Ichigo marveled at how quickly time passed.
He looked around at the nostalgically familiar room- was it always this small?; stared at the twin-sized bed lined up against the far wall, under the large window; the desk that he remembered being cluttered with course books and notes while he studied the night away under the light of the curved lamp; the shelves in the corner still holding some of his old Al Pacino movies… Ten years ago he had been a teenager living in that very room, and the prospect of his future had been nothing but a hazy blur.
Yet there he stood now, a little taller and lacking the wristbands and printed t-shirts, but otherwise not looking all too different now that he had successfully passed into adulthood. With his hands still shoved into the pockets of his dress pants, he closed his eyes and the image of his childhood bedroom remained as an imprint on his eyelids. Maybe it didn't show, but after a decade it was hard for him to see in himself that outwardly rebellious high school boy.
In that moment, Ichigo fancied himself remarkably weird. Most people would be feeling sad at the realization of having their youthful school days behind them, but he could find no longing for the past anywhere in his heart. In fact, he was perfectly content with right now, for the first time in what felt like a very long time.
"Smiling to yourself as you remember your dirty teen years, eh?"
His moment of introspection was effectively finalized by the sound of that unmistakable voice. Ichigo let out a sigh that was halfway to a groan and the inadverted quirk of his lips fell to a familiar frown. "That sounds more like you than me, Old man."
His dad actually looked pensive for a second before a lecherous grin etched his face. "You're right, you were always too much of a prude."
"Most parents would be happy…" He grumbled with only mild annoyance, mostly resigned already to the unorthodox ways of his own progenitor. "What'd you come up here for anyway?" He turned at last to face the older man, who still stood by the doorway. It was hard to believe that he would willingly part with his beloved daughters for the sake of his "delinquent son" without a reason.
The dark-haired man sighed and closed the door behind him, shoulders slumping forward and his face reflecting that rare display of somberness that occasionally betrayed his parenthood. Ichigo straightened up when he perceived the serious aura, curiosity tickling at him while he wondered what could be on his dad's mind to merit such behavior on that day. He would have expected the man to spend all day skipping in delight with an idiotic grin on his face while he sang of joy.
Then again, the man might have scratched that particular ceremony off his "ways to mortify Ichigo" to-do list on the day he was told of the impending date in the first place.
"Ah, I've been putting this off for too long." His dad said then, a hand coming up to scratch the back of his head and eyes closing. "There's really no avoiding it anymore."
"What are you talking about?" Ichigo looked at his dad oddly.
"I'm sorry I didn't talk to you about this a long time ago, son." He went on barely taking a pause, as if reciting a previously rehearsed speech. "You deserved to know all the circumstances behind your mother's death, but I thought you were too young to understand back then. Every year I kept telling myself I'd tell you when you were older, when you were mature enough… I guess I was just a coward."
Ichigo's expression tightened.
His father bringing up his mom's death was off-putting in itself, but making such an honest admission was entirely disconcerting for him, who was unused to this side of the man who had raised him and his sisters with hardly more than extravagant displays of goofiness and perennial insanity. He wouldn't even meet his eyes as he spoke.
"You know by now, I was a police officer once."
Ichigo nodded. Not just you, he thought. Urahara too.
He'd found out quite a few things during his involvement in the arduous process of the trial for Aizen as the leader of the Arrancars. It was funny, in an ironic sort of way, how after so long spent chasing after that man, in the end, it was his testimony of one single evening that proved most useful in getting him locked up at last. It hadn't been easy, because even after all the evidence and testimonies gathered from that event, Aizen still held a strong influence and nearly impossible to track footprints. He would have gotten off on a bail that would be like pocket money to him, or served a short sentence at most, if not for the final and condemning testimony given by Ulquiorra Cifer. With that, Aizen was all but stripped bare for the Court by, whom Ichigo later learned had been, one of his most trusted subordinates.
Ichigo had half expected Gin Ichimaru to bring useful cooperation for the case as well, but the fox-faced man had disappeared without a trace after their trip to Kawasaki. No one had seen or heard from him since.
"I only served for a few years." His father continued talking, breaking Ichigo out of his musings on the relatively recent happenings. "Until I met Masaki." There was the ghost of a smile that passed fleetingly across his rugged features, like the reflection of a quick memory triggered by his own words. "I left so we could raise a family."
Ichigo didn't miss the hint of bitterness when he said that. "I know. Urahara told be about that. He said he left a few years later."
His dad turned to him at that, looking annoyed. "That old bigmouth. Never knew when to keep his trap shut." He complained gruffly.
Ichigo shrugged. The truth was, if Urahara wasn't there to straighten some things out, he probably would have gone crazy with all the wild theories people came up with about the supposedly legendary Isshin Kurosaki back at the Police Department. Now that Ichigo had gone back to finish at the Academy and join the forces for good, he was subjected to all the gossip that had been festering for some time, but that resurfaced with renewed vigor once the younger Kurosaki appeared in their ranks. Ikkaku and Iba especially, just wouldn't shut up about all the improbable feats that Isshin was said to have accomplished during his short time as an officer. And to his utter dismay, Kenpachi was all too eager to try and prove those rumors true by testing out the abilities of the man's son -and the KPD's most recent so-called prodigy-.
"No use getting mad about it now." His dad huffed, clearly still irritated. "I'll sort things out with him later." The threat in that statement was evident to Ichigo, who couldn't help being somewhat amused at the thought of having someone else annoy his dad for a change. "Anyway…"
The momentary lightness faded and the heavy atmosphere returned with his father's furrowing eyebrows and downcast eyes.
"While I was working, I got a trail on the Arrancars." He started to explain. "I followed it for some time, but I kept hitting dead ends."
Ichigo found himself nodding along with that; he could understand only too well.
"Eventually I dropped it . I had plenty of other things to occupy my time, and the could-be case was out of my head pretty soon. But sometime after I left, I stumbled onto something." His voice became lower, and there was an excess raspy quality to it, more noticeable than usual. "There was no reason for me to go after it, it could well have been nothing at all; and it wasn't even my job anymore." He paused, almost as if readying himself for the next inevitable part that the story he must have replayed a million times would lead to. "But I didn't let it go."
With that sentence, it was as if an invisible weight settled onto the man. His father, for all his vitality, was pushing sixty-years-old. The years, however, had never been so evident as they were to Ichigo in that moment; it was almost as if the last few decades had chosen that instant to fall on him. The shadows under his eyes darkened considerably as he took an intake of breath and prepared to go on with the story. "I-"
"It's fine." Ichigo interrupted without warning. He didn't meet his old man's eyes, and kept his hands in his pockets as he stared off through the window at the clear sky outside, speaking in a callous tone. "You don't have to finish telling me. It's your problem, and if you didn't say anything all this time, you had your reasons. I can't ask you to tell me without trampling your feelings." He paused, the words surfacing to the forefront of his mind almost as if he were hearing them told to him once more. "So I can wait. When you feel like talking about it, I'll listen. You don't have to say anything until then."
Ichigo could feel his father's eyes on him, but he pointedly resisted looking back at him and fixed his face into a scowl while he looked into the distance.
"You've learned to talk pretty well." The older man spoke up after a stretched minute of silence. His voice sounded considerably lighter. "Perhaps I did a good job on you after all."
He couldn't help but roll his eyes at that. "It's all borrowed. Someone told me something like that, and it made me feel a lot better. That's all."
His dad didn't answer immediately, and he could still feel the weight of his stare, but he kept to his studied avoidance. Only when his dad let out a short cackle did he finally turn back to him.
"What?" He demanded sharply.
His dad shook his head, then mirrored his pose with his hands in the pockets of his equally dark trousers. "Nothing. Just thinking that she would be proud after all."
By 'she', Ichigo didn't need to ask to know that he had meant his mother. He felt the scowl soften on his face.
The two men shared a moment of rare, companionable silence, before the older one clapped his son on the shoulder and an easy grin made its way back into his features. "I think I've held you up long enough."
"What are you still doing here?" Like a flipped switch, the man's usual demeanor returned along with a boisterous voice and exaggerated outrage. "Get out of here! My idiot son, going to be late to his own wedding! Oh, how I've failed as a father!" He cried out to the heavens.
"Shut up, goat chin!" Ichigo knocked his fist into the man's face without any reservations, sliding back into the comfort of their dynamic with ease.
Caught off guard, his dad tumbled down to the floor in a heap. Ichigo pulled on the cuffs of his black suit to fix them in place, then readjusted the bowtie around his neck and casually ignored the muffled wailing beneath him. He stepped over the crumpled man impishly and exited the room with a shake of his head.
Some things never change.
Out in the hallway of his childhood home, the prickling sensation of being watched made him pause before reaching the staircase that lead downstairs. He stopped in front of the room that had belonged to the twins, noticing the slightly ajar door when…
Rukia stifled a laugh at Ichigo's surprised squeal the moment she pulled him into the room.
Taking care to shut the door behind them, she turned to look at the ruffled up groom standing in between the two beds that dominated the room even then, pushed up against the walls to allow more space as they were. After having spent the night there sharing a bed with the youngest Kurosaki sibling -sweet and thoughtful Yuzu-, the majority of the morning had been spent locked up in the cramped quarters while she attempted to make herself presentable; with the help, of course, of the twins as well as her other two bridesmaids -Rangiku and a very pregnant Orihime-.
Things had been hectic, as they would inevitably be with five women only a few hours prior to a wedding, especially when one of those women was carrying a few extra dosis of hormones. Rukia had found herself questioning more than once the decision to have a traditional wedding instead of simply having run off and gotten married in some off-the-road chapel. Only the thought of Byakuya's reaction at the prospect of his sister eloping reassured her of her choice and she managed to bear the pre-ceremony preparations.
"H-hey! What the hell!" Ichigo blurted out, having just managed to gather his bearings. He pointed at her accusingly, eyes wide. "The groom isn't supposed to see the bride before the wedding! Don't you know anything?"
She rolled her eyes at the unexpected, yet somehow inherently typical reaction. "My, Ichigo, I didn't know you were so superstitious. I thought you didn't believe in that kind of stuff."
"I-I don't!" The lightest shade of pink dusted his defined cheeks.
"So you're just an old-fashioned romanticist, then." She goaded, smirking with satisfaction as she saw him sputter in denial.
While he was too busy raking himself for words, Rukia had the chance to really get a good look at the man. Even awkward and bashful as he was at the moment, there was no overlooking how dashing he truly looked in his well-fitted tuxedo. The light that poured in through the windows served to emphasize the light golden tint of his skin, complementing the hazel of his eyes and his tangerine hair in a canvas of warm colors that reminded her of summer. When his embarrassment passed and he stood a little straighter, she could feel the quiet strength that he always seemed to radiate even in his relaxed posture.
Rukia didn't say anything while immersed in her appraisal, and during that time, Ichigo's eyes seemed to properly focus on her for the first time as well. They regarded her slowly from her small, still-bare feet, up the length of her creamy calves -visible through the slit of her dress-, then upwards studying the way the thin white material flared out or hugged her subtle curves in all the right places; his mouth fell ever so slightly ajar. She didn't miss the way his eyes lingered for a second too long over the areas where her skin was unusually, but tastefully exposed by the strapless gown.
"Whoa." Ichigo exhaled, like he had just remembered to breathe again. He swallowed as he took a step closer and reached out to touch the smooth line of her neck, almost shyly so. "Nice…dress."
There was something about his hesitation, about the way that he seemed to be holding himself back that contrasted with the intensity of his eyes as he drank her in, that raised her self-consciousness on more than a few levels. She averted her eyes from his and ran her fingers through the wispy ends of her now chin-length hair; short as it was, the girls had refrained from any complicated styling and decorated it only with a delicate pin in the shape of a flower. Her awareness levels were rising fast and the smell of Ichigo's cologne mixed with his own scent only made his proximity that much more evident.
"I thought you didn't want to see me." She joked weakly, her voice coming out much too husky to pass for comical as she barely suppressed goose bumps at the feeling of calloused but gentle fingers warm against sensitive skin.
"Too late." Ichigo barely mumbled out the words before using his free hand to tilt her chin up and capture her lips.
His kiss was more forceful than she had expected, and she found herself taking a few steps back until her back was pressed against the door. Ichigo was unrelenting in his approach and essentially cornered her; her hands on his chest were the only things keeping him from crushing his entire form against her as his mouth worked fervently on hers.
Had Rukia allowed herself, she would have happily relented into his passionate attack; but as she felt their bodies molding closer and closer together, and Ichigo's desire became ever more obvious against her, she was strongly reminded that there was still a wedding to be had and four furious bridesmaids to deal with if their hours of hard work ended up tossed in a corner while the bride enjoyed an early honeymoon. So it was with great force of will, and not without a couple of failed attempts, that she managed to extricate herself from Ichigo.
It was moments like those that made her grateful she and Ichigo were no longer co-workers. True, she missed having him next-door to her cubicle all the time, but it had been increasingly difficult to remember they weren't the only ones in the building sometimes. And even with Mr. Ukitake back as chief editor and everyone being on a considerably looser leash at Seretei, relationships at work were still strictly frowned upon.
That, and if Mr. Hitsugaya had walked in on them one more time, she was sure someone would have ended up in a hospital bed.
"What gives?" Ichigo didn't bother to mask his frustration as he looked down at her after being pushed away, his heated gaze now a mixture of want and annoyance.
"I didn't pull you in here so we could do that." She placed her hands firmly on her hips and put on a trained expression of haughtiness that disguised her mirrored feelings. Eloping was really sounding like the better option right about then.
"Then what for?"
"Actually, I wanted to talk to you." she said.
He started at that. A flicker of something eerily like fear flashed through Ichigo's eyes. "Getting cold feet or something?" He asked in a forcibly casual tone, and Rukia could only smile affectionately at his poor attempt.
Then she proceeded to knock her fist into his midsection. Because he was an idiot for having even an instance of worry.
"Fool." she added for good measure. She didn't give him a chance to retort or do anything other than wheeze and glare before shaking her head and going on. "I was just thinking. After everything that's happened in the past couple of years, we still somehow made it here. It's… strange. That we'd be so lucky."
She half expected him to make a snide remark, but Ichigo only nodded. "I thought something like that too. I almost can't believe how well things worked out." He looked genuinely thoughtful, stepping back after a moment to flop down on one of the beds- Karin's. "But then I thought, it's not weird at all."
Rukia raised a curious eyebrow, glad though she was that she wasn't the only one having thoughts of such nature. Without needing an invitation, she went over to sit next to Ichigo. As soon as she was beside him, he wordlessly took her hand in his and began to toy idly with their fingers.
"What do you mean by that?" she finally asked, glancing up at him. He didn't face her, and from that angle she could appreciate the outline of his jaw line, and the definition of his masculine features, softened somewhat in the lighting.
"I just realized something..." He said. "Things just seem to fall into place when you're around." As if to accentuate his point, he laced his fingers between hers as he said that, and held up their perfectly intertwined hands for her to see.
Her heart swelled in her chest. "Idiot." she muttered, but the word lacked even the slightest scorn.
"Rukia…" He looked into her eyes then, and it was as if a thousand words passed between them in a single glance.
She opened her mouth as if to say something, but found herself instead inching closer to Ichigo. She leaned into him as he lowered himself to meet her halfway, her eyelids drooping as he finished closing the distance between them.
Just as his soft lips grazed hers, his breath tickling her, the sound of a door being kicked open made them both jump about a mile in the air.
"There you- Oi!" The perpetrator screeched. "What the hell are you doing here?" The man gawked at Ichigo.
"What the hell are YOU doing here?" Ichigo shot back reflexively, the pink tips of his ears and his broken voice killing any chance of playing the moment off.
"I'm supposed to be here! You, on the other hand…"
His level of frustration increasing beyond his patience, Rukia guessed, Ichigo got to his feet and was in the other man's face in a split second. "This my house, you idiot!" He grabbed the new arrival by the shirt and the two bumped their foreheads together and gritted their teeth like animals in a documentary. "You should be the one to get your pineapple head off the premises!"
"I'm here to escort the bride! You can't kick me out!"
"Sure I can! Scram!"
"This isn't even your house, it's your old man's!"
"Like it matters!"
"Of course it does!"
Involved as they were in their testosterone match, neither bright-haired fool took notice of the two Kuchikis standing behind each of them respectively, both wearing nearly identical masks of barely contained exasperation. Rukia was the first to try and break into the match.
"Ichigo," she spoke in a low, warning tone.
The yelling continued uninterrupted.
Byakuya's deceptively cool, even voice froze the other two males on the spot. Rukia could feel her eyes widen in mesmerized wonder at the display.
Brother really is amazing!
"He started it!" Ichigo and Renji erupted simultaneously after breaking under the prolonged silence that followed Byakuya's voice.
The business man opened his eyes and steel gray flashed. Ichigo and Renji promptly shrunk back into a corner and presumably withheld tears and other leaking fluids from escaping.
Rukia beamed at her brother. "It's good to see you, Brother. I'm sorry I wasn't prepared on time."
"It's no matter, Rukia." He replied simply, then she thought she caught a subtle softening of his usually marble features as he looked at her. "You look beautiful." He stated, without a hint of emotion behind his voice, but sincerity reflected clearly in the depths of his eyes.
She felt her face flush and she inclined her head, thanking him profusely. She felt a large hand settle on her shoulder a moment later and turned to see Renji grinning down at her.
"Ready to go yet?" he asked. "Though I guess there's really no point in taking separate cars there anymore, since you two obviously couldn't wait to-"
A pointed cough from Byakuya cut that statement off before anything they would regret could be said.
"Err, right. So…" Renji struggled against his obvious mortification, clearing his throat and looking around for some sort of escape. "I think I'll go tell the driver to start the limo. You guys don't need me here."
"Damn right we don't." Ichigo went for the obvious jab.
"Watch it, dandelion head!" Renji snapped back. "The only reason I'm not giving you a black eye is because I don't want to ruin Rukia's wedding pictures."
"Gee, Renji. I didn't know you were so thoughtful."
Rukia rolled her eyes, biting back her laughter. For all their insults and threats, Ichigo and Renji would each take a bullet for the other without question. The initial rivalry of their first meetings had evolved with surprising speed into an inseparable friendship. It was to the point that she hadn't even been the one to suggest that Renji be a groomsman today, yet the choice had gone without question.
Byakuya didn't seem to find their unlikely friendship so enjoyable, if the twitching of his eyebrow at that moment was any sign. When Renji finally disappeared down the stairs, the black-haired man released a sharp sigh.
"It is time to go, Rukia." Said the man, looking down at her expectantly.
Rukia hesitated, shooting a darting glance at Ichigo that didn't go unnoticed.
In unspoken understanding, Byakuya said to her, "I will wait downstairs." Instead of heading straight down though, he took a step closer to Ichigo, to her surprise.
Ichigo uncharacteristically said nothing, and Rukia got the impression that she was witnessing a duel, waiting to see which opponent would draw first.
"Kurosaki," Byakuya spoke at last, standing imposingly and looking down his nose at Ichigo. There was a long pause, before, "Congratulations."
She nearly gaped, and she thought she saw Ichigo's eyes widen but otherwise, he appeared not to be too shocked.
"Thanks." He replied, then extended his hand towards her brother in a silent offering.
Byakuya looked down at the outstretched hand then at Ichigo's face, as if gauging the action, almost exactly the way he had back when they had first met at Seretei's Christmas party during her internship. This time, however, the man took Ichigo's hand in a firm grasp and shook it. Hazel eyes met gray ones for that moment in which their hands connected, and Rukia felt as if there were many things left unspoken in those locked gazes.
Finally, Byakuya said, "Take care of her."
Ichigo nodded, eyes bright with determination and honesty. "Yeah."
They ended all contact then, and Byakuya left without another word.
Rukia was still wrapping her mind around the scene she had just seen when she felt a hand slide around her waist and pull her into a warm body. Lightly startled, she looked up and found Ichigo's eyes already boring into her.
"Aren't you going…?" she suddenly asked, knowing that he was planning to drive in his own car with his father to the wedding.
"In a minute." He answered, his gaze unwavering. "I didn't finish telling you something."
She tilted her head inquiringly, recalling the point where there conversation had been interrupted. Her thinking process shut down though, when Ichigo offered her a rare, wide smile that was simultaneously carefree and profound.
He silenced her by sealing her lips with his. His taste lingered on her mouth when he pulled back after too short a moment. He looked at her with an unaltered smile, and said, "Thank you."
Just that. But that was all Rukia needed to hear to understand.
Within the next hours, the two of them would stand at the altar and take their vows. They would make official their unbreakable bond in front of their friends and family, and they would share a name so that the world would know they belonged to each other. It was a moment that most people waited all their lives for.
None of it mattered. Vows were just fancy words, names were nothing but labels, and the legality of a couple of signatures and a man's blessing were nothing but required motions. In that instant when their eyes locked together and she felt like she had bared her soul to that one man, and that he had shown her his in return, she knew.
She was certain that right then, they had everything they truly needed. In the end, it was simple: they had each other. And whatever else they had to face, they would be alright, because they would always have their pillar of strength; a ray of light to shine in even the darkest of moments.
With that conviction and reassured feeling, she raised herself on her toes and, supporting herself with her hands on his steady shoulders, allowed Ichigo's lips to connect with hers without another word. Secured by his firm arms around her waist and intoxicated by the warmth that traveled down to her toes from his kiss, Rukia gave into the weakness at her knees and melted into him.
It was hard to tell between the passion, and the sweetness and the love that all poured into their embrace, but for a brief moment -a single instant of fleeting clarity- Rukia thought that she could feel it…
Eternity at her fingertips.
A/N: Alright, everybody hold your tears- Oh, wait... That's just me ;_; It's weird, it was like I was running to complete this story, and now that I did, I'm a little depressed Dx
Ok, enough about my sentimental breakdown.
Redsnow, Mokimoki-chan, OnepieceX3, KitElizaKing, Luna21VW, Cisusi, Poisonfish, KurosakiCrystal18, chineschopsticks, MushroomNatsu, pamianime, novicestar, SilverStella, SamanthaEscalante, and SilverFlameHaze-
Thank you all for your awesome reviews! And thanks to everyone who ever reviewed or favorited, or simply stuck with this story through all my slow updating until the very end!
I hope everyone enjoyed the finale of Story of a Girl, and the story as a whole! When I first started this, I really had no idea where or how far I was going to take it and it was fun to see what it turned out as. Now I must bid it farewell, and to all my readers: I hope I'll see you around!:)