Rukia had the strangest look on her face when Ichigo went to visit her at the hospital two days later. He was relieved to see she had a little more color in her face and she was sitting up in bed, Kito curled up in a small ball by her side. Initially they'd been afraid Kito wouldn't be able to stay with her, but the small Naruki City Hospital in the next town over had been so overwhelmed by Rukia's apartment building collapse that no one had said anything. Though it was probably just as well that Rukia was scheduled to check out later that day.
She was frowning down at a piece of paper in her hands and Ichigo felt a twinge of annoyance go through him.
"You haven't even checked out yet and they've already given you the bill?" he asked angrily and Rukia looked up at him in surprise.
"Well, hello to you too," she said mildly.
"Ichigo!" Kito shouted happily and clambered over to latch on to him. He'd been even more clingy than usual since the cave-in and Ichigo was worried about the long-term effects. He'd suggest maybe Kito should see a child psychologist, but it was too soon and he had no idea how Rukia would take that.
"Hey, be careful of your mom, she's still recovering," Ichigo told him, sitting down at the chair next to Rukia's bed and pulling Kito into his lap without much thought.
"Are you still suspended?" Rukia asked him, fidgeting with the rough blanket drawn up to her waist with bandaged hands. She looked so small in her too-big hospital gown and there were still dark circles under her eyes. Ichigo wondered if she'd been having the same nightmares he had.
"No, the principal changed his mind," Ichigo said casually, as if he didn't care. He did though, and when the school had threatened suspension after he ran off after the earthquake, in violation of Ochi-sensei's explicit instructions, he'd actually been afraid of what the black mark would do to his transcript. Ichigo'd been in a lot of fights, sure, but he'd never been stupid enough to get caught before, and if he never had to sit in the same room as the school principal, Ochi-sensei, and his father, discussing the "severity of his actions" it'd still be too soon.
He didn't regret it though. It wasn't like he'd had a choice. He'd been able to call his dad and his sisters right after the quake to make sure they were okay, but Rukia's cellphone had gone straight to voice-mail. Most likely because it had been crushed under her building. She'd been sitting on the street when he'd found her, in shock, back, hands, feet, and knees bleeding and everyone had been too busy staring at the spectacle to help her. It made him so angry even thinking about it that he wanted to...
"I'm pretty much screwed if I so much put a toe out of line until I graduate though," Ichigo sighed and adjusted Kito in his lap. "What's the damage?"
Rukia exhaled softly and placed the paper on her lap, smoothing it out carefully.
Ichigo frowned. "Nothing? Your insurance...but I there's still the copay and not to mention-"
"It's already been paid."
She didn't sound happy about it though and Ichigo immediately knew why. It wasn't that he'd rationally made the connection, that Rukia couldn't have paid for it, nor Renji, but the uncomfortable way she held her shoulders and the distant look in her eyes could only mean one thing. Kuchiki Byakuya.
"What does he want?" he asked, feeling himself go cold.
Rukia gave him a strange look. "What do you...nothing. He hasn't contacted me or anything."
Ichigo swallowed and tightened his arms around Kito unconsciously, causing him to give let out a squawk. "Do you think he will?"
Rukia shrugged her shoulders and looked back down at her lap. "I don't know. But I think...I think I should...I think I've been putting it off too long. Dealing with him, I mean."
She raised her eyes from the paper and the resolve in her eyes was clear.
"You sure it's a good idea?" Ichigo asked, even though he already knew her answer.
"It's been a year and a half since he came here," she replied, and had it really been that long? It sure didn't seem like it. "I always knew I'd have to deal with him sometime. I owe him that much. And it seems like the opportune moment now that I don't actually have anywhere else to go."
"That's not true, you could-!" Ichigo started vehemently, before realizing the idea only sounded good in his head. "I mean, I could ask..."
Rukia raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I have seen your house, Ichigo. In fact, I have become quite familiar with it over the last year, specifically your bedroom." Ichigo felt the back of his neck turn red. "Where am I supposed to sleep, your closet?"
"Alright, it was a bad idea," Ichigo snapped. "It's just...what if he..."
What if Rukia went and didn't come back? Kuchiki Byakuya had a bazillion yen, who knew what you could get away with with that kind of money?
"What are you talking about?" Kito asked, squirming in his arms, looking between Ichigo and Rukia in confusion.
"We're going to stay with Renji for a while, in Osaka," Rukia explained, smiling at him and then glanced up at Ichigo. "He offered, just until I get back on my feet. The city said they'd contact me when they figure out if any of my stuff can be salvaged, but that could be weeks from now, so..."
"Right," Ichigo said tightly, trying not to overreact and say something he'd regret. Mostly how Kuchiki Byakuya was an asshole who didn't deserve a second of her time.
"Ichigo," Rukia said and he glanced up to see an intensely serious look on her face. "Come here."
He blinked at her. "Err...what?"
"Come here," Rukia repeated, just as seriously, dark eyes giving no hint of her intentions.
Ichigo lifted Kito off his lap and stood, taking a step to the edge of Rukia's bed. He tried, and probably failed, to keep the suspicious look off his face.
Rukia reached up and grabbed his tie, pulling him down so hard Ichigo almost lost his balance and fell on top of her with a surprised yell. She pressed her forehead against his and said, only a little terrifyingly: "I'm coming back."
"Oh, my God, be careful," Ichigo hissed, eyeing her bandaged hand. He couldn't quite work up any anger though, something calming about the feel of her skin against his, her harsh words after two days of coming to the realization of just how close Rukia came to death. Three people had died in the cave-in and it could have just as easily been her and Kito.
"I'm coming back," Rukia repeated, a little more gently this time.
"Yeah?" Ichigo muttered and reached up to tuck a piece hair behind her right ear. "Osaka...it's not like here, you know. You could-"
"Don't be an idiot," Rukia told him and turned her face to the side to kiss the back of his hand. Ichigo closed his eyes at the feel of her lips. "I'm going to do this, and then I'm going to come back, okay?"
Ichigo pulled her forward by the shoulders and kissed her. It felt like it'd been years, instead of two days, and shit, he was really in trouble, wasn't he?
Rukia slid her hand down his chest, warmth blossoming where her fingers had been even through his shirt. He canted his head sideways, running a hand carefully down her side to her waist, leaning against the mattress. Rukia wrapped her arms around his neck and there was a high-pitched noise of disgust from behind him.
Ichigo jerked back, blushing horrifically to see Kito looking unimpressed at Ichigo sticking his tongue down his mother's throat.
"Eww," he said. "Stop that. Ichigo, I want ice cream."
"Uhh," Rukia said, who Ichigo was pleased to see was even more flustered than he was. "That's...well...you should probably..."
"Don't hurt yourself," Ichigo told her smugly and then bought the poor kid ice cream, because it was the least he could do.
He'd thought that was the end of his humiliation, at least for the foreseeable future, but after Rukia had gotten checked out and went to stay at a friend from her work's place for the night before she flew to Osaka the next day, Ichigo's father had to ruin it.
"Your poor father!" he wailed and crap, he was talking in third-person, that never ended well. "He never sees his good-for-nothing son anymore! First he is almost suspended from school and then he disappears for hours at a time, with no-"
"Oh, shut up!" Ichigo rolled his eyes and threw a rolled up newspaper lying on the table in his general direction. "You never cared before, so stop complaining-"
"Oh, Masaki!" his father bemoaned, throwing his hands in the air toward that ridiculous picture. "What would you think of the delinquent your son has becom-"
"Alright, I'm out of here," Ichigo said, grabbing his plate of curry to Yuzu's displeasure and heading for the stairs.
"Nii-san, don't-Otou-san, just leave him alone!" she complained, putting her hands on her hips over her lacy apron."Why do you always do this?"
"I'm afraid it is my duty, my daughter!" his father boomed jovially, obviously not bothered at all by his own ridiculousness and Ichigo rolled his eyes as he exited the kitchen.
"Oh, Ichigo," he added, when Ichigo was halfway up the stairs, sounding suddenly extremely serious. "I expect that you'll invite that lovely young women from across the street over to dinner. How about next week?"
Ichigo froze mid-step and almost dropped his dinner.
Rukia fingers were going numb from gripping the armrest of her chair. She had been waiting for a long time, almost an hour by the sleek metal hand of the clock directly above the desk of Byakuya's secretary. Kito was bored too, idly playing with the key chain on her purse and she was honestly surprised he hadn't rebelled at the long wait. At least he seemed to be impervious to the stares that the rest of the bustling building was giving them. Even Byakuya's secretary had looked scathingly down at Rukia's plain dress and her three year old son. The office ladies seemed more forgiving, some even smiling at Kito as they passed, and Rukia felt a wave of nostalgia at their navy blue jackets and pencil skirts. Hisana had been an O.L. here, almost twelve years ago now. She and Byakuya had always been trite, she thought to herself sadly. But she supposed it could have been worse, giving Byakuya's secretary a dirty look. If she'd been his secretary even ten year old Rukia would have died from the cliché of it all.
But reminiscing on her older sister's memory did nothing to quell the panic that was fermenting in her gut. Rukia was acutely aware that she did not want to be here. She'd hated this place from the start and sitting here now with Kito had no effect on those feelings. And Renji's worried texting, while undoubtedly well-meaning, was just exacerbating her already frayed nerves. She had no idea what she was going to say, and every instinct was screaming that she leave and get as far away from this place as she possibly could.
"Kuchiki-sama will see you now," Byakuya's secretary said and Rukia blinked in surprise, so absorbed in thought she had not noticed the clacking approach of her high heels.
Rukia squared her shoulders and stood, putting on her best unconcerned face, despite the clamminess of her hands.
"Come now, Kito," she said calmly and took a hold of his hand, pulling him to his feet.
"What are we doing here?" Kito whined for the hundredth time, but Rukia didn't answer him this time and merely shushed him as they entered Byakuya's office.
Rukia was not a child anymore. She was twenty-two years old, and the last four years of her life had caused her to grow up more harshly than she ever could have imagined in her adolescence spent resenting Byakuya and finding ways to defy him. She was a mother now, had a whole another life that didn't involve Byakuya, and however things turned out today, she would eventually be fine.
Byakuya's office was exactly the same as she remembered it. Large, blank, and mostly empty. He had some bland pictures of nature scenery on the wall that Rukia very much doubted he had picked out himself, a leather couch, two chairs in front of his desk, and a spectacular view of the Osaka skyline. Byakuya was sitting, perfectly poised in his desk chair, eyes on his computer screen rather than her when they entered the room and Rukia had to resist the urge to roll her eyes at the melodrama of it all.
"Rukia," he said calmly, turning his attention to her and giving her a brief once over.
"Oni-san," Rukia replied with as little emotion in her voice as possible. Kito squinted at Byakuya from beside her, obviously not recognizing him from all those months ago, but thankfully kept his mouth shut.
"And what is the purpose of this visit?" Byakuya asked coolly, tapping his fingers slowly against the top of his desk. She supposed it was a valid question considering the last time they'd met she'd told him she never wanted to see him again.
Rukia tightened her grip on Kito's hand, enough so he glanced up at her in confusion.
"Thank you for covering my medical costs," Rukia said and bowed deeply. Years ago she would have seen this as a concession, a concession she would have been unwilling to make, but now...she was so tired of this now. She wanted it over, and pride would only get in the way.
Byakua didn't say anything, and when she finally raised her head, he had an odd look on his face. Rukia didn't know what it meant, but that wasn't exactly anything new. She'd never understood him, probably one of the main reasons they'd never gotten along.
"They were not exorbitant," he finally replied and Rukia was unsure if that was meant to be modesty or a dismissal. Or both?
"I would have had a hard time with them," Rukia said, opting for honesty, though only mostly because she didn't know what else to say.
Byakuya didn't seem to have an answer for that, looking at her with inscrutable eyes. Rukia forced herself to walk forward through his large office to stand in front of his desk, the ticking of the clock on the wall seeming unnaturally loud.
Byakuya's eyes dropped down to Kito and her son blinked at him without any sign of uncertainty or apprehension.
"You may sit," he said after a long pause and Rukia did, helping Kito up into the chair on the right first.
"I should apologize..." Rukia said carefully, figuring she might as well get all her cards on the table. "For how I behaved when we last met. It was unacceptable and I have no excuse."
Byakuya shifted in his seat, seeming to lean in closer towards her over the polished sheen of expensive wood.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he asked quietly, and somehow more honest than Rukia had ever seen him before.
A year ago, this question would have infuriated her. Hell, a month ago it would have. But there was something incredibly sobering about coming so close to death, and instead, Rukia felt a bizarre sort of pity for him, that he didn't know, that he honestly had no idea why she would prefer to run away from home for four years than admit she'd had a child out of wedlock.
"It was...easier to just go," she said haltingly, a wave of nausea rushing through her at the inadequacy of her response. "I always...You know we were never really...I'd always planned to, eventually."
"I see," Byakuya said shortly, a small frown pinching his face, but he really didn't.
That was okay though. Rukia knew that he wouldn't understand and at this point, she'd made her peace with it. They didn't have to understand each other to get along.
"I'm sorry," Rukia said, figuring that it was okay. She could take the blame, she would shoulder it if it could mend even the smallest part of the chasm between them because Hisana would not have wanted this for either of them. She unconsciously sat a little straighter in her chair and hoped she sounded sincere. "I should not have left like that. It was irresponsible of me and I'm sorry for the inconvenience I've caused you."
Byakuya looked shocked at this and Rukia had to quash down her annoyance. Why did he have to look at her like that? Couldn't he just throw her a bone and not make a bigger deal about this than it already was?
Kito shifted loudly in his seat and Rukia threw him a look that quieted him immediately. He didn't look very happy though and Rukia prayed he wouldn't interrupt them just yet.
"I do not think..." Byakuya said slowly and she turned back to him, trying to look as attentive as possible. "...that the blame lies solely with you."
Rukia stared, for the first time she'd entered the office, completely thrown.
"I do not think you will disagree when I say that I have been at fault in the past as well." Byakuya continued and Rukia felt her throat tighten.
What was he talking about? He didn't do this; Byakuya had never admitted he was wrong. Never. It was one of the undeniable truths of life, along with the fact that soba was far superior to udon, K-pop was never going to go away, and people from Tokyo were always pretentious assholes. Byakuya did not apologiz-
"And I am sorry for that," he finished, lacing his fingers together on the desk in front of him.
Rukia didn't know quite what to do. She frowned, opened her mouth, closed it, raised her hands slightly, put them down, furrowed her brow and-
"Rukia," came Kito's small voice from beside her, eyes wide with concern. "Why are you crying?"
She regained her composure, eventually. They talked for a long time after that, and eventually Kito got bored. Byakuya had his secretary take him outside and entertain him, something Rukia would normally be uncomfortable with, but she figured that it was probably fine considering how afraid of Byakuya all his employees were.
It wasn't...everything wasn't going to be fixed right away, and the cynical part of Rukia doubted that it would ever be. But it was a start and they'd desperately needed to start somewhere. It would take a long time-probably years-before they were something that even resembled functional, but...Rukia hoped Hisana would have understood. She could only try her best and the fact that Byakuya was trying too helped.
"You could visit," Rukia said cautiously, hours later, once she and Kito were about to leave. "I mean...once I find a new place to live."
"You are going back then?" Byakuya asked seriously and Rukia nodded.
"Karakura...it's kind of my life now," she said, as gently as possible and Kito pulled on her hand impatiently. "I've...it's important to me."
To her shock, Byakuya did not attempt to change her mind and merely nodded. He did not offer her money and because of this, Rukia scribbled her cell phone number down for him on a whim.
They parted amicably, Rukia offering him a brief, hesitant smile as she left his office, Kito trying to pull her toward the elevator so they could return to Renji's as soon as possible, and Rukia figured she could tell him about Ichigo next time.
A month later, Rukia was sitting on the wall across from Ichigo's high school, a bag of groceries in one hand, one leg crossed comfortably over the other. She'd been wearing a jacket, but she'd taken it off and put it in her bag because of the warm April sun and pleasant breeze. The bell rang and presently high school students in gray uniforms began to pour out of the gates, no small number of them giving her strange looks before running off to the mall or the local karaoke box or whatever high school kids did for fun these days. Rukia tapped her fingers against her thigh impatiently and adjusted her sky blue dress as a gust of wind ruffled her skirt. She grinned when she saw a familiar head of bright orange hair from her vantage point and waved jauntily. She could see Ichigo's eyeroll from all the way across the street.
"So, final year, huh?" Rukia said as he approached. "How was the entrance ceremony?"
"Boring as hell," Ichigo said dryly, slinging his bag over his shoulder. "You could've given me a little warning, you know. I would have met you at the airport."
"And spoil the surprise?" Rukia said with a melodramatic gasp, putting her hand over her heart. "Never. Also, I would never want to encourage truancy in a minor."
"Of course you wouldn't," Ichigo deadpanned, and ignored a group of classmates that Rukia recognized as some of his friends staring at them from next to the gate. "Where's Kito?"
"At Ise-san's," Rukia explained, hoping down from the wall. "She offered to watch him while I look for apartments this afternoon. Wanna come?"
Ichigo grinned and leaned down to kiss her, hands coming down to rest lightly on her shoulders. Rukia sighed into it, fisting his collar and God, how she'd missed him.
A loud wolf-whistle interrupted them and Ichigo whirled around furiously, face the color of a beet.
"Shut up, Keigo!" he yelled across the street with an extremely rude hand gesture. "And you too, Tatsuki!"
Rukia cackled and grabbed his hand, dragging him away before he could start a fight in front of his school gates and get suspended for real this time.
"So I was thinking maybe the complex near the library."
"I thought you said it was too expensive. Also, it's very...close."
"Ichigo, I am not choosing a new place to live based on your preference I stay as far away from your father as possible."
"If you'd met him you'd understand!"
"Then maybe I should meet him. He seems like a pretty laid-back guy. You really think he'd mind me stealing the innocence of his first born?"
"Actually, he'll probably be extremely pleased."
"Oh, shut up."
Despite Ichigo's best efforts, Kurosaki Isshin did eventually manage to get Rukia over for dinner with an extremely effective combination of flattery, blackmail, and bribery, involving half the people Ichigo knew. It was indeed a disaster and Ichigo and Rukia vowed to never speak of it again.
Unfortunately, that didn't stop Renji from somehow finding out and proceeding to make fun of them forever.
A/N: Oh, my God, can you believe it? I have been working on this fic for more than four years. How did that happen?
Anyway, I'm kinda meh about the middle of this chapter. Byakuya is HARD. I DON'T UNDERSTAND HIM. I'd like there to have been more closure, but to be honest I just didn't see it realistically happening in one meeting. They'll get there though.
I just have to get the epilogue and then VRaSB is done. God, that's scary.
The epilogue will be a series of, I dunno, drabbles, I guess, set between two to nine years in the future. I'm also going to try different POVs than Rukia, Renji, or Ichigo's, which will be fun.
Anyway, credit for this chapter's readability goes to Resonance and D! Please review!