A/N: Last one, I will stop spamming you all now. Too bad there was no time, I had an M planned... Post-Bleach imaginings!
Standard Disclaimer: Bleach is solely the property of Kubo Tite, and I am merely borrowing his playground.
Final arc: Year Three
The best gift of all.
Birthdays in the Kuchiki Clan are a stiff and formal affair. Byakuya no longer has trunks of kimonos and gold jewelry sent to her, but traditions are traditions, and must be observed. From what little Rukia understands, other noble clans are always invited to her birthday banquet, to bear witness to how to lavishly the Kuchiki Clan can afford to spend on their princess. That's the way it is in the Noble Clans.
Even though Rukia is now a highly ranked Gotei 13 officer, she is no more than an accessory to the clan, and for all intents and purposes, a fringe member- by adoption, not by blood. She knows there is a lot more to the power politics inside the clan and out of it than she understands or is privy to. The only thing she knows is that she will not embarrass her brother. He is holding this banquet in her honor, she will not embarrass him. She might not understand the reasons for everything that Byakuya does, but she knows he does not do things without thought, without good intentions in mind.
Still, she feels no small measure of dread as attendants help wrap her into silk with trailing sleeves and intricate designs, pin her hair up with rare ornaments. This too, is like going out to battle, in a different way.
Rukia has yet to manage that gliding walk-step outside of battle. She is not like the delicately painted and perfumed ladies of the other Noble Clans, who move with exquisite grace. Proudly, though, she holds her head up, ice and steel easy at her fingertips.
She follows Byakuya's white-haired attendant across the bridge that goes over the inner moat.
"A shortcut," he says, through the central garden. She's suddenly aware that it's much too quiet. The lights suddenly go out.
A spell forms in her hands and she holds it there in a ready crouch. "Show yourself," she demands, voice ringing out clearly. Suddenly, there's a bright flash, as the lanterns light up above her.
"SURPRISE!" There's confetti, and noisemakers, poppers, and streamers and more of the Gotei 13 there than she can count. Most surprisingly, her brother is there. Of course he would be; it's his estate after all, but she's unused to seeing him in the context and backdrop of such an informal social situation, confetti fluttering all around him.
"Nii-sama!" she exclaims.
"Rukia," her brother says in his smooth voice, as poised and at ease as ever, dignified, even with colored bits of paper dusting his shoulders. "You are passed the age where banquets are suitable."
Standing past him, she sees Renji, her division, her captain, and all her friends. Rukia suddenly realizes that all those years of awkwardly formal birthday banquets, when she was lonely and isolated, estranged from her only friend, Byakuya in his own way, had made sure that she never spent her birthdays alone.
Her eyes are wide and bright as she looks up at him, and she feels the hot press of tears behind them, an overwhelming feeling in her heart. "Nii-sama..." she whispers, there are so many words she wants to say, but she's afraid of tripping over them all. "Thank you!"
He looks at her gently. "I am not the one you should be thanking," he says. There's almost a wry tone in his voice, as he looks past her shoulder. And without a word, he glides gracefully away.
She knows it's him before she even turns around. The warm press of his reiatsu brushes against her.
"You did this?" she asks.
"What's with the look of surprise?" he asks, raising one eyebrow and crossing his arms. "Not like I did it alone," he says jabbing his thumb behind him. All their living world friends stand behind him, wearing strange metallic, cone shaped hats, and waving cheerily.
"Happy birthday, Rukia," he says, eyes gleaming dark and warm under the soft lighting of the lanterns above them. "This time, I'm not missing your birthday." And because they are people who let actions speak louder than words, he lets an unspoken promise echo between them- the promise that there will no more missed birthdays, for either of them.
There is no expression elegant enough to capture the complexity of what she is feeling. Thank you, she wants to say, for everything. For being the one who saved her, and for being the one she got to save.
Renji suddenly comes up behind them, clapping them both on their backs so hard, they stumble into each other. "Oi, what are you two idiots standing there for, eh? Let's get this party started!" he bellows.
Her division bakes a cake for her. It is humongous, teetering in five haphazard tiers. "Happy birthday, Kuchiki-dono!" they all chime as one, saluting smartly.
"Thank you," Rukia says softly, touched by their devotion. She straightens her shoulders. "BUT, don't think I'll go easy on you for shikai practice, just because you're on my good side!" she warns. The whole division groans good-naturedly.
"What good side?" Ichigo mutters from beside her. She elbows him in the ribs. The table where people have left gifts for her are so overflowing, it's embarrassing. There's heat in her cheeks as she opens the gifts.
The most memorable include a specialty hand-made dress from Uryuu, and a hand-knit scarf from Orihime.
"Ahaha, I'm still learning," she says, smiling charmingly. The flowers on the scarf are suspiciously like the flowers decorating the hem of the dress.
Renji gets her a brand-new sword-cleaning kit, complete with one of Seireitei's finest brands of choji oil, which smells like the soft scent of cloves.
Last, but not least, Byakuya presents to her a set of colored pencils, art easel, brushes, and a magnificent sketchbook made with the gold-flecked Hosokawa paper that's supposedly able to last 1000 years. Completing the set, he has even included a hand-inked Seaweed Ambassador drawing guide.
One would have thought that since shinigami are so long lived, the novelty of birthdays might have worn off at around 100 or so. The reality is exactly the opposite. Since death is an occupational hazard in the Gotei 13, everyone takes the opportunity to celebrate another year of survival. Birthdays are a big deal, and they're also a good excuse to cut loose.
There are tables of food, arrayed everywhere. Really, Byakuya has spared no expense. He has even put aside his long running enmity with the Shinigami Women's Association, even though she knows that he had found another one of their secret tunnels under his estate, just last week.
Rangiku is a bright spot in the party. Rukia shakes her head as she watches her wave a camera in one hand, and an open sake bottle in the other. Nearby, Kira has already ditched his garments. No one bats an eye.
The Shibas are there, Ganju and Kuukaku, and they sit with Ms. Yoruichi and Urahara, while Soi Fon hovers nearby, casting longing looks at Yoruichi, and slightly resentful looks to everyone who sit nearby.
Rukia sits with Renji and a small knot of 11th division members, watching as they play a game involving arm wrestling and stupid amounts of beer. Somehow, Hanatarou also gets included, despite his protests and objections. Ichigo has gone off to help Hisagi and Chad set up the karaoke stage.
There's a warm feeling in her heart, and Rukia feels content just to watch all her friends enjoy themselves.
Later on in the night, there are fireworks, courtesy of the Shibas. Ichigo comes by and hands her another drink.
"You've been giving me a lot of drinks," Rukia says smirking. "Are you trying to get me drunk so you can take advantage of me tonight?" They sit shoulder to shoulder, touch light and easy between them.
Ichigo groans, clapping one hand to his red face. "Shut up. Don't say stuff like that out loud." They don't speak as they watch the fireworks show. Ichigo only glances over at her face once, and when she meets his gaze, she sees that there something soft and unguarded in him.
Later, Renji has somehow convinced Byakuya to get up on stage and sing. They have now moved into a duet, and everyone is captivated, Rukia included. Ichigo's reiatsu nudges her. He's on the roof, gaze beckoning. She takes a flashstep up to the red tiled gables of the roof, and he flashes to another, gaze darkly charged and challenging.
What are you up to? she wonders, following.
He's no good at hiding and she finally catches up deep in the long wooden halls of the Kuchiki estate. "Caught you," she whispers.
"Wanted you to," he replies, turning, hand on her wrist, and suddenly, Rukia has her back against the wood paneled wall, hands gripping and tangling in his thick hair, his mouth on her pulse. It's always like this, no matter how far apart they are, they eventually draw each other close like magnets of opposing polarity.
"They're going to miss us," she says, voice low and husky. "I wanted to watch Nii-sama sing."
"You wanted to do this more," he whispers, lips brushing the tip of her ear.
She smacks him, drawing back. "You don't know that."
"You're here, aren't you?" he says, eyes dark.
"So, you did lure me here to take advantage of me!" Rukia exclaims theatrically.
"Hey, it's not luring if you followed!" Ichigo says, rolling his eyes. "Besides, I wanted to give you your present."
"Really?" Rukia says arching an eyebrow skeptically.
Ichigo pulls a box around the corner of the hall that easily dwarfs the cake her division had made for her. His sharp cheekbones are dusted with red as she pulls on the bow. The sides of the box fall open, revealing a giant plush rabbit with floppy white ears.
"Chappy," Rukia breathes, eyes shining.
"I heard you could never find the first one," he explains.
Was it that long ago? That she was a fugitive in the living world? She never was able to get the first Chappy back. The size of this second one is on the scale of ridiculous. She could probably curl up and sleep on it. Which she will...as soon as possible.
She suddenly laughs at the image of Ichigo carrying it through the senkaimon gate.
"So how embarrassing was it to get Chappy through the gate?" she asks, eyes glinting with mischief.
"Very," Ichigo answers flatly. There's a quiet pause. "Do you you like it?"
The way he asks is almost shy, almost nervous, but he holds her gaze steadily. "I love it," Rukia answers softly.
"Then it was worth it," he murmurs, smiling. "I'm almost jealous," he adds dryly, eyeing the way she's clinging onto Chappy.
"Patience. You'll get your turn," Rukia says, rubbing her face against Chappy's soft fur.
"So is this the best gift ever?" Ichigo asks, tilting his chin up.
"Nope." Rukia's eyes are still glittering in awe as she turns away from the giant Chappy.
"You're joking, Seaweed Ambassador beats Chappy? You love rabbits." he mutters, face falling.
She elbows him in the ribs. "Ichigo, it's not a competition... and that was not my favorite either," she says.
He frowns puzzled. "What-"
"Idiot," she interrupts, hooking a finger in the collar of his haori and tugging downward, "don't make me spell it out for you." When she draws her mouth against his, she feels the subtle upward curl of a smile on his lips.
They make it back to the party...eventually. There are a lot of dark empty corridors in Kuchiki mansion.