It would be a surprise to everyone who knew Rukia, and even a surprise to a younger version of herself, that after the war and the defeat of Juha Bach, after the long, arduous and agonizing rebuilding of Soul Society, that she did not visit her friends in the living world very often at all.

Yes, she still remembered it-the way she felt when they were fighting Aizen, and when they went up against the impossibly formidable Vandenreich. The feeling of loving your comrades, your nakama, the utter faith in them, the willingness to die for them. The tightness of those bonds, forged in an honorable war to save everything they held dear.

The despair they felt together, and their mutual triumph at victory, had been beautiful. She wouldn't have been able to envision a future in which they didn't continue to be as close as they were then.

Looking back, she smiled sadly at the thought. With nostalgia, and with another feeling that she had firmly walled off in her mind, but despite her best efforts, occasionally broke through.

It could've been different.

It wasn't that she didn't love Renji. She did. Certainly never more than when they were children in Rukongai, struggling to stay alive, fighting and stealing, hurting and breaking from the repeated loss of their brethren/comrades/friends. Mourning until all they had left was each other, and a lonely group of graves.

No, she loved him more than that now, after he'd fought so hard for them as a couple, fighting to achieve bankai, fighting for the approval of her stoic and disproving adoptive brother, and nearly dying in the process. All for her.

No, even moreso after the birth of their daughter-when she saw the pure joy in his face as he cradled their daughter in his arms, she knew that she truly loved this man. And when Rukia herself looked at her daughter, Ichika, and her heart swelled with pride and affection, she felt an even closer bond with Renji. Ichika could only have existed as a product of herself and Renji. That was indisputable.

Rukia had no doubt that had Ichigo never entered into the picture, Renji would have been the love of her life.

It was true, she and Renji had a history that Ichigo could not touch. Complicated, and fraught with conflict, but it was a part of their relationship that Ichigo was no part of.

On the other hand, Renji had no hand in the beginning of her relationship with Ichigo. It had occurred organically, completely on its own. In fact, when Renji and she were at their lowest point ever, it was Ichigo that calmly proclaimed his utter faith in her, and single-handedly assaulted Soul Society with that belief.

If anything, it was Ichigo that knocked sense into Renji back then-another thing she had him to thank for.

And she knew that wasn't fair to Renji, but it was true. Ichigo had never lost faith in her, or turned on her. And though she knew now the agony Renji had experienced that led to those decisions (back when she was first adopted into the cold and desolate home of the Kuchiki clan), she couldn't help thinking that Ichigo, in his shoes, would've chosen a different course of actions entirely.

Yes, very unfair to Renji. Because she had no way of ever knowing what Ichigo would have done. And yet she could not shake that certainty in her bones.

It was not possible to reason with love.

It wasn't hatred that compelled the two of them to tend towards being apart from one another. They were cordial around each other, to be sure. And when together, Rukia would tease Ichigo, he'd become enraged, and to everyone else it would probably look like old times.

But at every moment, a tension breathed between them that others could not detect. At times, it became too much for Rukia to bear.

It was no different today. The gang had gathered in the real world, the first time many of them had seen each other in years, to watch Sado's crucial fighting championship. People sprawled across the living room furniture at the Kurosaki clinic, and though the atmosphere was jovial, the clamor produced an increasing pressure in Rukia's skull.

"Be right back," Rukia called over her shoulder to Renji, as she rose from a couch with empty water glass in hand and padded over to the kitchen. She felt a pair of eyes on her as she did so, and breathed more easily the moment she rounded the corner and was hidden from sight.

The voices seemed to recede, along with the tension in her head.

She inhaled deeply, and exhaled with a long sigh of relief. It had been hard to breathe back in the living room, with all those people. Rukia grabbed a paper towel, ran it under the faucet, and patted her face and neck with the cool material.

She couldn't do it. Maintaining the facade was so difficult. How much longer would she be able to keep it up? How much longer before she had to make some excuse and leave early?

It was as she leaned on the counter, eyes closed in concentration, wondering what kind of excuse to make-maybe that I've been feeling dizzy? I could tell them I'm not yet adjusted to the real world-when she felt a warm hand cover her own.

"What is it, Rukia?" His voice was laced with concern, and something else.

And instantly all the tension that had leaked out in her solitude rushed back. Rukia jerked her hand back as if burned. Her eyes flew open, which was a bad move, because she was suddenly faced with the full physical proximity of him. Him. Ichigo.

Warm amber eyes stared down into her own. She could see them quite clearly, now that he'd trimmed his longer hair.

"Nothing," she sputtered, and it seemed ridiculously obvious to her that he'd be able to discern that this was not so. Stupid-she should've opted for an excuse. He simply stared back at her.

"You've cut your hair," she commented, attempting a casual tone. He smiled slightly, and reached up to run a few fingers through the shortened tufts.

"Yeah," he gave a short laugh. "And you've grown yours out."

Rukia turned her head, suddenly aware of the expanse of hair that drifted down behind her, brushing the small of her back.

"It seems we've been moving in opposite directions," he said. Her eyes widened.

He took a step towards her. With her back now against the sink, Rukia was finding it less and less easy to breathe.

She saw the mournful look in his eyes, deepened from reflecting the same emotion in her own expression. Her fingernails dug into the countertop. I shouldn't be here.

"Are you sure you're alright?" he asked softly. His concern bled into her, wounding her deeply.

She had to turn away and close her eyes to even begin to breathe normally. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly for a moment, fighting for control.

"I'm fine," she choked, pushing away from the counter forcefully with her arms, as if she needed an extra boost of energy to escape from Ichigo's orbit. She didn't dare look at him as she left the kitchen, emerging again into the loud bustle of the living room, to escape and now cloak herself in its noise.

No, she didn't visit her friends in the real world very often. Because she was afraid of moments like this.