The orange head did not make any attempts to hide his tears as his head bent down to the woman's chest, as his hand tightly held onto hers…giving her warmth when it was already too late. He felt pain inside him…something so different from what he felt when his mother died. This time it was a deeper pain…it cuts deep…
"Geezus, can't you understand what I said Rukia? I have enough of this Shinigami business," he said to the sitting Shinigami. Said person looked up at him with an unfathomable look before sighing to herself.
"I really could not understand what had gotten into you," she said coolly. "I am not going anywhere. You are now a substitute Shinigami."
He stared at her…hard…and she stared back…unflinching…
"Rukia…just get off my life for once will ya?" he finally yelled and raked his orange locks.
The Shinigami who had been sitting on the bed stood up with a pained expression on her face.
"Are you serious?" she asked in shock. Ichigo looked at her deadpan.
"What if I am? Look here, I am tired of this kind of business already okay? I have repaid my debt to you when I went to Soul Society. That should be enough. I have nothing to do with Aizen anymore. You guys out there can do well on your own."
Rukia drew a sharp breathe, feeling a stab of pain in her heart by those words he just said. Did he really mean that? Unable to find any words to say, she walked towards the window and sat on the ledge, giving him one last look.
He did not even bother to look at her. He was staring hard at the ceiling.
"So it was a debt huh? What a fool I was," she said and jumped out leaving the orange head momentarily dumbfounded. He blinked a couple of times.
Wait…did he honestly say those words to her? A debt to be paid?
Damn…he cursed and went to his bed while holding his hands…he really does not know why he just wanted out…perhaps he felt so tired after Hueco Mundo…he could not understand…
Somehow, despite their earlier argument, he had hoped for Rukia to come back later. The house had become her home too…
Somewhere in Soul Society, a certain redhead is seething in uncontrolled anger when he learned of what happened between Rukia and Ichigo…not that he had any business to interfere…but for the first time…he really saw pain in her eyes…pain that not even him could take off…
She was hurt so deep…he could not understand but ever since she came back, she had trained so hard…alone…she had locked herself from everyone including him…
It had been over a month since her return and not once did she ever speak of the substitute Shinigami she became fond of…not once did she speak about the Living World…her mind was so focused on getting stronger…
She had already created that impeccable, impenetrable barrier around herself so much like her brother…and he really wished he could help…
To be honest…he regretted sending her back…he regretted spitting out those words…because as time moves by, he came to realize the fact that she had become a part of his world…she had become the constant anchor he needed so bad to actually get stronger…and with her gone to her own world because of his foolishness, he had lost the will…
Realizing he needed her back, he sought out the merchant and asked his help. That is why he found himself in Soul Society now…debating against himself…deciding what to really do…
"If you came to look for her," a harsh voice said that made him jump up. He turned to find Byakuya looking at him with feral intent…
"She's preparing for her mission."
With that he left. Ichigo was silent for a moment. Mission? What mission was that? Even without being told, he followed the stoic captain of the 6th division knowing he would lead him to where Rukia is…
And there he found her…just as she was fixing her zanpaktou on her waist. She looked up. Not even a surprise on her calm façade.
"To what do I owe this visit Kurosaki?" she asked coldly that he actually shivered a little. What the hell – she looked so dead calm he could not penetrate the cold exterior of her being…it seemed ice had formed around her…since when did she become like this? He was expecting more of anger than this detached feeling she has…
"I—" words could not come out from his mouth as he continued looking at her. Did he…
"If you have nothing to say, excuse me but I have I word to share with my brother."
With that, she ran past through him without even glancing back. He wanted to move…he wanted to actually catch up with her but he felt like he was just glued on the floor…
A soft tap on his shoulder made him turn only to receive a bone-crashing smack on the jaw. He was sent flying on the wall.
"What the hell was that Renji?" he barked at the redhead who did not move from his spot as he towered over Ichigo…his eyes full of anger.
"What did you come here for?" he asked coldly, blandly that Ichigo had to wince. Okay…now he really felt like he is unwelcomed here.
"What kind of question is that?" he asked and stood up.
"It's a valid question. What would a guy who refused to have anything to do with Shinigami anymore do in here?" he asked and Ichigo's eyes widened at the hostility from his friend and at the same time replaying in his mind the last conversation he had with Rukia before she came back here.
"I really don't know why I have to come here," he said while lying to himself. Of course he knew…he came to apologize and get her back.
"Then get out of Soul Society, go back to where you came from," Renji said cruelly that Ichigo flinched a little.
"Hold on…why are you so suddenly hostile towards me?" he asked with a frown. "And what happened to Rukia? She looked so…"
The redhead shot him a look which he could not decipher the meaning.
"You have to ask?" Renji asked softly and sighed, knowing he really could not do anything if the ryoka decided to stay to bug Rukia.
"What does that supposed to mean?" he asked with a bite in his tone.
"You caused her to become like that damn it Ichigo, why do you always have to be the one to hurt her?"
His words struck him hard as Ichigo looked at his Shinigami friend.
"She closed her doors from all of us. Can't you see she's just like a machine moving around? No of course you can't you just came by. She trained so hard…alone…"
Still Ichigo could not find himself to speak as his words to Rukia kept playing on his mind.
"At least say something there. If you came here to see her, if you came to talk to her, at least do it before she goes on a mission," Renji said and that snapped Ichigo.
"Mission? What mission?" he asked, suddenly feeling very nervous. It was like there is a foreboding feeling inside him...he could hear his Hollow speak inside his head…
Renji looked at Ichigo right in the eye. "She's going to Hueco Mundo alone."
"What?" he absolutely yelled much to Renji's irate.
"You don't have to yell. She volunteered," Renji looked away this time. "It was like she is proving something to herself."
"But that is dangerous," he argued.
"Do you think I do not know that? do you think Kuchiki-taichou does not know that? Of course we know yet we could not stop her and the sotaichou had already decided on it," Renji said.
Ichigo ran past Renji and hurried outside as the latter tried to catch up to him. Renji sighed. What the hell is with the two anyway?
"Oi, you can't just barge in there," he warned Ichigo when the latter was about to enter another room.
The said man turned to him in surprise, not really expecting Renji to follow.
"The heck I can't?" he growled.
"Because she is talking with her brother. If you want to stop her, then stop the sotaichou," he advised and he does not know why he said those, maybe perhaps the old man would reconsider now that the words would come from Kurosaki Ichigo, the hero of Soul Society.
Ichigo looked him in the eye. "Renji, I know I have caused her to become like this. That is why I am making amends."
"Somehow, I figured that out which is why I told you what her mission is," he said and scratched his head. "Perhaps you could be the one to penetrate that ice around her. Sheez…just for a month she became like her brother."
Ichigo nodded and ran off to the 1st division squad.
"Tell me Rukia, what can I do to stop you?" the noble man asked the person in front of him.
Said girl refused to meet his eyes but stared outside with a longing look. "This is my decision nii-sama. I decided to do this."
"Is it to run away?" he prodded and she looked surprised for a moment before shaking her head.
"Must I dare say that you are not Rukia?" he asked blandly that she looked at him with that fleeting emotion in her violet eyes. He stared at her hard and she flinched.
"Though strong you may be and courageous may I add, I dare say you are not my sister. You might share the same qualities as her but the sister I know never locks herself from the world," he said and Rukia was speechless for a little while. She came here to bid him farewell but she never expected to hear such words from him…him who never dared showed any compassion to her when she was adopted to the family…yet protected her still when she was about to die…
"I…" she said croakily, her barrier starting to shatter. She realized that even though she is capable of shutting her world from the others, never can she do this to her brother who could read deeply…who had the same cold exterior…who proved to be something more than she had really expected him to be…
For the first time in her life as a Kuchiki, Rukia saw compassion in his eyes as he tried to make her meet his gaze…she saw that emotion she always longed from him before…that feeling that he also cares…
"I never dared ask you for the whole month seeing as you refused to open up to everyone, not even to your captain, not even to your best friend…but before you could go…may I inquire what drove you to this point?"
Finally breaking her gaze from him, she looked down and stared at the floor while blinking…trying to suppress that tears starting to sting in his eyes…
Finally realizing she needed to release her pain, she told him everything as he willingly and silently listened. And for the first time, he came to her and held her in his arms like a brother does to his little sister…she cried in his chest and he silently soothed her troubled soul…
"Oh…you're here," the sotaichou said with a raised brow.
"I need to speak to you," Ichigo went straight to the point not minding if this man is the highest among all captains…
"Something on your mind?"
"I want you to take Rukia off that mission right now."
The sotaichou brushed his beard and watched the human standing in front of him, admiring his courage to stand up in front of him and making demands.
"You who had not wished to work with us anymore is actually telling me to retract my decision?" he asked in mock tone. The other captains were already starting to gather as they waited for Rukia to show up.
Ichigo sighed in irritation. "I know I have said that to her and to Renji as well before he came back here. But that has nothing to do with Rukia going to Hueco Mundo on her own."
"Ichigo, come on now, that princess is strong than she really appeared to be," the 11th division captain said with a sigh of exasperation.
Ichigo snapped at him. "But why her? Why can't you send anybody else?"
A captain with white hair coughed and stepped in front. There was an understanding in his eyes as he met those of Ichigo's…
"She has a pride too, I suppose," he said with a soft smile.
"The younger sister of Byakuya had chosen to volunteer for this mission," the sotaichou intervened. "There is no way she will back down."
Ichigo raked his hair in desperation now. There should be a way….there is no way they would send Rukia there on her own…there is no way Byakuya would allow it right?
"Look…I know I said some unforgivable things and I do not deserve to even be heard right now but I am begging you…send me instead and not her."
There was a moment of stunned silence among the captains as they contemplated on what he said. They know the kid is fond of Rukia and the same with the latter…they know how much they cared…but they were really surprised to hear him beg right now to spare Rukia instead.
"I know I said I don't want to have anything to do with Shinigami anymore but god help me that does not mean I have no right to worry about her," he continued. "Take her out of the mission and place me instead."
"Oh? You're going against everything you have said before."
"I said I know that damn it!" he cursed and his reaitsu actually spiked a little which amused the captains.
"Maybe perhaps after all this month she wanted someone to really tell her about it," Ukitake said. "After coming back here, she had started to question things…and she even had to go back to her past…perhaps what she needed is an assurance somehow. And perhaps you are the only one who could get to her inner self."
Just then the door opened and Kuchiki Byakuya entered together with his sister. They walked side by side for the first time that the captains actually were amused at how sudden the 6th squad division captain had changed.
Ichigo stared at Rukia…trying to get her to see him…but the said Shinigami refused to look at him as she stared right ahead with her back straight.
"I'm ready Yamamoto-sotaichou," the midget said with an air around her. The sotaichou opened his eyes this to meet that of the midget's…Ichigo just stood there listening but itching to interfere.
"Kuchiki Rukia, you sure you want to do this?" the sotaichou asked which surprised the former. She never expected him to actually question her decision at a time like this when there is no other option but for her to really go.
The sotaichou looked at her for a moment before decided to settle his gaze on the substitute Shinigami…waiting for him to actually talk.
"I have decided to take you out instead and let the kid go," he said much to Rukia's surprised that it actually even showed in her eyes. Ukitake sighed. Now this is the Rukia they know…not the moving Shinigami for the past month who acted and talked like a moving machine…
But the surprise was suddenly replaced with fire as her eyes flew to the orange head who stared at her, waiting for her to flare up because that is what he wanted to see…not the emotionless being he talked a moment ago…
"Now what is it this time?" she said in a voice laced with fury as she directed the question to the ryoka kid and as the captains all listened…
"Don't talk to me in a friendly manner Kurosaki," she cut him off even before he could actually say anything else. Annoyed as he already expected it since she is a stubborn girl, he raked his hands over his head and stared upwards…trying to gather some patience to actually talk to her without having to argue…
He does not want to argue with her…it was that freaking argument that drove her away…
"The mission is too dangerous damn it!" he scowled but the woman had already faced the sotaichou.
"I will take my leave now," she said and bowed.
Then she left the room without much as a glance to him. He drew a sharp breathe and scratched his head.
"Well…I was hoping I could see the air of defiance you showed me just a little while ago," the sotaichou said, amused at how powerless Ichigo is when it comes to Rukia.
The other captains actually chuckled except for one who moved towards him in a flash.
"God knows I shall kill you for this," he said softly. "But that girl needs to hear something from you."
Ichigo was stunned for a moment terrified at the threat behind his first remark but the second one actually made him look at the noble man.
"Just like I have said Kurosaki…perhaps what she needed is an assurance…"
Ukitake said and smiled at him so kindly…
She was furious…undeniably so as she made her way towards Sokyouku Hills where Kurotsuchi-taichou is waiting…to open the door towards Hueco Mundo.
She moved even faster than before but the man has the same speed as her brother so he actually caught up with her and held her arm.
"Listen to me please…" he pleaded and she does not know why she had to…but she did anyway….maybe because she knew this would be the last time she ever talked to him…maybe she knew her fate would be decided in Hueco Mundo…
She stopped and eyed him. For the first time she saw that fear in his eyes…that plea…that worry…and she does not know what to make of it…
"Rukia…I'm so sorry I said those words," he said but the Shinigami did not even flinch as she just stared at him with blank eyes…again…
"Now that you have said it, let me go now," she said softly this time. Ichigo did not heed her though as he pulled her even closer this time, holding her in his arms. The woman looked surprised…
"Sorry but I can't let you go…not there and not even out of my life…" he said softly too.
"I'm going there," she said sternly, her demeanor back.
"I know I can't really stop you but…before you go…there is something you need to know," he said now in a voice filled with so much emotion that Rukia had to look up to make sure he is alright…
"You don't have to go there and prove something…I take back my words…I never meant what I said back then…especially the last part…" he said and met her gaze with a tender look.
"I'm not interested to hear about it. Sorry is enough…you have said it…so this time…let go," she said again.
"I came here once to save you not because there is a life to be paid for saving me…I came because I do not want you to die…because I can't let you die…because…."
He tried to find the right words.
For the first time, the mask was stripped off and she smiled sadly at him.
"That is enough to hear from you…" she said and pulled free from here. "At least let me go there and do my job."
Ichigo nodded and held her once more. "Thought you should know…I love you Rukia…that is the reason why I came to save you once…not for anything else but that."
Stunned, she looked back at him for a few seconds before a smile curved her lips…
"I'll come back," she said and went off but turned back again. "And Ichigo…"
They waited for months but they never heard a word from her. Everyone became so unsettled…everyone became so worried that something went off…until the garganta opened and revealed someone…
Ichigo stared in shock as he looked up at the man with blue hair staring him down so hardly that he had to flinch…but the shock was not because of him…but of the woman he carried in his arms…
Everyone gathered at the Sokyouku hill while they looked up at the Espada #6…as he looked down at them…deciding whether to remain in the air or not…
The voice was cold…menacingly so that he had to flinch but not because of fear…just so because…
Then he looked down as the orange head who decided to stay in Soul Society for months had turned in bankai form…his fury non-comparable…
"I'm repaying you a debt," he said before the Shinigami could attack and he gently went down, not minding the captains gathered around…he just felt like he had something to do…at least for the woman in his arms…and the man in front of him…
His eyes were not on the Espada but on the small form he carried…gently so…he laid her down on the ground…
"I found her. That much I can do…we are even now," he said and went up again before the captains could make a move.
Then he entered the garganta and looked over his shoulder at the Shinigami who now knelt down to the woman he brought. "She's in that condition when I found her. She's a gem that was taken for granted."
With that the garganta closed.
Ichigo could not believe it…he tried to strain his eyes…to make sure he is not seeing a dream…but in front of him is the body of the Shinigami he cared so deeply…he loved so deeply…
"Rukia," he clasped her hand but it was so cold…her face was so pale now…the 4th division who was across him and tended to her shook her head slowly and stood up…
He felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Kuchiki Byakuya.
"Why her?" he cried out bitterly as if the man could answer that question.
"There is nothing left to be done," he said quietly yet he could hear the tremor in his voice. Ichigo glanced back at her and held her to his chest and wracked her softly like a mother does to a child…his shoulders shook with his uncontrolled emotions. Quietly, he wrack her in his arms as his head was raised upwards…as the rain started to fall down…as it washed away his unending tears…
All captains felt something tug at their heart…not even the cold, emotionless 6th division captain…not even the crazy, I-don't-give-a-damn 12th division captain…not even the most hardened heart could ignore the sight in front of them as a torn soul cried over the fallen one…
"And Ichigo…I love you too. At least know about it before I go."
"Rukia…" he said in his choked voice as he cradled her still and the captains and vice-captains just stood and watched with sorrow.