Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.

Chapter Twenty-One - posted 17 December 2009

"Mr. Kurosaki, " Momo stood and began with pursed lips, her hand protectively on Rukia's shoulder.

"Hold that thought," he said, smiling and wagging a finger at Momo, as if she had spoken out of turn. Turning to Yuzu and Karin, he continued, "Girls, I think that we really need some ice cream and milk to go with this cake. Would you mind doing your dear dad a favor and running to the store for some of both? You can take your time, since we have to wait for Ichigo to return with Rukia's cake. Besides, it will give everyone a chance to let their cake settle and make room for lots of ice cream."

Momo suppressed the urge to interrupt him and force him to hear her out. Sending Ichigo's sisters away would only make what she was about to do easier for everyone. For a moment she wondered if it was a lucky coincidence or if this goofy asshat was more aware then he was letting on.

"Of course!" Yuzu chimed with her usual smile and followed with a rhetorical question. "How could we ever have forgotten milk and ice cream in the first place?!"

Karin only glared at her father. This had all gone way too far, and she didn't want to be here. At first this had been like every other over the top scheme her dad concocted, but he was a little too obsessed this time for her taste. On the way to Ichigo's room she had tried not to give in to her anger and kick him in the face. That would have only sent the cake he was carrying flying, creating an even bigger scene in the end. Now, she just felt tired, drained, and a little confused.

Her brother looked bedraggled, even though he covered it fairly well. Yuzu probably hadn't noticed, since her father had gotten her excited about the prospect of a niece or nephew. Karin sighed, slightly jealous of Yuzu's inexplicable optimism in every situation. The combination of Ichigo's scraggly aura, the timing of his request from their grandfather, and her father's undue fanfare over something both Ichigo and Rukia denied left an unsettling lump in her stomach. Even if her stupid father was wrong, as was often the case, something else was still wrong.

"Karin, come on!" her sister called expectantly, standing half inside and half outside of Ichigo's doorway.

Finally, Karin rolled her eyes and shrugged. All she could do was bide her time until they headed back home and her dad forgot all about this, if he could. This wasn't a situation she ever would have imagined her brother in. It wasn't something she thought that he would do. She looked up to Ichigo. Unfortunately, that didn't mean that it could never happen and that she should ignore the feeling in her gut. Karin resigned herself to being cynical enough for both Yuzu and herself, hoping she would find out her concern was all for naught.

"Whatever," she mumbled, following Yuzu out the door.

Rukia frowned. Something was obviously bothering Ichigo's sister. Something about the look in her eyes made Rukia itch with guilt. She searched for something to say but couldn't find the words, even after Karin closed the door behind her.

"Ah, I believe that you were about to say something to me before," Isshin prompted Momo, turning to face her, jovial tone exchanged for a calm, slightly inquisitive one with just a touch of the tone of a concerned parent. "I've met you before and had a feeling this should be a discussion between the three of us at this point."

"Yes, I was, and you are probably right about that," Momo swiftly replied, voice even and a bit indignant. "You owe Rukia a big apology. Just because you adore your own children and delight at the thought of having grandchildren, doesn't meant that everyone else feels the same way and that Ichigo and Rukia are subject to fulfill your whim. Rukia has more to think about and expect than when she can settle down with Ichigo and have his children."

Rukia's eyes widened with surprised, as her roommate continued. She was almost afraid of what and how much Momo would say.

"Graduation is a stressful enough time for Rukia without having to suffer everyone else's opinions of what she should and should not be doing. She has a lot of important decisions to be making. Who knows what happened before we got here that would have made Ichigo run out of the room like that; however, you should have picked another time and place to surprise Rukia with a cake, no matter how delicious it is," Momo finished, raising an eyebrow as if challenging him to argue.

Rukia released the mental breath she had been holding. Momo was right in that graduation could be a very stressful time. Unfortunately, it wasn't graduation itself casing Rukia's stress. The corner of her mouth threatened with an upward tug at how skilled Momo was at evading the truth without actually lying. It made her forget that the topic of discussion was herself. If only for a moment, the fleeting disassociation helped her overall control.

"Hmm, well said, my dear," Isshin complimented, transforming even more into a typical father figure in both tone and demeanor.

"It's good to see that you're finally getting serious about this," Momo replied, eyes narrowing.

Both Momo and Rukia were surprised that Ichigo's father had caved so easily. Rukia braced herself for whatever illogical catch was sure to come.

"I've always been serious. Rukia," Isshin turned from Momo to Rukia and took her hands in his own before continuing, "I don't know what you and my son are actually worried about, but let's pretend that the two of you did make an irresponsible decision recently. I am a father and a doctor; make no mistake that I do know what I'm talking about."

"But...," Rukia began to protest, not wanting this to turn into some kind of roundabout confession.

She didn't even want to have a hypothetical conversation about her actual worry.

"Please, hear me out. You don't need to say anything," he said with warm, fatherly smile. "Whatever problem the two of you have, I'm certain that hearing me out right now, making that assumption will help put things into prospective for the two of you. First of all, my son is extremely lucky to have a girl like you. I know that I've said it before, but of all the girls he could have fallen in love you, you are all for which I could have hoped."

Rukia only blinked wide eyes at Ichigo's father, touched by his words, yet at the same time, not believing they were coming from him. Momo sat down next to her and slid her hand across to Rukia's other shoulder, encircling her in a half-hug.

"You and my son have a bright future ahead of you in every way. You both have the ability and the means, no matter what... difficulties befall you. Now, let's say that you and Ichigo are expecting," Isshin put a hand up to quell any interruption. "I won't pretend that it wouldn't be a bit of a scandal, especially given your age, or a tough situation; however, neither of you would be doing it alone and without support.

"Even now, you have a friend that won't leave your side, even for an innocent chat with your future father-in-law. I can guarantee that you wouldn't be able to get rid of my son, even if you wanted. I've met your brother and don't think that he would abandon you either. In fact, I'm sure that both of them would physically fight for you, if it came to that. My point is that you will have help and support for whatever comes next.

"Of course, I don't even think I have to say that I will be expecting grandchildren from you and my son... at some point. When that time comes, even if it's now, I will personally ensure that nothing is denied you. That is, if you even need my help. You probably know that my son is poised to shoulder a significant responsibility. I can't say that he's exactly pleased about it, but I do know that he won't hesitate to use every ounce of power at his disposal for your sake. You and my son are very alike in several ways. Neither of you seem to be able to grasp that you don't have to do everything alone."

The bit of relief she felt sparked the prickling threat of tears to sting her nose. Taking a breath and swallowing, Rukia nipped her body's urge to let go of her control in the bud. She kept her composure. It had already been broken against her will in front of Momo, and it would not happen again. It was nice to have her worried assuaged from such an unexpected source. Isshin's words reiterated what Momo had insisted earlier. Rukia just needed to hear it all from Ichigo.

"I guess I should thank you for saying that," she tentatively replied. "Finals and graduation aren't exactly meant to be relaxing, and I've had a lot to think about. You know how it is, right? Every little thing somehow seems like a huge problem... not that there even is one. I guess what you had to say really did put things into perspective and help me realize how silly my supposed problem is to dealing with something like a... baby."

Rukia almost faltered at the end, unable to say the word aloud, but was able to finish with a smile, confident that her words would be taken as another denial that she even had a possible pregnancy to worry about. Now, she just needed to get out of the still awkward situation. Luckily, she really was starting to mentally disassociate from the situation. It felt more and more like she was a character of which her real self was only a spectator. Rukia felt stronger, less crippled by her emotions.

"I know that Karin and Yuzu are getting milk and ice cream, but Momo and I have a couple very important errands that we have to run. Thank you for everything. Please tell Yuzu how much I liked the bite of cake Ichigo let me have," Rukia said with a smile.

Leaving no room for protest or hesitation, Rukia stood and started for the door. Isshin sighed, as Momo turned to give him a satisfied smile before closing the door behind them. With the click of the lock, he slumped down in his chair, wiping a hand down his face to tug on his chin. This was one of the times he missed Masaki the most. Isshin's eyes shot back to the door.

Ichigo took a deep breath, clenching his fist around the ring that he had just finished cleaning in the bathroom for resolve, before swinging open the door to his room with imagined bravado.

"Rukia, can you come with me, so that we can...," Ichigo started in an assertive voice, before realizing that his father was the only one in the room. "Where did everyone go? I wasn't even gone for ten minutes, and you've already chased everyone away?"

He had been prepared to thank Momo for protecting Rukia in his absence before whisking Rukia away to the library, away from any interruptions, so that they could finally talk. Unfortunately, all he found was his father sitting ominously in a chair facing the door with a semi-serious expression.

Earlier this year, Isshin had mistakenly read a little too much into Toshiro coming over solely to play soccer with his sister, only to be sent running for the hills the moment Momo got word of it. He wasn't sure how it happened, since he was with his grandfather at the time. The only explanation he had was that Momo had lulled his father into a false sense of security with her soft, pleasant demeanor before brandishing her claws with her eyes set on a killing blow.

Ichigo might have tried to judge Toshiro for liking such a crazy girl or just brand him a bit masochistic. Well, he would have, if he hadn't realized that he was the one who spent almost three years inviting Rukia to abuse him just for the sake of contact with her. At first he couldn't imagine why his sense of self-preservation didn't keep his mouth shut. Then, he came to realize that perpetually bruised shins was a small price to pay for making her notice him in some way, even if not the way he would have liked. Even the his most physically painful memories were remembered fondly.

"Come in and sit down, my boy. I know that something is wrong for both you and Rukia. It may not be a baby, but I know that there is something heavy," Isshin said with a sigh. "I went a bit overboard trying to lighten mood, since I am delighted to have Rukia practically in our family, and..."

Ichigo froze in the doorway, hand still on the knob. Without changing his blank expression or hearing his father out, he successively stepped back, pulling the door closed in front of him. Ichigo immediately spun on his heels and broke into a sprint down the hallway. The only thing worse than his loony father bouncing off the walls was the unexpected shock of his overly serious father, especially when it was something he didn't want to talk about.

*****

"I think I'm still in shock from all of that, Momo," Rukia confessed with a sordid smile.

She tightened her grip on the metal bar of the train to keep her balance, whilst the train navigated a curve. They could have easily walked to three different pharmacies from the school campus; however, they chose the higher probability of anonymity that a greater distance would provide.

"I am too, and Ichigo's dad wasn't even talking to me. At least he said some of what I've been trying to tell you, though," Momo replied with a shrug. "I bet Ichigo would say something like that if you'd gotten the chance to talk to him."

"I know," sighed Rukia. "But I still can't help feeling that I somehow let him down, that I've trapped him. It's like I'm burdening him with another one of my problems."

"That's one of the stupidest things I've ever heard," Momo started with a frown and roll of her eyes. "Ah! There's a pharmacy, and we're about to come to a station! Get ready."

"I'm ready."

"Good. We're going to continue talking about this as soon as we get off the train, you know. I mean, you cannot seriously believe what you just said," Momo reminded, as the train jerked to a stop.

Really, she wasn't sure she was ready for any of what was happening. Rukia had almost wished that the train ride would last forever, keep her in limbo. It was like sitting in a waiting room. She had no control over the next step and could just relax and wait, doing nothing. It was a kind of break from her problems, more than the waiting itself. While on the train, she didn't really have to think about anything besides which stop they would choose. Unfortunately, reality closed in on her with each step. The pharmacy door chime felt like a curtain raising to reveal an expectant audience, giving her no choice but to perform for their critical eyes.

"I've never bought one before. They would be somewhere around the tampons and condoms, right?" Momo questioned, not really expecting an answer.

Rukia took a purposeful step forward with her head high. No one in the store would recognize either of them this far from school. it was practically the other side of the city. They had even made sure to bring cash, so there wouldn't even be a record of their purchase. As far as anyone but the clerk ringing up the purchase and Momo would know, she was heading for an aisle in dire need of tampons. Rukia felt like a criminal, about to buy drugs or steal something.

"I found them, but I kind of thought I would just be able to grab it and go," Rukia whispered, aghast and annoyed by the numerous boxes for her to choose from.

"Well, why don't you just grab one, then?"

"I can't do that! There are different kinds, and I have to make sure that I have the right one!"

"I'm sure that they all do the same thing, though, right? Just pick the prettiest box. I like the green one."

"No way! Here, read what these boxes say and choose the best one," Rukia furiously whispered, thrusting the aforementioned green box and the one next to it on the shelf into Momo's hand. "We'll keep doing that until we only have one left."

Rukia ignored Momo's amused snort and furiously read the two boxes in her hand, mentally making a list of the criteria she would be using to compare them. Part of her started to relax. She was in the store buying the test. There was no turning back now that she was already in the aisle with it in her hands. Just having a concrete task on which to focus helped too.

"KUCHIKI RUKIA, IS THAT YOU!?!" a voice bellowed from the next aisle.

Momo jumped, almost throwing the tests in her hand into the air. Rukia could swear she actually felt her heart stop, as she froze, unable to turn around or even breathe.

"Rangiku, what are you doing here?" Momo squeaked from beside her.

Coherent thoughts refused to form in Rukia's head, as she desperately tried to think of a way to explain what she was doing, besides the truth, of course.

"Buying tampons and some lip gloss, of course," Rangiku replied, as if running into her two school mates at a pharmacy located a thirty minute train ride from school hadn't crossed her mind as unusual.

"But why are you buying them here when we go to school on practically the other side of town?" Momo pressed.

"Oh, I just like to get on the train without really knowing where I'm going sometimes. I love just feeling the train sway, while I watch the scenery pass. It's kind of soothing. Anyway, today I needed to stock up on tampons and figured I would be able to find a pharmacy wherever. You know, I didn't really think anything of it until now, but why are the two of you here? It is on the other side of town and all."

Yes, Rangiku was indeed stocking up on tampons. She had five boxes in her arms.

"I needed... no... well, uh," Rukia stammered, still desperately trying to come up with an excuse for the pregnancy tests in their hands.

"Ah, well... we... erm...," Momo felt herself at a loss for words, as well.

For a moment, Rukia considered that Rangiku might not notice. Just as Rukia decided to tell her that they came to buy toothpaste and got a bit distracted, Rangiku decided to explain it herself... aloud.

"I thought you were also here to buy some tampons or something, but... oh, no. Rukia, don't you think that you should be buying condoms rather than just skipping right to the pregnancy test? Are you in the wrong aisle? No, not with that many in your hands and those dark circles under your eyes. Ah, well, I guess things like this happen. Well, in that case, you should pick the orange and pink box."

"Toothpaste!" Rukia blurted in response to Rangiku's correct assessment of the situation. "Wait, did you say that I should go with the pink and orange box?"

"Yeah, it's definitely the best choice. The brand has the best overall ratings, it's quick, and it's unmistakably easy to use," Rangiku replied in a matter of fact tone.

"Rangiku, how...," Momo softly began.

"I'm sure that Toshiro told you that I was a bit of a delinquent in junior high before you got to know me," she paused while Momo nodded a confirmation. "However, I don't think that even he ever found out how much of a delinquent I had actually became. Let's just say that I had a bit of trouble with myself. I didn't know who I was and didn't realize what a sparkling goddess I am. Hmm... this was all before I started rooming with Tatsuki and Orihime too. I don't think Ichigo has ever said anything, so I guess I wouldn't expect anyone to know, unless I've told them. He's not exactly a talker, you know. Well anyway, let's just say that I ran with a bad crowd and did a lot of things that I regret with people I may not have even remembered right after it happened."

"Ichigo knows?" Rukia squeaked.

"Hey, don't let your imagination run wild there. He just got into a few fights with some guys that I was hanging around with at the time," her mouth twitched into a half smile. "Apparently, they didn't like his hair and thought he was a threat to their territory. It never ended well for my so-called friends, but they never stopped picking the fights. When I started seeing him with Toshiro too, we kind of each got the attention of the other. Actually, he didn't recognize me until I said something."

Rangiku sighed, prepared to leave the explanation at that, until she caught sight of the horror on both Rukia's and Momo's faces. The wrong conclusions were blatantly plastered across their faces.

"No! No! It's not like that at all! I would never throw myself at Ichigo! Well, I might have back then... but I didn't! Seeing him as both of the selves I had at the time kind of helped me drag myself out of it. The delinquent version of myself suddenly seemed a lot more real. Except for Toshiro having some unconfirmed suspicions that I was a bit of a delinquent in my spare time, no one had any idea, well, except Ichigo. I guess that both of us were going out of our way to get something we needed at the time. We never even directly talked about it, as if we knew what the other was thinking. We never were and still aren't more than mere peripheral friends that happen to be keeping each other's secrets."

"I was just starting to think that you really were a tease, all talk. Oh, my goodness, Rangiku, I didn't..."

Before Momo could continue, Rangiku held up a hand with a smile and a shrug.

"Don't worry about it. You don't have to say anything. I have a part of my past that I don't like and implore you not to mention, but I'm not that girl any more. She was a different me that may as well never have existed. No one but Ichigo would be able to connect my two selves, and I don't think that he's saying anything, even to himself. Leave my confession here in this moment. Now, back to Rukia's dilemma."

"I guess I'll go with ten of the pink and orange box, then," Rukia said with a sincere smile and awkward forced laugh.

Hearing what Rangiku didn't have to tell them made her feel a lot better. Rukia felt a bit less like damaged goods, even if only Rangiku would think so. Momo stood by her too, not judging. She wasn't sure if everything suddenly seemed easier to handle because she was finally able to take some sort of action or because she wasn't doing it alone.

"Did you say ten?" Momo asked with wide eyes.

Rangiku stifled a sympathetic giggle.

Rukia averted her gaze, explaining, "Well, I was hoping that I could down a bottle of water and take five now. Then, I'd like to take five when we get back, just to make sure. Is that too much?"

"No way!" Rangiku responded. "I'd probably be here for another ten if one even came out a little bit uncertain, if it was me!"

"Oooh, that's a great idea. Momo, can you grab another ten. My hands are a bit full."

Rukia smiled. She was as relieved to end up with Rangiku to help as she was horrified when she first heard her call her name out for anyone in the pharmacy to hear.

"All right. I've got another ten here. Let's buy all of these and see if the clerk will take pity on you and let you use the toilet here," Momo chirped, relieved to see Rukia with a genuine smile.

"The clerk is a guy. I think I've got it covered. In a moment he's going to feel so awkward that he'll say 'yes' just to not have to deal with us," Rangiku replied with an evil smile.

*****

A/N: I'm not entirely happy with how this chapter turned out, but I think that it would take me forever to figure out what I don't like about it. I'm sure it won't be anyone's favourite. Hope it didn't turn out too badly. *crosses fingers*