Chapter twelve: On moving up in the world, throwing a shindig, and an ending that isn't.
The thing about becoming a captain was that no one warned you about anything. They just thought you could take whatever came along. Honor, prestige and a crisp white haori were all well and good, but the massive, migraine-inducing pile of paperwork that came with them left a lot to be desired. He'd anticipated lots of work once the position was officially his. It was just that no one had told him that the workload would spike to such high levels before the official ceremony that would make him captain of the Fifth division. "Congratulations," Hinamori had said, eyes sparkling. "Now just fill out these two hundred forms in triplicate and the office is yours."
So she hadn't said it quite like that. It had been close enough that Ichigo found himself dashing over to the Thirteenth on his lunch break instead of walking just so he could hope for enough time to see Rukia. Everything had been so crazy for the last couple of days. Since he'd decided he was ready for the captaincy that they hadn't even had a chance to talk again, just shared brief looks in passing.
Ukitake was just entering the main office when Ichigo trotted up. "Good afternoon, Ichigo-kun," he said with a pleasant smile. "Can I help you with something?"
"I was actually looking for Rukia," he said after a moment's hesitation, wondering how much Ukitake knew. Sentaro and Kiyone had big mouths, but they wouldn't really have said exactly what they saw, right? Rukia hadn't come to kill him yet to avenge her embarrassment, so probably not.
"Ah. Unfortunately, she's out doing some field training with a squad all afternoon," Ukitake said. "Can I pass along a message?"
"Uh, no thanks. I was just stopping by to see how she was."
"Fully recovered," Ukitake assured him. "I meant to come thank you for looking out for her when she was injured."
"No big deal." Ichigo shrugged. "I was there. Of course I stayed when she needed me."
"I don't doubt that. As Rukia's captain, I've always been glad she could rely on you," he said. "Personally as well as professionally. I care about her a great deal."
"I know she likes you a lot too."
Ukitake nodded. "I want to see her happy." His gaze bored into Ichigo. "I hope it's not intrusive to say I was sorry when the two of you separated years ago. I know you made her happy."
"I tried," Ichigo said, his face burning up. He was grateful when Ukitake looked away.
"Still. I'm sure you understand why she remained here in Soul Society," he said. "She's come so far over the years. She's blossomed." He looked back at Ichigo. "And now here you are. Strange, how these things come in cycles."
"Uh, yeah," Ichigo hedged, trying to figure out what the older captain was getting at. Was this a way of giving his blessing? A veiled threat that he'd better make Rukia happy again? "I never thought of it like that, but I guess it's true."
"Listen to me." Ukitake shook his head. "Sometimes I sound like the old man I am. I'm glad you're joining us as a captain, Ichigo. And as a friend. Please come by any time you like, and not just to see Rukia."
"Thanks." Ichigo nodded. "I will."
Ukitake smiled. "And I'll tell Rukia you were here."
There wasn't much else to do but return to his own office. "That was fast," Hinamori said as he entered.
"I'm just efficient."
"Good to know," Hisagi replied from beside his vice-captain. For the first time while in the office with them, he wasn't wearing his white captain's haori. He bowed to Ichigo in an exaggerated manner, his grin lessening the seriousness of the gesture. "I just dropped off the last paperwork from my end. It's all yours now."
"I'll do my best," Ichigo said solemnly. They shook hands.
"I'm taking off," Hisagi announced. "You might have a party tomorrow, but Ikkaku and Renji are taking me out for mine early. Want to come?"
"Thanks, but I think I'll stay here," he said. "Try to get a handle on things so I'm not behind my first real day."
"You'll be fine. Go easy on him, Hinamori." He winked. "Not too easy, though."
"Well, Captain," she said when Hisagi was gone, "What comes first?"
He opened his mouth to say he wasn't a captain yet, then closed it slowly. It wasn't as if the ceremony meant as much as the actual work. "Whatever needs to come first. The squads have their assignments for today, so let me guess—more paperwork?"
"You've already got the hang of it." She tilted her head and smiled.
"I guess so." He grinned and snagged her arm, guiding her towards the door. "I haven't had lunch yet, and it's getting late for that," he said. "Plus I'm not official until tomorrow, so no need to act official until then."
"Come on, Vice-captain," he said. "We're going to get lunch, and I'm going to buy you a drink. The paperwork will still be here when we get back."
As an officer of the Gotei 13, Rukia was expected to attend the ceremonial induction of a new captain and listen to the speeches and symbolic acts with all the solemnity required by the occasion. She was capable of this. It was just that she had to try so hard to keep from giggling throughout the entire thing.
She'd been fine until Yamamoto was halfway through his first address, when she'd glanced at Ichigo. He'd grown better at hiding his emotions over the years, and she'd gotten out of practice at reading them. But it was obvious in a heartbeat that he was already bored out of his mind.
A veteran of such ceremonies, Rukia bit back a grin. Ichigo was in for a long wait. He might not be one for pomp and circumstances, but Soul Society absolutely was, and that hadn't changed no matter how many other things had since Aizen's war.
After a while, when Captain Kyoraku began his boisterous welcome speech as one of the senior captains and the atmosphere had relaxed a bit, she saw Ichigo looking through the crowd and caught his eye. She flashed him a small grin before resuming her serious expression, and a ghost of an answering smile appeared on Ichigo's face. They kept eye contact for the rest of Kyoraku's speech, and Rukia could practically feel him trying to communicate with her.
It had been a good idea to take some time to think about what they were doing. She understood why they hadn't had a chance to see each other for more than a minute, but she still wished she could drag him out of the gathering hall right then for a more private celebration. Soon, she reminded herself. It was his day. He should get the chance to enjoy it. They'd have plenty of time to figure things out together afterwards.
She couldn't hold back a proud smile when Commander General Yamamoto unfolded the white haori and placed it over Ichigo's shoulders. He seemed to grasp the importance of this particular moment. Ichigo bowed his head as he slid the mark of rank and achievement on, and there was pride in his face when he lifted it again and looked directly at her.
The roar of the approving crowd broke her reverie as the applause rose. With the ceremony over, the assembled group rose to its feet, with the representatives from Eleventh division charging to be the first to congratulate the new captain. Rukia let them, and hung back. It was time for a party. Their time would come.
It didn't look like it would come for a while, though. As the crowd moved to the 5th division grounds where plenty of food and drink was already laid out, the party really got started. Rukia sipped a drink and watched from the edge of the crowd. For once, Ichigo was the life of the party. The only reason she could tell where he was in the mass of people was the orange hair that stood out like a beacon and the force of his reiatsu that she could feel shimmering around him.
"He looks good, doesn't he?" A proud voice came from her right and she looked over to see Kurosaki Isshin clutching a beer.
"Kurosaki-san! I didn't realize you would be here."
"It's Isshin, Rukia-chan, Isshin. I keep telling you." He chuckled. "I couldn't miss this. Besides, now that they've gotten my stupid son to be a captain, there's no worry they'll come begging for me to take back my old job."
"You should come back more often," she said. "Captain Ukitake always enjoys your visits."
"Just him?" Isshin raised an eyebrow. "I still owe you a game of shogi, don't I? After the way you demolished me last time." He pouted. "I still think you had an unfair advantage. I'll never go drinking with Shunsui the night before we play again."
"Just let me know when," she said.
"He's going to a damn good job once he gets the hang of it," Isshin remarked. From where they stood, they could see Ichigo laughing at some joke of Captain Kyoraku's.
During all the time she'd spent with Isshin since his return to Soul Society, Ichigo had only come up in conversation once. In an uncharacteristically awkward moment for him, he'd commented on how stupid Ichigo was for letting a catch like her get away, but assured her that he still had a brain and was glad to see her again. She'd known that he was trying to avoid dancing around a touchy subject by trampling over it, and had appreciated it for the effort it was.
The awkwardness was gone this time. "He will," she said, almost to herself. When she looked back at Isshin, he was watching her, a faint but knowing smile growing on his face.
"He's lucky to have you to look out for him," he said. "My son has a good heart but no sense sometimes. If only he'd taken after his mother more."
She held back her laughter. "He'll be fine."
"I think so," he said. "There's one thing I have to ask you, Rukia-chan," he said, face growing serious. "It's very important."
"Yes?" She tensed.
"Wait at least a year before giving me grandchildren," he said firmly. "He certainly owes me them, but let him settle into the job first."
Her jaw dropped. "Kurosaki-san!"
"Well, I better go extend my congratulations to the new captain!" He trotted away. "Been a while since I've given him a good kicking…"
Rukia decided she needed another drink.
She found Renji on her way for more sake. "Hey." She elbowed him. "Having fun?"
"It's not bad." He winked at her. "Our division would do it better, but it's a passable party."
"It'll get a chance to prove it when you retire, Captain Funny Eyebrows," she said. "Why don't you have a drink? You should enjoy yourself."
"I will, I will. Later," he said. "I'm trying to pace myself. Rangiku's taking the opportunity to indulge, and at least one of us should be able to walk upright at the end of the night."
"You could drink with her, you know."
He shrugged non-committally.
She rolled her eyes. "You're being stupid."
"No, I'm being private."
"It isn't as if anyone would care."
"We'll see," he said. "I don't see you out there drinking with your boyfriend."
She stared. "How did you—?"
Renji looked embarrassed. "You look happy," he replied. "I figured you would be once you stopped being a moron."
She stepped on his foot, but didn't put her full weight into it. "I'm sure you know a lot about being a moron."
"Never denied that." He ruffled her hair affectionately, then pulled away before she could stomp hard. "Maybe I'll find Ran after all."
"You could congratulate the guest of honor," she said.
"I might," he said. "But I think we've also said what we need to say." He waved. "Later, Rukia."
The crowd around Ichigo hadn't receded at all by the time she'd found and finished a second drink. Rukia didn't mind, but she didn't feel like winding her way through it, either. It wasn't that she didn't want to talk to him, be near him, and it wasn't that she was particularly patient; she didn't want to wait. But she could, because soon, she wouldn't have to wait any longer.
The party was nice. The food was superb. The drink was plentiful. Ichigo appreciated all of this and made a mental note to ask Hinamori who he should write a thank-you note to later. Even though he wasn't wild about being the center of attention, he had to admit he was enjoying everyone's well wishes. He just wished he could track down the one person he wanted to hear from the most.
He'd spotted Rukia once or twice, but not close enough to get her attention. For whatever reason, she'd decided to keep her distance. He supposed he could understand why—if he had her by his side, he wouldn't want to pay attention to anyone else that was there, and that'd just be rude. It didn't make her absence any less annoying, though.
It was after midnight by the time he managed to escape from the crowd without getting pulled aside for another handshake and hearty congratulations. Things had mellowed out enough that it was more like a regular party than a formal occasion to honor the new captain. He was sure the constantly-replenished alcohol had something to do with that.
Now he just had to find Rukia.
He began circling the edge of the courtyard, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of her, but he saw nothing. She just had to be tiny, didn't she? He could try feeling for her reiatsu, but with this many strong spiritual presences around, it'd be like digging through sand to find more sand.
He stopped in his tracks, close to one of the smaller buildings that bordered the yard. "Rukia?" he replied uncertainly.
"Ichigo!" he heard again. "Over here. Turn around. Look up, you idiot!"
He turned, looked and squinted into the darkness. "What are you doing on the roof?"
"What are you doing on the ground?" she retorted.
"Good question." In a quick flash step, he was on the roof. He plopped down beside her. She handed him a hunk of taiyaki and they chewed in silence.
"So, Captain," she said after a few minutes. "Congratulations."
"Thank you," he said, then, when she didn't follow up, "That's all?"
"Should I say something else?"
He shrugged. "Been hearing that all evening. Thought you might at least come up with something more original."
"I suppose I should've had time to think of something more since I waited so long for the captain to free up."
He frowned, but she was smiling when he glanced at her, so he relaxed. "Don't worry, Rukia. If you try really hard, I'm sure you'll be as popular someday," he said. He hesitated for a moment. "Where's Renji? I'm sure he would've kept you company."
"He left with Matsumoto a while ago," she said.
Ichigo blinked. "Matsumoto? I didn't realize they were friends."
"Well, they should be." Rukia chuckled. "They're sleeping together."
He whipped around to stare at her so fast he could practically feel himself get whiplash. "Renji and Matsumoto? You're kidding me."
"Because I'm such a joker." She made a face.
"Huh." He leaned back on his hands. "He said something that made me think he was seein' someone, but I didn't figure it was her."
"Neither did anyone else," she said. "He didn't even tell me until I went to have breakfast with him one morning and caught them in bed."
"Why's it such a secret?"
"He's an idiot," she said. "He keeps insisting it's just 'friends with benefits', as he puts it, but I'm not so sure. It's not a subject we've discussed in depth, though."
"I guess not."
"Did you see your father?" she asked.
"Oh, Pops. Yeah, we talked for a while. I think he and Kyoraku are up to something now. I didn't really wanna know."
She grimaced. "As old as those two are, I don't think they've ever truly grown up."
"You're telling me." He snorted. "I'm the one he raised, don't forget."
"I don't think I could."
They were quiet for a few minutes. Though the actual distance wasn't great, the noises of the party seemed muffled and almost far away.
"Rukia—" They started almost at the some moment, then stopped. She smirked and he ducked his head, feeling stupid. "Go ahead."
"Mmm, I'm not really sure what I was going to say."
He edged closer. "Sorry we haven't gotten a chance to talk in a few days. It's been crazy getting ready for this."
"Don't be sorry." She waved a hand dismissively. "I understand."
"It's probably about time we did, though."
"I suppose so," she said quietly. He watched her, trying to figure out how to say what had been on his mind. It would be nice if he could just take her in his arms, kiss her, and let that say it all, but things had never been that simple with them.
"I've been thinking a lot this week," he said, staring at his hands. "About us. Where we were, where we are, where the hell we go from here."
She just nodded. He couldn't quite read her—her expression seemed welcoming enough, but slightly guarded, like she was waiting for him to reveal his hand before she showed hers.
I'm not one for speeches, Rukia," he said. "So I don't know how well this is gonna come out." He took a breath. "You and me…we're not meant to be."
Rukia made a soft noise in the back of her throat and immediately he saw where he'd gone wrong.
"Hold on." He grabbed her hand. "When I say we're not meant to be, I mean—we're not fated, Rukia. It wasn't inevitable that I'd die and we'd get back together. It was our choice." He took a breath. "It still is. I want to be with you. Yeah, we fucked things up a lot before. Doesn't mean we have to now. I want to try," he said. "So…your turn?"
After a moment, she took his face in her hands and kissed him hard. He pulled her closer, and for several minutes there was nothing beyond the warmth of her in his arms.
Until she pulled back and pinched his side. "Ow!" he protested. "What the hell was that for?"
"You're right, Ichigo," she said. "You are terrible with words." She leaned in so their foreheads touched. "But I think I can live with that."
"Good." He snuck in another quick kiss. "So…wanna start living with it tomorrow night, then? Say, around eight?"
"Kurosaki Ichigo, are you asking me on a date?"
"Maybe," he said. She laughed. "Hey, it seemed as good an idea as any! We never really did that, you know."
"I know," she said. "I accept."
"Well…good." He stood, captain's haori blowing in the light breeze. The wind had kicked up a bit. "I've got my own captain's quarters now," he said, grinning. "Wanna check them out? Break em in a bit?"
She snorted, and he knew he didn't fool her for a second. Which was fine; he wasn't really trying. "I suppose we might as well."
He held out a hand to help her up, but she shook her head and hopped to her feet. "Race you," she said. She disappeared in a blur of shunpo, only to reappear on top of the next building. "Ichigo! Are you coming or not?"
"I'm coming, I'm coming!" He grinned. "Let's go."
Many, many thanks to:
-Aino, for stepping up to the plate with infinitely helpful beta and support.
-Ashe, for being fucking awesome and giving me kicks in the pants when no one else would.
-Raynos, for many, many hours of spec and awesome suggestions.
-Sophia, for giving me the prompt that would eventually lead to this fic, not that it resembles the prompt at all anymore.
-Tenebris, for indulging me in spec even when she thought I was loony and giving me one particularly helpful plot point.
Thank you for reading the first fic of this length I've ever completed. I hope you enjoyed it.