THE IVORY TOWER
A/N: I highly suggest that you listen to The Gravel Road from The Village soundtrack while you read this. Link: watch?v=1ro4FHd51t4
Episode 21: The Finale
We run through the woods for what seems likes hours, the trees start to thin, and they finally expose a simple, two-lane road. Ichigo doesn't even hesitate as he turns right in the direction of Karakura Town.
"Rukia," He shakes me. "Rukia stay with me."
I close my eyes.
"Rukia…" He sounds scared. "Rukia, please." He starts to run even faster.
I fall asleep.
The sirens blare ever louder behind us, and I know we don't have much time before they enclose us completely. I sprint down the road, before I realize that we're very exposed on the empty street. I dive back into the wood, the occasional tree branch cutting my cheeks with a wicked sting. The acid rain continues to pelt down my back as the wind roars and sends desperate shivers coursing throughout my entire body. I clutch Rukia's limp form tighter in my arms. I know she's fallen asleep, even though I couldn't spare a glance to look at her. Rukia's silence speaks very clearly.
I spent enough time at my father's side during medical procedures to know that she might not wake up. I use this knowledge to push myself through the woods with newly found energy. A flash of red light reflects off a nearby tree. I duck, trying to escape the light's watchful eye.
The sirens continue to blare, so I figure that they didn't find me. I take a few hesitant steps forward, and bolt behind a tree when the beam of a high-powered flashlight glides across the muddy ground just to the left. I stay there, in the safety of the tree's shadow, to catch my breath. I spare a glance at Rukia. Her eyes are closed, and her breathing is nice and even. I spent too much time locked up in my room, away from my father, to know if this was a good or bad sign. I curse every selfish moment I had up in that fucking room, and took off to the right, away from the beam of light.
After a few minutes, my arms start to burn. Rukia may be small, but she's not exactly feather-light. I pause for a few mere seconds to switch positions. I gently throw an arm under Rukia's ass to support her, and place my other hand on the back of her head to keep her from jostling, almost like a father would hold a crying child. I continue to run thorough the unforgiving wood, my mind set only on reaching Karakura to the safety of my father's clinic.
Turns out that running thirty fucking miles takes a considerable amount of time. After four hours, I didn't have enough energy to run. I pushed myself, and walked for another thirty minutes, but by then my body was spent. I had run at an angle in the woods, getting farther away from the sirens and deeper into the woods. The rain had stopped, and even the sun had graced us with its morning presence. The warmth of the sun pressed against my face, and I closed my eyes as my knees buckled and I landed on my ass on the muddy ground. I opened my eyes, and slowly disentangled myself from Rukia, propping her up against an old tree stump.
I leaned back beside her, wiping dirt off my face with the back of my hand as I did so. I turned toward her, and whispered quietly—"Rukia…"
No response. My face contorted with pain, and I beat the ground with closed fists, leaving bulky dents in the supple mud as a runaway scream escaped my throat. "Wake up, Rukia! Wake up!" My fingers flew towards her, and I found them running themselves through her midnight hair, caressing her pale cheeks, her fragile, closed eyelids. My lips, taking on a mind of their own, gently pressed against Rukia's cold, still ones, again and again, hoping to revive her with their power like some petty, girlish fairy tale. I saw, past the large rip in her once-white t-shirt, the large, purple bruise splotched across her chest.
I did that. I had hurt her.
My hands flew back at my sides, afraid that I would hurt her more, even if I simply touched her. I tore my lips, reluctantly, from hers, and backed away on my hands and knees so I was a good distance away.
I had hurt her, not Aizen. It was me.
I spent the next half hour just sitting there, massaging my arms and legs, trying to get the aching feeling out of my muscles so I could walk again. Once I could walk, I started to pace, getting my muscles warmed up for the next six or seven hour journey to Karakura.
A distinct flash of fear settled in my spine when I realized that the woods didn't stretch on forever, and that we would soon be out in the open in order to reach my hometown. I looked at my state of disarray: the torn, bloody shirt. The filthy, mud-stained sweatpants. Rukia's condition wasn't much better.
We couldn't walk around town like this, in broad daylight. The very thought of being exposed worried me. I pushed those thoughts aside when I realized there was no turning back, anyway. I hesitantly picked up Rukia and held her in my tired arms, careful not to put too much pressure on her as I walked, determined, deeper into the unwelcoming hands of the woods.
After about an hour, we broke through the tree line into a small, cheery clearing. The mud faded into soft, green grass. A small stream bubbled peacefully to the right. And, if I squinted my eyes, I could make out the crudely cut lines of a small cottage at the other end of the clearing. I raised my eyebrows at the sight. Who would want to live all the way out here, isolated by Karakura and the people in it?
I shrugged, inwardly. Given the chill of the early morning brought by the rain last night, and not yet disparaged by the morning sun, there should have been smoke coming out of the chimney. There wasn't any, so I assumed nobody was home. I quickly jogged across the clearing and approached the cottage. There weren't any lights on, so I let myself in, checking behind me as I did so.
The front room of the cottage was quant, and welcoming. I set Rukia down on a plush pink couch and made my way over to the fireplace. There were stacks of chopped wood set along the wall. I threw a few logs in. I found a small lighter on the stone mantel, and, with some difficultly, lit the fire. The warmth burst through the chill in the air like a bubble popping in water. I rubbed my hands together over the flames. I know that lighting the fire was a very risky move, but I couldn't risk having Rukia succumb to hypothermia before we even got to Karakura.
Speaking of whom, I turned around and glanced at my fellow inmate, who was still sleeping soundly. There was a slight smirk on her lips now, and I knew that she was warm and content in her inner world. I searched the room for a blanket, and found some in a big wooden chest by the fireplace. It was pure wool, so I assumed it was enough to keep Rukia warm while I searched the rest of the house for things we might need. Clothes, for example.
I tucked the wool around Rukia while she slept, making sure she was nice and snug. There was a kitchen connected to the front room, I realized. Scanning through the cupboards, I found nothing. Well, except for a variety of condiments and some old cheese that had started to turn green on the edges. I closed the cupboards with frustration, and headed back to the front room.
I glanced at Rukia. Still sleeping. I sighed, and ran up a set of stairs that led into a single bedroom and bathroom. There was a large, heavy wardrobe situated by the bed. I opened it, and found various shirts, pants, and—
A doctor's coat?
My fingers reached out to touch the soft white material. I spotted a name tag pinned on the lapel, and pulled my hand back instantly, as if I've been burned.
It was Dr. Ukitake's.
He lived here? In this cottage hours away from Seireitei? It seemed unlikely, but when I thought about it, it would probably only take the doctor twenty or so minutes to travel to the asylum by car. I huffed, and shook my head at our luck. At least we knew who lived here. And we knew Ukitake's work hours: very early, and very late.
I stripped my clothes off and shifted through his stuff, settling for a dark blue sweater and jeans. One quick look at my feet and I knew I wasn't ready for shoes just yet. They were covered with sores and blisters.
Then I realized that Rukia needed new clothes, too. Hers were covered with blood and ripped as well. Ukitake didn't have a girlfriend, did he?
A quick search through the wardrobe, and the answer was no. With an exasperated sigh, I picked up an old college sweatshirt and decided it was good enough.
The fire was still crackling loudly when I reached the bottom of the stairs. I watched it for a moment, entranced by the flames. It reminded me of Ulquiorra's fireplace back at the mansion. I shut my eyes quickly and willed the thought away, but it wouldn't leave. I held a scream back in my throat as memories rushed into my mind.
Aizen grabbing Rukia by the jaw.
That sickening crunching sound as I slam into both of them.
Rukia's paralyzed body.
I place my hands on my head and squeeze, trying to force the thoughts out. After a few minutes, and by slowly counting to ten, I had calmed down enough to take a step forward. I lean down next to Rukia, and gently place a hand on her shoulder. I shook it, but Rukia didn't even stir. I sigh, and lift her up so she was in a sitting position.
It was then that I was completely lost on what to do.
Should I… like, take her clothes off?
I scratch the back of my neck. This was going to be hard.
It took a lot of careful maneuvering on my part, but I had finally managed to take Rukia's shirt off. I tried not to stare—I really did. But it was actually her injuries, not the gentle curves of her body—that grabbed my attention with brutal vigor. Splotches of purple, yellow, and red covers most of her skin. It was almost like a mad painter had used Rukia as his canvas. Her breastbone was caved in slightly, the aftermath of my uncontrolled rage. My hands start to shake as I look at her, so I quickly threw the college sweater over her to cover it up.
Breathe, Ichigo. Breathe.
The sweater was big enough to hide the blood on the top of her sweatpants, so I decided removing them wouldn't be necessary. There was a lot of dirt on the hem of her pants though, so I just rolled them up a few times. They were too big for her, anyway.
I pull up the hood over her face to hide both her matted down hair, and her identity. If we were going into town, I didn't want us to be recognized. I looked in a mirror across the room—my hair was so dirty that it looked strawberry blonde. That should be good enough.
"We're going to stay here just for a few more hours, Rukia." I whisper to her sleeping form. I kneel in front of her and place a kiss on her forehead before covering her up with the wool blanket. I lie down on the floor beside her, and close my eyes, dead to the world.
To say that I was surprised to find two young adults sleeping on my couch, in my living room, in my clothes, would be a devastating understatement. I mean, I only came back to get my security pass that I left, and I come home to this?
I dropped my car keys down onto the floor with a dull tinkling noise. I was greatly surprised, but mostly curious, as to why these two people were in my home.
"Achem," I clear my throat. No response. "Achem."
The boy sleeping on the floor woke up with a start, while the girl still slept. He got up on his feet immediately, and stood over the girl with a protective stance. When I made eye contact with him, that's when I knew. Those amber eyes, mixed with the orange just peeking out over the mud in his hair—it was Ichigo.
"Ichigo?" I whisper, incredulously. I slowly take off my doctor's coat and hang it on a coatrack beside me, never breaking eye contact with the alarmed boy.
"Dr. Ukitake…" He says, unsure of himself in some way or form.
"Yamamoto told me that you ran away." I say.
Ichigo nods in agreement. "Aizen took Rukia," He nods to the sleeping girl on the couch. Ah, I could see it now. Her petite physique and raven strands of hair peeking out of the hood of my old college sweater gave her away.
"He broke into the asylum and kidnapped her." He continues.
"That explains the broken skylight in Rukia's room," I muse. It all made sense, now. Once the sirens had indicated a breach in our asylum, everyone had gone bat-shit crazy. Nurses and doctors flying everywhere, making sure their assigned patients were in their respectful places while security inspected the area. They had found Ichigo running wild through the halls, and that had stunned them enough that they couldn't get a good sighting on who broke the skylight or why. They were too busy taking down the immediate threat to realize a bigger one in their wake. "Yamamoto told me you jumped the fence, and that your security guards lost you in the woods. But-" I throw him an inquiring glance. "That doesn't explain how Rukia came to be with you, instead of her captor."
"They took her to Ulquiorra's mansion." Ichigo answers, his voice unsteady and shaking. "It was a trap, they knew that it would be the first place I would look. And it was." His hands clench at his sides. "They tricked me, and I ended up hurting both of them." Ichigo's voice quivers with pain, and my heart goes out for the boy and all his hardships. And it was all for friendship.
But, if the rumors that Shirayuki was spreading around were true—it was more than just a friendship.
"Ichigo," I address him. He looks up at me with pleading eyes. I could tell by the way he shifted closer to Rukia protectively that he expected me to call the police on him. "You need medical help."
He furrows his brows. "I know that." His fingers curl, forming claws. I decide that my choice of words wasn't the best, and back-tracked a little.
"No, no, Ichigo, I'm not saying that you need to go back to Seireitei." I say. "I know that it's not the place for you or Rukia, now. Just promise me you'll get help… somewhere?"
Ichigo nods, and relaxes his stance. He rubs the back of his neck and sighs, looking down at Rukia with an anxious expression. "She needs help, Dr. Ukitake." He says, "She's been sleeping for twelve hours at least, and I can't wake her up by force."
I walk over to Rukia's sleeping form on the couch. I'm about to reach out to her, to check for injuries, but I glance at Ichigo first. He nods, silently giving me permission to touch her. First, I tug down the hood of the sweater and check her skull for any critical damage. I see nothing but a few cuts on her forehead, which have already scabbed over to stop the bleeding, which was good. I pull my fingers through her hair to check for any lumps that would indicate severe head trauma, but find none. I could feel Ichigo's eyes burning into my back as I lift her up so she's in a sitting position, and hike up old sweater off of her to get a look at her vital organ area. What I find appalls me. Bruises everywhere, for one, and the worst: her breastbone had sunken in from…excessive force, no doubt. I close my eyes briefly and sigh before addressing Ichigo.
"It's hard to tell, but I'm almost positive that Rukia has internal bleeding." I clear my throat. "It could be fatal."
Ichigo swallows hard. "I need to take her to my father's clinic." He looks down at Rukia's seemingly peaceful slumbering form. "It's at least a seven hour walk." Ichigo says.
I look at the desperate boy. The first day I saw him, he was a violent homicidal maniac. An now, he still might be, but at least he can control himself. He's made improvement, and that improvement came from the girl sleeping beside him.
Well that was enough of an excuse for me.
After a few moments, I finally speak up. "I'll drive you."
Ichigo's mouth practically drops to the floor. "You—you'll what?"
"I'll drive you," I say again with a smile plastered on my face. "There is no way in hell I am breaking you two apart. Not after what you both have been through."
Utter relief washes over Ichigo at the sound of my offer. "Thank you." He says.
"'Common, hurry." I say, and grab my keys from off the floor. "Pick her up. We have to go."
Ukitake sped. Not like ten miles over the speed limit. He sped. As in forty-five miles over the speed limit. I held Rukia in my arms in the backseat, holding her tight so she wouldn't be jostled by the bumps in the road. It was silent in Dr. Ukitake's Volvo except for the occasional voice of direction by me. Ukitake simply nods. He doesn't ask about how I saved Rukia, or how she got her injuries. He simply wanted to get her to the clinic, and in safe hands.
The doctor's offer had been so selfless. He was risking his job, and even life in jail, for helping us. It was courageous, and brave, and I wanted to thank him in any way I could. One day, I would repay Dr. Ukitake for his kindness. But for now, my attention was based solely on Rukia.
It only took us fifteen minutes for us to arrive in Karakura, thanks to Ukitake's reckless driving. He was forced to slow down in town, though. Police cars would show up on the street every so often, and we couldn't risk running over a pedestrian and getting into even more trouble than we already were. I ducked down in the backseat with Rukia to avoid a passerby recognizing us as I gave Ukitake directions to my house.
It had been months since I'd been there. And even with the assurance of my father's letter, I was nervous about confronting my father. Especially since I, you know, escaped from an asylum, performed a search and rescue, and was bringing a coma-induced girl home.
Ah, hell with it, maybe he would be proud.
Ukitake pulled up into the driveway and parked his Volvo. He doesn't even say anything, or look at us. He was probably in shock. He had just become an accomplice to an escaped psycho, after all. Who would blame him?
"Ukitake, I cannot even begin to describe how much I owe you." I say as I open the car door. He just nods as I heft Rukia up into my arms and make my way towards the house, shutting the car door with my foot as I do so.
I was too far away to hear, but Dr. Ukitake smiled and said, "Good luck, Ichigo," before backing out of the driveway and heading back to Seireitei to do the thing he does best: his job.
The front door was unlocked, like it always was. I open the door roughly, sending it flying against the wall with a crash. "Dad!"
"Ichigo?" Yuzu's face pops up from the hallway. "Ichi—is it really you? Wait, who's that? Is she okay?"
"Yuzu, where is Dad?"
"U-upstairs…" She points to the staircase. I nod to my sister and race up the stairway. The door of his study was cracked open, so I barge in. My father was sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, looking forlorn.
"Not now my lovely daughter, I'm busy." He says. I pause in the door way, afraid for a moment. One glance at Rukia and I have to courage to speak up.
His head flicks up quickly, and his eyes reach mine. "Ichigo…"
"Hey." I shift on my feet awkwardly.
"My son…." He slowly gets up from his sitting position and walks over to me. "My son…" He reaches out to touch me, as if I wasn't real, just some apparition of the mind. "You're home."
I smile. "Dad, I'll explain everything later, but right now…" I clutch Rukia to my chest.
"Oh my God," He breathes, as if seeing Rukia for the first time. Then he regains his composure, and his face takes on a look of pure determination, a look I had seen many times in my life. A look I was used to. "Take her downstairs. I'll be right there."
I do as I'm told, and race down the stairs and into the clinic attached to our home. As I walk into the white, sterile space, I notice another figure resting on a bed across the room. I pay it no heed as I set Rukia down on one of the gurneys and start setting up an IV. My father bursts into the room wearing a doctor's coat and gloves, a stethoscope situated around his burly neck. "What's wrong with her?" His voice is balanced, and controlled. He's in full doctor mode, now.
"She has, um, a broken breastbone, I think. Internal bleeding, possibly."
"Any major head wounds?"
He puts his stethoscope onto Rukia's chest, and uses two fingers to put pressure on her wrist.
"Her heart rate is lower than normal, but nothing too serious." He takes Rukia's sweater and sweatpants and pulls them off. He isn't even stunned by her battered body. He's used to these kinds of scenes. "Because there are no major injuries to the brain, as far as I can tell, her coma was caused by the mind protecting itself from pain."
"What does that mean?" I plead.
"There isn't a very good chance she'll wake, my son." He says as he prods her broken breastbone.
"There has to be a way—" I make my way over to Rukia's side, and hold her hand. "She can't die, Dad. She's been through way too much pain to get here. It isn't fair!"
"She won't be dead, son, she'll just—"
"If she doesn't wake up she might as well be." I say, clenching her hand tighter in mine.
"Ichigo?" A voice calls out my name. I don't answer it. I continue to look at Rukia while my dad works on her. "ICHIGO."
I turn around. "What?" I call out. The voice had come from the figure in the bed I saw earlier.
It was Rangiku. Just my fucking luck.
"How did you escape?" She says, her ice blue eyes wide with disbelief.
"God, not now, Rangiku! I appreciate that you didn't give me up to Aizen and all but now it not the fucking time!" I scream at her. She shuts up, and lies back down on her bed without another word.
"Ichigo, you need to get out of here." My father tells me calmly. "You're distracting me."
"Do as I say." He cuts me off. But I refuse to let go of her hand. That's when Yuzu and Karin burst into the room at the sound of all the commotion.
"Karin, Yuzu," my father says, "get Ichigo out of here."
The girls nod, and grab me by the backs of my arms and pull hard. I could've resisted, but the pleading look in their eyes stopped me. I couldn't fight back against my sisters. I let them drag me out of the room. Karin shut the door firmly behind us and put her hands on her hips. "What were you thinking?" She slapped me across the face. I reeled back, more from surprise than the actual force of her blow.
"What the hell?" I ask.
"You deserve it!" Karin yells. "You left us. You left the family."
"I'm sorry, Karin. I truly am." I was an idiot. I got involved with the wrong people, the wrong things.
She looked at me for a long time, judging the sincerity of my answer before smiling and giving me the biggest hug I'd ever received. Yuzu followed suit, silent tears streaming down her face as I hugged them back.
There was nothing more to be said. So we were silent. My sisters guided me over to the living room couch and sat down next to me, rubbing my back soothingly as I waited for Rukia to wake up.
After about an hour, my father entered the living room. We all looked up at him, expecting the worse.
"Rukia is stable," He says. "Only time will tell whether or not her mind is ready to come back to the real world. She has to heal herself now."
"Can I see her?" I ask. My father nods and steps aside to let me pass. I enter the clinic quietly. I glance at the corner of the room to find Rangiku sleeping peacefully. Alright, I won't have to deal with her, at least. I make my way over to Rukia, and sit in a folding chair by her side. I take hold of her hand again, and press it to my lips as I watch her unconscious face anxiously.
Come back to me, Rukia.
I must have nodded off, because the feeling of a hand pressing against my shoulder wakes me up. I turn around, and see Rangiku's face, her features controlled by pity.
"I'm sorry, Ichigo."
"Why are you sorry, it's not your fault." I say sardonically.
She sighs, and shakes her head slowly. "I care for you and Rukia. All I wish for is the best future for you both."
Her comment softened me, a little. "Thank you, Rangiku."
She smiles, and her hand slips off of my shoulder. And, after a pause, "If she does wake up, what do you plan to do?"
"Run." I say without hesitation.
"You can't be serious."
"What else would you have me do?" I hiss at her. She smirks at me, as if the answer is obvious.
"Hide, Ichigo. You can hide."
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"Karakura is huge, Ichigo." She says. "If you're smart, you'll never be found. Don't make the same mistakes I did."
"Is that how you ended up here?"
She nods. "Aizen shot me."
I run fingers through my hair, anxiously. Is there any life out there that Aizen hasn't ruined? "You're right. We can't run. Not forever. But we can't stay here. Seireitei must have police on their way right now." I take a deep breath, trying to steady my voice. "And he's out there. Somewhere."
"The man who shot you." I say, causing Rangiku's face to drain of color. "He slipped from my grasp like a snake before I could deliver the final blow. Aizen… he isn't dead."
And there concludes The Ivory Tower.
That was a HUGE, (in my standards, anyway,) last chapter if I don't say so myself.
Don't worry my lovelies, all will continue in the sequel: The Colored Universe. You will find out about Rukia's past, the fight between Ichigo and Aizen, and just how exactly how Rukia and Ichigo are going to survive in the colored universe.
So stay tuned.
- Liym Enello