This has been a long time coming, I know. I'm sure most of you would give me quite the talk about keeping you waiting for so long if you could. I have three thousand excuses and about fifty of them are quite legit. But I shall not bore you with them.
What you should know is that I will be disappointing some of you. This chapter is mostly smut. My goal was to wrap a nice golden bow around this story of mine. Most importantly however, I wanted to do this life that I made Rukia and Ichigo have, justice. This story has revolved around them and them alone, their love, selfishness, obsessions, craziness, relationship and that was how I wanted to end it. Not in a whirlwind of characters and sudden plots.
Finally, thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your support. I finished this because of every single person that reviewed, favourite and followed this story. I ask that if you liked it, you comment. Also, I will be ALTERING some of the previous chapters because there are mistakes. So keep an eye out if you're ever bored enough
Thanks for reading.
Cabin Fever- Epilogue
The curtains were drawn again.
They insisted upon it, as if the warmth of the sun could harm him.
She'd discussed it with Hakame-san at the beginning, but the old nurse wouldn't budge.
"Kuroki-sensei can't sleep with the curtains open Kuroki-san. He becomes agitated unless you're there with him."
So she'd called a truce and instead taken to opening the curtains the moment she arrived, right after Hakane-san left. It was her small way of letting him know she was home and even through the fog of the drugs, she knew he understood.
Today was no exception, even if he was no longer conscious at all.
She pulled back the curtains to allow the cheerful late afternoon sun in, bathing him in light. He was sixty-five, (seventy in the town's eyes) far too young to be bedridden, but the cancer was quickly taking him away. She ran the back of her hand over the side of his aged face. He was so handsome still, 'her handsome old man' she'd joked. He threw her death glares every time she'd said it.
He inhaled deeply at the touch, as if glad for it and she smiled.
"I'll be right back Ichigo. I'm just going to heat up supper."
She leaned in to kiss his dry lips, just a peck, just enough. She always ate while telling him all about her day. She told him about the preschool, of the people who'd asked about him, of the latest gossip. Just thirteen days ago he'd still been able to reply, to offer a soft smile or ask about someone. But then the pain worsened, and so did the drugs. Now she did all the talking, knowing he could still hear her and understand.
In the kitchen, she took out a box from the freezer, opened it into a plate and put it inside the microwave. She thought about phoning Yuria while watching the timer, but decided not to when thinking of the lecture her daughter was bound to give her if she found out what her mother was eating. Rukia no longer bothered to make dinner from scratch. She either bought it outside, pre-made or ate whatever her sympathetic co-workers, Seiya or anyone else was kind enough to prepare for her. Yuria often reprimanded her for it.
"Mom, Sei-chan told me you're not eating properly. Those frozen things aren't much healthier than instant ramen, you know! Why won't you let me hire someone to make your meals?"
Though Yuria's loving nagging often amused her mother, Rukia simply wasn't in the mood for it today. Following the beep from her little 'cooking vault' she opened the door with as much awe as the first time she'd done it. She'd discovered the wonders of microwaving quite late. In fact, the contraption had been give to them by Yuzu as a gift when Yuria went away for her first year of University. She remembered it'd arrived along with a note that had read: 'For those late romantic nights when you have no time to cook (wink).'
"It looks like a safe Ichigo" She'd said while her long index finger reached to poke the new contraption. Beside her, Ichigo instinctively massaged the back of his neck, his eyes still fixed on the note.
"I know, but it works like an oven"
He reread the note if only to try to find clues as to why on earth his little sister had sent a microwave halfway across Japan. Why not a box of chocolates? Or a nice, normal, congratulatory card, like Karin and Orihime had done. He was just about to go look for Yuzu's phone number when Rukia's question stopped him dead.
"So I can bake in it?"
A flashing image of the kitchen in flames landed his attention back on his wife.
"No! You heat things in it, like dinner, though it's not supposed to be good for you."
"Because of the way it works."
Rukia frowned with confusion in that adorable way he liked. It always made him want to drag out his answers just to keep it on her face.
"So Yuzu gave us a dangerous appliance?"
"It's not really dangerous, it's fine once in a while but not all the time... actually I've got an idea, but I've gotta go to the store."
He'd returned with a box of popcorn and proceeded to show her how to pop it in the microwave. She was so thrilled they went through eight boxes of the stuff in three days before Ichigo threatened to trash the thing if she didn't give it a rest.
Who would have thought decades later the old microwave would finally get so much use. She shook her head in a useless attempt to clear the memories. The house was full of them. The kitchen alone stored thousands of moments, beautiful, heart-wrenching instants. She remembered the first time they cooked in this kitchen, remembered how Ichigo had chopped the vegetables while she sliced the meat. Remembered the silence they shared as they came to terms with the consequences of their actions. She remembered the times they'd made love on that counter. It'd been few because it was uncomfortable but she could still hear his voice, hoarse from moaning, saying her name. She bit her lip to keep the tears in. Shut her eyes to keep from remembering how many times he'd walked right into this kitchen after work to kiss her hello. Of how many times she'd walked in to find him cooking something wearing his favourite apron… the blue one with the number fifteen printed on the front, the one that now hung from the wall next to her pink panda bear apron. It was agonizing to miss him this much.
She slammed her withered hands hard against the counter.
"Idiot! He's not dead yet."
The desperate plea echoed in the kitchen, reminding her once more of how much she missed the sound of his voice, the sound of her name on his lips, his steps on the wooden floor, his breath tickling her neck. Heart aching, she grabbed the plate along with a glass full of water and dashed away from the kitchen as fast as her feet could take her.
It was the sound of his heart monitor beeping rhythmically that finally calmed her frazzled nerves. She walked in slowly, set her plate and glass down on the little plastic table she kept there for eating and exhaled in relief. Her hand reached to trace his hallowed cheek, up his temple to comb through his growing greying hair. Her other hand reached toward his chest, coming to rest above his heartbeat and before she realized it she was lying down beside him. Her body pressed against his side, her hands memorizing every touch.
He'd been so worried about her. Thirteen days ago he pleaded with her to accompany Yuria to her medical convention in Tokyo.
"At this rate I won't be hanging around much longer. It'd be good for Yuria to spend time with you before we both leave."
His words were reasonable and Rukia might have even believed him, if it hadn't been for the way his pleading eyes revealed he simply didn't want her to see him like this anymore. He wasn't used to being helpless, hated feeling so incredibly weak and sick, abhorred having to depend on anyone to do even the simplest of tasks. He knew he was getting worse, knew how much pain he was putting Rukia through and he wanted her away from him.
"I'm not leaving you Ichigo. Deal with it."
He wasn't pleased, but sleep overcame him before he could come up with a retort. He came back-to in the middle of the night. He awakened to the sight of moonlight streaming through the window and Rukia's uneven breathing beside him. Knowing she was still awake he turned his head, his hand squeezing the hand she'd interlaced with his sometime ago. He watched her open her bright violet eyes and smile lazily at him.
It was her smile that always unmade him.
"I just want to stay the same man that you keep in your heart Rukia." He whispered.
"Fool, you are my heart. Don't you know that by now?"
He smiled, tenderly, lovingly. He'd loved her for fifty years, and he'd gladly love her five hundred more. One day, he thought, they'd look back on this moment and laugh at their dramatics. But right now, at this moment Ichigo finally understood why she'd agreed to surrender everything to be with him. It was a simple biological reason, neither of them could possibly survive without a heart.
He hadn't woken up since and every day she felt him slipping away further. She shouldn't be this devastated, she scolded herself. She was perhaps the only woman in the world who had no real reason to mourn her dying lover. After all he'd most likely just separate from his body in full Shinigami gear and youthful stupor to tease her relentlessly until she shed her Gigai and joined him. Except he wasn't dead, or alive. He laid there in a sort of middle-ground hell of silence and stillness that drove her insane.
Maybe he was doing this to piss her off.
Maybe he could, actually open his eyes but chose not to just to spite her. Or maybe the drugs had him trapped in a place where he was always aware of his surroundings but couldn't move his body. Or maybe he was lost somewhere in his mind and couldn't come out.
She needed him to give her a sign. Something to tell her he wouldn't remain like this forever. To reassure her that she would again feel his touch, hear his voice, see those beautiful amber eyes that she missed so much.
Slowly, after days of insomnia, the sound of his breathing lured her into a deep, exhausted slumber.
It was at exactly eight-thirty six pm that an unending beeping sound filled the master bedroom. Although intrusive, the sound was not turned up high enough to cause the utterly exhausted Rukia to awaken. It continued till the screen went black, unplugged in a rush from the wall outlet. It was strange, Ichigo realized, to stand over his own dead body and not feel the slightest bit of sadness. Then again the body lying dead on the bed looked nothing like the 'him' that he remembered. The old man before him looked sick, shrivelled, and tired, so no, he did not feel a loss. Instead his eyes went to rest on Rukia, feasting on the sight of her after who knows how many days. Even old she looked beautiful. He wanted to memorize every little wrinkle because he didn't known when, or even if he'd ever get to see her like this again. After all in Soul Society, aging took centuries. He noticed the untouched food plate and glass of water left forgotten on the little table. Judging from the way the skin clung to her tiny wrists he figured this wasn't the first time she went without food.
"This was exactly why I didn't want you here Rukia."
He reached out to tenderly pull back a stray lock of hair away from her cheek. He should wake her, tell her he was free, move her away from his dead body but she looked so very tired. It'd probably be better if he made her something to eat first. Resisting the urge to kiss her temple, he released a sigh and picked up the cold food plate.
He never thought walking around his own house could feel this great. For months he'd needed help just to get from the bed to the bathroom and lately he hadn't even been able to do that much. He'd missed his independence, his free movement, the feeling of weightlessness typical of youth. For the first time in half a year Ichigo wanted to dance in glee. He was about to step into the kitchen when the sound of the front door opening stopped him in his tracks. He heard the jingling of keys and saw a bit of long raven hair from his spot. He stilled, holding a plate in the middle of the hallway, a beaming smile on his lips.
The new arrival quickly kicked off her heels and rushed inside, briefcase and a grocery bag in hand. She looked exhausted, hinting she'd probably done the nine hour driving trip from the city to town right after her conference.
Her head lifted to look forward, her mouth opening to call out but instead froze in an 'o' at the sight of him.
Her eyes widened.
She was launching herself into his arms faster than Ichigo could release the plate. It clattered onto the wooden floor, unbroken while Ichigo wrapped his arms tightly around his daughter.
She laughed into the dark fabric of his haori and squeezed him tighter. She'd lost weight, he could tell, probably from spending her days running from her own home to her job at the hospital, to here. He wondered why Yuria husband wasn't keeping a closer eye on his daughter's health. It was his responsibility to force feed her dammit!
Ichigo knew the exact instant Yuria realized what 'this', him, meant. Not because she let go, but because of the way she buried her face deeper into his shoulder, the same way she used to do as a baby. Tenderly, Ichigo lifted a hand to cradle the back of her head, slowly feeling her tears dampening his haori. She was strong, like Rukia and like Hitomi-chan, but losing a parent was always heartbreaking, he couldn't imagine what losing them both at the same time would be like.
"Shh, it's not that bad. Mom and I will come visit you often."
They could do that after all, to them death was nothing but a different state of existence. Rukia and he could sneak out of Soul Society at any time to see her, to spend time with their beloved granddaughter, to meet any future grandchildren, hell even to visit his son-in-law. Unfortunately his perfect solution caused her to break down sobbing.
He held her until she finally pushed back. She wiped her bloodshot eyes with her sleeves and breathed out.
"I'm sorry Dad."
"It's alright. I know this isn't easy, but we'll get through it."
He held her hand, she squeezed his. It still overwhelmed him to think his little girl was already forty years old. He was still coming to terms with the fact she was old enough to be married and have children, let alone be a decade shy of fifty. Did all parents have this much trouble letting go? He wondered. He'd have to remember to ask his Dad next time he saw him.
"Judging by this, Mom doesn't know yet does she?"
She pointed at the messy plate on the floor and he smiled to mask his impatience.
"She'll be so relieved when she sees you."
"She's sleeping beside my body, I was going to make her something to eat before waking her."
He watched Yuria cringe at the reminder of his death. He was a fool for his tactlessness, but he realized all too late that the visual was not one to be taken lightly. Just because he was feeling so glad and carefree didn't change the fact he was leaving his daughter fatherless.
"She's been eating terrible stuff lately, if she even bothers to eat at all. Everyone's worried."
"Your Mother is too stubborn for her own good."
Yuria chuckled, hear eyes turning sly.
"She's not the only one Dad."
He responded with his characteristic lopsided grin before sliding an arm around her shoulders.
"Come on, you can fill me in on what's happened since I became a vegetable while I cook something decent for your Mother."
Steak, and curry, and noodles and a carrot all danced together hand in hand inside Rukia's dream. They curtsied again and again before continuing on their little merry way. Slowly, the churning in her stomach called her back to the waking world. Her body demanded food and it wouldn't take no for an answer this time. She whimpered in exhaustion before opening her eyes to the darkness. She could make out the outline of Ichigo's face in front of her, stoic, still. But something was wrong… the quiet. Silence had not touched this room in months. She leapt to her feet like the warrior that she was and ran toward the heart monitor. It was off, the plug, disconnected, Ichigo? She turned, her hands seeking out his cold face. He felt colder than her hands. Her fingers sought out a pulse on his neck, nothing. Finally she laid her head on that spot on his chest she knew so well.
The heart that had sung her to sleep for over forty years was still.
She stayed there, with her ear against his chest. Slowly tears threatened to spill but she fought them back along with the weight inside her throat. She would not mourn. He wasn't dead, just in Soul Society already. His soul was probably automatically sent there somehow. She'd go to him soon enough. Rukia stood over the body of the man she loved, fighting back the grief, when she suddenly became aware of voices coming from outside the bedroom. Yuria? She wondered. Then she heard it, laughter, very familiar deep laughter, and food. It was the smell of food that had woken her up, Yuria was making her something in the kitchen. She walked closer to the door, she could hear chatter but it was the laughter accompanying Yuria's that made her step outside.
Her heart thundered at the sound of a voice she had not heart in thirteen days and she found herself running the short way to the kitchen as if she was charging into battle. Then just like that she was there, enveloped in the light and cooking vapours of the kitchen. Yuria stood in front of the stove, a smile on her face and beside her, sticking out like a sore thumb in a black haori stood a ridiculously young looking Ichigo.
"Mom, look who I found wandering around the house!"
"Oi, I'm not a damn ghost!" He laughed. "Right Rukia?"
Her name in his lips washed over her like a magic spell, allowing her to move again. She walked toward him, taking in his smile, his bright orange hair, he looked no older than eighteen, maybe younger. She reached to touch him, her hands cupping his jawline. He was real. He was here.
With a sigh of utter relief Rukia finally allowed herself to return the stupid smile he was giving her, along with a lovely kick to his left shin that made him cry out in pain.
He held his injured limb with righteous indignation while glaring at his wife.
"Good, you're feeling pain."
With eyes full of sudden indifference she strode right past him and without warning, pulled her daughter into a tight embrace. After a lifetime of watching her parents interact Yuria allowed herself to relax in her Mother's arms.
"How did the conference go?"
From over her mother's shoulder Yuria could see her Father awkwardly rubbing the side of his face.
"It went fine Mom."
Rukia's arms tightened and Yuria was startled to realize her shoulder was becoming damp.
"How's my little star?"
With her mother's voice so full of emotion Yuria had to force herself to remember how her twelve year old daughter was doing.
"She keeps pestering me about spending the weekend here. She misses you."
Suddenly Yuria had the overwhelming need to break down sobbing again. Not out of her own grief, but from the realization that her daughter would never get to spend any more lazy weekends with her grandparents. Thankfully it was then that Rukia finally pulled away.
"We'll be right back."
Rukia gave Yuria's hand one last squeeze before turning around and walking out of the kitchen. Knowing that by 'we' she meant him, Ichigo offered his daughter a reassuring smile before going after his wife.
Sighing, Yuria turned her attention back to the stove, realizing that even at forty she was still not able to face her Mother's tears.
He wasn't surprised to see she was going outside. He followed her blindly past the veranda to the side of the house. She stopped in front of their tree, the one they always seemed to hold all their important conversations under. It'd been here where they'd discussed what to do when that Hollow threatened the town all those years ago, and it'd been here where he'd told her he had terminal cancer a year ago. Even after Yuria moved out and there was no longer a single reason to keep them from fighting in the comfort of their own home, they still came out here.
And he was, sorry for putting her through this, sorry for making her this upset. But still she refused to turn around.
He walked closer till he was but a breath away from her. Firmly, he placed his hands on her small shoulders and after feeling her relax into the touch he gently turned her around to face him. Her eyes revealed a broken heart. One that had spent weeks watching the person it loved slipping away further and further into a place she could not reach. Tenderly, he cupped her jawline and dipped to claim her lips before she could remember why she was upset with him in the first place. His arm slipped around her abdomen, lifting her up against his chest, causing her to automatically wrap her legs around his waist. He delighted in her taste, in her passion, in the way her tongue played with his and the delicious friction of her hips. God help him, he had not been this turned on in years, a disadvantage of age and chemo. Now he wanted nothing more in the universe than unite their Riatsus in that delicious manner he remembered from so long ago. After a good fifteen minutes of desperate kisses and grinding, Rukia brought their fruitless urgency to an end.
"This is ridiculous."
She panted the words against his neck, her arms holding on his neck in what was surely a death grip.
"It's not that bad."
He breathed in the smell of her shampoo and enjoyed the way the chilly night air arose goosebumps on the exposed flesh.
"It is that bad. I can't tear your pants off and you can't draw out my Riatsu."
"Well you could leave your Gigai long enough for a quicky."
The suggestion earned him a half-hearted smack on the back of his head.
"Idiot, you know the moment I step out of my Gigai we'll have half of Soul Society here ready to take us back."
He groaned in frustration. Long ago, when Ichigo accepted to become the next Captain Commander of the Gotei 13, he'd struck a deal with the Captains. Only if Rukia's gigai stopped functioning could anyone come collect them.
"Shit, I forgot about that."
She muffled a wave of silly uncontrolled laughter with his shoulder and he rejoiced at the sound. They stayed like that, frozen in an embrace neither wanted to break till the sound of Rukia's stomach churning reminded him of his original mission.
"There's food inside."
"Yeah." But she moved her head to press light kisses over the sweet skin of his neck, eliciting a groan. She didn't want to move. Going inside would mean having to call Seiya and tell him Ichigo was dead. It'd mean waiting for the mortician's van to arrive and take his body away to be cremated before the funeral.
She wasn't ready to end this brief moment of happiness yet, not after so long.
"Rukia." He warned, pleadingly.
She sighed, reluctantly surrendering to the realities of their life yet again.
"Fine, let's go inside. Yuria will worry."
"Knowing us as well as she does, she knows what we're up to."
They chuckled together, thinking back to their daughter's immaculate timing for walking in on them in the most inappropriate of times.
Slowly, Ichigo lowered Rukia back to the ground, his hands coping a feel all the way. He heard her whisper 'Hentai' into his ear but kept his cheek against her temple if only to feel her breath.
"We can do this Rukia."
He whispered, his voice leaving no room for doubt. She nodded her head and believed him, because after all, Ichigo never broke his promises.
Rukia was not paying attention.
The Kuchiki in her reprimanded her for it.
"How dare you daydream while holding your husband's ashes!"
However, the Kuroki in her couldn't manage the care when said husband was having the time of his life burning out incense sticks while the priest chanted. The little prank was obviously freaking most of the guests out, all except for Yuria and an elderly neighbour who couldn't manage to keep a straight face. Rukia's grip on the urn tightened while she glared daggers at her husband but it was the sound of soft sobbing that brought her attention back to the present situation. Beside her, her little granddaughter dressed all in black, tried to keep her little sobs at bay.
"My poor little star" Rukia thought fondly. What a pity it was that the girl could not see spirits, if she could she would not be so heartbroken. If she could, she'd be like her mother, biting her lips to keep from laughing at her Grandfather's foolish pranks. Instead she bore the full force of the loss and Rukia could not bear to think this was just half the heartbreak. In less than a month she herself would be stepping out of her Gigai and another funeral would follow. Another wear for her granddaughter's mourning clothes. How Rukia wished she could put the urn on the ground and console her little girl.
From the back, the sudden sound of footsteps shuffling accompanied the chanting. Rukia turned to catch a glimpse of what was surely newcomers and smiled in relief at the sight of old familiar faces. An old favourite phrase of Ichigo's came to mind, 'The more things change, the more they stay the same'.
An older looking Inoue waved excitedly at her, the soft lines around the eyes were all that told of her age. She'd grown her hair out, Rukia noted, two years ago when she'd last seen her she'd had it cut to the neck. Beside Inoue, stood her husband Ishida looking every bit more like his father with each passing year. His hair was almost entirely white now but he made for a very handsome middle aged man. Sado too was aging well, with hair still jet black and cut in a way that made his beautiful eyes visible to all. She wanted to go to them, to greet them and hug Inoue but she couldn't, not until the priest finished chanting. Rukia turned her gaze back to the front only to watch in horror as Ichigo chose that particular moment to lift the remaining burning incense sticks and rearrange them in the shape of bunny ears. The charade caused a mixture of horrified half screams and laughter in the guests which only intensified when the priest emitted a high pith scream and began ordering the spirit of Kuroki Ichigo to cross over. No sooner was the command spoken that Ichigo took hold of the framed picture of himself on the table, and slowly lifted it a good twenty centimetres. The display effectively cleared out the large crowd, priest included, in record time. Rukia stood, straight as a stick glaring promised death at her husband till she realized her little granddaughter was doubled over in laughter.
The idiot's plan had worked.
With only the closest of friends and family left, Rukia sighed in relief.
"Mom did you see their faces?"
Yuria's eyes sparkled with mirth and Rukia knew she would be congratulating Ichigo personally were she not surrounded by her husband, daughter and Seiya. With a look that meant business Rukia shoved the urn into Yuria's hands and marched forward, crazy claims be damned.
"What the hell do you think you're doing Ichigo?"
The culprit supplied a silly, youthful smile in response so Rukia didn't bother to control the punch she delivered to his solar plexus. Ichigo cursed and leaned forward in pain thus allowing Rukia to take hold of his left ear. To most bystanders, it looked like Kuroki-san had rightly lost her mind, but for those who could see Ichigo in all his shinigami glory, it was the most entertaining funeral they'd ever attended.
"You ruined your own funeral you fool. I hope you're happy, the whole town is going to be talking about this for the next century!"
"Oh come on Rukia, I'm entitled to a little fun here, plus it cheered everyone up"
That she could not deny, he'd even managed to save her from an endless line of well-meaning condolences. Her heavy exhale told Ichigo he'd been forgiven but she still did not release his ear, instead she dragged him forward toward his old friends.
"Nice going Kurosaki, you just slashed a few years off the life of a few dozen people."
Ichigo's pained grimace disappeared immediately, his senses placing Ishida's voice before even seeing him.
"Yeah, I'll be sure to write out the name of your hospital in blood so they know where to go get treated."
Both men shared matching smiles and affection filled Ichigo's gaze as he went over the faces of his old friends.
"Kurosaki-kun, you look so young!"
The compliment made Ichigo rub the back of his neck in embarrassment.
"Thanks. You don't look so bad yourself Inoue."
She laughed shyly in response, her hand stretching to seek out her husband's in remembrance of some ongoing joke.
"Well I certainly feel the years. The only one who hardly looks a year over forty is Kuchiki-san!"
Ichigo slid an arm around his wife's shoulders, his eyes coming to rest proudly upon Rukia's face.
"Yeah, I've been accused of robbing the cradle more times than I can remember."
"I don't think you were the one robbing the cradle Ichi-nii."
He didn't bother making his surprise at seeing Karin for the first time in what was surely six years. His little sister was now a woman in her fifties and while frown lines marked her face, she was smiling softly at him.
"I didn't see...".
"I was hiding in the back. I wasn't sure if I had the guts to attend my own brother's funeral."
"She sends her love. She says you better go visit her as soon as you can get a gigai."
They laughed softly together, but Karin's eyes could barely hold back tears. Taking hold of Ichigo's hand on her shoulder, Rukia regained his attention.
"Ichigo, why don't you take them up to the house while I finish here?"
"Will you be ok on your own?"
His concern amused her. She'd survived decades without him in soul society, seventeen months on her own when he lost his powers and thirteen days hearing nothing but the sound of his breathing. Of course she could manage an hour on her own, yet he'd refused to leave her side for two straight days.
"I won't be alone."
She tilted her head at the direction where their daughter, son-in law, granddaughter, and Seiya stood.
"Alright, but don't be long."
She bit her bottom lip to keep from laughing. Ichigo's sudden reversal into the early times of their 'marriage' bordered between incredibly annoying and ridiculously comforting.
"Sure... I will see you all in a bit." She smiled warmly at everyone before breaking out of Ichigo's half embrace and walking the short way toward the rest of their family.
Rukia lay alone on the queen size bed facing Ichigo's side. He wasn't there, not in body or spirit. His body was neatly contained in a pretty urn sitting by the bookshelf in the living room, his spirit was still talking to Karin in Yuria's old bedroom. He'd been up there for three hours already and something told her it'd be a while yet before poor Karin got any sleep.
It occurred to her, quite suddenly, that she had not slept alone in a bed or futon in over forty years. Even during these last months when Ichigo had been hooked to machines she'd refused to sleep anywhere but by his side. The thought made her smile even though the Shinigami in her warned her against the dependency. Their lives were about to change drastically and the responsibility that awaited them was not to be taken lightly. How would Ichigo cope? Would his old hero complex return in full swing? Or would he rule in a similar way as Yamamoto had done? Either way his hands would be tied with whatever the High Council of Soul Society decided.
"How come you're not sleeping already?"
She looked up in surprise, startled by his sudden presence. She kept forgetting his steps were no longer heavy against the wooden floor.
"I was thinking."
He shook his head in an affectionate sort of way, wordlessly telling her that she still baffled him sometimes.
"You should leave that for tomorrow. You need to get some rest."
He unfastened his Zanpakuto and laid it out on the very edge of the bed.
"Says the fool who just kept his little sister up half the night."
He went under the covers and laid down flat on the bed, his arms rising to cradle the back of his head in a boyish way. It made her feel like she was staring at a ghost.
"You little hypocrite, I could hear you and Inoue gossiping all the way from Yuria's room till an hour ago."
She grinned but didn't retaliate. Years ago the name would've earned him a smack to the ribs, these days however she'd learned not to hit him for calling her out on the truth. They'd talked about it tonight, Inoue and her, how the years and marriage had changed them. For Inoue depending on someone had given her boundless confidence and the courage to try out new things. For Rukia falling in love had given her the kind of existence she never in all her years, thought she'd have, a joyful one.
"Karin wanted to talk. She said she needed to get some stuff off her chest."
It was somewhat cruel to be reminded of the other side of the coin just when she was feeling so content but it didn't entirely surprise her. Their relation with Karin had been strained for so long it now seemed normal to approach her with caution. Karin had never really forgiven Ichigo for leaving her and Yuzu behind, even if the latter had. With time the drift between them had grown so far that they barely spoke but twice a year, on birthdays and new years.
"Yeah, it was. Kinda feels like I have her back... except I'm dead."
Rukia reached out to place a hand over his chest.
"We'll go visit Ichigo. This isn't goodbye."
He covered her small hand with his own and squeezed.
Ichigo turned his head to look at her. Thanks to his Riatsu he could see her clearly despite the darkness. She was staring into space with the same hollow expression she got when she thinking non-pleasant thoughts.
"Rukia. I love you."
He watched with pure delight as a beautiful smile broke through the stoniness.
"You've gotten soft in your old age."
"Maybe, but I've spent forty years being thankful you came with me."
She felt her heart fill up with happiness at his words. Somehow he always managed to read her like a book.
"I'm glad I came with you." She whispered.
"That's saying something considering you've spent forty plus years in the most boring town in Japan with me for company."
She muffled a laugh with the pillow, her eyes sparkling with mirth.
"Well not just with you, I've had Yuria and a few others to keep me sane."
She didn't need to see his face to know he was annoyed but she squealed when his hands seized her upper arms to turn her flat on the mattress. She could feel his face just above hers, his legs straddling her, his pelvis purposely pressed against her thighs.
"So I cause insanity?"
Giving up on the banter she lifted her head to capture his lips. It caught him off guard, he hadn't expected it so soon but suddenly she was devouring him in the most maddening way. He wanted to do something, undress her, kiss her, ravage her, anything to alleviate the need. But nothing would work, because he was dead, and she was still in a Gigai. How had Rukia managed all those years ago when they'd been in the reversed situation? Perhaps it'd been easier for her to stay in control of her desire under the clumsy fumbling his virgin self. But part of being a good Commander, he thought, was knowing which battles to win and which to lose. So with a plan in mind he decided to do the only thing that he could do for her under the present circumstance.
Rukia didn't quite realize he had taken off her sleeping gown and underwear until she felt his mouth on the tip of her breast. She moaned in both surprise and pleasure as his teeth playfully nipped the tender skin. It was different, she'd felt his mouth against her so many times before but never quite like this. His mouth wasn't as hot as usual nor was his tongue as moist as when he was alive. Instead his mouth felt lukewarm and his breath felt like the wind. It turned her on.
She wanted him inside so much, but the working part of her mind reminded her that was impossible. He kissed his way down and finally released her arms while nuzzling her soft thighs. It took her a whole second to realize his plan.
"Ichigo don't! The others will"
He slipped two fingers inside her sex, effectively cutting her off.
"Then you better be very quiet Rukia."
She bit her lower lip in frustration. How could he not care when his friends were right outside? But then his fingers began sliding in and out and all coherent thought left her. Instinctively she covered her mouth with the back of her hand, ready to bite down on the skin to keep from making a sound.
He teased her for what felt like hours, carefully engraving every little detail of her climax into his soul. They'd have many, many more nights of pleasure once they were both in Shinigami form, but never again would he get to watch Rukia's body orgasm like this. After all, lovemaking in spirit form was all about joining the soul and Riatsu with the other person's, and while there was a climax, it was a different kind altogether.
"You're a dirty old man Ichigo."
She was gasping still, her pleasured body desperately trying to regain control of her rampant heart. Yet still he refused to stop touching her. Lying down on his side he pulled her against him, spooning his now naked body with hers. His left hand caressed gentle patterns against her skin, tickling her a little.
"I want to enjoy these last few days as much as possible."
"I'm not going anywhere Ichigo. If anything the sooner I shed my gigai the sooner you can get some too. You must have the worst case of blue balls."
He was forced to drown his laughter into her shoulder.
"You have no idea" He managed to say through the convulsions.
"Oh but I do."
It intrigued him to hear her refer back to a time before they came to town. It wasn't a taboo subject per say, it just didn't come up often anymore. They'd spent decades forcing themselves to live only in the present, a habit that was too late to break now. Still he found himself sporting the curiosity of youth long lost.
"Were you tempted to jump me as a boy, Rukia?"
She could practically hear his pompous smile but she was too exhausted to play along.
She felt his toothy smile against her neck before gently holding her earlobe hostage between his teeth.
"You've just admitted to being quite the pervert, Sensei"
She sought out his hands over her skin and interlaced their fingers.
"We're really well matched then aren't we."
He chuckled and gently squeezed her body deeper into his embrace. He tried to think of a way to pry further into her past desires about him, but he could feel her body loosening in his arms, exhaustion finally overcoming her. Eventually her breathing evened out and Ichigo took comfort in the thought that once again, she was right here.
The night had not always been kind to Ichigo.
Nightmares had always haunted his dreams. This night however, it brought him a long lost memory he'd put aside long ago. It shocked him to realize he'd forgotten, embarrassed him to think Rukia knew that he'd forgotten. But he'd been so charged with monstrous Riatsu then that it didn't entirely surprise him. He'd been drunk on it, the power, the heat of the moment, the adrenaline. Plus the first week after that was still nothing but a blur. He remembered moments of it, clenching Rukia's shoulders as he asked her to run away with him, looking over his sleeping sisters for the last time, running to see Urahara. But still, how in the world could he have forgotten pushing Rukia up against a tree trunk in some forest of Rukongai and having his way with her?
He remembered flash stepping through districts of Rukongai with Rukia in his arms. He remembered finally stopping in the middle of nowhere, tress all around them... why had he stayed in Soul Society? Why hadn't he rushed to Karakura the moment he finished threatening the whole of Sereitei? Try as he did he couldn't remember. What he did remember was letting Rukia down to check for wounds. They'd put her in that awful white robe again which he nearly tore to pieces checking her over. She'd caught his hand then, firmly, forcibly.
That'd been enough to keep him from undressing her. But what after that?...
He'd kissed her, no, more like fucked her with his tongue. He remembered how he'd bent her backward from the force of his kiss. One hand buried in her dark hair to crush her lips with his, another around her waist to squash her tiny body to his.
He'd probably hurt her but she never said anything. In fact, he remembered feeling relieved when her arms wrapped around his shoulders and neck, holding him with matching need. He'd pushed her up against a tree trunk then and forced his Riatsu into hers without a thought. Instead of waiting for her to offer her very essence, he'd pushed his way in and blended their souls the way she'd taught him. He remembered the euphoria it gave him, the relief and utter peace, the feeling that he was finally whole. When they'd finally recovered and their Riatsus were no longer conjoined, he remembered feeling like he'd just woken up from a nightmare. What had he done then? He'd picked her back up, her arms fastened around his neck and he didn't put her down again until they were in the relative safety of his own room in Karakura.
How could he have forgotten?
He shook his head in disbelief and glanced over at Rukia sleeping soundly beside him. It was just past dawn now, he hadn't bothered with sleep. He felt energized and according to his wife, with the level of energy he was displaying, he wouldn't really need to eat or rest for a couple more days.
But perhaps the true reason for his insomnia was the knowledge that his life was about to change drastically. The moment he stepped into Soul Society the responsibility of all thirteen squads would fall on his shoulders. He definitely wasn't looking forward to it. Deciding he wouldn't bother with it till he had to, he forcibly removed the thought from his mind and instead took to peeping under Rukia's blanket.
Perverted old man indeed, but when one had gone without a sex drive for as long as he had perversion was not an issue. He hadn't minded getting old till he got sick, that's when his life took a nose dive. And Rukia had been right there by his side through it all, just as she always had been. He owed her so much it baffled him to think about it.
What would their lives have been like if they had been allowed to stay in Karakura? He wondered. They would've grown old alongside their friends, would've watched his nieces and nephews grow up while desperately yearning for children of their own. They would've aged surrounded by people he'd known forever, who knew of spirits and Hollows and Soul Society. Most importantly, they never would've raised Yuria. Ichigo dismissed the thought immediately. His daughter was his pride and biggest accomplishment in life. He was utterly content with the living life he'd had, his only regret was not being as close to his sisters as he would have liked, especially Karin.
Fed up with his thoughts, Ichigo got up from comfort of their bed, put his Shinigami robes back on, fastened his Zanpakuto and quietly left the room.
They arrived in Karakura at night on a warm summer night. Isshin was so eager to bring his oldest home he didn't bother arguing when his daughters headed straight to their own homes, families and lovers from the terminal. In fact his good mood improved even further when, upon arrival at the Kurosaki family clinic/home, both Captain Hitsugaya and Kuchiki declared they had to report back to Soul Society. So he, his son and his son's family were left alone in the living room of a house that had long grown too quiet for the old doctor to withstand. With a heart full of joy, Isshin knelt before the now wallpaper sized picture of his late wife and proceeded to formally introduce Rukia and Yuria with all the theatricality possible. Thus prompting Ichigo to punch him (albeit mindfully) on the ribs and lead his family up the stairs. With Ichigo sporting a furrowed brow, Yuria knew to go to her Mother for the questions.
"Mom, was the lady in the picture Dad's mom?"
Looking back at her so-called grandfather still kneeling on the floor, whining at the picture about how his ungrateful son treated him, Yuria thought she finally understood why her parents never talked about him.
Once upstairs, Ichigo set down the two large pieces of luggage he was carrying and with steady hand, turned the knob of the first door in the hallway. He'd expected to find his old room converted into a girl's bedroom for either of his sisters. Instead he felt himself stepping back in time to a place he had not seen in a good twenty years. Everything was just as he'd left it, from the posters on the wall to his old guitar to his university textbooks. While Ichigo's heart recovered, Rukia was quick to turn on the lights and bring their bags inside. Yuria followed in after her Mother, her eyes eager to peer into her Father's past.
"Was this your room Dad?"
"Yeah it was... it's just as I left it."
Ichigo ran his hand over the smooth surface of his old work desk. Piles of stacked books still covered most of it making it look as if he'd just stepped outside for dinner. His bed was neatly made though it looked like it had not been touched in years. Even the curtains in the room gave the impression time had stood still in this portion of the world only. Finally, Ichigo's eyes came to rest on the closet doors and a smile worked its way through the nostalgia.
"Your Mom used to sleep in there."
Rukia chuckled at the memory and Yuria's eyes immediately shot to the closet.
She was quick to slide open the doors, expecting to see a little futon but finding only folded blankets and clothes.
Yuria's doubtful tone made Rukia hold back a laugh. Smiling, Rukia ran her hand over the folded blankets covering a longer compartment in the closet.
"Why?... actually never mind, I don't want to know."
Yuria's blush caused Rukia to burst into laughter. After a having a chuckle himself, Ichigo took pity on his daughter.
"It was back when Mom was teaching me about Shinigamis and Hollows."
Understanding filled Yuria's face as she realized the whole thing about her Dad being a Shinigami must have all been kept a secret at the beginning.
"Ichigo, I'm taking Yuria to the twin's room."
Traces of laughter still tinted Rukia's voice and it relaxed Ichigo to hear it. He nodded his reply.
"I get my own room?"
Yuria's eyes suddenly sparkled and she picked up her bag with renewed interest as Rukia led her daughter out into the hallway.
"Yes and I think there's still two beds for you to choose from."
"Well no matter what I'm sleeping on Aunt Yuzu's bed, I'm scared if I touch Aunt Karin's the pillow will rattle at night."
Ichigo could hear Rukia trying to stifle more laughter if only for propriety's sake. It made him incredibly thankful to have Yuria here with them.
Minutes passed before Rukia came back into the room. She found Ichigo sitting on his old bed frowning.
He looked up from his thoughts into Rukia's bemused expression. She stood leaning by the doorframe, a patient look in her eyes.
"Yuria's unpacking. She took Yuzu's side of the room."
He said nothing but stared blankly at the closet door in front of him.
"You're in a good mood."
There was just the slightest hit on resentment on his tone. As if he couldn't understand what part of this guilt trip was enjoyable.
"I don't think it's so bad being back here, just the three of us, and your Dad."
"So what, you want us to live here now?"
He sounded juvenile even to his own ears, but the sentiment was there. Sighing, Rukia shut the door behind her and walked closer till she was standing just an arm-reach away. Instinctively he looked into her eyes though his expression remained stubborn.
"Ichigo... stop acting like a brooding idiot. You're too old for it now."
His eyes widened as if not believing she wouldn't even give him the pleasure of feeling sorry for himself.
"How am I supposed to act then? Like we're on a fucking vacation?"
Her first instinct was to punch him for his insolence but motherhood and years of marriage had left their footprints. Instead she took hold on his chin and bent forward till her face was leveled with his.
"Yes! Because believe it or not Ichigo we are on vacation. We always thought we'd never be able to come back here or get to see anyone again! We were banished Ichigo! Yet here we are now and all you can think of is how guilty you feel? Is that the way you want to live from now on?"
As usual, her logic left him feeling sucked dry. His anger evaporated and suddenly he was feeling guilty for an entirely different reason.
His eyes snapped back to hers. Surprised to realize she wanted an answer.
"No! If course not."
"Good! Cause I don't either. So wipe that look off your face and go see what your sisters did to their room."
She gave him a quick peck on the lips before releasing his chin. Taking a hold of the nearest suitcase she threw it down and started to unzip it.
"Do you want me to hel-"
Quickly, he sprung to his feet and walked to the door, stopping only to catch a glimpse of Rukia placing their folded clothes on the bed.
He would've rather been fighting Aizen, the Vandereich, and ten Arrancar than to be standing in the middle of the crowded living room forcing a smile. He even would've rather be treating all the eighty-plus-year-old residents of Karakura rather than hear the phrase 'Guess who it is!' one more time. Saying Ichigo was beyond overwhelmed by his Dad's idea of a Welcome Home party was an understatement. He stood trying to make small talk with people he had not spoken to in twenty years in what was quickly becoming a new form of torture.
Last night had been easy, hopeful even. They'd had a nice late dinner with his Dad after unpacking and he'd even agreed to have a small gathering of old friends in a few days. He'd enjoyed thinking about how nice it was to be back in his childhood home with his family while Rukia snuggled tightly against him in the single bed. Little could he have imagined that his Father had had this party all set up and ready to take place the very following afternoon. It'd been pleasant at first, seeing the old faces, greeting old friends and acquaintances. But after three hours and dozens of hardly remembered strangers, Ichigo was beyond fed up. Worse still he'd been led away from Rukia and Yuria a while back when most of his old High School classmates arrived and insisted they all catch up.
From across the room, through the crowd of old forgotten faces Rukia knew the instant Ichigo was about to snap. She could only see his back, but it was enough. Excusing herself from the current small talk she was stuck in, she gracefully threaded her way to her husband's side. He was so tense he nearly jumped when her small hand wrapped around his forearm.
"I'm sorry to interrupt everyone! But Ichigo have you seen Yuria? I can't find her anywhere." Her even tone and friendly smile charmed Keigo, who having four kids himself was quick to offer understanding.
"Oh don't worry about us Ichigo old-pal. We'll be here a while longer."
"Thanks, excuse me everyone."
Grabbing hold of Rukia's hand and wearing the same frozen smile, he rushed to make his way through the crowd. His eyes desperately searched for a way out, the staircase was blocked with people, the kitchen was full and the bathroom probably occupied. Finally his eyes came to rest upon the closed door that separated the house from the Kurosaki family clinic. Narrowing in on his target, he tightened his hold on Rukia's hand and with the grace of a hunting panther made his way to the door, hoping his Dad had left it open. The door blessedly gave with just a turn of the handle. Shutting it behind them, he near galloped his way to the end of the hallway before pushing them both into an examination room. It was there that he finally allowed his face to relax into a full, very pissed off scowl.
"That fucking old man! I'm going to kill him!"
As Ichigo began pacing the width of the tiny room Rukia released a relieved sigh. They would be safe here for now. She doubted anyone would dare come in here unless his sisters or Isshin came looking for them. Formulating her plan on the spot, Rukia took a seat on the examination cot.
"He had no fucking right! In what deranged mind does it seem a good idea to just shove the past down someone's fucking throat!"
Quietly, Rukia pulled the elegant black silk blouse she was wearing over her head. She folded it carefully before placing it by cot's pillow.
"There's people here I'm sure I've only met ONCE before in my life! Even my fucking preschool teacher is here!"
Reaching behind her Rukia quickly unhooked her lacy black bra and slid it down her arms. It was the sight of her pink nipples stiff against the cool air that finally stopped Ichigo mid-stride.
"What are you doing?"
"Fool, what does it look like I'm doing?"
She was already pulling up her skirt and removing her black panties before he could think of a response.
"Are you..? I mean do you want us to...? Is that why you brought me here?"
"No, you brought us here, I just followed you. Coincidentally it is the least likely place anyone will barge into right now."
"What about Yuria?"
"She's in the backyard talking with Inoue and Ishida's kids."
Ichigo's confused expression melted into disbelief. A sly smile slowly made its way onto his lips, replacing the scowl.
"A quicky then?"
"Or not so quicky. We'll play it by feel."
Her devious smile stopped all coherent thought and his hands were on her in a heartbeat. His fingertips caressed her lower jaw as he dipped in to claim her lips. His right hand slid downward from the side of her neck toward her soft breasts. He'd always loved touching her, her hands, her legs, back, breasts. He'd worshipped every inch of her. He knew the taste of her skin and the sound of her moans, he even knew the taste of her tears. But for now all he wanted was drown out the horrible anxiety that was filling every nerve in his body. He needed to feel that amongst this party of left-behind people, forgotten faces and guilt, Rukia was here with him, keeping him grounded. As his hands traced the length of her smooth back he could feel Rukia unfastening his pants and one hard tug later they were pooled around his ankles. She drew him closer using her legs, encouraging him to take over while she worked on getting his dress shirt buttons undone.
Slowly, he slid inside her. They were both so ridiculously ready that he grinned against her lips. They went slowly at first, each taking comfort in the feeling of being part of one another, of belonging. He enjoyed staring into her eyes as the friction slowly built up, watching attentively for the sign that would tell him to speed up. It was all in her eyes, just as it'd always been. For as much as Rukia enjoyed thinking of herself as an ice queen, she wore her emotions in her eyes. Suddenly, he saw it, her eyelids closed ever so slightly and her pupils enlarged. He quickened his pace at the sight and allowed all his frustration to burn away with each delicious stroke. Minutes later he watched his ever sensitive wife whimper and moan into completion. Soon afterward his own climax followed, leaving him spent and wobbly legged. Still breathing heavily he moved back in order to pull out only to feel Rukia's legs tighten around his hip bones.
"Not yet." She whispered.
He was still crushing her to his chest, his nose buried deep in her hair. He obeyed, thinking back on all the times she'd made the same request. He'd always thought it was her small way of trying to regain the sort of deep soul connection that blending Riatsus brought.
He said it so softly, so unlike him that she wondered just how deeply being here was affecting him.
"For taking me out of there... for this."
She kissed his collarbone in response. He'd been so tense all day she was sure any public outburst on his part would've ended disastrously. He simply didn't know how to cope with this anymore. He'd spent so many years burying Kurosaki Ichigo that he was now having a lot of trouble opening the casket.
"They're harmless Ichigo. They're here because they want to see you."
"They're here to gossip."
"You really don't mean that."
He wanted to tell her that he actually did mean it, but he let it go. There was no reason to remind her that he was no longer the man she pierced with her Zanpakuto all those years ago.
"Give it time Ichigo. You're overwhelmed... we all are. Yuria didn't know how to handle all the attention either."
She heard him bury a laugh into her hair, the way he always did when he wanted to laugh at her but feared retaliation.
"You're handling it fine"
"I was a Kuchiki."
She said it as if the surname alone held all the explanation needed and it made him smile to hear that higher-than-thou tone. He suddenly thought of all the parties she must have attended, of the countless strangers she must have had to meet and remember. It was no wonder she was so good at playing politics.
"We really should be getting back shouldn't we."
He exhaled deeply before trailing a series of kisses from the crown of her head to her swollen lips. While his tongue found hers once again, Ichigo used the distraction to pull out. She whimpered in response, her body already yearning for another round of love making. Reluctantly, Rukia reached for her discarded garments as Ichigo pulled up his drawers. Part of her resented how easy he had it. While all he had to do was pull up his pants and button up a shirt, she had to go through the ritual of undergarments, blouse, skirt and worry about dripping semen.
Sex itself had taken her time to get used to. It'd baffled her at first, seen silly even. She'd tried it both to please Ichigo, and to satisfy her own curiosity. She'd always known it would be a natural progression in their 'relationship,' Ichigo was a living human after all and a handsome young one at that. It was natural for him to crave intimacy in the only form he knew. So she researched the matter thoroughly in her usual way, by reading large quantities of romance manga which eventually introduced her to its sister branch, hentai. Only this time when Ichigo opened his bedroom door and found her sprawled out on the floor with hentai manga all around her, he was not amused. Recalling his embarrassed shock still made her laugh to his day. Soon after that she was thrilled to learn that while sex was different from completely uniting Riatsus, it was definitely a worthwhile experience. Even if it did involve too much cleaning up afterward. She knew that eventually she'd be the one leading Ichigo through the techniques of Soul Unions but for now she just hoped that somehow, they hadn't been gone long enough for Isshin to send out a search a party.
Dressed, combed and smiling they made their way out of their makeshift sanctuary, reassured they'd get through anything Karakura threw at them as long as they were together.
She dreamt she was running through the thick forests of Rukongai, her body as light as air and sweetly warm. As she slowly came to, she smiled at realizing the morning sunlight had woken her. She wasn't sure why, maybe it was the sound of birds chirping up in the trees, or the cool mountain air kissing her nose. But her first coherent thought was a surprising one.
"It's a beautiful day to die."
The timing was adequate. It'd been two months since Ichigo's funeral and she'd spent the better part of those months with Yuria and her little granddaughter. It'd be hard to leave them behind but prolonging it further would be a bigger sin.
Smiling, she turned to see if Ichigo was awake. His arm remained tightly wrapped around her waist but he could've dozed off. After all, the man was turning out to be a bigger night hugger in death than when he'd been alive.
He was drowsy, but not tired. He'd learned how to doze off weeks ago after spending too many nights wandering around the house looking for ways to pass the time. He finally threw himself into learning how to relax his Riatsu after Rukia started calling him 'Ichigo, the housemaid ghost.' Now he spent his nights like a respectable Shinigami, pretending to sleep.
"I think today's the day."
"The day for what?"
She was so busy trying to decipher his silence that she was surprised to find herself pinned against the mattress. As Ichigo straddled her thighs his amber eyes stared deeply into hers.
"Are you sure?"
She took hold of his cheek, lovingly stroking the soft skin with her thumbs.
"Yes. It's time."
"We could stay another few days, spend more time with Yuria."
He was smiling so tenderly, looking at her with an expression that looked too aged for such a young face.
"We've been postponing this long enough Ichigo."
He shifted his weight, allowing his left hand to caress her left cheekbone. His fingertips lovingly traced each little wrinkle from the corner of her mouth to the edges of her eyes. His beautiful wife, he sometimes called her, and she truly was. He was proud of every laugh line on her face because he'd helped put it there. They were testimonies of the life they'd shared, a full life. Now the silver lining to the weight of Yamamoto's last hurrah was the prospect of sharing the forever of death with her too. The only thing he felt certain of now was that he was damn sure he was going to continue putting laugh lines on her face. Even if this time they took a few hundred years to appear. A toothy grin spread across Ichigo's face, making his look terribly boyish. Rukia suspected it had something to do with the prospect of finally 'getting some.'
"Get your mind out of the gutter Ichigo."
"Who says it was in the gutter?"
She answered him with an 'Oh please' expression that made him laugh and left him open to a strong punch on his solar plexus. Dismissing his pained groan, she was able to shove him sideways to land on his side of the bed. He watched her put on a robe before hurrying out of the room, most likely to the bathroom. Lying alone on the bed he had to admit she wasn't entirely off in her assumption. He wanted her so badly it was giving him weird kinks, like spying on her in the shower.
Ichigo was already on his feet and about to fasten Zangetsu when Rukia walked back into the bedroom.
"What are you doing?"
He looked at her curiously, surprised to see she'd come back to the room.
"I thought I'd make you some breakfast."
"No, I want to lie down a little longer."
He gave her a curt nod and placed his Zanpakuto back down again. Today more than ever he was committed to obey her every wish. Knowing her preference he removed his outer Haori before settling back down on his side of the bed. Rukia rewarded him with a pleased grin before removing both her own robe and her camisole. He leered at her from his spot, his eyes shamelessly taking her in.
He'd had the gall to complain to her about it once. It'd been years ago, back when he was still adjusting to the sight of his muscles looking soft. He'd been watching her change one morning when he asked how it was that while her face showed some age, her body did not. She'd reminded him that it was because her 'body' was a gigai, but his frown had remained. It'd taken her a while to understand the reason behind the complaint.
"Is there anything you'd like to do today?"
She crawled back under the covers, her body immediately seeking out his.
"I'd like to see Yuria later on. But right now I just want to relax."
She settled next to him, one arm draped over his torso and her head resting on his shoulder. She missed his heartbeat but consoled herself with feeling his riatsu gently pulsing against hers. It was always seeking her out now, trying to draw out her own riatsu. Knowing how to distract him she dived right into one of the two hundred topics they still had to sort through.
"It'll be nice to see Nii-sama... and Captain Ukitake, and Renji."
Ichigo cringed at the thought. They hadn't seen Renji at all in over forty years and he was concerned with how the hot-head would react now at having to acknowledge Rukia as Ichigo's wife. Except, as Rukia enjoyed reminding him lately whenever the widowed grocer flirted with her, she was technically not married any more.
"As soon as we arrive at Sereitei we're getting someone to marry us."
His utter urgency on the matter caused her to dissolve into laughter and as she wiggled with mirth beside him, his scowl grew.
"What's so funny?"
She tried burying her laughter against his muscled abdomen but the reoccurring image of Ichigo staring down the Kuchiki elders while demanding her hand in marriage, amused her too much to recede. Finally she regained enough control to look up at Ichigo's legendary full scowl. Decades ago he would've stormed out of the room, now he simply waited for her to apologize. Smiling sweetly, she reached out her hand to sooth away the deep lines on his forehead. Like she'd always done.
"Fool, married or not you're still mine. And anyone concerned is just going to have to live with it, including Renji."
"But I want to marry you Rukia"
The intensity of his stare made her heart clench in the sweetest of tortures.
"Then you'll have to ask Nii-sama for my hand in marriage… and you'll have to go to the Kuchiki elders to do the same."
He exhaled, his head gently shaking in disbelief. Years ago Byakuya informed them that Rukia had been welcomed back into the Kuchiki fold in preparation to her certain promotion as partner of the next Captain Commander. To Ichigo's surprise, Rukia behaved ambivalently about the whole thing, as if she no longer cared about the title she once fought so hard to uphold. He suspected she agreed only for Byakuya's sake.
"And if the elders don't approve?"
She lips curved into a smile.
"Then fuck them."
His scowl broke immediately, a smile stubbornly coming to replace it. He ran his fingers over her soft cheek, moving them to play with her dark hair while using his other arm to draw her closer until their naked chests were pressed together. He yearned for her lips, but held off. Opting instead for holding her gaze captive in order to ask her a question he hadn't dared ask in decades.
"Any regrets Rukia?"
He'd grown ever more fearful of the answer as time passed by, as they watched their daughter grow up and as old faces reappeared. Now more than ever the answer could crush him like never before. He desperately searched her eyes for any hints of a lie, holding her caged against him until she answered. .
"I regret that Hitomi-chan had to die for me to know motherhood… I regret we had to hurt everyone we cared about so we could have a life together. But most of all…" She brought her forehead to rest again his, her eyes suddenly teasing. "I still regret not buying that limited edition Chappy and Friend plushie collection!"
Eyes widening in disbelief, Ichigo's hands were quick to tickle her sides as reprisal. Rukia squealed and laughed uncontrollably as Ichigo used full force to keep her confined in the circle of his arms. Her laughter triggered its usual euphoric effect on Ichigo, making him laugh despite being the torturer. It was minutes before he finally released her to let her catch her breath.
He heard her pant out, her face still glowing from the exertion. He chuckled and simply stared at her blushed cheeks, muffled hair and heavy inhales. He took it all as he usually did and stored it somewhere in his memory. Finally it was the sound of her churning stomach that got them both out of bed.
"So what do you want for breakfast?"
He asked from the door as Rukia pulled out a light blue sundress to wear.
"You better call Yuria. Ask her to bring up some Ohagi, Wahagi and chocolate Mochi, and also some Ichigo Daifuku and Wagashi! Oh and ask her to also pick up some chicken and pork on the way. I have every intention of clogging up my gigai's arteries today."
He rolled his eyes at the endless list of sweets and bit his tongue as his physician mind tried to stretch out its healthy head. Today was her day, if she wanted to enjoy the pleasures of taste buds till the very end she had every right. So with a resigned smile, he went to call their daughter.
Yuria sobbed all the way from the town's bakery to her parents' house. She'd considered bringing her daughter along but had selfishly decided against it. Her little girl had spent the day at Grandma's the day before. Today was Yuria's day, her very last day to have her parents all to herself before truly becoming an orphan.
That thought left her sobbing harder in the car. She parked just outside the old house, trying to pull herself together. A woman in her forties reduced to a four year old child with just one phone call. Finally, arming herself with false bravado she took her trunk-full of bags out of the car and headed to the veranda.
Once at the door, Ichigo was quick to take all bags away from her, welcoming her inside, greeting her cheerfully as he usually did. She didn't know why it surprised her, but it did. Perhaps because unconsciously she'd been expecting to find her Mother sick in bed, just like her Father had spent his last days. Or maybe it was the routine of it all. She found her Mother in the kitchen making breakfast, a huge smile on her face. She listened as her parents teased each other, her Dad warning her Mom she'd be the only person ever to gain ten kilos in one day. It was all so… normal. Yet it wasn't, because her Dad had been dead for two months and her Mom was planning on joining him today.
It was all so wonderfully weird she didn't know whether to cry or laugh.
"You!..." She choked back a sob, fisting her hand in an attempt to control the tears until she said what she wanted to say. "You have to come visit me! At least once a year… and… and I must have a way to reach you in case of an emergency! Understood?"
She was shaking and tears were running down her cheeks but she never stopped looking at them.
Yuria pinned them with her gaze, looking for any signs of hesitance but finding none. Finally she allowed herself to sink into her Mother's arms, sobbing one last time while Ichigo tenderly stroked the back of her head.
At breakfast Yuria forced herself to cheer up and by the early afternoon she realized her heart felt lighter. She consoled herself with thoughts of seeing them again soon, with thoughts of a future with them in it. Most importantly, she tried to remember that she wouldn`t be alone. After all, she was lucky enough to have a loving husband and a cute daughter. Not to mention she lived in a little town where she could not go ten paces without greeting at least two people.
The rest of the day was spent on a cloud.
They ate, talked, ate again and ripped the living room book shelves apart looking at old momentos. The mess all began with Yuria wanting to prove her Dad wrong. Ichigo insisted she'd won a Science award on her first year of High school, when Yuria distinctly remembered it being on her second year. To settle the useless argument Rukia pulled out the photo album where she kept all of Yuria's pictures. In the end Yuria had been right, but then the hunt continued for more 'forgotten' pictures. Leading to Rukia's first official public debut of her 'secret' scrap book collection of `Father & Daughter` moments, filled mostly with pictures of little Yuria sleeping on her Father`s stomach. This was then followed by the discovery of 'missing' pictures of Yuria's wedding that Rukia 'borrowed' and never returned.
"Mooom! I've been looking for these for fifteen years!"
But the reprisal was lost among her laughter. Suddenly she wondered how many hidden and forgotten treasures she'd find as she cleaned out the house in the following weeks. Would she uncover some of her parents' secrets? She wondered. There was still so much more she wanted to know about them. So much more time she still wanted to spend here with them. But there wasn't any more, at least not for now.
"They're all yours now."
Yuria nodded, silently accepting the mantle of family-picture-keeper from her Mother. A bittersweet smile tinted her otherwise calm façade.
Then sunset arrived, bringing with it an ocean of playful pinks and baby blues. The three of them looked sadly onto the veranda, knowing it was time. Yuria watched as her Mom and Dad locked gazes, somehow communicating without words just as they'd always done. She looked down at the near empty cup of tea and waited for the imminent comment.
"Yuria, it's time."
She looked up at her Father's handsome face and smiled. She'd always been so proud of him. Her Dad, the town doctor, the pillar of reason, the occasional joker, the loving father.
"Must you go today? Isn't it getting kinda late?"
"Postponing it will only make it worse."
Yuria closed her eyes to keep the tears from spilling as her Mother's voice washed over her. She was right, whether it was tomorrow or the day after there was no changing what was about to happen. Her Mother in all her wisdom wanted to make this as least tormenting as possible. Finally Yuria nodded and they all got up together to go out and around the house. Rukia took her daughter's hand in hers as they walked, while Ichigo kept a hand on Yuria's shoulder.
"Tell them I went out for a walk in the garden and when you came to look for me you found me lying dead."
Yuria nodded, the tears she'd been fighting all day pouring down her cheeks.
"I'll be fine Mom, don't worry."
They finally stopped by the back of the house in an area covered by trees. Yuria took a step away from her parents in an attempt to keep herself together. Even if all she wanted was to sob like a baby she refused to part like that.
"So what happens now?"
She wiped her face using her shirt sleeve and pushed her long black hair back to keep it from sticking to her cheeks.
Ichigo and Rukia exchanged glances before Rukia shrugged.
"I just step out of my gigai."
Yuria's surprise was mirrored by Ichigo who looked at his wife with skepticism.
"Yes. I'm already dead, remember?"
The thought only worked to confuse Yuria further but Ichigo nodded in understanding. It suddenly dawned on him why she'd been so cautious with her Riatsu in the last two months. With enough coaxing, he really couldn't have drawn her out of her Gigai in his search of intimacy. He grinned sheepishly.
Night was approaching quickly and seeing the stars begin their reign upon the sky once again told Rukia it was time. Sensing what was coming, Ichigo passed his arm around Yuria's shoulders, holding her closer to him.
Rukia smiled warmly, closed her eyes, relaxed her face and imagined herself falling into a cliff. When she opened her eyes again she was standing beside her gigai. She looked down at herself. The black haori she had not worn in years felt familiar against her skin and the weight of Sode no Shirayuki on her hip thrilled her. She looked up to seek out Ichigo's gaze, to share the thrill of looking exactly like herself again. She found Ichigo beaming down at her, a potpourri of emotions toning his amber eyes. They shared a moment before Yuria's voice snapped them out of their trance.
"Mom… you look so young!"
The shock had effectively scared away Yuria's tears and she was already walking closer to inspect her Mother's new form.
"Well, I feel the same… more or less."
Guessing her daughter's concern, Rukia reached out to hold Yuria's hand.
Immediately, Yuria exhaled in relief. The hand in hers felt exactly as it always did, perhaps just a little colder but just the same nevertheless. For the first time all day, Yuria finally felt like she could breathe again. She was about to speak when she noticed her Mother's eyes staring up at the sky. She followed her gaze and gasped at the sight before her.
A door. Floating in thin air.
It was elegant yet mighty, haunting but beautiful. Yuria didn't need to ask to know it was here for her parents.
Ichigo mumbled as he directed a seething stare at the familiar gate.
"Of course, what did you expect? We've kept them waiting for a long time."
She sounded proud of their defiance and it finally occurred to Ichigo, after all these years, that his wife was just as cautious and weary of Soul Society as he was. For she too had changed.
Yuria sighed with a heaviness that betrayed her heart. It was time. Time for her to stop acting like a child, time for her to be strong, time for her to say goodbye. She wanted to see her Mother and Father off with a smile on her face and she was going to do it even if she came apart the moment that gate closed. Slowly, she let go of the delicate hand that had always been so willing to hold hers.
"It's all right Mom, Dad… Don't worry about me. I'll be fine and I'll take care of everything here… I'll see you again soon."
She put on a worthy performance, but both seasoned Shinigami saw right through it. She was avoiding looking at Rukia's gigai on the ground at all cost. Still they said nothing. Knowing that watching her cry would only make it that much harder on all of them. Ichigo was the first to pull Yuria into his arms. He held her tightly, perhaps too tightly but she didn't complain. Instead she dropped her head to that spot on his neck she'd always liked since infancy. They pushed away in unison, fully knowing that any more would leave them in tears.
Finally, Yuria turned to face her Mother.
Rukia lifted her right hand to place it over her daughter's cheek, forcing Yuria to look into her eyes.
"We'll always be with you but when you need to talk to us we'll let you know how as soon as we're settled."
Yuria managed to give a small nod in understanding but her eyes were busy trying to imprint her Mother's tender eyes into her mind.
"I'll miss you."
"We'll miss you."
Yuria forced through a watery smile and Rukia pulled her forward to quickly kiss her cheek.
The sound of the gate opening on its own accord caused Rukia and Ichigo to share knowing looks. They were being told to hurry it up. Ichigo reached for Rukia's hand, clasping their palms together and interlacing their fingers. They looked back at Yuria, love and concern in their eyes.
"It's all right."
She reassured them but they were already levitating. They looked at her all the way to the gate, their eyes fixed on her face. She waved at them, felt silly doing it but did so anyway. They smiled back and turned around to face the open gate.
"No. But we'll make it anyway."
He chuckled, once again thankful for her uncanny ability to know exactly what he meant without him having to say it. She was right, of course. After a lifetime together he knew for a fact, they'd make the best of it no matter what Soul Society threw at them. Because as long as they had each other, they'd make it work.
"Together." He reassured.
Rukia nodded, her eyes teasing him for being afraid. Even after all these years he still tended to be the insecure one. Perhaps because he knew he owed her more than he'd ever be able to make up for. She'd given him the one thing no one ever could, happiness, and with time their little mountain town had brought faith back into their hearts. Perhaps their ultimate contribution to Sereitei would be to bring back the humanity which had long been lost.
They'd raise hell, together. With that thought in his heart and a smile on their faces Ichigo and Rukia finally stepped into the light.
Well everyone. This is the end. I know this was a HUGE epilogue, in my defense allow me to say I never expected to write so much. Things just kept popping up as inspiration hit me. But thank you for seeing this through.
Note: I know some of you will argue that Ichigo's reaction at his Welcome Home party is cold and unlike him. All I can say to that is that, while it may be unlike the Ichigo we see in the manga, it stays true to the Ichigo in my story. In this story both Ichigo and Rukia were forcibly kept from having contact with their pasts for over twenty years. In order to deal with the disappointment and pain the experience brought, they did what any human being does as a basic survival technique, detach from the experience (ie. The past). So while Ichigo might appear cold or uncaring he is simply processing. In his case I'm sure that by the end of the week he would've been rebuilding old friendships and forgiving everyone.
So glad my psych undergrad is being put to good use (laughs and hits head against keyboard).
Thanks again everyone! And for any registered reviewers I promise to reply to your comments as soon as I can.
I wish you all the very best