself between them, to block the blow with her body. Then an even stranger thing happens; a green door opens in her chest, and Riruka Dokugamine pops out, taking the blade in her shoulder.

"Are you crazy? That's your killing people for real sword!" the diminutive redhead snaps at the hysterical man. Rukia is propelled backwards, into his arms. Holding her tightly, Ichigo backs them to a safe distance. Tsukushima shakes Riruka off his blade, and sprints towards their fallen leader.

"Open your fucking eyes. We couldn't save Ginjo. Ginjo saved us. and the one who saved Ginjo was Ichigo Kurosaki." Riruka, bloodied and on her knees, fights back tears. Tsukushima lets go of his sword, and it falls to the ground. The fight is over.

 


 

"Ichigo." He looks down to find his arms curled around Rukia protectively. He wants to hold her close; adrenaline still pumps through him, from the blind fear that came when she jumped into the path of the sword aimed at his heart. He wants to yell at her, to shake some sense into this black-haired midget. He has gone on long enough without seeing her; he cannot fathom how close he came to losing her.

And part of him still cannot believe she is here, in his arms. He turns his head to her cheek, overwhelmed by her scent, and resists the urge to nuzzle. But damn, it feels good to be holding her. He is close enough to see the light flush of her cheeks and hear the slight catch of her breath. He 

Urahara's kids and Tessai appear, with stretchers and first aid kits to help the injured.

"Ichigo," Rukia repeats, her eyes straight. He feels her spine stiffen. "Let go." Reluctantly, he loosens his arms. She fits so naturally there that they feel empty without her. She jerks away and faces him, her trademark scowl in place. "Are you hurt?" Her eyes spot the blood on his cheek but she keeps her distance, averting her eyes.

Ichigo shakes his head, his eyes drinking in the sight of Rukia. "No. How about you?"

She flushes and looks past his shoulder. "I'm fine."

They stand in silence for a second, then Ichigo snaps, "What the hell were you doing, jumping in front of that sword, Rukia?"

The stubborn set of her jaw is so familiar. "Well, you should be thanking me, idiot. If you're going to stand there gawping like a fish while someone tries to kill you...," she snarls, raising her fist. Then she remembers that she dislocated her shoulder while battling Riruka, and bites back a whimper.

Ichigo is on her in an instant. "You're hurt." His hands are gentle on her shoulder and upper arm. "Does it hurt here?"

"Don't- Just back off," Rukia bites out, walking away. "Let's just head over to Urahara's."

Ichigo watches her, confused, but follows her flash step into the night.

 


 

Renji goes ahead to the Soul Society, bearing Ginjo's body (hopefully not for Kurotsuchi) but Rukia stays to wrap things up. The other Fullbringers have disappeared into the night.

Chad recovers quickly, although he does not speak a word. He claps Ichigo on the shoulder, nods, and then leaves the shop almost immediately. He does not know what to make of the jumbled mess of memories inside his head, but he knows that Ichigo is his friend, and he has a lot to make up to the redheaded shinigami.

Orihime drifts in and out of consciousness, plagued by nightmares. Rukia sits by her, holding her hand, as this seems to soothe her.

After all that has happened, she cannot find it in her heart to hate her. They have been friends for too long, and too much has passed between them for Rukia to begrudge her what happiness she may have found with Ichigo.

At some point in the night, Ichigo joins her vigil at Orihime's bedside. He tiptoes in, and settles on the tatami mat in the space between the wall and the bed, a few inches from Rukia.

Rukia does not say anything, her suddenly straight back belying her discomfort at his proximity. She does not look at him.

Ichigo decides to break the ice. "How are you, Rukia?"

She turns her head in his direction without looking him in the eye. "Fine." They settle into a heavy, awkward silence.

"So…," He tries again. "You, um… Congratulations. On the Vice-Captaincy. Nice badge there."

"Thank you."

"How is your shoulder?" Ichigo is quickly running out of topics.

"Fine. Maybe we shouldn't disturb Orihime with our talking," Rukia says curtly.

"I wanted to ask you a favour," Ichigo murmurs, lowering his voice. She tilts her head questioningly. "Can you please request permission for me to enter Soul Society? I need to speak with the Soutaichou."

Her lips tighten at his request but she nods, pulling out her communicator. He watches her type, her slender fingers picking out the buttons one at a time.

Ichigo wonders why he feels so… full, for want of a better term... just being near Rukia. And he wonders why she is even colder now than she used to be.

"Done," she hisses at him, over her shoulder. "We should hear back from them soon."

They lapse into silence again. From his corner, he can see the bottom half of her face in the candlelight, her teeth sinking into her lower lip and chewing on it. Rukia Kuchiki is anxious.

"Hey, Rukia," Ichigo reaches out, placing his hand flat on her back. The lip-chewing stops, and her whole body stills. "It's good to see you again."

She rises to her feet. "I need to go to the bathroom. I mean talk to Ukitake."

At that moment, Orihime whimpers in her sleep. Rukia uses that to flash-step out of the sliding doors. Ichigo sighs and puts his hand back on his knee.

 


 

The next morning, Orihime wakes in the soft light, to see Ichigo curled up on the mats next to her. He is snoring slightly.

Rukia stands at the foot of her bed, watching him like an angel of death. Wait. That's exactly what she is. It makes her giggle.

"What are you smiling at?" Rukia asks her gently.

"You're an angel of death. But you're one of my best friends." Orihime reaches for her hand. "I'm so happy to see you again, Rukia-chan." She tries not to cry. She knows it would make Rukia sad.

A headache blindsides her and then everything comes back in a flood. The nausea rises quickly. Rukia hands her a bucket and holds her hair while her stomach empties itself, tears streaking down her cheeks.

When she is done, Rukia hands her a wet cloth to wipe her mouth, and a glass of water with two pills.

The gentleness in her eyes has Orihime's tears flowing again. "Rukia-chan, you are so good to me."

Rukia gives her a small smile. "You are my friend, too. It is good to see you."

"And Tsukushima-san?" Orihime asks.

Rukia looks her in the eye. She was warned not to push Orihime, because of her fragile state. "He is not dead. But we do not know where he is."

"Oh." The auburn-haired girl looks sad. "I hope he is happy, wherever he is." Her eyes slide over to Ichigo guiltily, and a flush rises to her cheeks. "I'm glad we are all safe though." She curls up on her side, facing Rukia, and pats the bed next to her. "Come, you can lie down here, Rukia-chan. You look exhausted."

Rukia is not quite sure what to do, so she stretches out on the futon next to Orihime. She tries to take up as little space as possible, but her shoulder injury limits her motions.

"Oh, you are hurt." Orihime quickly summons her fairies, enveloping both girls in a golden pod.

Rukia sets her jaw as she feels the tingling sensation of healing in her shoulder.

Orihime snuggles into her other shoulder, hugging her. "I don't want anything bad to ever happen to you, Rukia-chan. I don't know what I would do if- if-"

The healing pod also slowly clears her mind, aside from soothing her headache. Rukia reaches up, awkwardly patting Orihime on the head with her good hand. The enclosure reminds Rukia of her closet bed, and she drifts off soon after.

 


 

Meanwhile, Orihime's memories are coming clearer and clearer, an unexpected side effect of the healing pod.

She remembers New Year's eve again. She remembers being so desperately lonely after Hueco Mundo. How the blaze of colour and noise and people are overwhelming, but do not fill the emptiness inside.

She sees Ichigo standing off to the side, and the look on his face. She can see that he is going through the same panic attack that she is, right now. A noisemaker has him flinching.

'If I go to him maybe we can weather this together,' Orihime thinks. She pushes through people, as fast as she can, hoping to reach him before the count ends because she is afraid of the noise that will ensue.

She sees Rukia appear before him, a ghost in black amidst the blur of light. The black of her shihakusho steadies Orihime for a moment, a calm port in the storm. Rukia is the only thing keeping Orihime from insanity right now.

Ichigo is about to lose it, Orihime can tell. She tries to call to them but there is no hearing her above the cacophony. He won't be able to see Rukia-chan, and she sees his fists start to shake.

Thinking quickly, Orihime steps forward, careful to go around Rukia, planting a kiss onto Kurosaki-kun's cheek to catch his attention. That jolts him out of his state. The world goes crazy. Orihime tries to explain that Rukia is there, but he cannot hear her above the noise. She turns to look at Rukia, but the girl is gone.

Later on, she tries to tell Ichigo, but he refuses to talk about Rukia.

 


 

Eyes wide, Orihime turns to the shinigami sleeping beside her.

 

Chapter Text

VIII.

.

.

Isshin sends Karin over to invite Rukia and Orihime to dinner at the Kurosaki residence.

Rukia's gigai is brought out of storage and laid out in a chair for her to step into. She stares at her face from nineteen months ago, with her longer hair and slightly rounder cheeks.

It always feels a bit strange for her to slip into this body, especially when she aligns her head into it. There is a moment where it feels like drowning, before her gigai's eyes lock into place. When she opens her eyes again, she finds Ichigo staring into hers.

The surprise sends her jumping a foot in the air. "Kurosaki!" she snarls, heart pounding. "What the heck do you think you're doing?"

He considers her for a long moment. "Hey, Rukia? Did you ever-" His voice trails off.

Panicking, Rukia backs away abruptly, her head slamming into the back of the chair with a loud thwack. He gives her an affectionate half-smile, rubbing the bump with his hand. "Silly girl."

Rukia's heart is racing; his proximity is making her blush. He cradles the back of her head, locking his gaze with hers.

Rukia can suddenly hear her own breathing, but she is drowning in those honey-coloured eyes.

"Come on!" Karin yells out from the living room. "Yuzu just called, the rice is done."

When he turns his head, Rukia takes the opportunity to duck out from under his arm and make a break for the door.

 


 

Dinner at the Kurosakis is always entertaining. Ichigo is greeted at the door with the usual uppercut from Isshin, which distresses Orihime.

Rukia gets a very loud "My third daughter is home!" from Isshin and excited hugs from Yuzu. She is, as usual, overwhelmed, but she swallows the unexpected lump of emotion.

Orihime gets fussed over and hugged as well. Rukia tries not to notice how Ichigo makes sure that she is seated comfortably, and her water glass is filled.

Orihime's big grey eyes flit nervously between her and Ichigo, so Rukia smiles reassuringly at the younger girl, although she doesn't know why Orihime would be nervous.

They seat her across from Orihime, with Ichigo between them at the end of the table.

It is a lot less awkward than Rukia thought it would be, although nobody mentions the elephant in the room which is Tsukushima.

"Thank you, Gods, and Masaki!" Isshin proclaims, after insisting that they all hold hands. "For this table full of good food and beautiful women."

He pauses to wipe a tear from his eye. "Our table is crowded and we are all in good health. Please, Gods, the one thing we need now is…." He smiles in the creepiest way. "Grandkids. For our happiness to be complete. Amen."

Rukia notices that Orihime is grinning at her as Isshin says this, so she averts her eyes. Karin has to hold Ichigo down from launching himself bodily at his dad. Yuzu smiles, calmly ladling out soup.

"So, my third daughter," Isshin booms after dinner has been cleared and dessert is served. "What did you do for the past nineteen months that you were not here?"

Rukia chokes on her pudding, unprepared for the question.

Orihime smiles sunnily as Ichigo pounds Rukia's back. "Actually, Rukia-chan did come here! Didn't I see you at the New Year's countdown? I thought I spotted you in the crowd but then you disappeared." She scrunches up her nose in confusion.

Ichigo pauses his pounding. Rukia squirms under his scrutiny. "Is this true?"

Eyes wide, she chugs down more water to stall for time. Taking advantage of the silence, Karin speaks up in her monotone. "I saw her in early December, too, the first time it snowed. In the park on the -"

Rukia blasts water out her nose, and grabs a napkin, pressing it to her nose and mouth. Isshin starts wailing, "Are you choking, Rukia-chan? Here, let us do the Heimlich maneuver! I don't want you dying at our table. Except that you are already dead! Your face is so red, can you even breathe?"

He hoists her out of her chair, and performs the maneuver. Rukia gasps for air, and manages to struggle out of the arms.

"I am alright," she sputters, noting the huge smile on Orihime's face and the knowing gleam in Karin's eye.

Ichigo's face is blank; this is new. Normally Rukia can read every emotion on his face like a book. She feels uneasy.

She manages to steady herself on the table, flashing a weak smile to the younger girls. "I need to go to the bathroom." She announces, fleeing.

 


 

In the bathroom, Rukia splashes her face with cold water, to ease her burning cheeks. For a moment she considers jumping out the window and escaping. The face of Byakuya hovers above her, looking disapproving.

Rukia sighs. "I know, oni-sama. Kuchikis do not run away." The turmoil in her has her stomach yowling. She looks down ruefully, and then stares herself down in the mirror. "Think, Rukia. What would Byakuya do?"

A mental image of Byakuya at the Kurosaki dinner table has her smiling reluctantly. He would probably never have gotten into this situation in the first place. Sighing, she pounds her forehead against the door.

Rukia yelps as someone knocks from the other side of the door.

"Rukia-chan! Are you okay in there?" Orihime's clear voice comes through. Rukia turns her head, contemplating the door for a moment. Another knock comes through.

"Rukia?" Ichigo. With a groan, she sinks to a crouch, burying her face in her knees.

"I'm okay," she mumbles, wishing she was anywhere but there. "Both of you, I'm fine."

She hears the knob turn. Orihime pops in with a sheepish smile, slamming the door in Ichigo's face and locking it again. At Rukia's questioning look, she holds up a key. "I got it from Karin."

Rukia gets to her feet slowly. "Hey, did you need to use the bathroom?"

Orihime studies her for a long moment. Rukia returns the glance.

This girl, too, has changed, since Hueco Mundo. Two years ago she would have been bubbly and chirping about anything that crossed her mind, but this Orihime feels sadder, a little more careworn, and a little more thoughtful.

She feels a little bad for not keeping in touch with Orihime. Rukia looks at her thoroughly now; longer hair, dark circles under her eyes, and that glow of innocence missing from her eyes.

"Oh, Orihime." Rukia brushes the auburn hair behind the younger girl's ear, feeling her heart break. Orihime had never opened up to anyone about Hueco Mundo. "What happened to you in … I'm sorry we left right after you got back here." Rukia is overcome by guilt. "I should have visited you. Should have talked to you. You can tell me anything."

Orihime takes her hand. "It's okay, Rukia-chan. And please do not feel bad. It wasn't your fault, none of it." She smiles sadly. "I'll tell you someday. But not now."

The red-haired girl sits on the tub's edge. "Rukia-chan, can I talk to you about Kurosaki-kun?"

Rukia blinks, and sinks to sit on top of the closed toilet, mentally bracing herself. "Sure."

"When we were in grade school, and middle school, I was bullied. A lot. And when my brother died- there was nobody left." Tsukushima's face pops into Orihime's head, but she pushes that memory away and goes back to the present.

"Nobody cared. Until Tatsuki-chan. In high school, one day, Tatsuki-chan was away at a tournament and I was cornered by some boys. And Kurosaki-kun rescued me that day." She gives Rukia a rueful smile. "He was like the sun, after I had lived in darkness for so long. It was so easy for me to get a crush on him."

Rukia nods, uncomfortable with Orihime's story.

"And he does that, that Kurosaki-kun, doesn't he glow?" Orihime smiles fondly. "And for the longest time I thought he could fix me, and I could hide behind him, you know? But it isn't because he likes me, that he helps me. It's because he helps everyone."

"That's not true," Rukia says, automatically.

Orihime shakes her head with a laugh. "Rukia-chan, you know it is. If he sees something he thinks is unfair, he will do his best to correct it."

Rukia nods, casting her eyes on the ground.

"And I am a terrible person, Rukia-chan," Orihime says quietly. "When he met you, and you started coming to our school, I did not want to see how happy he was around you. And you were so kind to me, and so smart and so strong, everything I wanted to be. And part of me resented you for it. And all of you kept bailing me out, rescuing me. I got tired of being helpless, and being the one always in danger. That's why I went to Las Noches. Then we came back, and you left. He was not the same afterwards, you know."

She meets Rukia's eyes. "He was broken."

"His Reiatsu...," Rukia starts to say, but stops at Orihime's stare.

"No, Rukia-chan." Orihime reaches forward and puts her hand on Rukia's. "Not just that. He was wandering around like a limb had been cut off. I know how that feels. And I thought for a while that maybe he and I could be one whole person together, instead of two halves left behind. But, for people like us, it doesn't work that way."

She smiles at herself. "Not that he even noticed. He used to bug Urahara-san, asking if you had come to visit. Then he stopped talking about you altogether." Her eyes look sad again. "I know what that is like. When the hole is so big and painful that you just want to pretend it isn't there."

"Rukia-chan. The fact that you couldn't stay away means that maybe you felt this hole too." Orihime grips both her hands earnestly. "Did you not want me to tell him about your visit?"

"B-but," Rukia stammers, her cheeks blazing. "But don't you love him?"

Orihime gives her a faraway smile, and squeezes her hand gently. "Oh, I do, but not like you do. And lately, my tastes in men have changed." Both girls rise and head to the door. "Besides, his eyes aren't green enough."

She unlocks the door, and Isshin and Yuzu tumble in.

"Bathroom's all yours," Rukia smiles.

 


 

Isshin insists that the girls spend the night. Futons are laid out in the spare bedroom, and Orihime, still recovering, passes out immediately.

After an hour of tossing and turning, Rukia decides to get up and grab a drink of water.

The hallway is dark, but having lived here for so long, Rukia doesn't need to switch on the lights. She tiptoes down the stairs, and makes her way to the water cooler humming in the corner.

The familiar kitchen comforts her too, with the green glow of the temperature display blinking in the dark room. She fills her glass halfway and takes a long cold sip. As she puts it in the sink, she feels the trace of reiatsu in the room, barely masked. Her eyes narrow. "Ichigo."

"Couldn't sleep too?" His husky voice carries across the kitchen table. She can barely make out his form in the dark, but the streetlights coming in the windows are reflected in his golden eyes.

All her senses are on alert, as he finds her gaze. "Just thirsty," she replies, unconsciously backing up against the counter.

He cocks his head. "So, Rukia."

This was not the boy she left almost two years ago. She can see the muscles in his broad shoulders, clearly defined under his shirt. She wonders, briefly, if his inner Hollow has taken over, by the almost predatory way he watches her. She looks to the stairs, trying to calculate the distance.

"What?" When she turns back, he is now directly in front of her, two feet away. Close enough to touch.

He takes a half-step forward. She flinches. "Are you afraid of me?" He is now close enough that she can hear him whispering.

Rukia lets out a nervous laugh. "Of course not, Kurosaki." She bites her lower lip as he studies her. He takes another half-step closer, then another. "But you're in my space. Quit crowding me."

Ichigo puts both hands on the edge of the counter, effectively trapping her. "But you seem to be so jumpy," he says quietly, bringing his head down.

She braces an arm against his shoulder, pushing against it. "What are you doing?"

He keeps his arms loose. They both know if she pushes him away he will let her, but Rukia does not.

He smiles gently at her. "I just need to check something, okay?" Sliding his hands up to cradle her head, he lowers his. Eyes wide, she covers her lips, palm facing him. He presses a gentle kiss to her fingers, and pulls back slightly, triumphant.

"So that was you." Ichigo smiles, and plants a kiss on her forehead. Rukia, surprised, stares off in the distance, unaware that her other hand is gripping his shirt. He lifts her easily, so she sits on the counter edge, and stands between her knees. Now they are looking each other in the eye and Rukia is feeling very exposed.

She averts her eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about," she mutters. Ichigo locks an arm around her waist, using the other to stroke the hair away from her face, leaving her nothing to hide behind. "And stop."

"I like your new haircut." His voice is gruff. "I get to see this. Every time I see your neck now it makes me want to bite you here." He runs a finger up the nape of her neck, making her shiver. Rukia heaves a shuddering breath, trying not to close her eyes at his touch. "And your - "

She silences him by placing her fingertips on his mouth, afraid to hear anything more. She feels him smile under her touch, and his eyes are gentle and patient and full of something that terrifies her more than Hollows or Arrancars or runaway Captains.

Slowly, she slides her hand down, eyes still locked on his. Then she leans forward, brushing her lips almost shyly against his at first. Her eyes slide closed, as she pulls him closer.

Time stops.

The world is reduced to this: hot breaths mingling as his control snaps, hands tangling in her hair, muffled whimpers ('Was that me?' Rukia wonders in a remote corner of her mind), soft slow nibbles, hard nips that have her aching for more, long lazy licks that have tears gathering at the corners of her eyes.

But this is Ichigo. She fights to gain some semblance of sanity, breaking away abruptly and resting her forehead against his. "Ichigo," she gasps out his name, but he goes on anyway, nibbling on the tender spot under her ear. Her toes curl, and dig into the back of his legs.

He smiles darkly against her neck, pleased with himself and the little catch of breath she makes. "Like that, huh?" She is drowning, fighting for air, fighting for more of him. He pulls her closer against him, until his heat is wrapped all around her, and her skin is on fire. He sucks on her lower lip, tasting her, then retakes her mouth again. He slips his hand under her shirt, stroking the skin of her waist with his fingertips. She wraps her arms around his, neck, pulling him closer.

There is a buzzing in her pocket. Rukia pushes him back abruptly, and picks up the communicator with trembling hands. He rests his forehead against her neck, nuzzling with his nose, unable to stop touching her.

"Hello?" she says, praying that her voice does not betray her. Her eyes half-close as runs his fingertips up and down her spine.

"Kuchiki fukutaichou." The reminder of her position has her stiffening her back. "You have been cleared to come home with the Substitute Shinigami effective immediately. Please open a senkaimon at your earliest convenience." The line goes dead.

A pheromone-intoxicated Rukia tries to summon the words that would put an end to this. "That was the Seiritei. We have to go back immediately. This- this was"

A mistake.

Temporary insanity.

But before she can finish, Ichigo pulls away. He eases her off the counter to stand on trembling legs and plants one last sweet kiss on her nose.

"I'm sorry," Rukia tries again, her cheeks rosy. "We can't -"

"We can." Ichigo grins at her. "And we're not done yet. We should let dad and the girls know we are leaving, then let's head out."

 


 

The two of them stand on the riverbank, both in their Shinigami forms.

Rukia is feeling restless, and does not know how to deal with this new development. Also, she has no idea what he is going to say or why he has requested a meeting with the Captain Commander. Usually, lack of preparation has her cranky and unsettled. Now is not an exception.

The calmer Ichigo is, the more nervous she gets.

"What are you going to talk about?" Rukia scowls.

"You'll see." He grins. She stabs her Zanpakuto into thin air and twists it. A door appears.

He steps in, and turns back to her, holding out his hand. Rukia eyes it suspiciously. Is he going to quit being a substitute shinigami? Or is it something else entirely?

Then she looks into his whiskey-coloured eyes and feels her stomach settle.

This is Ichigo Kurosaki, after all. Half-shinigami, partially hollow, and not fully grown, but he has already changed the Seiritei and the world.

Settling her lips into a half-smile, she takes his hand and follows him into the doors.

 

Chapter Text

IX.

.

.

Renji appears out of nowhere, interrupting Ichigo's march into the 1st Division offices. "Ichigo!"

"Hey Renji!" the human redhead greets him back, "How are you doing?" Without breaking his stride, he walks past him.

Surprised, Renji blurts out, "Good!" For a moment, his good manners override his common sense, but he swiftly spins around, grabbing Ichigo's shoulders. "Hey, wait a minute. What are you doing here?"

A light touch on his arm stops him. "Eh, Rukia, what's going on, why is he-" Renji studies the face of his oldest friend. She is glowing. Hmm…. interesting.

"He says he wants to speak directly with Captain Commander Yamamoto. We just received permission to enter," Rukia says as Ichigo gives him a curt nod and holds his hand out to her.

She and Renji eye his outstretched hand for a moment, before Ichigo grabs Rukia's sleeve and continues his walk. Renji blinks, confused as to why Rukia is not breaking Ichigo's arm for touching her. In fact, she seems to be blushing. And then a light bulb pops into his head.

Still… "Hey, wait up," Renji calls, scampering after them.

 


 

It is said that in the Seiritei, the only thing faster than Byakuya Kuchiki's shunpo is gossip.

The captains are all waiting in the antechamber when the three walk in. Rukia yanks her sleeve out of Ichigo's fingers the moment she senses her brother's reiatsu.

Ichigo is surprised. "Oh, what's this? Are all of you here to greet me?"

Soi Fon materializes next to him. "Not all. Kurotsuchi and Ukitake cannot make it."

Rukia watches silently as Ichigo greets the other captains. He's one of them now, she thinks. Even if he doesn't realize it.

The big doors to the meeting room creak open, signalling the arrival of Captain Yamamoto. Immediately, Rukia and Renji drop to one knee. "Rukia-" Renji mutters out of the corner of his mouth. "I think we should-"

"Lieutenants Abarai and Kuchiki, have a seat at the end," the Captain Commander interrupts him.

Rukia looks up at the line of Captains, the most powerful shinigami of the Seiritei. Her brother meets her eyes for a moment and gives her an imperceptible nod. She returns it.

Ichigo's movement forward draws her attention again. She watches as he interrupts the Head Captain's accolades and makes his outrageous request to bury Ginjo Kugo's body properly in the world of the living. Everyone in the room is shocked.

Even she is surprised, but Shinji Hirako steps forward, asking why he would want to do something for the man who messed up his friends and family.

"It's not about forgiveness." Ichigo's clear baritone rings throughout the room. "My family and friends are- or will be back to normal. I'm still alive. And he's just a substitute soul reaper."

The Head Captain asks sternly if he has considered all the ramifications.

"Screw the ramifications," he grins.

'It's true what Orihime said,' Rukia thinks. 'He does shine. Even here he stands tall and talks to Captain Commander Yamamoto, not disrespectfully, but as if he were an equal. And nobody else would ever get away with speaking to the Captain Commander like that.'

"I simply want to do this for him as a fellow substitute soul reaper. Since I am going to continue to be one." Ichigo makes his announcement solemnly. The captains break into huge smiles.

Rukia feels tears rise to her eyes, and for the life of her, she does not know why. She watches the Head Captain grant his request.

He also asks that his substitute badge to be recognized by the shinigami assigned to Karakura town.

"There is no need for that." The Captain Commander has a glint in his eye. "Since as of today, Kuchiki Rukia, Fukutaichou of the 13th Division will now be permanently assigned to Karakura town. Abarai Renji, Fukutaichou of the 6th, will be her alternate." Ichigo breaks into a smile, but Rukia is not expecting this.

"Since she is responsible for your presence here, she will continue to monitor you. All communications to the Seiritei will be through her. You will also need to return here periodically to continue your training and report to us. Is that clear?"

His grin is blinding. "Yes, Soutaichou."

The Head Captain dismisses them all, and the captains file out the door. Rukia and Renji remain kneeling, heads bowed.

Rukia nods, her eyes flying to Byakuya. He does not look surprised, but then he never shows his emotions on his face. But he pauses as he passes her, eyes straight. "Vice-Captain Kuchiki Rukia."

"Yes, Captain Kuchiki," she murmurs in reply.

"Congratulations on your new assignment." Byakuya does not turn to look at her.

"Thank you, Captain." Rukia stares at the ground.

"And Vice-Captain Abarai."

Renji straightens. "Yes, Captain."

"If anything happens to my sister, I will break every bone in your body." The threat is delivered mildly, causing Renji to break out in a cold sweat. Byakuya turns his head to deliver a death glare to his vice-captain, and then sails on.

Both of them get to their feet once all the Captains pass. Renji rubs the back of his head ruefully. "Well, Rukia, I guess that means no hanky-panky for you."

Instead of her usual retort, she blushes a bright pink.

"Wait." He cocks his head, studying her. "Wait a minute. Does this mean- Are you and Ichi-"

"NO!" Rukia snaps, her face burning. "Whatever you are thinking, stop thinking that."

Renji's jaw hangs open. "So you guys really-"

"No!" Panicking, Rukia plants her fist in his face. He ducks it and grabs her wrist, quirking a tattooed eyebrow at her.

Angrily, she shakes him off and stomps out to the outer chamber.

 


 

Some of the captains and other vice captains are congratulating Ichigo with pats on the back. She stands in the corner, waiting.

Through the crowd, Ichigo's eyes search for hers and lock on. He stares at her for a moment, then winks. Another wave of heat washes through Rukia. Confused by her feelings, she walks out, trying to escape his gaze.

Ichigo turns back to his audience.

 


 

The Kidou Corps assist Ichigo with the transport of Kugo's body into the world of the living. Because of the paperwork and details, they only have a brief moment to say goodbye at the Senkaimon.

Ichigo waves at her. "See you around, Rukia."

Rukia smirks. "How many times have I heard you say that?"

He gives her a long look, that promises things Rukia is not ready to think about. "It won't be the last time, so it doesn't matter."

Rukia's breath hitches at the heat in his eyes.

Then the doors close behind Ichigo and he is gone. She watches the light pillar shoot into the sky.

"So," Renji teases beside her. "Care to tell me what that was all about?"

 


 

Rukia sits in her room on the polished wooden floor, packing for her return to the real world.

She pulls out a box from her closet. The Chappy Charm from Yuzu, manga from Karin, the dress from Ishida, a pair of shoes from Isshin, hairpins from Orihime - all of them were inappropriate here in the Seiritei, but in the real world she would fit in. She smiles.

A red envelope tumbles out. Ichigo's unopened letter, she thinks, her brow furrowing. For a moment Rukia is tempted to burn it, too afraid to look. Then she gives herself a mental shake. 'It's only a letter. And he wrote it in early December. Maybe he was forced to.'

Finding a knife, she slits the seal, and then opens it.

Dear Rukia,

See you soon.

Ichigo

The letter is short, but this dated was weeks before the New Year and months before Kugo made contact. There is also a badly drawn Chappy in the corner with a Santa hat.

Even then, she wonders, was he so sure he would see me again?

 


 

Because of the impropriety of Rukia's previous accommodations, Byakuya insists on getting a separate apartment for her, closer to the school.

"You will not be beholden to a mere Kurosaki," he sneers as he hands her the keys and a sheet of paper with the address and layout.

She reads it and looks up in surprise. "Oni-sama. Why did you rent a two-bedroom apartment?"

Byakuya glares at a spot in the distance. "That is so that if guests stay over, you will not be forced to share a room with them. Especially not Kurosaki or Abarai. You will, of course, behave in a manner befitting a Kuchiki. "

Rukia smiles. "Yes, Oni-sama." She bows again, and picks up her luggage.

 


 

Ichigo and Chad are waiting at the riverbank when the Senkaimon doors open. Rukia is half-disappointed but half-relieved that she is not alone with Ichigo. She flashes a grateful smile to Chad as he picks up her bag, with Ichigo hefting the other over his shoulder.

The muscles of his back ripple under his shirt, hinting at the body underneath. Rukia is mesmerized. She raises her eyes slowly to meet his. Ichigo wags his eyebrows at her. "Like what you see?"

Sputtering, Rukia marches past him, nose in the air.

They head to Urahara's to pick up her gigai.

She notices, as she enters the room, that her gigai's hair has now been modified to match her current hairstyle.

Rukia looks at the physical body's lips. Two days ago, those lips had kissed Ichigo. Just the thought of that has her stomach flip flopping again.

With a sigh, she leans into the body, waiting for the drowning sensation to close over her head.

As with the previous time, Ichigo is in her face when she opens her eyes. He kneels beside her seated body, her knees at his hips.

"Kurosaki," Rukia snaps, overcome by a sense of deja vu. She frowns slightly, feeling like a deer in headlights. "Why do you always do this?"

Ichigo leans forward, so he can whisper playfully in her ear. "How come you call me Kurosaki when you're angry, but Ichigo when I'm touching you?"

Her breathing hitches again as his breath tickles her neck. "What?"

"Here." He demonstrates by sliding the tips of his fingers up her exposed calf, searching her eyes. Her lips tremble as she sucks in her next breath. He ends his exploration at her knee, stroking the soft skin at the back.

"I-Ichigo." Rukia hates how weak her voice is. He isn't smiling- he is just studying her intently.

"I like how you say my name," Ichigo says, using his other hand to tip up her chin. "Your eyes are darker." He lowers his face slowly, brushing her nose with his, his lips a breath away.

Rukia takes the last threads of her self-control and scowls, twisting out from under him and getting to her feet. "Let's go. I need to get settled into my apartment and we have school tomorrow."

He watches her leave the room with grin. "Well, you wouldn't be my Rukia if you didn't put up a fight," he says quietly.

 


 

Rukia unlocks the door to the furnished apartment, and flicks on the light switch. Byakuya definitely went all-out, as it was luxurious and elegant. It is the biggest space Rukia has ever had to herself, excluding her suite at the Kuchiki manor.

The lights gleam off the polished marble floors and the furniture is modern and minimalist. She wonders, though, if he knows how modern the condo is, because Byakuya's tastes run to the classic.

Behind her, Ichigo lets out a whistle. "This place is nice." He pulls her luggage to the side and wanders over to the far window, which overlooks the city.

He stands by the glass, hands in pockets. Rukia joins him, standing just out of arms' reach.

"Oni-sama picked this place out," she says, pressing her nose to the glass.

"You like heights and high places." Ichigo observes her delight. "This is perfect for you." Rukia sends a mental thank you to her brother, nodding. She is absurdly pleased that Ichigo has noticed this about her.

"Are you hungry, Rukia?" He crosses the spacious living room to poke into the kitchen, pulling the refrigerator door open. It is stocked with food, another detail that Byakuya saw to.

"No," she calls back, watching Ichigo open drawers and doors.

Suddenly, Rukia feels anxious. Ichigo is everywhere, in her space, imprinting himself in her mind. They are definitely alone together now, and all her senses are on alert. He has to go, she thinks. Before she associates everything in her apartment with him.

"Thank you for bringing my bag up." She hooks a hand around his elbow and drags him to the entryway. "Thanks, Ichigo. I'll patrol with you tomorrow, see you at school."

Ichigo puts one palm on the front door and pulls her in front of him, effectively trapping her. "Why are you panicking, Rukia?" His whiskey eyes study her curiously. "Do you not like having me here? You do know we still have to talk."

"Talk?" Rukia can hear her heart pounding. "Talk about what? Oh, look at the time. We can talk another time. It's getting late and I'm really -"

Ichigo kisses her between the eyebrows, his eyes crinkling when he pulls back. "Oh Rukia, you really are adorable."

"What?" She blinks up at him.

"Yes," he says, brushing her hair away from her face with two fingertips. "It's scary how much I like you. And you make that cute face- I'm not going to sleep tonight thinking about you."

Tipping her chin up, he brushes a light kiss on her lips, then follows it with a sharp nip on her lower lip, stoking the fire in her.

Helplessly, she whimpers, grabbing his shirt in her fists to pull him closer.

This is what it's like, she thinks. To be devoured.

He slants his lips over hers, pushing her up against the door so she is straddling him, her softness cradling him. Her fingers claw at his shoulders, trying to find her balance in this suddenly tilted reality.

His fingers spear into her hair to tilt her head back, exposing the vulnerable curve of her neck. "Strawberries and cucumbers," he murmurs against her lips. "I missed your scent so much. I thought I was going to go crazy."

Then Ichigo changes his angle, dragging his teeth across her jaw to nibble on her chin, to feast on her throat with hot open-mouthed kisses.

Rukia sinks her teeth into her lower lip, biting back moans. A dark hunger rises now in the pit of her stomach, spreading through her core.

"Missed you-" Ichigo growls, sinking his teeth gently into her shoulder. "So much." He soothes the light marks with the tip of his tongue. "So damn much."

Ichigo slides a hand under her shirt to stroke her skin. Her skin burns from his touch, driving her crazy. She moans, arching her back. Her fingernails dig into his shoulders, as Rukia offers herself up to him. She can feel him throbbing against her, her frantic heartbeat matching his, an unfamiliar hardness against her soft center.

"Do you like my hands on you?" he whispers softly, stroking circles on the small of her back as he starts to rock gently against her. "Do you like this, Rukia?"

She buries her scream in his shoulder, gripping him for dear life. This delicious pressure is building, spiraling and Rukia is afraid that it will drive her insane. This suffocating pleasure is threatening to swallow her whole.

He continues to thrust against her, dark triumph in his eyes as he watches her come undone in his arms, planting soft sweet kisses on her lips that do not match the dark things he whispers into her ear.

Rukia wonders if she can survive this intensity, her eyes filling from a purely physical reaction. She clenches her eyes shut. A tear rolls down her cheek, dropping on his ear.

Ichigo stops. "Are you-"

He looks at her drenched eyes, her flushed cheeks, her swollen lips, then fights to clear his head. Now she can see his eyes, and they are gleaming with want of her. Still, he has remarkable self control for a teenage boy.

"You are terrifying, Rukia," he says hoarsely, leaning his forehead against hers, both of them gasping for air. "Because I have never felt like this before."

He holds her tight for a moment; so tight that Rukia can't breathe- then he slowly slides her legs down from around her waist. "Ichigo," she whimpers as her newly sensitive parts brush against unfamiliar places.

At the sound of his name, he brushes another kiss on her lips, steadying her with an arm around her waist. "You know, I hear you say my name and I lose it." Ichigo gives her a lopsided grin. "And we still have to talk. Stop distracting me, woman."

Rukia's knees give out, and he catches her. She can only stare at him, her mind still recovering from the earlier onslaught. He guides her to the black sofa, setting her down gently.

"You have to go now," Rukia says softly, looking down.

"Yes," Ichigo agrees, kneeling in front of her. He cups her cheeks and presses a heartbreakingly tender kiss on her lips. "Dream about me, Kuchiki. I'll see you in the morning. Then we'll talk."

She can only watch as he leaves, locking the door behind him.

The moment the door closes, Rukia grabs the nearest couch pillow and covers her burning face, wondering how she can face him in the morning.

 

Ichigo waits on the rooftop, looking at the apartment window until the lights go out. Then, he turns, smiling to himself, hopping from roof to roof until he gets home.

 

Chapter Text

X.


* OTA DOKAN

1432-1486

.

Had I not known

that I was dead

already

I would have mourned

my loss of life.

.


** IZUMI SHIKIBU

974-1034

.

Soon I shall cease to be.

When I am beyond this world,

can I have the memory

of just one more meeting?

.


 

 

Rukia stomps into the classroom, her hair dripping from the morning's unexpected downpour.

Ichigo smiles inwardly, absurdly pleased to see her in his classroom, in her usual place. A few months ago he would have given anything for this day.

He watches how the sudden chill brings out the roses in her cheeks, and her thin school-issue blouse is soaked through, showing the lace and cotton underneath. The wet white blouse clings to her like icing on a particularly delectable cake.

Rukia pulls the front of her blouse away from her body, scowling. Keigo is ecstatic, leering at the petite girl from behind his manga.

Face blank, Ichigo whacks him on the back of his head as he crosses the aisle to Rukia's seat.

She looks up at him just as he whips off his sweater and drapes it over her, protecting her modesty. The thick wool sweater could be a blanket on her; Ichigo has gone up a few sizes since he started getting muscular. And she looks adorable in his sweater.

The two of them stare at each other for a moment, a silent battle of wills. Then, just as wordlessly, Ichigo heads back to his seat. Rukia turns back to the front of the classroom, cheeks pink as she pulls out a textbook.

Wide-eyed, Keigo turns to Mizuiro. "What was that?" he asks, looking interestedly between Ichigo, who is now napping on his desk, and Rukia, who is studying, while gripping Ichigo's sweater tighter around her.

"Hmm?" Mizuiro looks up from his phone.

Chad also watches the two of them, a small smile playing at the corner of his lips.

 


 

It is now the end of the day, and Ichigo is amused by how Rukia has managed to avoid being alone with him at any point. He joins the rest of the class in bowing to the teacher, and then gets up with everyone else, packing up his bag.

Rukia turns to him, opening her mouth to say something, then closing it to focus on her own bag. He pretends he didn't see it, digging through his own backpack. "Hey, Rukia."

She jumps. "Y-yes, Ichigo?"

"I have an umbrella, do you need it?" he tosses the words carelessly over his shoulder, not even looking in her direction.

"Oh, you can walk with us!" Orihime chirps, interrupting them both. She, Tatsuki and Chizuru wave gaily from the front of the classroom.

"Yes, Kuchiki-chan!" Tatsuki agrees. "We haven't seen you in a while, we should catch up!"

Rukia turns to face them, smiling in relief. "Alright." But hesitantly, she turns back to Ichigo, who is stretching. She watches the play of his back muscles under his uniform, completely distracted.

He notices her staring and quirks an eyebrow at her innocently. Rukia hastily takes a step back, and crashes into her chair, knocking it over. She loses her balance, too, but Ichigo grabs her wrist before she can fall backwards.

"Hey, you ok?" Ichigo murmurs, pulling her into his arms.

Rukia's ear is pressed into his chest, and he strokes her hair gently. The three girls watch with wide eyes as Ichigo presses a light kiss to the top of her head.

Then he lets go, leaving her strangely bereft. "You are so scary, Rukia." He chides. "Are you going to destroy the classroom?" He watches the heat climb into her cheeks at his teasing. Ichigo rights the chair behind her, careful not to touch her.

"Have fun, all of you. See you tomorrow." He waves at all of them, and exits the classroom, whistling. The look in her eyes is one of confusion, but the other girls rush to her. They all watch him leave, and then whirl on her.

 


 

She shows up at his window at midnight, with a paper bag.

"A present? For me?" Ichigo exclaims playfully, looking up from his homework.

"It's your sweater," Rukia mutters, placing the bag on his bed. "Thank you for lending it to me. And are you almost done? We need to go patrolling."

"Let me finish this essay for Japanese Literature. Are you done with yours?" Ichigo smiles at her. She looks so restless and anxious being alone with him, so she starts pacing the room behind him.

"Yes," Rukia says, settling on the farthest wall away from him, sitting down. "I did mine on Ota Dokan's death poem*."

"That's pretty depressing. Why don't you sit on the bed?" Ichigo sends her an innocent glance. "That can't be comfortable."

"No. I'm fine." Rukia sits cross-legged, fiddling with her phone. After a few minutes, she asks, "What is your essay on?"

"Izumi Shikibu's poem**," he replies absently, scratching away with his pen.

"Which one?" Rukia asks curiously.

Ichigo turns his head to meet her gaze.

"Soon I shall cease to be.

When I am beyond this world,

Can I have the memory

Of just one more meeting?"

His voice echoes in the stillness of the room, and he hears Rukia's breath catch. He holds her eyes for a moment, and then smiles. "Beautiful, isn't it? I read it and it gripped me by the throat."

The spell is broken. Rukia's eyes slide away. "Yes," she whispers, her fingers gripping the cloth of her shihakusho. They lapse into silence again, and Ichigo can almost hear the gears in her head turning. He finishes his essay and puts it into his school book.

Arranging his body on the bed, Ichigo reaches for his badge. Leaving his physical body is always strange. He pops out, lurching to his feet, Zangetsu slung across his body.

Rukia gets to her feet, a faraway look in her eyes. He can tell she is still thinking about his poem. "Hey." He tugs her sleeve lightly. "Are you ready?"

Ichigo watches her shake off her distraction. "Yes, sorry."

He crosses the room to flip off the light, and turns. In the moonlight, he can see Rukia standing by the bed, looking down at his body. She reaches out as if to touch his face, and then pulls her hand back rapidly.

"I wonder," Ichigo's murmur in her ear has her jumping up in surprise, "if you touched me at all when I could not see you."

"Yes," Rukia answers honestly, looking down at his unconscious face. She turns to look him in the eye. "I did. But you could not feel me."

He cocks his head, looking down at her. "I think I could, though. There were moments when I felt your presence."

Rukia shakes her head. "That's not possible." She steps on the bed, and out the window. He watches her slim figure outlined in the moonlight, then follows her outside.

 


 

They stand on a rooftop in town. Ichigo has always known that Rukia likes high places. He takes in the look on her face and carefully files it away; purple eyes glowing in the moonlight, hair slightly windblown. She is in her element here, with Sode No Shirayuki's ribbon dancing in the breeze behind her.

"So," Ichigo begins conversationally. "What did you do to me while I could not see you?"

Her head snaps to his direction. "What?"

Ichigo stands next to her, knowing she is slowly bristling. "Did you touch me inappropriately?"

"No." Her voice drips ice.

Ichigo stares at the moon, knowing that her defenses are up. "But you touched me?"

"Well- Yes." Rukia frowns, lowering her gaze to the empty street. He risks a glance at her and resists the urge to kiss her adorable pout.

"Well-" He mocks gently, clasping his hands behind his back. "I already know you kissed me. What else did you do to me?"

"I-" Ichigo hears the guilt in Rukia's voice. "I watched you sleep."

"You cuddled me too," he points out smugly.

"How did you-" Rukia looks back at him, and narrows her eyes, caught in his trap. She shuts her mouth abruptly, and gives him a slight nod. "But that was an accident. I was sitting on the other end of the bed, waiting for morning so I could get back to the senkaimon of the Kasumioji. I had fallen asleep."

Ichigo keeps his eyes on the moon. "Anything else? I don't think shinigami are allowed to molest unsuspecting mortals. And Rurichiyo helped you?" He shakes his head in mock disapproval. "Rukia Kuchiki, I'm surprised at you. Definitely scarier than I thought. Did you watch me when I was naked? Or showering?"

He hears her suck in a lungful of balmy summer air, presumably so she doesn't kill him. "I never molested you. I am not a voyeur," she says finally in calm measured tones, though he can feel the aggravation underneath.

They stand in silence for a moment.

"Did you know, Rukia, that there is a superstition in some cultures? That two people who see the first snow of the year together are meant to be together," Ichigo says quietly. His hand reaches across the space between them, finding hers. She looks down at their joined hands, echoes of that day long ago.

"But that doesn't make any sense," Rukia points out, flustered. "What if a lot of people see the first snow of the year together? Or what if the other person is related to you? What if -" Then her eyes widen. "You knew?"

Ichigo squeezes her cold fingers lightly. "Of course I knew you were beside me on that bench." He laces their fingers together, pulling her closer to his side. "And I'm trying to be romantic here."

"Oh." Rukia is quiet. "Did Karin tell you?"

"Oh, for the- you aggravating woman, no, Karin didn't tell me." He sighs in exasperation. "She didn't tell me anything."

"Then how-" Rukia is silenced by his finger on her lips.

"Did you think I wouldn't know?" His eyes are amber pools in the moonlight, a heartbeat away from hers. "I don't need to see you, Rukia, to know you are here." He takes her other palm and holds it to his heart. "I know. I will always know."

"And I want to take the next step with you." He watches her eyes fill with tears. "This heart, this is yours. And everything I am. I am yours. You know this." He gently wipes a tear away. "And the universe keeps throwing us together. Maybe it's time we listened." Ichigo traces her trembling lower lip with his thumb. "Heck, I'll even talk to Byakuya."

She rewards him with a watery smile. "Seriously, Kurosaki, you really need to pay more respect to my brother. He is a noble."

"Ichigo," he corrects her tenderly.

"Idiot," she retorts, sniffling.

"Scary woman," he shoots back, still cradling her face, "who stabbed me repeatedly, broke me and put me back together and stole my heart. Love of my life." He plants a kiss on her lips. "I'd storm the Seiritei for you."

She rolls her eyes at that, laughing slightly. "And we'll figure everything out eventually," he promises. "So."

"So," Rukia echoes.

"So, I told you we would talk later." He smirks at her. "Let's make this official. Rukia Kuchiki, will you be my girlfriend?"

 


 

Two days later -

"My lord," The butler intones, interrupting Byakuya's morning calligraphy hour.

The noble raises his head from the parchment. "Yes?"

"The ryoka, Kurosaki here to see you." The butler looks discomfited.

"Hmm." Byakuya's graceful brows knit together. "Did he tell you what the purpose was?"

"No, my lord." The butler says, eyebrows furrowed. "But he came bearing gifts."

Byakuya drops the brush he is holding. It lands with a wet splat on the expensive carpet, marring the weave with black ink. The butler, in all his years at the Kuchiki Manor, has never seen the Master lose his composure.

"It has happened, then." Byakuya rises to his feet. "Make him wait in the sitting room, and send for my valet to attend to me. Also, summon the elders."

The butler nods, watching the inkstain spread on the carpet with some dismay.

 


 

After a few hours, Ichigo is ushered into the main court of Kuchiki Manor. He takes one look at Byakuya and is rendered speechless.

The head of the Kuchiki family is decked out what looks like a more elaborate version of the shihakusho, with the family crest embroidered on- is that platinum thread?- the lapel of a black haori. In fact, even if all his clothes are black, they were covered in intricate embroideries of sakura blossoms, all in black thread. His "worth-ten-mansions-scarf"has also made an appearance, wrapped snugly around his neck even as it is high summer.

Byakuya is sitting on a raised throne, carved with cranes and cherry blossoms. Three older people flank him, sitting on lower seats.

"Kurosaki," Byakuya says, boredom dripping from his voice. "Why are you here?"

Ichigo smiles weakly and drops to his knees, sitting in the seiza position, before moving to the formal deep bowing position, his forehead touching the tatami mat.

He does not hear Byakuya's intake of breath nor his muttered, "Seriously?"

The elders do, though, and they look with concern at the head of the family.

"Kuchiki-dono," Ichigi forces the words out past the lump on his throat. "Please accept my-" he glances furtively at the words written on his hands, "humble offerings as a token of my esteem for your fair sister. May they be pleasing to you."

A servant carrying a basket of bananas walks in, and places it in front of Byakuya. The noble raises an eyebrow.

"Perhaps… Are you calling me a monkey?" he asks silkily, his grey eyes blasting Ichigo.

"N-no… Rukia told me they are your favourite...," Ichigo stammers. The elders turn their heads and glare at him.

"Leave." Two burly servants grab Ichigo's arms and drag him out the courtyard.

 


 

The scene is repeated four days later at sunset. Ichigo rushes into the senkaimon after school, armed with a bunch of cherry blossom branches from a local flower shop.

"I heard you like cherry blossoms," Ichigo tells Byakuya. "These were grown in a greenhouse so that they bloomed year-round."

"You mutilated cherry trees because you thought I would be pleased?" Byakuya raises an eyebrow, shooting a glance at the doormen. "You may leave."

They pick Ichigo up and throw him out again.

 


 

"It is called sriracha sauce," Ichigo announces, two days later. "It is to make food spicy. I understand that you prefer spicy foods."

"Is it made with real cocks?" Byakuya gestures to the brand's chicken mascot.

"N-no, it is made with peppers," Ichigo replies, wondering where this is going.

"Then it is a lie?" Byakuya says coolly. "You dare to present the head of the Kuchiki family with a falsely presented object? And you think I am foolish enough to eat anything given to me randomly? You must think I am gullible, Kurosaki-san. Leave."

A tilt of his head has the guards approaching. Ichigo sighs and gets to his feet, heading towards the door, before they even touch him. Then he turns. "Hey, Byakuya, I will be back. See you in a few days."

The room collectively gasps at Ichigo's informal address. All except Byakuya, who narrows his eyes.

 


 

Byakuya looks up, the next morning, to find Rukia peeking at him from outside the sliding panels. He sighs and puts his brush down.

"Sister. Come in," he calls.

Rukia enters, bowing at a perfect ninety-degree angle. He studies his sister, whom he has not seen in a few days.

"Oni-sama," she greets, eyes downcast in the proper manner.

"How are you, my sister?" There is something in her face. Byakuya is reminded, with a dull ache, of the second time he saw Hisana. She was beautiful the first time he saw her, but the second time- she had told him later on that by the second time she saw him, she had been in love.

There is an effervescent glow about Rukia, one that has not been there before. He notes it grimly, knowing that it is most likely that Ichigo is the cause. No, he corrects himself. This light in her eyes was there since she came back the first time, so long ago. Even in her incarceration, it was there. But now- it is a full blaze and it lights up her entire being.

"Oni-sama…," Rukia grins at him. "Thank you for the wonderful apartment." She has never smiled so unguardedly at him before, his little sister from the slums.

"It is only a place of lodging befitting a member of the Kuchiki head family," Byakuya replies absently, "which you are."

She bows her head. "Oni-sama, Ichigo wants to speak with you."

"I am aware," Byakuya says dryly.

"Please," Rukia bows again, her face scarlet. "hear him out."

"You are a Kuchiki," Byakuya states. "Why are you bowing for this ryoka, this commoner?"

"Oni-sama," Rukia looks up at him, meeting his eyes. "I love him. And it would mean a lot more to me if we had your blessing."

Byakuya stares at her for a long moment, his eyes inscrutable. "Do you believe you will be happy with this boy?"

Rukia lowers her eyes. "Yes, oni-sama," She answers without hesitation.

He nods, briefly. "Have him come tomorrow. I shall have the documents drawn for a proper betrothal." He doesn't see Rukia's eyes widen. "He must, of course, take the Kuchiki name, as you outrank him. And we are to discuss dowries, alliances, and such. And the wedding."

"Wait, Oni-sama -" she stammers, interrupting him.

Rukia has never interrupted Byakuya, in her entire life, and he turns the full blast of his stare on her. "What is it?"

Rukia shrinks. "Oni-sama, we are only dating. Not betrothed."

Byakuya feels a tic start in his jaw. "What? He does not intend to wed you?"

"No, no, it's not like that." Rukia raises her hands to calm him down. "Dating is a concept in the world of the living where people agree to mutually spend time together, to see if they get along."

Byakuya stands to his full height, eyebrows drawn together in a fearsome scowl. "So he is using you for a trial run? To see if you are compatible? And if not, then shall he discard you like trash? You are a Kuchiki. He shall die for this insult." He reaches for Senbonzakura.

Rukia grabs his arm as he storms past her. Given her size, she only manages to get dragged along. "No, Oni-sama," she pleads. "It is not like that."

He freezes. Rukia has never touched him like this before, physically accosting him.

He looks down at his sister's large eyes, and flushed cheeks. "Please. I just want your blessing for me to date him. I know later on we can talk about betrothals and such, but, please, I have not seen him in eighteen months and -"

At his raised eyebrow, she hastily amends her words. "We have not communicated for eighteen months and now we are thrown together again. And now we have a chance to see where these feelings will lead. Please, oni-sama, I would like your blessing to explore where this is going."

Sighing inwardly, Byakuya nods. "I will see him tomorrow."

 


 

The next day, Ichigo waits in the garden of the Kuchiki mansion, a far cry from the stiff receiving room he is always being rejected from. Sighing, he grabs his gift.

"What is that?" Byakuya's voice carries from across the pond, where he is painting waterlilies.

Ichigo trudges over to him, wondering where the guards are. Byakuya accepts the box and opens one end. The felt-tip markers fall out, making an untidy pile at Byakuya's feet. He stares at Ichigo imperiously. With a sigh, Ichigo gets on his knees to pick them up.

"These are used for calligraphy and art," Ichigo explains, uncapping the red.

"Kurosaki, what are your intentions towards my sister?" Byakuya asks instead, while he is on his knees.

"Oh," Ichigo clears his throat. "I want to spend the rest of my life making her happy. Which is why I'm here."

Byakuya turns back to his painting. "My sister is not a commoner like you."

"I understand that," Ichigo says, getting to his feet and dusting off his school pants.

"And I have never seen her this happy," Byakuya states, his steely gaze skewering Ichigo's. "Make sure that this- dating- of yours does not take too long. She is a noble and as such, will be betrothed to someone of a similar status, if she reaches the appropriate age. Do you take my meaning?"

Ichigo nods impassively.

"And, ryoka boy, if you ever harm her in any way-" Byakuya stands, facing the younger man. "They would never find pieces of you large enough to bury."

"If I ever harm her in any way, Byakuya, your sister will skewer me and freeze me into a block of ice, and shatter me into a million pieces." Ichigo grins. "Then you can have your turn."

"We are done here," Byakuya says silkily. "Leave."

Almost instantly the two guards materialize beside Ichigo.

Ichigo flash steps to the gate, avoiding them. As soon as he clears the massive wooden doors, he punches his fist up in victory.

Chapter Text

XI.

.

.

The door chimes to the Kurosaki clinic announce the arrival of a patient. Isshin Kurosaki looks up from his desk, picking up the barely suppressed reiatsu, and gets to his feet.

"Good afternoon," he greets the new arrival.

Byakuya looks around the tiny clinic, and his grey eyes are inscrutable as they land on the older man. "Captain Shiba."

"Oh, no need for formalities, Byakuya. And it's Kurosaki now. I haven't answered to Captain Shiba in a really long time." Isshin rubs the back of his head, smiling. "Have a seat." He gestures to the wooden bench on the wall of the clinic.

"I can see where your son gets his blatant disregard for formalities," Byakuya remarks tonelessly.

Isshin bursts into laughter. "Ah, my son is his own person. And as his father, it can be really annoying. But he's a good kid." He rubs the stubble on his jaw thoughtfully. "I take it you are here to discuss him and Rukia?"

"Correct, Captain," Byakuya says formally.

"The kids have not told me anything, and I'm not supposed to know." Isshin winks and nudges Byakuya in the ribs with his elbow. "But you know, I could tell, the first time Rukia came home and saved my girls. Ichigo was a goner. It was only a matter of time, and to be honest, Ichigo is pretty dumb."

Byakuya is inclined to agree with the last statement, but it does not do to insult someone in his own house, especially if the insult is so obviously accurate.

"Would you like a drink, by the way?" Isshin calls over his shoulder, flipping the sign on the door from OPEN to CLOSED.

"A refreshment would be most welcome," Byakuya replies. It is, after all, high summer in Karakura and it never gets this hot in the Seiritei.

"Excellent. Follow me." Isshin leads the younger man into the main house.

Byakuya studies the main receiving area with well-concealed curiosity. Photos of a wedding, and three distinct infants (the hair colours are a giveaway), and a large photo of a naked toddler with orange hair sitting on a pot decorate one wall. He mentally recoils, trying to scrub the image of an unclothed Ichigo from his brain.

"Cute kid, isn't he?" Isshin appears beside him, and hands him a cold metal cylinder marked Sapporo. Byakuya eyes it curiously.

He has heard of this "beer," and the vice captains regularly imbibe it. It causes intoxication, which Byakuya would prefer not to go through. Still, he is a guest of Captain Shiba-Kurosaki, so he must be polite. He is not a barbarian, after all (unlike a certain redhead who is trying to "date his sister".)

"I would have used another adjective," Byakuya responds icily. He notices a large poster of the late Captain's wife decorating the wall of the dining area. "Your wife - she was beautiful."

Isshin toasts the photo with his drink. "Yes, she was. But she left me with the three greatest gifts of all. And I miss her every day, but I am grateful for the time we had together." He takes a swig of his beer, eyeing Byakuya. "I understand that you are in a similar situation as well."

Byakuya did not expect to find understanding in Isshin Kurosaki's eyes. Awkwardly, he studies the can in his grip. There is a small metal tab at the top. He twists it in a circle. Nothing happens. He applies slightly more pressure.

Kurosaki takes the can from his hands and pulls it up, punching a hole open.

"And then you drink from the rim. Like so," He explains, handing the foaming can back to him and demonstrating with his own drink.

"Thank you," Byakuya replies gravely, and promptly pours half the can over his face, drenching the front of his shihakusho.

"Hmm," Isshin looks him over. "Maybe we'll start with something easier."

 


 

Ichigo turns, as Rukia taps his shoulder.

"Hey." Even looking at her makes him want to touch her, so he does, reaching out for her hand. Rukia flushes, and looks furtively at their classmates, quelling him with a shake of her head.

"Ichigo." She looks a bit worried, so he lets this slide. But Ichigo vows to get her used to his touching her in public.

"What is it?" he asks instead.

"I got a text from Karin. It seems there is a shinigami at your house. She doesn't know who it is, so I asked her to send me a photo." Rukia chews on her lower lip.

"My house?" Ichigo starts packing up his schoolbag.

"Yes." The chirp on her phone makes them both pause. She flips it open, then pales. "We have to hurry." Rukia grabs him by the wrist, and drags him out the door.

"Why? Who is it?" Ichigo notices her sudden anxiety.

"Byakuya-sama," She bites out. They both start running.

 


 

Which is how they both find Byakuya in the living room of the Kurosaki residence, calmly sipping beer from a straw in his can.

Yuzu is overjoyed by the extra person for dinner, and she is in the kitchen, whipping up dinner. Karin sits on the armchair, focused on the soccer match on tv, chin on her knee.

"Oni-sama." Rukia pauses in the doorway, and bows deeply.

Karin quirks an eyebrow. "This guy is your brother?"

"You may address me as Kuchiki-sama, young child," Byakuya tells her, the furrow in his brow betraying his annoyance. Karin rolls her eyes and raises the volume on the soccer game. He goes back to sipping his beer.

Isshin appears behind them, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders. "Hello, my son and third daughter," he sings out, waving a plastic bag with two six packs of beer. "We ran out of drinks so I went down to the store to get more."

He herds them into the sofa to sit on opposite sides of Byakuya, shooing Karin away to watch TV upstairs. Rukia and Ichigo trade tense looks over Byakuya's beer can.

"I suppose you are both wondering why I am here," Byakuya says quietly. The smell of beer on his breath is unmistakable, and his cheeks are the exact same shade as Senbonzakura's blossoms.

Isshin beams. "Oooh let me tell them, let me tell them." He clasps his hands together excitedly.

Byakuya cuts him a glare that can cut glass, but Isshin ignores it.

"News of your relationship has reached Yamamoto soutaichou," Byakuya announces. Both Ichigo and Rukia freeze, unsure of how to react to this. "And the elders of the Kuchiki family as well. They, of course, are aware of your courtship, Ichigo, clumsy as it was."

"My poor son," Isshin interjects, wiping a tear from his eye. "You should have asked your father for advice, as it is my duty. It would have been so much better! And also, you rascals! You never told me you were dating!"

Rukia glares at Ichigo and then bows to Isshin. "I am sorry, Kurosaki-san. This is really new to us and we were going to tell you soon." She lets out a yelp as Isshin hauls her into a bear-hug.

"All is forgiven, my third daughter," Isshin booms, swinging her around. Ichigo rises to his feet, prying Rukia out of his dad's arms and tucking her behind him protectively. "You are not to blame here, my son is."

"Anyway," Byakuya cuts into his dramatics, opening another can of beer and transferring his straw. "We just received word at the Manor this morning." He takes a long sip from his straw. "Because of the formalities and technicalities involved, the Seiritei has presented you, Ichigo, as a possible candidate for betrothal to Rukia. It is now only up to the elders to approve it."

"What?" Rukia shoves Ichigo aside angrily.

"You are a daughter of the house of Kuchiki," Byakuya states calmly. "And Ichigo is the human son of a disgraced Captain who has taken on the name of his Qui- his wife. It is your duty to marry for the future of the house. There was a small chance of a betrothal to him being approved by the elders. But now the Seiritei has pushed forth his name. This is completely unprecedented. Normally, noble houses provide the names of their eligible children, for prospective matches. But with the downfall of house Shiba, Ichigo was inappropriate. So with the Seiritei acting on behalf of Ichigo, he is completely eligible now."

Rukia's fists clench. "What? So I was never meant to choose my own mate?" she asks in a low voice. Ichigo eyes Rukia, who is fairly vibrating with fury.

Byakuya looks at her, straw in mouth, sipping nonchalantly.

"What if I had never met Ichigo? Would you have found me a," she raises her fingers in air quotes " 'suitable' mate? One that I did not love?"

"That is irrelevant," Her brother tells her calmly. "We should know if he is approved in three days."

Rukia snaps, "Then why did you never tell me this? Was this the price I had to pay to be adopted into the Kuchiki house?" Then a thought occurs to her. "Was this because you married my sister? You married for love so you were going to sacrifice me to duty?"

Byakuya pulls the straw out of his mouth, rising to his feet. "You go too far, Rukia. Remember where you came from," He says, furiously. "And who you are."

"Oh, I never forget," Rukia retorts. "Ever. You never let me forget." She whirls on her heel and runs out the door, slamming it behind her.

Ichigo curses, chasing after her. Byakuya plops back down on the couch, and leans his head back. "Shiba taichou," He groans. Isshin comes over to peer at him. "Why is the room spinning?"

 


 

Ichigo finds her on her favourite rooftop, overlooking the town square. She crouches, hugging her knees, watching the sky ablaze with the setting sun.

He settles on the ground beside her, legs outstretched. He knows better than to say anything. After a few minutes, she mutters, "Aren't you angry?"

Ichigo grabs her wrist, pulling her into his lap to cradle her as she leans against him. "Nope."

"I feel like a commodity," Rukia admits, relaxing into his arms. He tucks her head under his chin. "I told him we were trying to see where this goes, you know, the whole dating thing. Marriage? We are nowhere near that. And he is one to talk of marrying for duty, after what he did with my sister."

Ichigo kisses her forehead, rubbing her back soothingly.

"Why aren't you mad?" Rukia demands, poking him in the chest. "Did you know about the seiritei representing you?"

"Nope." Ichigo replies, grabbing her finger and lacing it into his own. "The first I heard of it was tonight."

"How can you be so calm?" Rukia mutters, settling into him crankily. "About the whole betrothal thing and such."

"Well, the way I see it is, your brother is drunk from sipping beer with a straw and sitting on the couch in my family's living room so he can tell you in person that you have a future with me." Ichigo grins and kisses her nose. Rukia nods, digesting this. "As for the whole betrothal thing, I know it's a bit early for us, but I want to think we are heading there eventually." He flashes her a lopsided grin. "If they do approve it, we won't have to get married right away, would we? Not that I wouldn't mind getting married young, as long as I get married to you."

He feels her stiffen in his arms, and chuckles. "No pressure, my fierce girl. And if we do get engaged, I'm going to ask you properly. Though I am kind of touched that the Seiritei did this for me. Without telling me. Hmm, I wonder who thought that up?"

She punches his leg sulkily. "I still don't like the idea of old people plotting out my life," she grumbles.

"Are you terribly unhappy about it?" Ichigo asks, nudging her chin up to face him.

"No," Rukia scowls. "I just don't like being manipulated."

"Well, knowing how scary you are, say we get engaged. And then, heaven forbid, I mess up in a big way and you want to get out of this theoretical betrothal." His eyes are amber in the sunset, holding her captive. "You would probably kill me and bury my body somewhere they would never find me. And that's fine." He places a quick kiss on her lips.

Rukia smiles in spite of herself. "That wouldn't work, Kurosaki. You'd end up in Soul Society again, as a full-fledged Shinigami."

He smiles back, glad to see her relax. "Then you'd kill me again, right? So really, what have you got to lose?"

She snorts, and kisses him back. "Idiot." She sobers quickly, turning her head to hide her tears. "What if you change your mind?"

Ichigo pulls away, hearing the undercurrent in her voice. "I won't," he assures her, his eyes serious. "We've been through a lot, you and I. And looking at my parents, I know life is short. I am grateful for every day I have with you now, Rukia. The nineteen months I could not see you were hell, even if I could sense you close by." He tightens his arms around her again, kissing her forehead. "So I really cannot be angry that other people are looking to our future together, since it is a future I want so badly. I have no right to ask for anything more. You've come back to me."

She nods, watching the sun go down completely behind the mountains.

"And one more thing," he murmurs, sighing. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe try not to be too hard on your brother. He must be terrified right now. He really does want you to be happy, you know?"

Rukia scowls miserably. "I may have been out of line."

Ichigo does not say anything; he just holds her until the stars come out.

 


 

"Oni-sama." Rukia bows at the entrance of Byakuya's morning chamber. Isshin had assisted the younger man, escorting him home the previous evening. A quiet grumble answers her greeting.

She walks into the dimmed study, where Byakuya is currently holding his head in the darkness. Rukia pushes the tray in front of her; a peace offering of two advil, a giant glass of water and a chocolate bar.

She places the pills in his hand, and brings the glass to his lips. When he opens his eyes to glare at her, they are so red they almost glow in the dark. "I do not know why Abarai and Matsumoto are so fond of imbibing," he growls. "And why are you here, disobeying your orders?"

"Because my brother is not feeling well," Rukia says, unwrapping the chocolate bar and handing it to him. He takes a bite, and glares at her.

"I am not an infant." Byakuya tells her, chewing on the chocolate.

"Neither am I," She retorts, crossing her arms stubbornly.

"Kurosaki-san is a bad influence on you," Byakuya mutters around the chocolate bar in his mouth. "You were a lot more civilized before, never raising your voice or accosting me or giving me lectures."

"I'm sorry, Oni-sama." Rukia bows formally in apology. "I know I'm a disappointment to you, constantly. But what I said to you yesterday was inexcusable. Please accept my apology. I do not deserve your kindness."

Byakuya rises, and opens the curtains. The twitching of his eyes are the only sign of his rampaging headache as the light pours into the room.

"You- are my sister," he says finally, turning to face her bowed head. "It is the duty of elder brothers to protect their younger sisters, even from themselves."

"But it is difficult for older brothers to see when younger sisters are old enough to make their own choices. And I cannot protect you forever." Silver eyes meet her purple gaze, serious and sad. "But I can support you, in your search for happiness."

He hands her a scroll marked with the seal of the elder's council of the Kuchiki clan. "This arrived this morning. They took a lot less time than I thought. Apparently saving the Seiritei counts just as much as being born into a noble family. You are now free to marry Kurosaki."

Rukia stares at the rolled parchment, a million thoughts whirling through her head.

"Take it, Rukia Kuchiki," Byakuya says gently. "This is for you to do with as you please."

Her eyes snap to Byakuya's. "Oni-sama…."

He gives her an uncharacteristic smile. "You're the captain of your own fate now. Be happy, sister."

Rukia stares at the scroll for a moment, then raises her eyes to her brother. "Can you please hang on to that for me, Oni-sama? Until I need it?"

Byakuya nods, understanding. "Of course. Until you are ready."

He is rewarded by a dazzling smile. "Thank you, oni-sama." She flushes, getting the words out, before bowing again.

Chapter Text

XII.

.

.

"Have you spoken with my sister, Kurosaki fukutaichou?" Byakuya's voice is misleadingly mild as he addresses Ichigo at the meeting.

"No, Captain Kuchiki," Ichigo responds, frowning at the dull ache in his chest at the mention of her name. "But she is not relevant to this conversation."

It has been five years to the day Ichigo Kurosaki was approved as a candidate to marry Rukia; three years since he blasted through the Shin-O academy in a year, two years since he moved to the Seiritei to become vice-captain of the Second Division under Captain Soi-Fon, one year and six months since he proposed to Rukia and she accepted; and three days since he has seen Rukia.

"I understand that you wish to run more patrols in the lands controlled by the Kuchiki family," Byakuya states. "And I received your report, Kurosaki. The request is granted, but you must keep me apprised at all times."

"Thank you." Ichigo drops to one knee, respectfully, then rises to his feet to leave the office. "I will take my leave." Even being in Byakuya's office reminds him of her, and he wants to get out of there as soon as possible.

"Wait." The Captain's voice stops him.

Ichigo pauses, head bowed.

"Do you- still love my sister, Kurosaki?" Byakuya asks, steepling his fingers contemplatively. He notes the dark shadows under Ichigo's eyes, and the slightly leaner look on his face.

Angry gold eyes meet his. "Of course I do. That has never ever come into question, Byakuya." The informal use of his first name means that the conversation has switched gears, but Byakuya is used to this now.

"Then what seems to be the problem?"

Ichigo sinks back on the mat, frustration on his face. "I just… asked her if we should finally set a wedding date. But then I asked if she was going to continue taking dangerous missions after we did. She got so angry."

"I see." Byakuya studies the younger man thoughtfully. "You have, after all, been engaged for some time. Did you tell her she should stop?"

"No," Ichigo scowls. "That's entirely up to her. But if we have children-"

Byakuya imagines red-haired babies with purple eyes and suppresses a shudder. Maybe his sister has come to her senses. But he suspects that she is too far gone over the idiot sitting across him.

Ichigo rises to his feet, a determined glint in his eyes. "May I visit the Kuchiki Manor later tonight, Byakuya?"

Byakuya regards him impassively. "Rukia has banned you from the premises, if you recall. However, I understand there is a gathering of the Shinigami Women's Society tonight to celebrate Hinamori's birthday. They will be on the second floor of the Sword And Lotus tavern in the third district."

Gratefully, Ichigo nods, leaving the room.

 


 

"Really? He wants you to quit after you get married?" Momo gasps.

Rukia takes a swig of her sake. "Yes." Her fingers clench into a fist around the delicate porcelain.

"Wow." Rangiku shakes her head, refilling Rukia's glass. "I can't believe Ichigo would say that. You'd think he'd be more progressive, coming from the world of the living. Doesn't he know that in the Seiritei, a shinigami is a shinigami until you die?"

Rukia downs her second shot, holding the glass out to Rangiku. "I know, right?"

"Oh, I want to kick him," Soi Fon snarls, cracking her knuckles. "He may be my second seat but I'll plant my foot so far up his ass that he'll have to brush his teeth around my toes. I should ask him if HE wants to keep working after he gets married. What an asshole."

"Did his mother quit her job when she got married?" Yachiru inquires curiously, nibbling on the chips.

Rukia's brow knits. "I think so? But she passed away early, when all of the children were really young. I just got so angry when he asked, 'Are you still going to keep fighting after we get married?' It just sounded so condescending." She lapses into silence, sipping her third cup of sake. "I taught him everything he knows. He can't be seriously thinking I would give this up."

Rangiku refills her cup yet again.

"I mean, look at you and Hitsugaya-taichou." Rukia gestures to Momo. "You guys have been married a while now, and he would never think to stop you from being a shinigami."

Momo blushes. "Actually, I am thinking of taking some time off."

Her announcement causes everyone to stare at her. "What?" Isane squeaks.

"Come to think of it, the birthday girl has not drunk any alcohol tonight," Rangiku observes, watching Momo's cheeks light up.

"OH MY GOSH!" Soi Fon squeals, launching herself at the smaller girl. "ARE YOU PREGNANT?"

Madness ensues after Momo nods, blushing furiously. All the women in the room take turns hugging her and gushing, and some eyes are wet. Rukia smiles fondly at her friend, noticing the soft glow around her that wasn't there before. And a pang of envy blindsides her, making Rukia feel uncomfortable. She quickly suppresses it, and joins the crowd of women fussing over Momo.

Later, when the party winds down, Momo finds Rukia.

"Hey, preggo," Rukia greets, patting the cushion beside her. "Happy birthday."

Momo smiles at her and takes the offered seat. "Hey. About your problem with Ichigo… I do understand why you would be so angry." She chuckles. "Shiro-chan is beside himself right now, and I can see he is dying to ask me to quit too. But he won't. I may make the decision for him, though."

Rukia studies her own hands, and the glitter of the diamond on her ring finger reminds her of the night Ichigo gave it to her. She grabs the sake bottle from the table and empties it out into her cup.

"I just wish he didn't assume, you know?" Rukia scowls.

"Oh, I understand. But getting pregnant has put some things into perspective for me. Shiro-chan and I grew up without parents, and I know you did too, so it is not such a big deal for us. But Ichigo, he had a mother and a father, and from what I have heard before, he adored his mother. And she was ripped away from him at such a young age. Maybe he is thinking of your future children, which is why he is asking that." Momo puts her hand on Rukia's arm. "I am not close to Ichigo, but Shiro-chan is, and he always tells me Ichigo is always thinking of others. Do you agree?"

Rukia's eyes fill with tears. "Yes." It is a point that she had not considered before. She should have known he would not be so selfish.

"And now that I am going to be a mother, I find my priorities changing," Momo sighs. "I love being a fukutaichou. But I am determined not to let my children grow up motherless." Her eyes meet Rukia's. "This is a personal decision, of course, and one I would not force on anyone. But maybe eventually I would come back to this position. It would not be fair to my Taichou to have a distracted vice-captain. Still, I will cross that bridge when I come to it."

Rukia smiles, squeezing her friend's hand. "I'm sure you will make the right choice."

The room panels slide open, revealing Hitsugaya and Ichigo. "Excuse me." The white-haired captain announces stiffly. "I am here to take my wife home."

The women greet Hitsugaya enthusiastically, congratulating him on his impending fatherhood. They have a less enthusiastic greeting for the redhead.

Ichigo's eyes lock onto Rukia, his gaze burning into hers as if everything else faded away. She turns her head, breaking their deadlock, as she helps Momo to her feet. He waits patiently by the door, not saying anything.

 


 

With the guest-of-honor leaving, the rest of the party decides to call it a night. Rukia hands over her share of the bill to Unohana, taking her time before walking past Ichigo. All the other ladies file out before her, sending knowing looks to her, with Soi Fon whacking her second seat on the top of his head as she leaves.

Ichigo, used to his Captain's random acts of violence by now, just bows to her. And now it is just the two of them.

"May I walk you back?" Ichigo asks, breaking the awkward silence.

"Do what you want," Rukia says wearily, and takes a step, stumbling from the alcohol. He catches her by the shoulders, gently raising her to her legs.

He smiles faintly. "You're drunk."

Rukia stomps past him, before her resolve can weaken. As it is, she drinks up the sound of his voice and it sends chills down her spine.

He follows her, three steps behind, out into the street. The night is dark and street lamps cast pale white circles on the ground every few meters.

And of course, it starts to rain. At first it comes down as a sprinkle, but it quickly turns into a downpour. Both of them are soaked in moments; Rukia welcomes the chill it brings to her alcohol-heated body. She laughs, remembering her childhood in the slums. Every time it rained meant a free bath for her.

"Baka. You're going to catch a cold if you keep this up," Ichigo mutters affectionately, hoisting her on his shoulder and running for the nearest shelter, which turns out to be an overhang of a closed store. His hands on her skin are so familiar Rukia wants to cry. But she pretends to be offended, banging on his back with her fists.

"Put me down! You are manhandling a vice-captain. How dare you?" She rams her knee into his stomach, but ogles his nice tight backside from her upside down position, rain running up her face and into her hair.

"Funny," Ichigo says, patting her butt on her shoulder. "I thought I was manhandling my beautiful fiancee." She raises her knee again to attack him, but he grabs her ankles under her hakama, holding them straight.

Rukia suffers the indignity of being hauled like a sack of potatoes until they reach the sheltered area. Then he slides her down his chest and pushes her against the wall, holding her up with his body. Her toes don't touch the ground and for some reason this fact really annoys her.

"Let me down," she snarls, her eyes closing as Ichigo's hands grab her backside to keep her up. He leans his forehead against hers, wet hair dripping down his cheek. He feels so incredibly good against her, and it has only been three days. Rukia curses her own weakness as her fingers curl into his shirt.

"Just a minute," he murmurs, nuzzling her cheek. "God. I missed you." Her heart sings at the longing in his voice, and now it is really hard to remember why she was angry in the first place.

"You can't just -" Rukia begins weakly, then he silences her with a kiss and the world disappears.

His lips slant across hers, as he spears his fingers into her hair with a groan. The patter of the rain cannot compare to the pounding in her chest. 'It is always like this,' Rukia thinks before her brain short-circuits again. Her tongue darts out to stroke and tangle with his, and she does not realize she has locked hers legs around his waist.

Thunder and lightning split the night, illuminating the two people locked in an embrace in the dark.

Rukia nibbles at his lips hungrily, seeking more of the man she missed so desperately. His hands tighten on hers as he devours her.

Then they are interrupted by a lower ranking shinigami, wearing a raincoat and carrying a lantern. "Hey. You cannot do that here -" His eyes widen as he sees Ichigo, who is in charge of running patrols for the Onmitsukido.

"Oh- Kurosaki-Fukutaichou!" the man squeaks, backing a full step away and bowing low. "My apologies, I did not see you." Rukia shoves Ichigo back, landing on her toes on the rain-dampened ground. "And Kuchiki-Fukutaichou!" The poor soldier is trembling in the presence of the most powerful couple in the Seiritei. Distantly he wonders if he is going to die now. Ichigo turns, his face red.

"Yes, carry on. Thank you for doing your duty. And- don't catch a cold in this weather," Ichigo rumbles, trying to imitate Byakuya's impassive face. "Dismissed."

The soldier bows, and flash-steps away, his lantern bobbing in the downpour. Rukia looks at Ichigo's face and starts giggling uncontrollably. Ichigo rubs the back of his head sheepishly and joins her, and for a moment, all is well.

They walk in silence in the rain, side by side, until the gates of the Kuchiki Manor. "So," Rukia says finally, turning to face Ichigo. "This is me."

"I know. See you later, Rukia." He leans in to press a light kiss against his forehead. "Don't forget to dry your hair so you don't catch cold. Have a good night."

She nods and closes the door behind her, leaning against it. On the other side, Ichigo raises his hand to touch the door, and then turns to head towards his own division barracks.

 


 

The next day, Ichigo finds himself at the 13th Division at the request of Ukitake. The Karakura town shinigami have been getting swamped with hollow attacks, and as a previous resident, Ukitake thinks that he can provide some insight on the cause. He asks Ichigo to talk to Rukia, who is in the library.

Rukia is scowling at a map when he arrives, and he takes a moment to study her, before announcing his presence. A lock of hair has fallen over her forehead, and his hand itches to push it back over her ear, to touch her soft cheek.

"Stop staring," she mutters, without looking up. Even while his reiatsu is masked, she can always sense him. Ichigo moves in, trapping her in his embrace. He slides a hand on hers, where it rests on the map, and the other around her waist, resting his chin on her shoulder.

"What are we looking at?" he murmurs against her ear, feeling her tremble.

She stiffens her spine, driving an elbow into his stomach. "We are at work. Behave yourself, Fukutaichou," Rukia hisses. His hand curves to cup her hip, while the other glides across her shoulders. Rukia does her best not to relax into his back-hug, but it really is difficult.

"I just wanted to tell you I'm sorry," he whispers into her hair. "For asking. It really is your decision. But… If we have kids, I would like them to grow up with a parent at home. So I don't mind taking a break if you're okay with it. But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. Also, to be honest, I was just asking. I didn't think my phrasing through, but it really wasn't an order."

Rukia sighs. So Momo had been right. "It's okay. I- may have overreacted, and I'm sorry too. I should know by now that you aren't the type to push that," she replies, leaning her head back against his shoulder. "And really, we don't have to discuss that now." The thought of having children with Ichigo terrifies her, and thrills her at the same time.

"I love you, Rukia," he tells her, making her smile.

"And I don't know why I love you, but I do, you idiot," she mutters, peeling his hands away. "But now we really have to get on this."

Now that the fight is over, the two of them can concentrate on the task at hand. The epicenter of the hollow activity is at a Shinto temple, located on a mountaintop just on the outskirts of Karakura town.

"That's the same one Nozomi used the natural senkaimon at." Rukia points to the map. Ichigo nods, remembering the place. They set a senkaimon to open there, and make preparations to leave the next day.

 


 

As the two of them stand at the doorway the next afternoon, Rukia slides her hand into Ichigo's. He smiles down at her.

"Let's get married after this mission," she tells him, blushing. "We can set a date and tell our families and send out invitations and stuff. I don't want to live away from you anymore."

Ichigo's grin is blinding. The details have been hammered out a long time ago (suffice to say, he gets to keep his name, she gets to keep hers, she has a sizable dowry as per custom, but he has also been awarded money and lands by the Seiritei in recognition of his services rendered) so, really, all they have to do now is to make it official.

"It's about time," he smirks, picking her up and twirling her around. She squeaks, and shoves fruitlessly at his shoulders. Ichigo leans in to kiss her.

Behind them someone clears his throat. "Ahem." His silver eyes carefully averted, Byakuya stands, hands clasped behind his back. Both of them spring apart guiltily.

"Oni-sama," "Taichou," Both of them chorus, bowing instantly, hands still linked together.

Byakuya clears his throat again. "I see the two of you have made up," he says, surveying the ceiling. "But you are both at work. And Ukitake was wise to let me accompany the both of you. He thought you may be otherwise distracted." He pushes between them, marching into the dark fleshy tunnel, forcing them to let go of each other's hands.

Ichigo flashes a grin at Rukia, and grabs her hand again. Chasing their hell butterflies, they follow the Captain into the darkness.

 


 

After a long vicious battle with a small army of hollows, led by a stray arrancar, the shinigami group emerge victorious. They all gather at the entrance of the temple, with Isshin and Urahara flitting back and forth between Ryonosuke Yuki, who is assigned to Karakura town, Ishida, with a twisted ankle, and Chad, who has sustained a stab wound in his shoulder.

Orihime assists him, casting the golden pod over the more seriously wounded Shino, the other assigned shinigami. She is suffering from a punctured lung and thankfully Orihime gets to her in time.

Ichigo has minor cuts and bruises, but Rukia is fussing over him, using her Kidou to heal a cut on his lip. They sit on the steps of the temple, because of a lack of seating.

"You idiot," she growls, gripping his ear to keep him from moving away. "Why did you jump in front of that Grand Fisher?"

"To protect it from you," Ichigo retorts sarcastically. "Because you're so scary." He yelps as the grip on his ear tightens.

"What if it had gutted you?" Rukia snarls, her nails digging into his ear. "What if anything had happened to you?"

Ichigo winces, but hears the panic in her voice. He eases her fingers off his ear and wraps his hands around her slender wrists, pulling her close. "Nothing's going to happen to me," he chides, kissing her nose. "I fear you more than I fear death."

Byakuya and Isshin stand next to each other, a few feet away, watching the two. "Oh, those two. It's as if we're not here," Isshin remarks affectionately, handing Byakuya a cylinder marked Sapporo. "Those two are long overdue for a wedding. And I want grandbabies. What's the holdup?"

Byakuya stares at it, a frown marring his forehead. "I cannot imbibe while at work," he says disdainfully.

Isshin grins and holds up a paper-wrapped straw. "Why not? I used to show up drunk all the time and they could never tell the difference. And really, the battle is over. Time to kick back."

Scowling, Byakuya snatches it out of the older captain's fingers, popping his beer open. He slides the straw inside, takes a long pull, and then proceeds to snort beer out his nose. "Kurosaki fukutaichou," he yells out, wiping his nose as he hands his beer to Isshin. "Stop molesting my sister."

"Aww, let them be." Isshin grabs his sleeve. The older ex-captain's grip is surprisingly strong.

Byakuya glares at him. "But your son has been stringing her along for five years, Kurosaki-san. I demand that they make it official, or I shall demand that the betrothal be dissolv-" He is silenced by a straw jammed into his mouth by a grinning Isshin.

"Well, my son-in-law-to-be, (since you are the brother of my third daughter)," Isshin pronounces, dragging Byakuya away towards the town, "The more you push it, the less it'll happen, I always say. Unless you're making babies. Wink, wink. Besides, the one doing the stringing along is not my dolt of a son." He all but pushes Byakuya down the hill, following the procession of injured people to Urahara's shop. "Byakuya, we have more important things to discuss. Such as, I want you to call me Daddy after they are married."

"No." Byakuya stands stock-still, glaring.

"Yes! That way, I can be like, Who's your daddy, Byakuya?" Their voices fade away into the night, the further away they get.

Finally, Ichigo and Rukia are alone in the temple garden, and night has fallen quickly.

 


 

"Oh, look at the moon," Rukia whispers, pointing at the full orb hanging in the sky, casting everything in a silver glow. Ichigo gazes at the wonder reflected in her eyes, thinking that there was no telling Rukia had just gutted and beheaded numerous hollows and arrancars just a few hours earlier.

"The most beautiful thing I have ever seen is right here." Ichigo studies her in the moonlight, holding her tight in his lap. They watch in silence as fireflies light up the bushes and trees around them. "Hey, Rukia, let's get married." He tells her, sliding his hand into hers.

She laughs, her purple eyes glowing. "That's what I said, Ichigo."

"No, I mean, let's get married right now." He turns her face to his. "We're at a temple now, and it's a gorgeous night, and I love you. I don't want to wait any longer."

She breaks into a grin. "My brother and your dad will kill you."

"We can give them their big wedding, but this can be ours, just you and me." Ichigo quirks an eyebrow at her. "Unless you would prefer it that way with the big hat and all."

Rukia can't stop smiling like an idiot. "Let's do this."

He places her on the step, and goes down on one knee. "Rukia Kuchiki, will you marry me? Right now?"

Her smile is radiant. "Yes."

He picks her up, whirling her around happily to the music of crickets.

"Ahem." A voice stops them both and they see the faint outline of a monk, beaming at them both. "My name is Monk Gyatso. I understand that you wish to be married here."

Both of them bow to the spirit. "Yes, Monk Gyatso," they chorus, grinning like idiots.

"Excellent." The monk spirit clasps his hand together, radiating peace. "Will anybody be witnessing your union?"

"I will." A flash of light reveals Sode No Shirayuki, her hair glowing in the moonlight, smiling serenely.

"And I as well," Zangetsu speaks up from behind Ichigo, clapping him on the shoulder. Ichigo grins at the personification of his Zanpakuto.

"I will give you both a moment to prepare yourselves. Meet me up the stairs under the torii." The elderly spirit touches both their foreheads and fades into fireflies that swirl their way to the temple upstairs.

"Wow. Do we have to perform konso on him afterwards?" Ichigo wonders.

Rukia shakes her head. "Monks take a vow and are different. They do not turn into hollows. They are a special class, with gifts from the gods and are exempt. I think he is the guardian of this temple."

Sode no Shirayuki appears, leading Rukia away to get her ready. Ichigo watches her go, feeling his chest fill with excitement. "Well, Ichigo, today, you become a man." Zangetsu whacks him on the back, his eyes crinkling. Ichigo blushes profusely and starts sputtering.

"Well- I - that's not -" He notices the mischievous glint in the older man's eye and closes his mouth abruptly.

"Are you nervous, boy?" Zangetsu teases, wiping Ichigo's face off with a washcloth which he dampened in the drinking fountain at the entrance.

"Not nervous." Ichigo smiles. "I want this more than I've wanted anything in my life."

"More than when you lost your powers and wanted them back?" The older man fixes his shihakusho, brushing off lint and grass and wrinkles.

"Yes." Ichigo smiles his thanks. "Thank you for being here with me, old man."

"Well," Zangetsu clears his throat. "Better me than your Hollow." They exchange a smirk. "By the way, do you have rings?" Zangetsu asks, placing a fist on his hip. Ichigo reaches into his shirt and pulls out two rings on a necklace.

"Yes, here they are." He unhooks the necklace and the rings roll out into his palm. Zangetsu looks impressed. "So you did plan this? Good job."

"I've been carrying them around since she said yes to my proposal." Ichigo holds one up to the light. "This one was my mother's." The delicate band with molded ivy, glittering with diamonds, gleams in the darkness.

"And the other?" Zangetsu studies the man's band. It is solid, and simple, with a black stripe round the center. "It feels- familiar. It has known much power." The older man's eyes snap to his. "It can't be- Is it?"

"Yes." Ichigo takes it back, holding the weight of it in his hand. "It's the same sword Rukia stabbed me with, the one that gave me back my reiatsu and brought her back to me."

"But wasn't Urahara supposed to destroy it?"

"He did. But the metal remained. I asked him to craft my wedding ring out of it. Her engagement ring is also made from the same material." Ichigo looks up as the stairway as the lanterns burst into light, casting a golden glow all around.

"I think it's time." Zangetsu smiles, climbing the steps. Ichigo nods, feeling his heart pound in anticipation.

 


 

When they get to the gate at the top of the stairs, Rukia is already standing there. She turns, and Ichigo's breath catches. She wears a crown of white snow flowers, and somehow Sode No Shirayuki is a miracle worker, because Rukia is dressed in a white kimono, her eyes demurely looking down, and a radiant glow on her face. She has the traditional knife and fan at her belt.

Ichigo is speechless at the sight of her. She raises her gaze to his, and he sees the stars reflected in her eyes. He feels his throat tighten with emotion, as he takes her hand.

Sode No Shirayuki starts playing the flute, and the melody makes the evening more magical.

The fireflies condense, revealing Monk Gyatso. Ichigo can barely hear anything in the ceremony, he is so lost in his bride.

He takes the sake cup that the Monk gives him, sips from it and hands it over to Rukia. She takes a delicate sip, her eyes on him the entire time. They repeat this three times, fulfilling the requirements of the san-san-kudo ritual.

Then, they hold their raised hands, and the monk binds a white cord around them, knotting it three times.

"Please repeat after me." Monk Gyatso tells Ichigo.

"Watakushi wa kono josei to kekkonshi

Fufu to narou to shite imasu

Watakushi wa kenkouna tokimo

Soudenai tokimo

Kono hito o aishi

Kono hito o uyamai

Kono hito o nagusame

Kono hito o tasuke

Watakushi no inochi no kagiri

Kataku sessou o mamoru koto o

Chikai masu.

This woman, I marry

No matter what the health situation is

I will love this person

Respect this person

Console this person

Help this person

Until death

Protecting fidelity

I swear."

Ichigo repeats his vows loudly, his gaze never leaving Rukia's. Then Monk Gyatso asks her to repeat the vows, and she does, standing unwavering and proud as she recites them to Ichigo.

The monk unties the cord, and announces the exchange of rings. Zangetsu steps forward, holding out both rings.

Rukia gasps when she sees the ring Ichigo slips on her finger, tears filling her eyes. "It is so beautiful." She whispers, feeling the metal band warm from her skin. She takes his ring, and recognizing it, smiles. Ichigo swallows past the lump in his throat, as she slips it on him.

"Congratulations." The monk pronounces. "You are now husband and wife."

Ichigo pulls her close, kissing her tenderly as the lanterns blaze with light, floating into the sky. Zangetsu grins at Sode no Shirayuki, who is smiling serenely at the kissing couple. Then, with the monk, they fade into the night as tiny fireflies, returning to their blade forms.

 


 

Ichigo and Rukia arrive at her old apartment in the city.

"Why are we here?" Rukia wonders, looking at the door. Ichigo smiles and fishes out a key, unlocking the door.

"I figured we would want our own place in Karakura Town, my darling wife." He opens it with a flourish, watching her cheeks turn pink. "And we know this apartment well, so why not this one?"

"Wait, what?" Rukia is still confused, as he hands her a second set of keys, and picks her up in his arms. "Welcome home, my bride." He kisses her tenderly but thoroughly as he crosses the threshold, closing the door behind him with his foot.

The sweet kiss turns passionate as Rukia grabs his head to kiss him more thoroughly, sucking on his lower lip and licking at him in slow nibbles. He kisses her back hungrily, slowly stroking her tongue with his as he holds her close. He falls onto the couch, mouths still fused together, and Rukia finds herself kneeling over him.

"Wait." She pulls away, panting, as he runs a hand into her shirt, finding soft sensitive skin in the valley between her not-so-ample breasts. He uses a fingertip to trace a line from her throat down to her navel.

"What?" Ichigo rains kisses hungrily on her neck, tracing her jugular with his tongue. He feels her tremble in his hands when he sucks on that special spot under her ear.

"Are- you-" she gasps, her fingers fisting in his hair. "Hungry?"

She feels, rather than sees, his roguish grin against her skin. "Hungry?" He murmurs, sinking his teeth lightly into that sensitive junction of her neck and shoulder, pulling a shocked moan from her lips. "Yes, I'm hungry." His whisper sends goosebumps skittering across her skin, as he traces his bite marks with soft brushes of his lips. "Are you?"

"Am I what?" Rukia whimpers.

He presses his tongue into the hollow under her earlobe, sending a rush of moisture into her panties. "Hungry," he responds, making her shiver with his hot breath.

"I- I-" With much effort, she pushes him away. "I- Ah, I need to use the bathroom." She gets off him, and scampers into the master bath, slamming the door behind her to hide her sudden attack of nerves.

She washes her face in cold water, to cool down the raging blush, her heart still pounding. Then she scrubs her teeth thoroughly with the brand-new toothbrush she finds in a drawer. When that doesn't work to calm her down, she jumps into the shower, to wash the battle from her hair and skin. She is surprised to find her brand of cucumber and strawberry shampoo in the bathroom, and smiles at Ichigo's thoughtfulness.

While Rukia is lathering up in the shower, the sliding curtain alerts her to Ichigo's entry. "Hi, wife," he greets, shedding his own clothes. "Good idea, mind if I join you?"

With a squeak, she covers herself, squeezing her eyes shut. "What are you doing?!"

With a laugh, Ichigo tips her chin up and kisses her lightly. "Showering with my wife?" he grins against her lips, standing in the flow of warm water with her. "My sexy, delicious looking, gorgeous wife." His honey eyes are mesmerizing as they roam over her nakedness. She feels another hot flush spreading across her body.

"You naughty girl," he purrs, running a knuckle down the side of her breast. She trembles, feeling the hot water rushing down her body contributing to her state of arousal. "Were you hiding from me?"

Her closed eyes and the stubborn tilt of her jaw tell him the truth. Seeing her nervousness, he hands her the soap. "Here, wash my back." He turns around, presenting her with his perfectly muscled shoulders, tapering down to a well-formed waist, and her secret weakness, a tight backside. Almost automatically, she lathers the soap in her hands, and raises them to his skin.

His muscles jump under her fingers, reacting to her touch. Rukia slowly opens her eyes, gazing in wonder at Ichigo's body. She has never seen a body as perfect as his before, which is saying much, since she grew up around men. The years of training have certainly been good to him. He shoots her a hot look over his shoulder, bracing his palms against the wall to keep himself from attacking her.

The intensity in his gaze causes a rush of wetness in her core, weakening her knees. "Eyes forward, Kurosaki," she orders, biting her lower lip, as she slowly digs her fingertips into the tight muscles of his shoulders, giving him a soothing massage. He lets out a muffled groan, and Rukia is heady over his reaction to her touch.

She pauses over two faint marks on his back, one much more dark than the other, where she stabbed him both times. They are not quite scars, but she is secretly pleased to find physical reminders of her on his body. Quickly, she brushes light kisses on them, hoping he does not notice.

She digs her thumbs down his spine, working out the knots in the hot shower. Finally she gets to kneading his butt, marvelling at how firm it is.

Rukia notices something bobbing in the front of his body, and her curiosity gets the better of her, so she sneaks a peek. She has never seen a penis up close, and this is certainly a huge specimen, she thinks. So this is what the big deal is all about.

"Mmm. Curious kitten, you'll see a lot more of that," Ichigo rumbles, his eyes like melted honey. "Do you want to wash my front now?"

Panicking, Rukia straightens, and slips. She might have hit the floor if Ichigo hadn't caught her, and he holds her under the pounding water, laughter in his eyes. He takes pity on her. "Let me finish showering, Rukia, and I'll join you in bed."

Her eyes widen at the seductive tone, and she nods briskly, her face aflame. Rukia grabs the towel and heads outside. The moment she leaves, Ichigo turns the temperature down until the water is ice-cold, but that does not seem to affect the raging lust in him.

When Ichigo finally leaves the cold shower, he makes his way to the gigantic bed in the middle of the room, and smiles. Rukia is dressed in one of his old button-down shirts, and her underwear, sound asleep. A creamy leg is thrown carelessly over the blankets, pink toes curled in slumber. She has her fingers fisted on the pillow next to her and is snoring lightly.

Carefully, he sits next to her and towel-dries her hair. "Crazy wife, you'll catch cold," he tells her quietly, planting a kiss on her forehead. Then, throwing the towel aside, Ichigo lays down next to Rukia, pulling her close. He falls asleep to the scent of cucumbers and strawberries, and the most precious person in the world in his arms.

 


 

In the Seiritei, two fox messengers appear, bearing scrolls. (A/N: In the Shinto tradition, foxes are spirit animals)

One of them scampers into Yamamoto's office, dropping a scroll at his feet. Yamamoto picks it up, and gives the fox a scratch behind the ear, before unrolling the message. He breaks into a big smile, and summons a hell-butterfly.

The other one heads to the Kuchiki estate, where Byakuya is currently sipping his eleventh beer with Isshin Kurosaki.

"What is that?" He squints at the red blur. The fox approaches him carefully, and lays the saliva-covered document on his expensive scarf.

"It's a fox," Isshin booms, reaching for some meat to throw to the animal. The fox catches it with a quick jump, and chews slowly.

"Why would it throw up on my scarf?" Byakuya is confused, and then he takes another sip from his straw.

"Gimme that." Isshin leans over and unrolls the scroll. His eyes widen. "Byakuya."

"Shut up and open me another one," Byakuya orders, scratching under his kenseikan with one finger.

"No, Byakuya, listen." Isshin gets to his feet, using his saliva-covered hand to stroke his jaw. "They eloped!"

"What envelope?" Byakuya eyes the bottom of his can. "I don't think I have anything left in here."

"No, no, Ichigo and Rukia. They eloped." The grin on Isshin's face is blinding. "Who's your daddy now, my son-in-law? And, and…" He bursts into tears. "Grandbabies are coming."

"WHAT?" Byakuya rises to his feet unsteadily, roaring. "They WHAT?"

 


 

Rukia wakes to a tugging on her clothing. Moaning, she rolls over, trying to swat whatever it is away. Her fingers encounter a head, and she jerks up with a scream in her throat. Ichigo grins, biting the hem of her shirt playfully as he leans over her. His golden eyes gleam as he tugs her shirt up, walking two fingers up her flat stomach.

"I-Ichigo." Rukia melts from the intensity in his eyes.

"Good morning, my wife," he says, dropping the hem of her shirt to kiss her lightly on the lips. His fingers dig into her stomach inadvertently, tickling her, and she twists away with a squeal.

"Oh ho." Ichigo slides an arm around her waist, pulling her back into his warmth. "Can it be? My wife is ticklish?"

"Idiot," Rukia mutters, grabbing a pillow and covering her face. "Waking people up like that. Who does that? Seriously, you're turning into your dad."

Ichigo stares at the white cotton between them, smiling. Well, he already knew that Rukia wasn't a morning person. Carefully, he inches his head under the pillow, burying his face into her neck and inhaling deeply. "Mmmm. You smell so delicious first thing in the morning," he murmurs into her skin, rubbing his nose along her jaw.

Rukia's grip loosens on the pillow and he slowly slides it out of her hands, to throw it behind him. Wolfishly, he eyes her vulnerable neck, noting the pink flush of her cheeks. The early morning light makes her skin look extra creamy, and his mouth waters just looking at her.

"I want to find out what you like, my Rukia," he whispers into her ear, running the tip of his nose along the outer shell. He is gratified to see her shiver at the contact, her breathing quicker now. "I bet you like being touched and tasted." He gently strokes a fingertip down her cheek, tracing her jaw to tilt her face to his. Her eyes have darkened to the colour of the midnight skies, and she locks her gaze with his. "I want to hear all the noises you make when I lick your skin. And although I had a brief glimpse of you last night, I want to look at every inch of you and memorize the spots that make you shiver." In a surprise move, he leans forward and pulls her even closer, until her chest is plastered against his front, and she can only stare at him with rounded eyes, noses almost touching. "And then I want to make you beg for more when I feast on you."

He drags the shirt up her ribs, pressing hot open-mouthed kisses all over her neck. Once her pale stomach is exposed, he runs his hands over her skin, careful not to tickle her. His hands slide under the hem of the shirt, nudging the sensitive underside of her breasts, and Rukia sucks in a breath. He gives her a dark grin, and sits up, slowly unbuttoning the shirt, exposing her slowly.

"I wonder why you look so incredibly hot in my shirt," he muses, his fingers slipping the buttons out of their holes slowly. Rukia is mesmerized by the play of his hands, and can only watch in silence as he unwraps her. Finally her shirt is parted all the way, and her cleavage peeks through the gap. He pauses, his eyes roaming over her. "Wish I could take a picture. So you could see how perfect you are."

He lowers his head until their lips are almost, but not quite, touching. Her rapid breaths kiss the surface of his lips as he rolls her underneath his long, muscled body, his eyes searching hers hungrily. "Ichigo." She breathes, overcome with wanting.

"May I kiss your breasts?" His voice comes out harsher than he intends, and it is a testament to how close he is to losing control. Rukia's breath hitches, and she nods, her eyes on his.

Carefully he peels his shirt off the sensitive peaks, handling her as if she were made of glass. "So fucking gorgeous." He mutters, gently bending down to flick one nipple with his tongue. Rukia bites back a cry, covering her mouth with a hand. He sends her a sexy grin, and then closes his lips around her nipple, watching her head roll back helplessly, as she unconsciously offers herself to him. He laps at it with the flat of his tongue, while maintaining the suction of his lips. Ichigo notes that Rukia's other fist is strangling the pillow, and her heels are digging into the bed on both sides of his waist, her hips rocking unconsciously against him.

"My wife is so delicious," he whispers, releasing the now dark red peak with a soft pop, and blowing on it. The trembles start from her spine, and wrack her body. He reveals her other breast, nipping the underside gently with his teeth, while circling the first breast with his fingertips.

"Does this feel good, darling Rukia?" he asks, sucking hard enough to leave a mark on her soft pale skin. A broken cry answers him, making him smile. He carefully rubs his day-old stubble across her sensitive skin, and the roughness drives her mad.

"Please," Rukia whimpers, squeezing her eyes closed futilely against the unstoppable assault on her senses. His long fingers pluck at her nipple, pulling out a helpless moan from her throat.

"Please what, sweet wife?" Ichigo teases, rubbing a cheek over her other nipple before licking it slowly. "Please lick you more? Please bite you? Maybe you want me touching you in other places?"

Rukia lets out a wail against her fingers as Ichigo uses his other hand to grab her ankle, pulling her leg up until she is exposed and vulnerable under him. Her knee is raised, and he turns his head, rubbing his stubble against the soft flesh of her inner thigh. She raises shocked eyes to his as he opens his mouth, nibbling on her tender, unexplored skin. "Ichigo, what - Please don't -" She covers her lips with both hands, trembling under the onslaught. He nibbles on her inner thigh, working his way down slowly to that secret place that is drenched in her honey, and he can tell by the wet cotton between her legs, that she wants more.

"Does it ache, my darling?" he asks hoarsely, rubbing a knuckle along the elastic of her panties. She jumps, all nerve endings on hyper-alert, as he traces the circle of the cloth around her leg, his fingers coming to rest at the junction of her thigh and hip.

"I- Please," she gasps out, as he closes his lips over a spot on her hip, sucking hard enough to leave another red mark. "Ichigo."

"What would you like, Rukia?" He nuzzles her navel, releasing her leg. He stabs his tongue inside the indentation, and he can feel her stomach muscles clench in response. Languidly his fingers slip inside the leg of her panties, rubbing circles into the skin right above the trimmed curls. He glances at her face and pauses, taking in her flushed cheeks and glowing eyes, her hands plastered above her mouth to stop any wayward noises from embarrassing her.

"You are so adorable." He smiles, pulling his hand out of her panties to peel one of hers away from her mouth. Bringing it to his lips, he rises on all fours, nibbling on her fingertips. "Every inch of my wife is delicious." Her fingers quiver as she holds them up to his lips, feeding them to him as if he were a wild animal. Her lids slide to half-mast, as she watches him press kisses to her palm.

Then, with her other hand, Rukia reaches for him, running it over the muscled planes of his chest. She watches Ichigo suck in a breath, as she teases his flat nipple with her fingertips. Growling, he sinks his teeth into her wrist, sending a fresh surge of dark pleasure down to her center. "Little girls who tease the big bad wolf get eaten." He tells her.

Intoxicated by the power she has over him, Rukia grows bold and trails her finger down the ridges of his stomach, down to the waistband of his boxers. Then, her eyes snapping back to his, she strokes the hard bulge in the cloth. At first he stands there, unable to believe her impudence. Then, like lightning, he grabs both her wrists, trapping them above her head as he stretches out on top of her, skin to skin. Their breaths mingle, a heartbeat before Ichigo recaptures her mouth again, swallowing her cry. His erection notches perfectly into the folds of her wet panties, causing Rukia to buck under him helplessly.

"Ichigo," Rukia whimpers, as he starts grinding against her, completely surrendering to his assault. She rocks her hips in time with his, kissing him back desperately, tongues and lips tangling. The pleasure rises sharply, obliterating everything in it's path. She doesn't hear the broken pleas falling from her lips, nor the naughty things he whispers. All there is left is the white hot light behind her eyes, and the unbearably delicious tightening of her body, as he thrusts against her, rubbing all the right places. Ichigo fights to maintain control as he watches her come undone, finding her release, sobbing helplessly as she arches under him.

Gritting his teeth, he holds her tight, raining kisses on her trembling body as she comes back down to earth. When her breath finally evens out, she opens her eyes, and stares at him with wonder. "Ichigo, that was -"

His dangerous grin has her heart kicking up again. "What are you -?"

"Look at you, coming apart even before I touch you." He presses a light kiss on her lips, loving the adorably confused look in her eyes.

"Wait, wasn't that touching?" Rukia protests, not liking the predatory grin on his face.

"Not directly." He smirks. "My clothes are still on. And your panties too." Rukia blushes, seeing the huge wet spot on the front of his boxers from rubbing up against her. A thought occurs to him. "Did you think we were done, wife?"

She shakes her head, averting her eyes. "Of course not. Even I know that you haven't reached orgasm yet, Ichigo," Rukia stammers out. "I mean, t-technically, we haven't consummated the marriage yet." His tongue sweeps in, silencing her. She kisses him back, sliding her arms around his neck. "I love when you talk dirty like that." Ichigo tells her playfully. "Say 'orgasm' again. It's so hot. "

"No." She wrinkles her nose at him. "I'm not a dog you can just command."

"No," he agrees, pulling her knees apart slowly. "You're not the dog, I am. I'm the wolf who eats teasing little girls." He grins before burying his face between her legs, his golden eyes gleaming up at her. Caught unprepared, her fingers fist in his hair, trying to pull him off her, twisting under him as he licks at the drenched cotton. He watches her whole body shudder with every flick of his tongue on the firm little bud buried in her folds, and smiles as she shrieks hoarsely when he traces the folds of her femininity with the tip of his tongue. "My wife is so deliciously wet," he rumbles against her, nibbling with his lips until she is a quivering mass.

She is breathing hard now, eyes clenched shut as he takes her panties in his fists and rips them off her, studying her exposed secrets with hooded eyes.

"Look at you," he whispers, parting the drenched folds gently with a fingertip, making her whimper. "All creamy and pink and wet for me. I'm going to make you come again," he promises, cupping her ass in his hands to help himself. His lips close around the little nub, making her arch with a scream. He works his magic on her, building the delicious pressure in her center until she cannot bear it.

While he has her sobbing under his mouth, he slips a finger into her tight warmth, gently pushing into her, working his tongue so she cannot even think. He works her into a frenzy, and when he feels her pulsing, he pushes a second finger inside, scissoring them.

The combination is too much for her, and Rukia comes apart again, convulsing helplessly in his arms. He can feel her quivering under his tongue, and changes his strokes, soothing her with light kisses until she collapses bonelessly back onto the bed.

"Mmm. Can't get enough of you." He climbs up her body and slants his lips over hers, gently eating at her mouth. Her flavour on his mouth makes Rukia moan restlessly.

Finally, he positions himself at the entrance of her body. "Come for me one more time, wife?" Ichigo asks, cradling her hips in his hands. Rukia can feel the size of him, and for one terrified second, considers pushing him away. But she sees the concern in his eyes, and kisses him again instead.

"Okay, husband," she replies, smiling bravely.

"It's going to hurt. I'm sorry." Ichigo kisses her forehead and eyelids. "You're so tight. I wish there was a way where it wouldn't hurt." The misery in his eyes has Rukia springing to action, pushing him onto his back, and carefully lowering herself on him.

"Let me try it this way," she tells him, her fingers twisting in his as she eases down on the head. She has never felt this before, this strange stretching. Her moisture eases him inside her; she watches Ichigo clench his teeth, sweat beading on his forehead.

"You're - ah-," he groans, sliding his hands to her hips to hold her steady. Rukia rocks against him slowly, leaning her forehead against his, sliding him deeper and deeper with every motion.

"So tight." Ichigo growls, fighting not to take over and thrust inside her all the way. Her brows furrow as she sinks down, forcing him deeper inside her, and slides back up again, pain written on her face. He takes her face in his hands, kissing her gently. "Don't force it, love," Ichigo tells her, his heart twisting at the pain in her eyes. "Do it slower."

She nods, pausing as her body fights the unwanted intrusion. "Please touch me," she begs him. Ichigo kisses her sweetly, his lips on hers as one of his hands cups her breast, and the other slides down between them, to where her flesh is stretched out over his.

"I love you," he breathes over her lips as his thumb finds her pulsing clitoris, and starts stroking it gently. He feels her clench around his shaft in response. Taking that as a sign, he laps his way down her neck, marking her with his teeth. Her involuntary cry is music to his ears; her bracing hand tightens on his shoulder. A rush of moisture on her swollen folds makes it easier for her to sink deeper around him, and he holds her close as he closes his mouth around a pert nipple.

"I love you," she gasps back, feeling him entirely inside her. There is still pain; not the blinding ache of earlier, but a burning that is now subsiding. Her muscles grip him tightly, and Ichigo tries to tamp down the rising pressure building in him.

"Is it getting better?" he asks huskily, lapping at her nipple.

Rukia nods, feeling him move inside her. And then he hits a spot deep inside that gets the pressure building again. He smiles when he sees her gasp. "Good?"

She moves again, repeating the motion. "Yes," Rukia says, her voice rising as that spot deep inside her gets stimulated again. She starts moving faster, her breath coming in shallow pants, matching his.

"Good girl," Ichigo groans, resting his forehead against her shoulder, letting her take charge. "That's my good girl." Their movements become more frantic, as she rides him, the pressure building in both of them. "Come with me, Rukia," he urges, "I'm so close. Oh God, you're so hot and wet and tight."

Rukia throws her head back as her pussy starts clenching around him, sinking her teeth into her knuckles to keep from screaming. Seeing this, Ichigo flips them both around again, ramming himself into her until she breaks. With a groan, he empties himself inside her, feeling her flesh milk him as her own orgasm consumes her.

Almost mechanically, he continues to thrust inside her, until the trembles subside. Then, Ichigo collapses on top of her, pressing light kisses onto her face and cheeks.

"Hey, Ichigo," Rukia breathes, her eyes closing from exhaustion.

"Mmm," he responds, already half asleep.

"Now," she yawns, curling into his body,"we're really married. No annulments."

Ichigo pulls her against him, spooning himself around her. "Love you, Rukia." They both drift off, limbs tangled around each other.

 


 

The two of them link hands as they face the Senkaimon.

"Are you ready?" Ichigo asks the blushing Rukia. She nods, and leans up on her tiptoes to kiss him.

"Now, I'm ready, husband." She grins. Hand in hand, they rush through the doors, and into the light, where all of their friends are gathered.

For some reason, it is raining sakura petals, even if it is mid-summer, thanks to Byakuya. Ichigo smiles sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head.

"I guess there are no secrets in the Seiritei." He smiles down at Rukia.

She smiles back at him as Matsumoto and Abarai run towards them, huge smiles on their faces. "I guess not."

 

Chapter Text

X.

 

She finds Ichigo lounging on his bed, idly leafing through a manga.  He doesn’t say anything as she stands before him, meeting her eyes before flicking his gaze over her slowly.  

“Miss Rukia,” he drawls, his lips savoring her name. ”To what do I owe the honour of your presence?” She worries her lower lip as she approaches him, eyes downcast. He leans forward, setting the manga aside as he balances his chin on his fist. “Did you want something?”

Gathering her courage, she meets his eyes, chin high.

Ichigo smiles and reaches out, grabbing her wrist and pulling her forward slowly. His uniform is carelessly unbuttoned, revealing the white undershirt stretched over his broad chest.  She watches the muscles play under his shirt, and feels a flutter at the sight of his barely leashed strength.

She climbs into the bed, balancing on her knees. He pulls her closer so she is straddling him, sitting in his lap with her legs bracketing his. She sits stiffly, rising on her knees slightly to avoid contact.  

He searches her eyes as he catches the ends of her uniform’s bowtie between two fingers, tugging slowly. “Rukia? You haven’t said anything.”

She slides her fingers up his jaw, mirroring his actions of the previous night. “I got tired of running,” Rukia whispers. “I’m ready for you now.”

He winds the now-untied bowtie around his fingers, pulling her face close. “Mmm, really?” he purrs, gold eyes dropping to her lips. She places an innocent peck on his lips, making him smirk. “That the best you can do, Kuchiki?”

Competitive spirit pricked, she kisses him harder, tongue and lips tangling with mingled breaths. Her kiss is still tentative and inexperienced, but he takes her mouth, nibbling and licking and tasting it. Within moments, her knees relax, and she sits in the crook of his knees, her hot softness pressing against the hard planes and angles of his body.

He leans back, his gold eyes glowing with hunger as he looks at her again with something like awe. “You are definitely scary,” he sighs. “My gorgeous girl. There’ll be nothing left of me.”

Even now, Ichigo teases her. She silences him with another kiss, this one slower, slanting her mouth over his as her fingers slide into his hair. He stabs his tongue into her lips, stroking against hers slowly, tasting her.

His hands let go of the tie around her neck, and slowly travel down her body before sliding up her skirt to cup her ass. She gasps when his fingertips brush the soft white cotton.

“Do you like that, Rukia?” He smiles against her lips, squeezing again. He watches roses bloom on her cheeks as she nods.

“Does it feel good when I do this?” He gently strokes the hidden crease of her ass with his fingertips, watching her eyes slide to a close.

“Yes,” Rukia breathes, furrowing her brow at the unfamiliar sensations his fingers evoke. “Please.”

“Unbutton your blouse, Rukia.” He says her name as if it were an endearment, and her trembling fingers rise to obey his order.  She slips the first two buttons out of their holes, her breath catching as he tightens his grip on her ass. She finds her hips rocking slowly, and hurries to open the next button.

“Slower,” he breathes roughly. “I want you to unwrap yourself slowly.”

Her eyes slam into his as she obeys, peeling off her sweater to reveal more buttons.  He watches with heavy lidded eyes as she slips off the remaining buttons, revealing the smooth skin of her stomach and the cream lace of her bra. She can tell by the darkening of his eyes that he likes what he sees.  

He slips the open blouse off her slowly, trapping her elbows as he plants a kiss on one shoulder, finally yanking it off before recapturing her lips. She kisses him hungrily now, no longer the passive participant in this game. He puts his hands on her waist, savoring the feel of her skin with a pleased sound.

"Sweet Rukia," he murmurs into her lips as his fingers explore her stomach. A thumb dips into her navel, causing a line of fire to blaze towards her center. She sucks in a breath as he circles the small indentation.

"So deliciously smooth. This time, I'm going to feast on you for hours." He finally gives her lips a reprieve, kissing her jaw to find that spot under her ear that makes her whimper.

Her hips have started grinding against his, the growing hunger inside her pushing her to move, but she does not know how to ease it.

Meanwhile, Ichigo slides a bra strap down her arm, tracing the marks left with his lips. He does the same with the other side, eyeing her barely filled bra cups with satisfaction.  

Rukia averts her eyes self-consciously, knowing her own body. Almost reverently he raises both hands to cup her breasts through the lace and cotton, his eyes meeting hers.

"You are perfect," he breathes, following the curve of her bra over a breast with his tongue without breaking eye contact. His tongue laps playfully under the cream lace, making her pussy clench involuntarily.

 "Good?" he asks, careful to note her every reaction. She bites her lower lip and nods. Ichigo Kurosaki licking her breast is the hottest thing she has seen. Her nipples peak and harden.

 "May I take your bra off?" he murmurs against the soft skin between her breasts. Rukia reaches behind and unhooks the bra in reply, too impatient to wait. 

He scowls playfully up at her, causing a low throb in her stomach. "I wanted to do that," he tells her with a pout, cupping her other breast. "I'll have to punish you for that. But damn, you are perfect."

He catches a nipple in his lips and suckles. Rukia lets out a surprised yelp. Suddenly she cannot breathe and her entire being is focused on the one sensitive spot where Ichigo is licking playfully. She bites her knuckle to keep the screams back as his clever fingers circle the other pink nipple too, gently tugging it and stroking till she cannot see straight.

He releases her with a wet pop and switches sides, sucking the other nipple until it glows a dark cherry red. "So adorable." He smiles up at her for a moment, kissing her lips briefly. He eases her up on her knees with an arm around her waist so he can nibble on the soft underside of her breast.  

Rukia can feel how wet she is, and is not sure how to ease the need. But Ichigo suddenly sucks at her skin, hard, and eyes the mark with satisfaction. "Mine," he tells her, flicking his tongue at the other nipple again.

He reduces her to a whimpering mess, and all Rukia can do is feel. She grabs fistsful of his hair, her body a quivering bundle of nerves and sensations. He glances up at her, eyes full of dark amusement. “Poor Rukia… does it feel good to have me tasting you here?” he croons, lapping at her nipple.

“Yes,” Rukia whispers, panting. 

He leans back, and oh, it almost hurts when he stops touching her. His eyes rake over her body possessively, and now she has lost all her shyness. Then he pulls his own shirt off, revealing sculpted abs and strong shoulders. She kneels over him, feeling the remains of his kisses in the unfamiliar tenderness of her breasts, and tries to catch her breath. 

“God,” he whispers, running a knuckle down the side of her nipple, tracing her curves  before resting it on her navel. “You are so incredibly sexy.”

Eyes heavy, she watches him trace his fingertips down her thigh. Then he reverses their direction, sliding them back to disappear under her skirt, exploring previously undiscovered skin. As if asking permission, gold eyes snap back to hers. Her hands cover his, and pull them up slowly under her skirt.

Ichigo smiles at her trembling acceptance, reaching up for a kiss as he runs his knuckles up her thighs. “Sweet Rukia,” he murmurs reverently, palming the inside of her thighs. “Show me where you want me to touch you.”

His hands burn her skin wherever they touch, and the closer they get to her core, the harder it is for Rukia to think. His fingertips brush wet cotton, pulling a moan from her lips. A pleased expression crosses Ichigo’s face. “Do you want me to touch you here, my adorable girl?” He traces the creases between her thighs and legs, dangerously close to that secret place.

Rukia’s eyes snap open, and she stares at him, dazed. “Lift up your skirts, and show me,” he urges, watching her trembling hands grab the hem of her school issue skirt, and raise it slowly.

His look of dark intent sends a fresh rush of moisture to her panties. “So wet.” He almost hisses, rubbing the back of his knuckle right in her center, tracing her folds through the soaked fabric. She clenches almost uncontrollably just from that one touch. “All for me, huh.”

Rukia is mesmerized by the look on his face.  The legendary focus of Ichigo Kurosaki is now on her, as he explores the newly revealed skin.  Then she closes her eyes and shudders as he runs a long hot finger up the crease in the cotton, circling that one spot that makes the world tilt. “Ichi- ohhh,” she gasps, chest heaving. She grabs his shoulders, suddenly boneless.

“Gorgeous,” he whispers, stroking her again. She opens her eyes to find that he is watching her. The intensity on his face makes her tremble even more as an unfamiliar fire blazes deep inside her.

In a flurry of motion, Ichigo pulls her into a lying position, trapping her underneath his hard body.  Reclining over her with his head on his hand, he gazes into her eyes for a moment, then asks, “Hey, delicious girl, are you mine?”

Rukia raises her hands to cover her face, ready to scream with frustration. “Really? You’re asking me this now?”

Gently, Ichigo peels her hands away from her face, raining kisses all over her eyes and nose. He traps her wrists on the pillow above her head, leaving her exposed and vulnerable.  “Rukia, we can’t go any further until we both know where we stand.”

He kisses her lips finally, claiming them. “And I need to know now that you are mine.”  His eyes crinkle as he smiles down at her. “And I’ll be your man, of course. I’m not easy, though. I need commitment from you before we do anything else.” He nips her lower lip playfully. “And eventually you’ll need to make an honest man out of me.”

Rukia raises her head to prolong the kiss, yanking one arm from his grasp to pull his head closer.

When he pulls his head back to tease her, she flips them both over so she straddles him, trapping his arms next to his head. “I belong to no man,” she retorts, kissing him hungrily.

He smiles against her lips, licking at her mouth until she melts. "No, my scary girl, of course you belong to yourself. But will you be with me? As my girlfriend? Exclusively? With dates and holding hands in public and telling our families?" He pulls away and she detects a note of vulnerability in his voice.

She stares into his eyes, feeling the flutters in her stomach intensify. "You want to tell Oni-sama?"

“I want to tell everyone.” Ichigo grins at her. “Yes, even Byakuya.”

“You really should be more formal with him, you know.” Rukia rolls off him, lying back down. The mention of her brother has her covering herself. Ichigo faces her, his fingers tipping her face to his.

“Sooo… you agree?” he asks eagerly, tracing circles on the inside of her knee. He watches her cheeks heat up as she averts her eyes. “I thought that was kind of a given. Since I am here,” she mutters, crossing her arms.

He recaptures her lips. “I’m not taking any chances with you, scary girl. I’ll need you to -” He slides his fingers up the inside of her thigh slowly. “Spell.” The fingers reach her panties again, causing her stomach to clench. “It.” Her eyes snap back to his as he cups her pussy, gently rubbing her with his palm. “Out.” His fingers start massaging the slick cotton, causing her to grab his wrist in maidenly panic. And again, she is helpless.

“Ichigo,” she whimpers, biting her lower lip.

He studies her face intently. “Does it feel good, Rukia?”

“Y-y- oh.” Her eyes close as she battles for control. His clever fingers have found a particularly delicious spot that has her toes curling and her hands fisting. He strums it mercilessly, playing her body like an expert.

“Just say yes,” he whispers into her ear as he shifts his position, one arm sliding around her to pull her close and the other hand pulling up her skirt, sliding into the waistband of her panties. “Say yes and it’ll be so good.” He follows this with slow nibbles on her vulnerable neck.  She shivers as he slides a finger down, peeling the wet panties from her sensitive skin. “My Rukia is so fucking wet,” he purrs, nipping her collarbone. “Oh, wait. You haven’t said yes yet.” He pauses his fingers, and waits expectantly.

Rukia scowls up at him. “I can’t believe you’re doing this.”

Ichigo licks her nipple again, sliding his fingertip lightly up and down her slit. She arches her back reflexively.

“Your poor little pussy, all wet and empty,” he whispers against her ear. “Don’t you want me inside you? All you have to do is say it.”

“Not like this,” she bites out, sinking her teeth into her knuckles to keep from crying out. “I won’t be your - Ohh God - girlfriend just because you’re torturing m-me.”

“Will you say yes, then, because I love you?” Ichigo is staring at her intently again, his nose nudging hers, even as his hand is buried in her panties.  He pauses his movements, awaiting her response.

“Yes,” she breathes out, her eyes on his. “I will.”

“I love you,” Ichigo states quietly. “Just so you know.”

 Rukia takes a deep breath. “I love you too,” she replies, then mutters, “So I guess it’s official.”

 He looks intensely relieved, resting his forehead on hers. They pause for a moment, absorbing the change in their relationship that has just taken place. Then, with a renewed determination, Ichigo starts stroking her again, using his thumb to circle her clit.

“Oh God, Ichigo, yes.” She clutches at his shoulder, trembling at his unrelenting assault. A mischievous grin slowly spreads across his face, one that has her stomach quivering.

“You know, the panties need to go,” he says conversationally, hooking his fingers under the soft cotton and peeling it off her skin.  Ichigo smiles widely when he sees the bunny print on the wrinkled fabric, sliding it down to her knees. “You are too cute, Rukia Kuchiki.”

Flushing, she tries to twist away. He pulls her knees up, kneeling between her legs and rendering her helpless in this position. Then he divests her of her panties. “What are you doing?” she snaps, pinned as her knees are pushed almost to her chest.  Carefully, he spreads her knees, a rakish grin on his face. “I owe you a punishment, Rukia. You cheated me earlier. I wanted to strip off your bra.” She pushes her skirt down between her legs in a belated attempt at modesty, with a squeak. Undeterred, Ichigo grins at her, pressing a kiss on the inside of her knee just above her school socks.  “I can tell how much you want me, my scary girl,” he teases, painting his name on the inside of her thigh with his wet fingertips.

She watches, wide eyed, as he trails a wet kiss up her thigh, stopping at the hem of her skirt. He laps at the wet symbols that his fingers left, tracing the strokes with his tongue. She shivers, and twists restlessly, modesty warring with pleasure.

“You are so tasty,” he murmurs, biting her thigh playfully and then licking it. “And wet. Do you want me to touch your pussy again?”

She stares at him, teeth sinking into her lower lip, and nods slowly. Ichigo spreads her knees wide, and uses a knuckle to trace the soft, swollen cleft between her thighs. He watches her face as he does this, looking extremely pleased with himself as he presses kisses along her thighs. He increases the speed of his strokes, watching her eyes lose focus as he circles a particularly sensitive area.  

“Do you know, I’ve always had a thing for you in school uniform?” he says gruffly as he nudges her soft folds apart with his fingertips to stroke her wet silky flesh. "The first time I saw you in this skirt, I wanted to do this."

Rukia lets out a muffled scream as he ducks his head under her skirt to give her a long slow lick. She arches her back, trying to move away from the unfamiliar pleasure shooting through her, a little terrified by the intensity.  He holds her hips up, keeping her in place as he laps at her pussy, tracing the folds with the tip of his tongue.  Rukia writhes under him, pinned down by his hands, biting back sobs as he finds her clit and attacks it relentlessly with his lips and tongue.

She cannot even see his head as he moves under her skirt, and the dark things he is doing with his mouth has the pressure building even faster until it is almost unbearable. She can feel herself tightening, her body clenching as he explores her folds, tasting her with long slow licks.

“Ichigo,” she sobs, her hands fisting in the sheets as his tongue invades her, pushing the waves higher and higher. She feels him smile against her wet skin, stroking her weeping flesh with shallow thrusts of his tongue.

“So tight.” His hot breath sends her into a frenzy. “And so fucking wet for me. My gorgeous girl, I could do this forever.” The hem of her skirt slips down, exposing the sunset of his hair and his golden eyes. His gaze is intense, the lower half of his face still covered, as he keeps her knees bent over her head to get better access to her hidden secrets.

Rukia feels as if she is going to come apart, like she is going to burst out of her skin and explode into a million tiny pieces. He feels the fluttering of her lower stomach and bears down with his tongue on that one perfect spot, shifting to ease a finger inside her clenching pussy.

“So deliciously sweet,” he croons, marvelling at her tightness. Then he starts to move, in and out, working it into an emptiness that has never been filled before. At first, her body fights the unfamiliarity of being invaded, but Ichigo works in a second finger, licking her clit lightly to get her to receive him.

The invasion has Rukia screaming his name as she comes almost violently, her body clutching tightly at his fingers. He smiles in satisfaction and raises his head to watch her unravel, his mouth still on her quivering flesh.  Her petite body shudders at the pleasure overwhelming her, her hips rising off the bed in an unconscious, desperate attempt to get closer. Finally, her heart rate slows down, and he eases her knees back down to lock around his hips. He keeps his fingers inside her, though, to get her used to it, and is delighted by the frequent aftershocks that quake inside her warmth.  Rukia blushes, a little shocked by her own behavior, and embarrassed by the gleaming on Ichigo’s lips and chin.  He pauses to look at her. “I can’t believe I’m the only one who gets to see you look like that,” Ichigo breathes. “You are so fucking beautiful.” 

She uses her ankles around his back to pull him down to her, kissing him.  Her flavour on his lips makes her clench around his fingers, and his tongue repeats the clever motions that he did on her clit, sending another rush of moisture to help his fingers.  She kisses him slowly but thoroughly, as her hands go to the fastening of his dress pants.

He smiles against her lips and helps her unbutton, then unzip him. “Mmm. Naughty girl, did you want more?”

“Please. Now,” she begs desperately, her hand fisting in his hair. The first orgasm had only made her greedy, and the ache between her legs is only partially sated by his fingers. She uses her other hand to fumble with the waistband of his pants, curiously exploring the bulge in his boxers.  

“My curious little kitten,” Ichigo chuckles softly, nibbling on her jaw. “Slow down.”

“I want to make you feel good too,” Rukia whispers between desperate gasps. Purple eyes, now darkened to almost black, meet his. He twists his fingers inside her, eliciting a mewl from her throat. 

“You’re too tight to take me, Rukia,” he hisses against her cheek, working up to a delicious rhythm. Her hips rock to match his rhythm, but her fingers are awkward as they try to stroke him back. “You can barely take two of my fingers, you’re so incredibly tight.”

He does something with his fingers that sets the fireworks off behind her eyes; that secret spot inside her that has her bowing off the bed, completely unprepared for this.

“I can’t - Ichig- oh God-,” Broken words escape her lips as Rukia careens towards the next peak, completely at the mercy of his fingers inside her.

He sinks his teeth into the soft skin at the junction of her neck and shoulder. The sharp nip of pain makes the pleasure bursting through her all the more devastating.  She can only grab onto his shoulders as the world spins out of control yet again, her slender body spasming. He holds her close, whispering praises soothingly against her hot skin.

She collapses back on the bed, completely boneless. He eases his fingers out of her tight warmth, feeling her pussy tighten around them in protest. The marks on her shoulder are beginning to turn into bruises, and a rush of male satisfaction fills him at the sight.  Then he sees the look on Rukia’s face.

Ichigo gives her a tender grin and presses a sweet kiss to her forehead. “This time I got to see your face when you came,” he murmurs, capturing her lips again. “My gorgeous girlfriend.” Seeing the goosebumps on her skin, he snags an old sweater thrown on his chair, and eases her into it.  She looks adorable in it, the sleeves reaching past her fingertips.

 Rukia is completely exhausted, her eyelids getting heavier by the second. “What- about-” She struggles to open her eyes.

 “Shh, my darling girl,” Ichigo soothes, pulling her back against his front to snuggle. “It’s ok. We have lots of time.” He yawns against her ear, curling his body around her, his leg thrown across hers. Within moments, both of them are asleep.

 


 

Coming out of her slumber, Rukia feels warm and safe, something she hasn’t felt since - oh, since Ichigo had held her all those months ago.  Her waking mind takes note of the soft breathing in her ear; the hand inside her shirt, cupping her breast; and the unfamiliar hardness pressed against the small of her back.  

Her eyes fly open, remembering, and she also notices a soreness in the newly stretched muscles between her legs.

It is now late in the evening, and the room is dark except for the silver light of the moon. Rukia turns slowly, to face the sleeping Ichigo. He has impossibly long lashes, she thinks, and it isn’t fair. Then she lets out a squeak as he wraps his hands around her backside, drawing her closer to him. Now the hardness is pressed against the front of her skirt, and in his sleep, Ichigo grinds himself against her soft center.

“Ichigo,” Rukia whispers, trying to wake him, but he hits a particularly sensitive spot and causes a chain reaction of shivers and gasps from her. He rocks against her slowly. “Wake up.” She pokes his shoulder.

His eyes fly open, and his gaze is disoriented for a moment, stopping his motions. He stares at her, then smiles happily. “Hello, Rukia,” he says simply. She kisses him lightly. Ichigo rolls her on her back, nibbling at her lips and then delving between them with his tongue.  She returns the kiss hungrily, her tongue tangling with his. Rukia can feel the hardness pressed against her getting bigger.

“How are you feeling?” Ichigo pulls away for a moment, studying her eyes in the moonlight. “Are you sore?”

She blushes, and nods. He looks so pleased with himself, she thinks. “But I want you inside me,” Rukia stammers, her cheeks rosy.

Ichigo goes still. “Are you sure?” he asks. “We don’t have to, if you aren’t ready. I wanted to make you feel good but -” Rukia slides a hand down his boxers, tracing his hardness, her eyes on his.

“Please.” She whispers.

He captures her lips again, kissing her senseless. “My delicious girl, do you really want me to make love to you completely?”

“Yes,” Rukia sighs as he slides his fingers up her skirt. “Please.”

His fingertips brush against her neatly trimmed tuft of hair, and then he slowly uses a finger to part her slowly melting center. Rukia’s fingers dig into his shoulders as he explores her. “Mmm Rukia, you’re already drenched,” he tells her, stroking her slowly. “I’m still afraid I may hurt you when I enter you.”

She manages a shaky smile. “I don’t know, I don’t think -”

“If you can still think, I’m not doing this correctly,” he grins and starts thumbing the hot button hidden in the folds of her pussy. Her hips almost come off the bed at the unexpected sensation, and he stops immediately. “You may be a bit hypersensitive now.”

Her heart is pounding as he sits up again, his back against the window. Then he pulls her into his lap, back against his front, her legs forced open by his thighs between them. Rukia leans her back against his chest, burying her face in his neck from shyness.

“Hold your skirt up.” He whispers against her ear. “I want to see your pretty little pussy again.” She obeys, feeling incredibly wanton as she holds her skirt up to her waist. The shadows do not hide the shocking sight of her pale skin, gleaming with her body’s own honey, and his darker fingers, slowly parting the petals of her femininity.

With his other hand, he circles her nipples, whispering naughty things against her ear like, “Good girl, you’re so wet already,” or “You like this? Your nipples are so hard.”

Rukia feels like a puppet, helpless in the invisible strings that Ichigo pulls. She can only react, and it is unbelievably sexy. Her hands fist on the hem of her helplessly rumpled school uniform, and there is something so hot about not being able to see his hand move under her borrowed sweater. 

“Turn around,” he tells her, lifting her so she is facing him, just like when she first arrived. The moonlight forms a halo around his head, turning his hair to gold and fire. They gaze at each other for a moment, their breaths mingling. The trust in her eyes humbles him.

Very carefully, Ichigo parts her flesh with both thumbs, his eyes on her face.  Rukia averts her eyes, bracing a hand on his shoulder as she feels her honey drip down her thighs and onto his questing fingers. He doesn’t say anything as he enters her with one finger, working his way in and out again, trying to stretch her tight passage so she can accommodate him. 

The drenched folds accept another finger from him, but there is not a lot of space. Rukia is moaning with every stab of his fingers, her lips all rosy from where she has been chewing them.  Ichigo takes in the look on her face, mentally filing it away. Then she starts to move her hips, matching the rhythm of his fingers. Ichigo watches her eyes widen in wonder as she presses herself down fully, her broken breaths betraying the sharp pleasure rising in her. Using his other hand to steady her, he circles her clit again. Her head rolls back, exposing the pale column of her neck. Ichigo cannot help himself; he presses slow hot kisses along her neck, sucking and marking her. He notes with delight that her dripping pussy clenches around him in time to his tongue on her skin. Her scent is driving him crazy. Somehow his clever clever girl has managed to work his boxers down, freeing him from it’s confines.  His hardness bobs up, reaching for the liquid warmth that his fingers are currently enjoying.

He meets her eyes again. “Are you sure, Rukia? Last chance.”

In response, she lowers herself clumsily against his cock. The moment his skin touches her, Ichigo grits his teeth. “So fucking incredible,” he breathes. “Take what you want, Rukia.” He watches her brow furrow as he slowly eases out his fingers, and lightly traces her slit with the head of his cock. She bites back a cry as his blunt manhood nudges against her clit, and her hips move, trying to prolong the sensation.

“Beautiful,” he breathes, watching the play of emotions on her face.

With shallow breaths, she manages to work the head of his cock inside her, and she can only stare at him, wide-eyed, as her body tries to adjust to this new invasion. Ichigo runs his hand up and down her back, soothing her. “Oh God,” she whimpers. “It’s so big.”

“Slowly, Rukia,” he sighs, watching the pleasure and pain contort her face as she bears down, working him in inch by delicious inch. He uses his other hand to spread her liquid over her clit, stroking it lightly. Her heaving chest tempts him too- he nibbles on a pert nipple through soft wool. She leans into him, holding his head to her chest, panting.

“Ichigo,” Rukia whispers, protesting. “You’re too big. It won’t go all the way in.”

He kisses her again, just because she is so adorable. “I love you, Rukia,” Ichigo tells her, shifting so she is lying underneath him again. “And I’m sorry.” He starts thrusting shallowly, easing in and out of her slowly until the pain in her eyes subsides. When her hips start to move against him, he pushes a little bit deeper. Rukia’s back bows off the bed, her knees spreading wider to accept him. He pulls back out, soothing her with kisses and praises. Then Ichigo thrusts back all the way in, taking her scream of pain in his kiss. He kisses the tears away from her cheeks, trying to maintain control and not take her like the mindless animal he fears he is turning into. Ichigo can feel her flesh fluttering around his cock, and it is driving him wild.  He fists his hands into the sheets of the bed, trying to keep still while her body adjusts to him.

“Does - does it hurt you too?” Rukia asks, watching the grim cast of his face.

Ichigo laughs darkly. “No, it doesn’t. It feels like you were made for me.” He rakes his teeth down her jaw, licking that spot under her ear that he knows she likes.  The spasms around his cock tell him she likes it very much.  Her soft yielding flesh has him battling for control. “It feels like your tight-” he whispers against her ear, with a growl. “Wet-” She arches against him, pushing him even more deeply inside her. “Pussy.” He grabs her hips. “Was made for me.” And then he starts thrusting. Rukia is surprised to find the discomfort abating, only to be replaced by a slow burning spreading through her. Her heels dig into the mattress as he rocks his pelvis into her faster now, his hands framing her face. Twisting and bucking underneath him, she desperately tries to keep the overpowering wave of pleasure away.

“Ichigo,” she sobs, feeling his delicious fullness now that her body has adjusted to accommodate him fully. His lips crash into hers, as he picks up his rhythm, pounding into her soaked flesh. His thumb finds where his body is joined to hers, and massages her clit, now stretched against his flesh.  Just like that, the wave catches her, and her eyes go dark.  Her whole body tightens around around him, the pleasure catching in her spine, twisting tighter and tighter until she breaks with a hoarse scream.  

Ichigo is right behind her, thrusting into her clenching flesh. “You like that?” he asks, tasting the salt on her skin. She mewls in reply, making him feel like a god. Finally, Ichigo empties himself inside her, holding her as he trembles in her arms. Rukia’s tightness milks him, and he stays there for a long minute, thrusting shallowly until he is spent. He slips out of her slowly, feeling her quiver from the aftershocks of her orgasm, and studies her face. Rukia smiles, her eyes already drifting closed. She can feel his hot cum pouring out of her, and this unfamiliar sensation has her pussy fluttering again. Her eyes open as he puts his hand on her, playing in the thick liquids of her slit.

“This is so incredibly sexy,” he whispers against her ear. “My cum is dripping out of you.” He paints her skin again, circling her folds, and has her whimpering again in seconds. “I love how sensitive you are.” Ichigo tells her.

“I- can’t-” Rukia gasps, rocking her hips against his questing fingers.

“Yes, you can.” He smiles against her neck, rubbing the pads of his fingers against a particularly tender spot. She scowls slightly at him, but cannot help herself, as he brings the intensity back to her swollen folds.  

“Do you want me to eat you?” he asks curiously, circling her clit.

Shocked eyes crash into his. “N-no! I’m all messy d-down there and it’s all-”

He grins at her. “I know you liked it when I licked you earlier. You are so delicious.” Flushing, she tries to twist away from his knowing smile. “And you liked it when I put my tongue inside here.” He taps her entrance with a fingertip, watching her squirm, her cheeks glowing.

She tries to push his wrist away but he stops her with a kiss. “I want to know what my girlfriend likes,” Ichigo tells her between light kisses. “And I want you to fall asleep with me inside you.”

“Aren’t you tired?” Rukia bites back a yawn.

“Mmm. You are,” He tells her, pulling her into his arms again. “I’ll finger you to sleep, my gorgeous woman.” She tries to make a face but the pleasure builds slowly, and she isn’t sure if she can open her eyes again. “Sleep,” he rumbles in her ear, bringing her to a slow orgasm until she passes out. Then, he closes his eyes, wrapping himself around her again. He would die a happy man, he thinks, if he could have Rukia Kuchiki trembling in his arms every night.