Obligatory Author's Note: Last chapter, guys! Let's get to it!
"If I stay here, someday Yae will come back for me. Can I become a butterfly without her? If I could, I'd always be near the village, waiting. Waiting at the place we made our promise. She'll come. I know she will. "
Karin awoke beside the stream where she and Yuzu had first made camp. Part of her dared to hope that everything she had been through had all been some bizarre dream and her sister would be right beside her when she looked. But Yuzu was not there. Instead, it was the dark haired woman in a white kimono who stood at her side. It only took a few seconds of scrutiny for Karin to realize it must have been Yae who was with her now, not Sae.
"I don't want to do this." Karin stood and glared into the older girl's eyes. She wasn't sure what this was – the inside of her mind, the inside of Yae's mind, or some kind of limbo – but she knew that somewhere, out in reality, she was still strangling the life out of her twin sister. "You can't make me do this!"
Yae didn't waver or back down from Karin's gaze. "It doesn't matter what you want. And it..." her voice caught for a moment and Karin was too livid to wait for her to continue.
"The hell it doesn't! I'm not killing my sister and you can't make me!"
"Do you think I wanted to kill my sister!?" Yae shouted back, her shoulders beginning to shake. "I wanted her to live, I wanted to live with her! I wanted to continue playing together, sharing our pain and happiness together! Do you think I wanted her to fall from the path the day we tried to escape together? Do you think I wanted her to die feeling as though she'd been abandoned? Do you think I wanted to lose my memory of everything, to be forced to continue living on without her? Everything that happened to me... I deserved all of it and worse."
Yae shuddered one last time before her posture straightened and she forced herself to regain her composure. "It doesn't matter what I want anymore. I left my sister here to die. She's suffered in pain and darkness and loneliness because of me. Because I cared about what I wanted more than I cared about what she wanted. So now... This is what she wants. This is what I'll give her. Regardless of how you or I feel about it."
"It's murder," Karin hissed. "She's my sister."
"My sister too," she said. "And it isn't murder. Not really."
"Yes it is!"
"I'm not." Karin spat. "And why should I kill my sister for the sake of yours? What even makes you think Yuzu wants what Sae wants?"
The skies flickered like a projection on a screen, showing Yuzu lying prone on the ground with Karin's hands wrapped around her neck. Her cheeks were still stained with tears, but she was smiling in content. She wasn't struggling against the grip on her throat. Karin felt a wave of nausea strike her and she turned away.
"She isn't fighting," Yae said.
"She can't help it! She has a psychopath in her head!"
"She's not fighting. Not like you are. You are the only one resisting this."
Karin swallowed thickly. It couldn't be right. Yuzu wouldn't just lay down and die like this. It had to be a lie. "Whether she's fighting or not doesn't matter to me. It's still cold-blooded murder and nothing you say changes that. I won't kill her." She bit out.
"I thought that once, too, but it's not. Her body might cease to exist, but her spirit will live on alongside yours forever. It's a ritual to make two halves split apart at birth back into one whole person. Your sister won't physically be with you any longer, but you'll never be apart. You'll never have to be alone. A few moments of pain for a lifetime of wholeness. You'll never have to be like Sae was... or like me..."
Karin stormed straight up to Yae, clutching the front of her kimono in her hand so tightly it would have choked her were she not a spirit. The tears streaming down the ghost girl's face did nothing to evoke any sympathy. "That's bullshit," she spat, giving Yae a rough shake. "Maybe what you say is true. Maybe we really would become one person. But who that hell wants that!? How can you talk to someone who's not physically beside you anymore?! Or spend time with them, or laugh with them, or cry with them?! How wouldn't that be lonely!?"
Karin shoved the girl away hard enough to knock her down to the ground. "And if Yuzu isn't fighting – if she's really accepting death – it's only because she thinks sacrificing herself will save the rest of us! Not because she wants to die, but because she wants us to live!" Hot tears began pouring out of her eyes and Yae dropped her gaze to the ground.
"I know someday we'll be apart. We'll live separate lives, maybe far away from each other. And I know we probably won't die together either. Maybe one of us will even die long before the other one does. But none of that matters. What matters is now, and even if we end up far apart, we'll still always be together. Because we're family."
The image in the sky faded away and began to quickly darken with the formation of billowing storm clouds that rumbled ominously. Yae began to look worried at the turn of events, but if Karin even noticed the change she didn't seem to care.
"I don't care if you and Sae feel differently. I don't care that you can't stand the thought of being separate from each other at all. I don't care that you're trying to atone for what you did in the past! Just because you and Sae and the villagers made mistakes, don't make me and my sister pay for them!"
Lightning crackled in the sky, tearing the forest apart, and it was the last thing Karin saw before the world shifted violently and she found herself kneeling over her sister with her hands locked around her throat. Yae was still inside of her, pushing her, keeping her body frozen even while she fought to tear away. Yuzu – no, it was definitely Sae – was beginning to look worried.
"Nee-san?" She choked out.
Karin dug deep inside of her self, straight into the depths of her last reserves of strength and will and she wrested back an inch of control. Her hands slackened and Yuzu gulped in a lungful of air, tears streaming down her cheeks. She wouldn't do this. She wouldn't!
"Get. The. Hell. Out. Of. My. Sister!" Karin tugged sharply at the well of power she felt in her and it exploded. The last thing she saw before everything went dark was the twin spirits flying out of her and Yuzu's bodies and sent tumbling into the abyss. Together. Just as they always wanted.
Ichigo wasn't sure what happened. One moment he was lying on the ground struggling against the pile of priests and mourners who had pinned him there, the next a flash of brilliant blue light filled the cavern and the weight holding him down vanished. He scrambled to his feet the moment he was able to, just in time to see the last of the veiled priests evaporating into the air like steam as the bright light faded away. Yuzu was still lying on the stone altar and Karin was slumped over her, neither of them moving.
"No..." Ichigo nearly tripped over his own feet in his rush to reach his sisters. Then he almost tripped because the ground was starting to shake. "Damn it, what now?" He growled. His arms still felt like useless blocks of ice, but he forced them to scoop up his unconscious sisters. They might as well have been made of solid lead for all the effort it took him just to lift the two girls, but he managed. They hadn't survived malicious demons and possession just to be killed by some falling rocks.
The trek back up the stairs and through the long, twisting tunnel running under the village was hard. Karin and Yuzu had very nearly slipped from his weak grasp more than once, he'd been knocked to his knees by the increasingly violent tremors so many times he wondered if it wouldn't be faster to crawl, and the dirt being kicked up by the rumbling was starting to make it hard to breathe. He stopped when a pile of rubble blocking one of the other connecting tunnels collapsed and sent large rocks tumbling into his path.
It was the passageway into the Osaka house where he and Rukia had found a pinwheel key. He climbed into it, slipping on the rocks a few times, and hurried up the narrow staircase leading into the house. They were at the surface. They were safe. He breathed deeply in relief, coughing on a few particles of dirt that he'd inhaled, and finally let himself rest.
Ichigo carefully set Yuzu and Karin down so they were leaning against the wall and looked them over. Bruises were already beginning to form around the older twin's neck, but her breathing was steady and her pulse was strong, if a little fluttery. Karin also seemed to have matching bruises around her neck but was in a slightly better state then her sister. They would both be all right. They were alive. They were just exhausted.
But, as much as he wanted to, Ichigo couldn't let them sleep. He had reached his limit and knew he wouldn't be able to carry them any further. And he couldn't wait for them to wake up on their own either, because Rukia was still waiting for them and he'd rather get out of the village as soon as they possibly could.
"Hey. Yuzu, Karin," he called out to them, giving them both a firm, but gentle, shake.
The twin sisters jolted to alertness when they both felt a hand on their shoulder and were hit by a tidal wave of relief when they saw it was Ichigo standing before them. Even exhausted to the point of collapse they probably would have found enough energy to leap up and cling to him if he hadn't dropped to his knees and pulled them both into a hug.
After a moment Karin pulled away from her brother roughly, and clung to her twin sister instead. She managed to choke out between haggard breaths, "Yuzu... I'm sorry... are you... are you okay?"
Fresh tears were still streaming from the older twin's eyes and she'd begun coughing harshly between each breath she swallowed. She still managed to nod and turned to cling to her sister for dear life. "It wasn't you," she whimpered when she'd finally begun to catch her breath. "I know... it wasn't you... Karin. You saved me."
Ichigo was oddly quiet and tense at first, as though he couldn't quite decide whether to start lecturing them for making him worry, laugh in relief that they were both okay, or just break down completely right then and there. In the end, he held his sisters for several long moments, reassuring himself they were both still alive, before he pulled away.
"Let's get the hell out of here and go home."
Ichigo staggered to his feet and pulled Yuzu and Karin up with them. He couldn't carry them, but he let them cling to his arms for support as they began the long walk back to the old tree. Every step was exhausting, and his sisters grips on his still icy, numb hands were agonizing. He barely noticed. For now he was with his family and they were safe and whole and that was all that mattered.
Both of his sisters were silent during the entire trek and had grown despondent, and he realized there were still plenty of things to worry about. They might have come out of the situation with only a few bumps and bruises, but now that the adrenaline was wearing off and the danger was nearly past, what would all this do to their mental states?
Ichigo turned his head slightly. It was Karin who had finally spoken up after several minutes of unnerving silence. He hummed slightly in acknowledgment, ignoring the daggers of pain that shot up his arm when he squeezed her hand gently.
"Remind me to punch goat-chin in the face when we get home."
Her voice shook from the effort of trying to sound light-hearted. He'd never felt more like crying. Was she really trying to reassure him and cheer him up after everything she'd had to go through? It wasn't hard to see in her eyes how much she'd been effected by everything that happened. He wanted to call her out on her pathetic acting and tell her to worry about herself and maybe complain a bit about being surrounded by idiots who wouldn't take care of themselves because they were too busy worrying about him.
Instead, he scowled and played along. "Tch, get in line."
"I'm first in line. I already called it before you."
"Yeah, but I'm older."
"But I'm smarter."
It did make him feel better to banter back and forth with her, and it seemed to lift her mood as he hoped it would. But Yuzu still remained quiet and stony-faced even when her sister prodded her to join in. After a while, all three of them fell back into silence and Karin was starting to look no better off than her twin. Ichigo could only hope that after a few days of rest they might come back around to their normal selves, but he was terrified that they wouldn't ever be completely normal again.
None of them noticed until they reached the forested path leading to the Kureha Shrine that the moon had finally set and the edges of the sky were turning pink and orange. Karin had relinquished his hand when she noticed the tugging on his arm was making him flinch and had taken Yuzu off his other arm, silently walking hand in hand with her equally quiet twin. They had all thoroughly exhausted every last fiber of their being – physically, mentally, and emotionally – but a kind of peach was beginning to settle over them.
The sun was rising, they were no longer being chased by demons, and if Ichio wasn't mistaken that faint but steady pulse of reiatsu he felt up ahead was...
"Sorry for making you go on without me." Rukia stood at the base of the stone steps. A fresh set of clean bandages were wrapped tightly around her torso, the top part of her dress having been torn away almost completely with how shredded and blood-soaked it must have been, and her bag sat at her feet. She looked unsteady on her feet and haggard, but she was alive, awake, and breathing.
"Rukia?" He muttered, not quite believing he wasn't hallucinating.
"I thought there might be some opposition when you returned, so I already unlocked the seal," she added before glancing skyward. "It doesn't look like there's anything to worry about now. We can leave any time."
Ichigo couldn't quite help himself. She'd been very near to death when he'd left her behind and he'd been expecting to (and hoping against) find her unconscious or worse when he came back. He staggered forward and Rukia turned away slightly, expecting him to walk past and start up the steps. Instead, he collapsed onto her shoulder in something as close to a hug as he could manage while his arms felt like half-frozen jelly.
Rukia stumbled under his weight slightly, adjusting her stance and gripping his shoulders. She initially mistook the gesture as his legs simply giving out and was moving to support him so they could start heading up the steps to the shrine. He made it more clear by fighting against the movement and digging his chin into her bare shoulder slightly. He didn't realize how cold he was until he leaned against the petite shinigami and felt the tingling warmth from her skin defrost him slightly. He made the effort to give her a proper hug in the hopes of thawing out his frozen arms.
Rukia jolted slightly in his grip. "You're freezing!"
"You're warm," he muttered in his fatigue induced, brain addled state. He let his eyes slide shut and probably could have fallen asleep right then and there if he let himself. "And if you're going to apologize for something, apologize for almost getting yourself killed," he grumbled, though he couldn't quite work up enough energy to sound even remotely angry. "Idiot," he added for good measure.
Rukia opened her mouth to form a response but was interrupted when Yuzu burrowed into her side. "Rukia-nee, I'm so glad you're okay!" She cried. The shinigami was befuddled for a moment before she wrapped her arm around the girls shoulders. "I'm sorry! I'm really sorry! I was so worried! I thought you were dead! I tried to stop her – I really did – but I couldn't!"
"I-I'm fine, Yuzu," Rukia stammered in her confusion. "You don't have to apologize for anything."
Karin seemed to understand and gently ruffled her twin sister's hair. "It wasn't your fault, Yuzu. You didn't do anything wrong." Yuzu quickly turned to cling on to her sister instead, blubbering out more apologies while Karin gently patted her head and muttered reassurances.
Rukia allowed them all a few minutes of rest before she spoke up. "We should get moving. We still have a long way to go, and we can rest when we get back to the camp." She started to move away from Ichigo and he whined slightly at the loss of warmth and a head rest before trying to pull her back. She elbowed him in the gut.
"Grumpy," he grumbled at her, rubbing his sore stomach.
Rukia rolled her eyes at him, swinging her back over her shoulders before offering her arm as support to Ichigo while taking Yuzu's hand in the other. Karin stood to the other side of Yuzu with her arm around her shoulders. It was slow going, but with all of them supporting each other they managed to make it to the top of the steps and into the Kureha Shrine. Ichigo was hesitant to go through the exit as it led down into another cave, but there wasn't much choice. Even though the spirits were all gone, the barrier had not faded. This was still the only way they could leave.
Fortunately, it wasn't long until the dark, narrow cave gave way to daylight and a dirt path overlooking a forested ravine that both Yuzu and Karin recognized as the one that Sae had fallen into. They stopped for a few minutes to rest until, oddly enough, a bird swooped down to perch on Ichigo's head. It had a familiar patch of red cloth dangling from its beak.
The bird spoke. "Rukia-sama! I have recovered your glove, pyon!"
In a very different situation, they might have laughed.
Apart from Chappy's inane chattering, they were silent throughout the brief trip back to their campsite. Once they had, Rukia carefully removed Chappy from the bird with her glove. It squawked at her angrily before flapping away and she deposited the soul candy into her bag. Karin and Yuzu both collapsed on the ground despondently and drifted off before they were even fully settled. They all would have preferred to rest in the familiarity of the Kurosaki house, but it was still a long hike, a bus ride, and a few blocks away. None of them had the energy to spare for the trip.
Fortunately everything at their campsite was exactly as they left it, as though no time had passed at all. According to Chappy, only a few hours had gone by between the soul candy being mistakenly swallowed by a bird and her finding them sitting on a path overlooking the ravine. Rukia helped Ichigo move his sleeping sisters into the tent and tuck them into their sleeping bags. While he starting laying out the spare bedroll she ducked behind a tree to change into a spare dress that wasn't torn to ribbons. Being roughly mid-afternoon it hadn't even occurred to her to change into her pajamas even though she was planning on collapsing the second everything had been taken care of.
When she headed back out into the clearing, her phone was out and she was preparing to put the call in to Soul Society when Ichigo stopped her.
"Get some sleep, first," he said, pushing her hand down. She glanced down at her phone, hovering in indecision before eventually putting it away. None of them would get any rest if she called now, and it wouldn't hurt to wait a few hours.
Ichigo and Rukia spent the next few minute arguing over who would take the bedroll ("Stop calling me fragile, damn it!" "The ground is fine, just give me back my blanket!") and the matter wasn't settled until they heard a whimpering cry from inside the tent. The argument was quickly dropped as they rushed inside, finding both twins thrashing and crying in their sleep. In the end, the bedroll went unused and both shinigami ended up sleeping in the cramped tent with Yuzu and Karin tucked in between them.
They didn't wake up until well after dawn the next day, and even after nearly twelve hours of sleep the twins still looked exhausted. Ichigo and Rukia were both still stiff and sore from their injuries, and their heads were still heavy from sleep deprivation, but neither felt nearly as exhausted as when they had first fallen asleep. Another twelve hours of unconsciousness still sounded like a good idea, but they at least had enough energy now to function.
Rukia spent some of her restored reiatsu healing the bruises on Yuzu and Karin's necks and Ichigo quietly mumbled something about getting everything packed up. She sat with the twin girls by the river while he did so, worried about how quiet and tired they still were. She had healed all of the physical wounds she could find, but kidou could do nothing about any mental scarring.
After several minutes, she realized she still had a call to make and flipped open her phone. She paused momentarily, staring at the screen with her thumb hovering over the send button. She glanced back towards Yuzu and Karin and frowned slightly. This could wait another minute. There was something else that needed to be taken care of first.
Rukia approached Ichigo and he paused to look at her, silent questioning in his eyes at the serious expression on her face. She had a device in her hands that he hadn't seen in a while, similar to the duck-faced soul candy dispenser she had bought for him from Urahara, what seemed like a few lifetimes ago. She didn't say anything, but her intent was obvious and she was looking to him for permission.
Ichigo glanced at his quiet sisters, both of them slumped together with dark circles under their eyes and the faintest of tremors running through them.
"Will it even work on them?"
"It will. This version is very potent."
"Do it." Rukia nodded and turned away.
Ichigo let out a deep breath he didn't realize he'd been holding and resumed packing up the last of their camp. If it was up to him, he'd have preferred that Yuzu and Karin had never had to go through all of that in the first place. Using the memory modifier to make them forget any of it ever happened was the second best option.
The twins looked up as Rukia approached, eyes dead and empty, before she clicked a button and a cloud of smoke exploded outward. By the time it had cleared, Yuzu and Karin had nodded back off to sleep. This way they would probably think whatever strange memory that had replaced the one of their time spent in the village had been nothing more than a dream. It would be hard to explain away the day they had lost sleeping, but they would have to manage somehow.
Ichigo finished packing everything up and moved to sit with his sisters while he waited for them to wake up. Rukia contacted Soul Society, though she had moved to the other side of the clearing to avoid disturbing the twin girls and he couldn't hear anything that was being said. It gave him time to think about what had happened back in the village and he frowned.
He didn't know what it was she had done, but he was sure it was Karin who'd wiped out all of those veiled priests in the underground cavern with that weird light. It made him wonder if she might have the same kind of powers that he did. She had always been able to see ghosts just as he had, but then again his powers hadn't awoken until Rukia had inadvertently activated them and even then he couldn't do anything special until he took his Shinigami form.
Most troubling was the idea that – if that kind of power was inside of Karin – it might mean she would have to start fighting one day. The thought of his younger sister having to take on those towering behemoths he had to fight nearly every day made his stomach turn. But she would have to, wouldn't she? Strong powers drew hollows like blood drew sharks, and hers would be even stronger if it had awakened somehow. He knew Karin was a strong person – she more than proved that yesterday – but the idea of it still made him anxious.
Ichigo's thoughts were interrupted when Rukia rejoined them, settling herself against one of the flat boulders lining the river and smoothing her wrinkled skirt over her legs. "What did they have to say?" Ichigo asked, keeping his voice just above a murmur.
"They'll be sending the kidou corps to dismantle the barrier, and some of the shinigami from the R & D division are coming to investigate the phenomenon. We have an hour or so before they'll be here. We should be gone before then."
When Ichigo cocked an eyebrow at her, she added, "I omitted a few details." Rukia glanced towards the sleeping twins before continuing. "I had a feeling the twelfth division would be sent, and that being the case... Karin and Yuzu shouldn't be involved." He didn't care to ask or know what she suspected the research and development team of a morally ambiguous system would be willing to do to his sisters just to glean a bit of information.
"They're not making you wait here?" He asked instead, a little relieved she wouldn't have to be sent straight back in after they fought so hard to escape.
Rukia shook her head. "I thought they might, but with the situation back in Karakura they would rather have me back at my post. I wasn't really supposed to leave it in the first place."
Ichigo scowled slightly. "You aren't going to get in trouble for this, are you?"
"I'll make something up," she reassured him with a smirk.
Ichigo started slightly. He hadn't noticed that Karin had begun to stir until she had spoken up. Even though she couldn't have been out for more than ten minutes, she looked much more well-rested than before. Her eyes were clearer and her voice was stronger, though she looked a little confused and something akin to suspicion was creeping into her expression.
She had mentioned back in the village that she already knew a few things about him being a shinigami, didn't she? Ichigo paled slightly. "Y-yeah? What is it?"
"Why is everything all packed up again? We just got here a few hours ago."
Oh. Right. That would seem odd to her, wouldn't it? "Ah, well..." He scratched at the back of his head, his mind scrambling for an answer that sounded even remotely believable but drawing a complete blank.
"We're leaving already?" Yuzu chimed in, wiping the sleep out of her eyes.
"Yeah, because, uh... well..."
She squinted slightly and frowned. "How long have we been asleep?" He could practically read the thought process on their faces. It was mid-day when they'd first arrived, and now it was just after dawn. And now they were probably realizing they couldn't remember going to sleep in the first place. Even telling them they'd both slept through the entire day and night wouldn't have been all too convincing. They knew better than to assume Ichigo would just leave them out by the river while they slept rather then take them back to the tent, and he didn't have a good excuse as to why he would bring them back out again in the morning.
Rukia was quick to jump into the conversation, all fake smiles and sparkles. "Oh, I'm afraid we have to leave early because of me." She quickly held a handkerchief to her face as something Ichigo thought was supposed to be nausea crossed her face. "I started feeling ill a short while ago, I think I might -"
"Food poisoning." Ichigo interrupted quickly. It wouldn't help Rukia's story any if they went back to the clinic and Isshin – who would probably insist on a check-up – found nothing wrong with her. Food poisoning was a little easier to fake.
"Ah, yes," Rukia stuttered slightly from having her lie derailed. "That's right. Kurosaki-kun believes that my food was somehow poisoned." Ichigo nearly slapped his forehead in exasperation. But her excuse actually gave him a solid reason for the day they missed.
"I thought you were both sick, too, sleeping all day and night," he added in a rushed voice that didn't sound the least bit believable. "We were... we were going to head back while you were still asleep so I packed everything up and then you woke up just now so... um..." He stumbled over the lie slightly before a question of genuine concern came to mind. "Are you both feeling all right?"
Karin and Yuzu both blinked at him owlishly before glancing over at each other in confusion over the rushed explanation. "Um... I feel all right, Ichi-nii," Yuzu was the first to answer and Karin nodded slowly. He wasn't particularly fond of the suspicion creeping into her expression.
"I told Kurosaki-kun you were probably just tired!" Rukia quickly interjected. "I offered to leave by myself so I wouldn't be any trouble to you, but he seemed very insistent. I still could, of course, since we know you're feeling better."
As unbelievable as it was, Yuzu bought into the act. "It's not any trouble at all, Rukia-nee! If you're feeling ill, you shouldn't go back on your own! We'll go with you, we don't mind, right Karin-chan?"
Karin looked much less convinced, but the upside to her knowing a little about his shinigami duties meant she was more likely to draw her own conclusions than to ask questions. "Yeah, it's fine," she responded dryly.
They hiked back through the forest to the bus stop, Rukia feigning stomach pains the whole way – though she had yet to heal the scratches that decorated her torso, so it wasn't entirely an act – and Ichigo was never happier to see civilization in his life. Yuzu and Karin chatted quietly most of the way back, though Ichigo and Rukia stayed silent unless either of the twins called for their attention. His thoughts had wandered back to Karin's potentially awakening powers. Her thoughts had strayed from the teams sent in to investigate the village, to the village itself, and then to what she had seen there.
Rukia, of course, had been nothing but sickeningly cheerful when they'd walked back into the Kurosaki clinic, gushing about how it was so wonderful to spend time with the Kurosaki siblings and dab at a fake tear while she remarked how much she felt like a member of the family. Which, of course, left Isshin a weeping ball of mush kneeling in front of the poster of his late wife. With the excuse of sleeping off her fake food poisoning, she quietly excused herself while Yuzu comforted her teary-eyed father and Karin began digging through the cupboards for a snack. As much as Ichigo wanted to drop into unconsciousness for the next year or so, he couldn't help but linger a few moments and watch his family, together, whole and happy for the moment and let a tiny smile ghost over his lips.
When Yuzu started making lunch and Karin went to help their father out in the clinic, Ichigo headed upstairs to rest until the food was ready. As tired as he still was, he was also famished and really looking forward to one of his sister's home cooked meals. He'd only just gotten settled on his bed when he heard a shuffling noise inside his closet and he scowled in irritation. Kon must have been rummaging around in his things again... except he hadn't done that in a long time, and he'd started staying in the twin's room ever since Rukia had officially moved in... His scowl softened in realization.
It hurt much more than it should have.
Emotional conditioning had been key to Rukia's Shinigami training, even more so when she had been adopted into the Kuchiki family. A clouded heart led to clouded judgment which inevitably led to fatal mistakes. Pushing everything down was paramount in battle, emotions could be dealt with later in private when the dust had settled and the danger had passed. Seeing her parents and Hisana had hit Rukia far harder than she cared to admit, and now that they were safely out of the demon-infested village and she had nothing else to throw her energy into or distract her, the Shinigami found herself waist deep in her repressed misery.
Unfortunately, the Kurosaki Clinic offered very few private places for her to sit by herself and think for a while without being intruded upon. So when she'd excused herself and headed upstairs, she didn't go to the room she shared with Karin and Yuzu. She instead climbed into Ichigo's closet and curled up in the dark.
"You're acting childish," she scolded herself in a soft murmur, hugging her knees to her chest. The bedding was still lying out as she had left it back when Ichigo was only supposed to be a temporary replacement and she had nowhere else to stay. She suspected he'd only left it that way out of laziness – if the collection of dust bunnies and the slightly musty smell of the unwashed blankets meant anything – but she was grateful for it now.
It didn't make sense, she told herself, to feel this way about people she'd been much too young to even remember. She never knew her parents, and all she'd known about her older sister was the bits and pieces she was able to glean from Byakuya from time to time. It was terrible the way they died, and what had happened to them was unfair, but she had no real attachments to any of them. Yet, no matter how she tried to reason with herself...
A tear slipped out and she let it trail down her cheek and soak into the lumpy pillow beneath her. She realized it wasn't that she was mourning their passing, or the way they had died. She mourned the realization that at some point in her life she'd had such strong, wonderful people for parents and such a kind older sister, but she'd never been given the chance to know any of them. She mourned – not for the first time – that she didn't have a family, but now knowing what family she might have had made it all the more bitter.
She'd once felt resentful towards Hisana for abandoning her even though she could understand what a hardship it would be to take care of a baby all by herself while living in the harshest district in Soul Society. Now that she really understood her sister's motives, she felt guilty. Her sister didn't abandon her because she thought of her as a burden; she thought of herself as a failure and truly believed Rukia would be better off without her.
Not for the first time, she wished she could have known Hisana when she was still alive.
"I won't ask." Ichigo's voice startled Rukia into a stiff sitting position. She hastily brushed away the tears and softly cleared her throat before what he said registered.
Ichigo had waited outside his closet for several minutes, debating on what to say or do, or if he should do anything at all. But when he thought back to the days he spent wandering the river bank searching for his dead mother and then the fight against the hollow that had killed her, the answer came to him. He left the door shut – opening it now would be an intrusion – and instead spoke to her from the other side.
"I won't ask," he said again when he heard her fall silent. "But when you're ready, if you need to talk... talk to me." It was the same words she'd said to him about his mother, and they had made him feel relieved. He hoped they would do the same for her now.
After several moments of silence, he'd begun to assume he wouldn't get a response and was planning to leave and give her some space. He hadn't really expected the closet door to slide open, and he hadn't been expecting Rukia's misery to be so clearly painted on her face when she ordinarily put so much effort into hiding everything. He held her gaze, waiting patiently for her to speak, but words seemed to fail her.
Instead she climbed out of his closet and tipped forward slightly to rest her head on his chest. She didn't cling on to him or start sobbing against his shirt. She merely leaned against him as if reassuring herself of his presence. After a few seconds of indecision, Ichigo loosely wrapped his arms around her shoulders.
"Thank you, Ichigo," she murmured.
Naturally Isshin chose that exact moment to burst into the room.
Naturally it ended with Ichigo kicking his father down the stairs, who went running to his late wife's memorial poster in tears of joy. For the time being, everything was back to normal.
I couldn't save you...
A/N: Isshin just ruins everything, doesn't he?
Phew, it took a long, long, time but we are finally here! Too many years, 130 pages, a few rough patches, but all in all it was a heck of a ride and I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did. This story was actually a tremendous hurdle for me because it's easily the longest one I've ever written, and it was the first (long) story I've ever completed.
As far as 'The Village: Clear Data' is concerned, I may add a few more omakes if any come to mind, but I think for the most part this is it for me fanfiction-wise. I still have a few ideas for other stories kicking around in my head, but as it is right now (with my 3D modeling and animation work starting to pick up and with the regular fiction writing I want to spend more time on) this may very well end up being my last fanfic. I really hope it was worth the wait guys, and I hope I can see you on fictionpress at some point when I finally get up the guts to post my original fiction!