Bound by Duty

Light of 1000 Stars

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. Just write about it.

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Chapter Eighteen

He stared at it for a moment longer. Just to assure himself that it was really there. It was after a few more seconds that he sensed Rukia burning a worried gaze into his forehead that he glanced back up at her, face flushed. He struggled to find the right words.

"You…you've kept it," Renji managed out. "Even after all this time?"

Rukia's worried gaze only got worse. Even her husband, sitting on the other side of the carriage, now perked up and looked at him, acting interested.

"Kept what?" Rukia asked.

Renji looked away. It was even harder just to talk to Rukia, knowing Ichigo was biting at his every word, watching his every action. It was a hard boundary to cross—this one of pure friendship and kindness. He wanted to blurt out questions to her…wanted to know how she was doing. If she missed her home. If she missed him.

He wanted to know if she was happy with her new life. But by the looks of it, Ichigo and Rukia seemed to get along fine.

Renji glanced back at her once he was able to muster up a smile. "The locket,"

Rukia's eyes widened, as if a long forgotten memory had been shoved back down her throat. She then smiled, her dainty hand reaching for the silver locket adorning her thin neck.

"Yeah." She whispered, twisting the locket so it would glint. "Of course I kept it."

Renji kept his eyes locked on the locket, smiling. He watched as her thin fingers wove around it, toying with it, shining it in the sunlight. He was glad she was happy with it.

We were happy back then…

Then, out of nowhere, a darker-toned hand reached in, embracing the locket and gently prying it from Rukia's hold.

but then…he took away everything. He took you away…my everything.

"I can't believe I had never seen this on your neck." Ichigo informed casually. "Have you been wearing it all this time?"

Rukia nodded gently, eyes searching her husband's brown orbs that were fixed on her locket. Renji watched as a smile turned the corners of her lips; she was not even afraid Ichigo would be angry at her for wearing another man's gift.

Maybe Ichigo wasn't the jealous type. And Rukia would only know this by spending so much time with her new companion.

They must have a bond of trust…

A pause of silence. Renji frowned at the orange-head. You have gained Rukia's trust in a matter of months?

"It's quite beautiful." Ichigo stated at last, dropping the cold artifact back into Rukia's hands, then looked out the window again.

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"You heard yet?" Urahara asked lazily throughout the open room.

"Heard what, Urahara?" the younger blue-haired man appeared, wiping his hands on a dirty rag.

Urahara stood from his spot on the floor, tipping his hat. He approached Hantarou with a crooked smile beneath the shadow of his hat. "Hisana had just told me that the Mistress is coming for a visit! Rukia sent us a letter!"

Hanatarou dropped his rag. His eyes widened. "Mistress Rukia, really?" he squeaked.

"Really." Urahara grinned.

The younger man rushed off towards the kitchen, yelling at a few servants walking aimlessly around the house. The usually quiet Hanatarou screeched at them.

"You!" He pointed at Nemu, one of the female servants. "Check and make sure the garden is spotless! No leaves for Mistress Rukia to step on!"

Nemu blinked at Hanatarou. "The Mistress is coming?"

"Get going!" Hanatarou screeched, resuming his walk towards the kitchen.

Urahara just shifted his hat when Nemu stared at him.

"You ten help me prepare dinner. The Mistress and her husband are coming!" Hanatarou shouted from the kitchen. "Grab a rag, Urahara! This place needs to be spotless and perfect for Mistress Rukia!"

Urahara simply shrugged and sighed. Maybe it was better not to inform him.

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"Drop me off here." Renji whispered, glancing out the carriage window. "I've gotta pick up a few things and head back home."

Rukia touched his arm. It sent a surge of shock up Renji's arm. He turned to look at her, eyes questioning.

"Will I see you again…before I leave to go back home?" Rukia asked, eyes firm yet pleading. Her lips were drawn in a thin line. Renji forced out another smile, running his hand through his red hair.

"Come visit me at our old sparring place tomorrow at noon." Renji hopped down from the carriage when it came to a complete stop. Closing the door, he added: "I'll be waiting for you."

Rukia scooted over to the window, waving at her old friend. He hasn't changed. And she was happy for that.

"Pleased to meet you, Lord Kurosaki." Renji gave a small bow to the orange head on the other side of the carriage. Ichigo stuck his head out from the window beside Rukia, nodding.

"Nice to meet you too, Renji."

The carriage began to move again, running over the dirt road. The wheels began rolling over rocks and ruts, hissing out a mocking cackle. To that, Renji sighed to himself.

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The house was exactly as she had left it a few months before. Servants were busy in the front courtyard, watering flowers and brushing away leaves—Nemu was actually doing it quite well.

"Nice place," Ichigo commented. With a grin, he turned back to his wife. "But not better than mine."

Rukia blew out a breath of air at the rebel strand of hair falling on her face. "Don't get your head filled with air."

Ichigo ignored it, hopping down from the carriage. He turned around, holding out his hand for Rukia. Rukia, stunned, searched his face for a sign of anything wrong. When she saw his usual frown, she shouted back at him.

"I can jump down myself!"

"Shut up," Ichigo said through gritted teeth. "I'm trying to help you, in case you haven't noticed."

Rukia huffed, jumping down. She wisped past him, ignoring his outstretched hand.

"Come on, beloved." Rukia forced out, watching as shock registered on her husband's face. "They're waiting for us."

Ichigo mumbled something incoherently, then followed his wife to the front gate. His carriage driver followed shyly.

Once appearing at the large, eight-foot iron gate, Nemu was the first to look up from the plants collected in her hand. With a small smile, she walked over to the gate, unlocking and opening it.

Nemu bowed graciously. "Welcome back, Mistress."

"Thank you," Rukia answered back politely. "How is everyone?"

"We're all fine. We've missed you greatly, and are very glad you've chosen to come grace us with your presence."

"Ah, I see." Rukia smiled. "If you would please be so kind, Nemu, allow our driver a room to himself. Show him the way."

Nemu nodded, then led the driver through the shoji doors, disappearing from sight. Rukia sighed, feeling Ichigo walk up beside her.

"You order others pretty nicely." Ichigo took her hand, a gesture of comfort. "Yet you didn't even order Orihime—"

"I've grown up with these nice people." Rukia interrupted, pulling her hand away from his. "Stop getting mushy, Ichigo."

Ichigo looked away, frowning. "Thought you were getting nervous."

"I'm not nervous."

"I thought you were being tested, remember? I thought that you were afraid of what your brother and sister may think of us…" Ichigo insisted, turning back to her. Rukia frowned at him, walking towards her old house. A sense of familiarity rushed through her senses. Half of her understood that it felt good. The other half—as Ichigo had said—was entirely nervous.

She let her hand fall on the cold wood of the shoji door.

"Let's go inside." Rukia snapped, walking through the shoji doors. Ichigo watched her for a second before following. He could read her very easily, no matter how stubborn she got.

The two walked through the doors. Ichigo, after shutting the door behind him, heard Rukia yelp. Turning back around to find his wife, he saw her. Rukia was being hugged by an older man. Blonde hair struck out from his green hat.

Ichigo blinked. He had seen that man before at the wedding. He was Rukia's old bodyguard.

"Rukia! We're so glad you're back!" Urahara shouted disdainfully, squeezing her tighter. "I still am in shock that you are married!"

"Even after a few months?" Rukia squeaked. "I can't breathe, Urahara."

"Mistress!"

Ichigo watched as a dark-blue haired young man rush out from the kitchen, eyes sparkling with life. He reached Rukia and Urahara, then kneeled, bowing low to the ground.

"Welcome home, Mistress." He said, his voice saturated with excitement that was going to burst out physically any moment.

Rukia, prying herself out of Urahara's hold, stared down at the younger man. Her eyes, sparkling with gratitude, soon closed.

"Thank you, Hanatarou." Rukia kneeled down, pulling his shoulders up. She fell into him, hugging him tightly. "I'm glad to be back."

Ichigo watched the reunion in satisfaction. There was a feeling bubbling up in him. He loved it. He found himself smiling as his wife found the familiarity of her home in her grasp.

I'm happy…if you're happy…

and that's all that matters.

"Hello, Lord Kurosaki."

As long as we're happy together.

Busy watching his wife, he didn't even catch Urahara greeting him until the older man tapped on his forehead.

"You're a slow one, Lord Kurosaki," Urahara commented openly. "I said 'hello'."

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"Surprise, ladies!" a voice boomed through the courtyard.

Squeaking, Orihime was the first out of the dozen girls to look up from her flower-watering. Her vivid grey eyes fell on the excited Isshin Kurosaki, who had barged into Ichigo's front yard. Behind him stood Yuzu and Karin, both quiet and annoyed as usual.

"Lord Kurosaki!" Yoruichi greeted, quickly strolling over to him. "We had no idea you would visit today."

"I wanted to see how Ichigo and Rukia are doing, actually." Isshin gave her a flashy smile.

Yoruichi kept her head down. "Ah well…they left for the Mistress' house to meet Lord Byakuya and Mistress Hisana."

"Without telling me?"

"They left this morning," Yoruichi insisted. "You just missed their departure."

"Well coming here was a waste of time." Karin murmured, crossing her arms above her dark blue obi.

"When will they get back?" the softer of the two, Yuzu, asked.

"In a week."

Isshin sighed at this. "And here I was, trying to surprise my not-present son."

"If you are worried, you shouldn't be. They are doing fine." Yoruichi whispered, lifting her head.

"Really?" Isshin became serious. "That's good to hear."

"That Kuchiki is not as soft as she appears to be." Yoruichi smiled, straightening. "She sure can kick Ichigo's butt in a match. At least, that's what I hear from Orihime."

At that, Isshin's eyes hardened. "She fights?"

Yoruichi looked away, face pinched with regret.

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"Rukia."

Rukia cautiously stood, looking around for the source of the familiar voice. She knew that it hadn't changed either. It still had that low, quiet tone laced with intimidation.

Byakuya…

Instinctively, she bowed, despite not even being able to find his presence first. She felt Ichigo's eyes glaring at her head, scolding her for her submission. But she could deal with Ichigo's anger. Not Byakuya's.

She watched as Byakuya's sandals entered her view on the floorboards. Her heart skipped a beat.

"I'm glad to be back, brother." Strange how the words tasted so bitter when they were spoken to Byakuya. Then, carefully, she straightened, coming face-to-face with her brother's steely eyes.

It had been awhile, brother.

He didn't smile. He never did. "Welcome back." It sounded like anything but a welcome. His eyes then shifted to Ichigo.

Rukia glanced beside her. She watched as Ichigo gave him a brief bow.

"An honor to meet you, Lord Kuchiki." Ichigo greeted, territorial anger flashing in his voice. Suddenly, he forgot how nervous he felt around the man. The authoritative aura that radiated from the older man's body had no other effect on him but to usher Ichigo to fight back with his own authority. Don't you dare make Rukia feel this way…

"Likewise, Kurosaki."

There was a small sound of scuffing the wooden floor as Byakuya walked out of the room. "Dinner will be served soon. Make yourselves comfortable."

With that, the room was left with dead air for the four pairs of ears left in the main room. Rukia let out a small sigh.

"What was that about?" Ichigo asked, and Rukia knew exactly what he was talking about. "You told me in the carriage earlier that you weren't afraid of him…"

Rukia did not dare to look at him. Instead, she looked at Hanatarou and Urahara straightening from their bows beside her. She looked at the print on Urahara's hat. She stared at a loose lock of blue hair staining Hanatarou's face. Anything but Ichigo.

"It's nothing." She whispered, then walked out of the shoji door.

Hanatarou sent a glance at Urahara, and the two held a silent conversation full of questions.

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"Rukia!" Ichigo pounded steps out of the dojo, looking around with a sigh. "Rukia, talk to me before you run off like that!"

He began to walk around the dojo, finding a backyard full of blooming flowers. No wonder Hisana had wanted them to come during the springtime.

Ichigo walked by a few delicate flowers; patches of pink, blue, and yellow surrounding his view. Bowing at his feet. He found a clear pathway of grass and followed it until he reached Rukia, sitting down with a white flower, twirling at the stem between her slim fingers.

"Rukia…"

"Go away, Ichigo." She kept her eyes on the flower, even though she was clearly speaking to him.

He smiled. "You know I won't."

She sighed in irritation, then hurled the flower at him until it bounced against his forehead and fell to his sandals. She pulled up her knees and buried her head into them.

Ichigo wanted to laugh at her childish attempt to rid of him. But after a moment, everything seemed to fill with tension. It felt as though that ice-cold brother of hers was talking to them again. That ability to fog up the room with authority…

"I'm sorry, for what it's worth." Ichigo whispered carefully, frowning at his wife.

"I don't need your pity." She spat at him, her voice muffled from her face buried in her knees.

"Will you stop acting so tough?" Ichigo raised his voice. "You couldn't even look at your brother back there in the room! Why are you acting so heartless now?"

He knew he had tugged a nerve. But instead of reacting with a burst of anger, Rukia shivered and brought her arms up, crossing them over her head. She did not reply, because she knew very well that he spoke of the truth.

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"Orihime!" the light-brunette skipped over the servant, now on her knees and continuing to pick vegetables.

"Mistress Yuzu," Orihime stood, acknowledging her presence. She then gave her a slight bow. Yuzu giggled at this lightheartedly.

"Is big brother really in love with Mistress Kuchiki?"

Orihime smiled back, which was, in actuality, really difficult. "I believe so."

"I want to meet her so bad, Orihime!" Yuzu said, her eyes wild with childish excitement as she twirled on her sandals. The sleeves of her kimono fluttered around her. Orihime nodded.

"They'll be back in a week, Mistress."

The eleven-year-old frowned. Ever since they had adopted Orihime, she had never failed to call her Mistress, or Ichigo 'Lord'. Yet they were practically family. But to Yuzu, that's all she has ever heard from Orihime. To her, Orihime will always be that older sister—that motherly maid that has taken her mother's place since she died.

Yuzu pounced onto Orihime with a hug—one Orihime only gets every summer. "I've missed you, Orihime."

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"Rukia, is that you?"

Rukia turned her head to the voice, being greeted twice this way in the same hour. She watched as her sister appeared from a bush of flowers, her golden kimono playing perfectly against the wind. A strand of hair fell between her violet eyes. Her smile was gentle and beautiful at the same time. Her hands, intertwined with one another before her, surpressed the urge to fully open and spread out, gesturing Rukia into a hug.

"Hisana," Rukia whispered breathlessly, before a wide smile broke out onto her face. She scrambled to her feet, rushing to her sister. She fell onto Hisana with full-fledged force, laughter pouring from her lips.

Ichigo walked towards them cautiously, careful not to break the moment. He stood a few feet away from them, watching the scene unfold. Rukia seemed really eccentric when she met her sister and servants. But Byakuya…

Ichigo's eyes darkened at the thought of him.

"I'm glad you made it here alright," Hisana exclaimed gently, pulling away from Rukia. Rukia smiled, clasping her hands together.

"The trip was fine, sister." Rukia turned to Ichigo behind her, eyeing him. Then, turning back to Hisana, Rukia gave her an undecided look. With a tiny cough, Rukia said: "Ichigo and I were glad to be invited here."

Her plan had succeeded. Upon hearing his name, Ichigo remembered to greet his sister-in-law with a bow.

"Mistress Kuchiki," Ichigo started. "Great to see you again."

"I wasn't able to speak to you much at the wedding," Hisana began. "But I wanted to tell you that you have grown so much since Byakuya and I first saw you at age five. You've grown into a fine young man, Ichigo."

Ichigo straightened from his bow and sent her a smile. "Thank you."

"And I trust that you've been taking good care of Rukia in the past few months?"

Ichigo smiled wider. Hisana noticed as Ichigo stood next to Rukia, putting a hand affectionately on her shoulder.

"She's settled right in," Ichigo sent a smile towards Rukia, one in which Rukia reluctantly returned.

"I'm very happy at the Kurosaki house, Hisana," Rukia admitted, earning herself a grin from Ichigo. "Ichigo has helped me."

Rukia glanced at her husband beside her. He's helped me in ways he'll never know.

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Author's Notes: No, I haven't died!!!! Lol. Hope you guys liked this chapter….I tried to make it a little longer than I usually do! Hopefully, I'll try to get the next chapter out soon! More tension coming your way!

Review, pleeze!