Consciousness found Rukia with her hand already on the charms around her neck. Old habits were hard to break, and seventy years was certainly old by anyone's standard. Seven decades of waking up and feeling the same thing—
Rukia's eyes shot open. Had it fallen off at some point in the night? She sat up and patted around to no avail before leaping out of bed, whipping the blankets aside and scanning the sheets with the scrutiny of a homicide detective. Nothing. She couldn't believe it.
The ring from Ichigo's Bankai was missing.
There was no reason it should suddenly come off now, especially given that the twin rabbit charms still remained. And she was always so careful with it, her most precious possession next to her wedding and engagement rings. She only took it off to bathe or shower, and always daintily enough that, were it a single thread from a spider's web, it still would not have broke. So how could one of her precious charms be missing?
A calm washed over her, chased by giddy excitement. It was a rather morbid thing to be excited about, but it was years in the making. It felt odd to admit such a thing, but she knew it wasn't a one-sided hope either. And besides, he'd stuck around longer than most – longer than anyone else in his family – so, really, one could say it was about time.
After all, Ichigo hadn't taken ageing well. Not to say he hadn't aged well – he had indeed – but the rigours it placed on his body was something he found very unwelcome. Up until a while ago, he could always simply exit the tired shell and revel in the agelessness of his soul, for any soul with enough reiryoku, no matter how long it stayed pinned to the Living World by a mortal body, didn't know old age. The body acted like a sealed container, preserving the prime of life inside inside itself even as age ravaged its exterior. Only after being released into Soul Society would such a powerful soul begin to age, and then, very slowly.
But it came to a point, eventually, where excursions of the kind came with too heavy a price when he decided to return. Being tossed back into old age after blissful hours, sometimes days, in reclaimed youth would take its toll on anyone, Ichigo being no exception. Soon, going out wasn't worth the price of coming back. Every time he re-entered his body, it was as if age caught up to him to be relived all at once, and repaid its abandonment with a vengeance. She'd known him to actually rest in bed for entire days after a return to the flesh, because the aching was too much. And age having not at all lessened his bullheadedness, he refused what little healing kido Rukia knew, preferring to take his own lumps unaided.
So in the last few years, it had become ritual during her regular visits to simply sit and talk, which was more than fine with Rukia. With the person you loved, talking was as easy as breathing, and far more entertaining. It didn't even need to be about anything, really. They'd simply ramble to each other until Ichigo became tired. He would apologize, she would wave him off, reminding him that his exhaustion would not be much longer-lived, and with a hug they'd part ways to do it all again the next day, if she was lucky.
And now all that was over. And she couldn't be happier.
The large sword at his back, with its comforting familiarity, was the only thing that kept Ichigo from feeling nearly naked in the short, sleeveless kimono he'd suddenly found himself in. He didn't even get any sandals, and the dull grey thing looked like it was woven from hemp. He felt all the more foolish standing beside his sister, who had brought him over.
To look upon them now, side-by-side, one would be hard-pressed to correctly guess the older sibling between them. They both looked around the same age now, which was still fresh out of the teens, no more than a few years into their twenties. But the contrast between them that had once been in age now lied in style: Ichigo, in his threadbare attire, was like an urchin saved from life on the street by the grace of the woman he strode alongside.
Her short-sleeved shihakusho was different from most others in that it lacked hakama, instead extending like a kimono nearly to her ankles. However, it couldn't be said to be a kimono either, as long slits ran from the hip to the hem on either side, allowing a free range of motion in the legs, and revealing the bottom of her white shitagi, which was like a skirt that ended above her knees. Her bangs still parted the same way, but in the back her hair was now long enough for the single braid to almost reach her waist. The strangest thing to Ichigo, knowing his sister as he did, were the diamond earrings she was wearing.
"What's your Division, then?" Ichigo couldn't help asking, though he feared he already knew the answer.
Without looking at him, Karin smiled, but also blushed slightly. "Sixth," she said, adding of course with her tone rather than the actual words.
Ichigo had been about to take a jab at Byakuya, but thought better of it, and instead went with "Well, too bad that means you gotta put up with Renji", which he felt was safer. Renji was always a good insult standby.
"Renji-san's really nice, Ichi-nii," Karin told him, and Ichigo felt his ears hop slightly at hearing his old moniker after decades.
"Yeah, well, it's still your bad luck," Ichigo insisted.
"It wasn't luck, Ichi-nii," she said, "Byakuya recruited me himself." At that, her blush deepened.
Ichigo's frustration followed suit. What a possessive bastard, he thought.
"Really?" he forced himself to ask with as little venom as he could manage.
Karin nodded. "I was originally going to be put in the Second Division once I came over," she explained. "But Byakuya looked like he was ready to kill Captain Sui-Feng, so I guess she let him have me instead. The Commander didn't seem to mind either way," she finished brightly.
Jeez, she was hopeless.
"Uh..." Ichigo said after a while, to change the subject and get Byakuya off his mind, "...does she know we're here?" he asked his sister as he continued to scan the crowd, which was quite large and densely-packed. It was hard to believe so many people had died just that day.
Karin smiled. "I think so. Your reiatsu is kind of hard to miss," she told him. As always, he hadn't noticed how it poured out of him, and suddenly felt even more awkward as they made their way through the circus of new arrivals.
It was a shame, because the embarrassment inflicted on him by his wardrobe, and now by his spiritual conspicuousness, was really putting a damper on the excitement he could have been feeling at being young again – and never having to go back into his old body. That was one thing he wasn't going to miss, though there wasn't much else to by then. He'd somehow managed to outlive each member of his family and most of his friends. Only Chad still remained of their entire high school class, apparently still able to pack a serious punch into his nineties.
Ichigo grinned at that. It would be nice when he could see him again too.
He was suddenly distracted from his search for his wife when he felt a familiar reiatsu nearly eclipsing his own, and he knew it could only be one person.
"Cripes, reign it in a little, son!" he heard his father yell from behind him.
Upon turning, Ichigo found that Isshin Kurosaki looked the same as he had through his son's teenage years, except clean-shaven, and he was wearing a shihakusho that was missing the tattered haori he'd always known to adorn it. He stood with his arms crossed and a wide grin spread across his face.
"You're one to talk," said Ichigo, who amazed himself by not shouting above everyone else in the bustling crowd.
"That was just to get your attention," Isshin waved off smugly, and indeed, the pressure Ichigo had felt against his own spiritual power had receded.
"Yeah, whatever," Ichigo said, not rising to the bait. One service age at done him was gift him with a heaping helping of common sense, which he was putting to use by not entering a shouting match with the old man. He peered past his father. "You didn't bring Yuzu with you?" he asked.
Isshin seemed surprised, then smiled with what seemed like pride. "Ah, no. She's—"
And suddenly, there it was.
There she was.
They all felt it. Ichigo's dad even stopped mid-sentence to face the direction it was coming from along with his children.
Apparently, his father and sister hung back while Ichigo rooted around for his wife like a boar hunting for truffles, because he was suddenly alone. More than that, he felt like the entire crowd had disappeared, because it suddenly seemed painfully quiet as he strained, wished, to hear anything from her.
"Has anyone seen my husband?"
How were they not kissing yet?
"So, what do you say?" said the familiar man in the unfamiliar clothing.
She couldn't help but play along. "That's a terrible thing to ask a widow," she teased, "my husband just died today."
He didn't grin, but stayed rather businesslike in tone. "Is that a no?" he asked, leaning in.
She resisted the urge to pull their lips together as she responded. "Well, I suppose..." she said coyly, watching her fidgeting hands, before turning up to look him right in the golden eyes. "...if you have a ring, I'll marry you," she told him, biting the inside of her cheek to stifle a smile.
Ichigo's eyes went wide with surprise. He immediately straightened up and seemed to search his new garment as if hoping to find secret jewelry hidden somewhere inside, but in vain, of course. "Uh..."
Well, now that was too cute.
Rukia put her hands on either side of Ichigo's face and pulled him down until their lips met. When the blissful kiss finally broke off so the couple could breathe, he took the chance to wrap an arm behind her legs and lift her up with him as he came to full height before they carried on making up for too many years of lost kisses. It didn't matter that they were in the midst of a crowd, like it might have so many years ago. It didn't matter if people's curious gazes were drawn to them as they passed the couple by. The only thing that mattered was that, at long last, they were together. Forever.
He'd barely had the time to take his tongue out of her mouth before he was yanked in the direction of the Thirteenth Division barracks. There, he met a quite tired-looking Ukitake, smiling away in spite of himself, who seemed more pale and hollow in the cheeks than Ichigo had remembered. One of his crazy Third Seats, the girl, stood beside him.
Where was the goatee guy?
"Welcome back, Ichigo-kun," Ukitake said, his bright tone betraying his weakened condition.
Ichigo gave him a low bow. "Uh...yeah," he said, as eloquent around the man as he always was. "So...where's the other guy?" he had to ask. It made him uneasy that only one Third Seat was in plain sight, as if the second was laying in wait, ready to explode out from somewhere with a crisis at any moment.
The girl beside Ukitake cocked her head to the side and let out a peeved "Tch". Ukitake smiled at this before explaining.
"Sentaro has taken up the position of vice-Captain of the Seventh Division under Captain Komamura, in place of vice-Captain Iba, who retired last year," he said, gleaming with pride. His and the girl's opinions on the guy's leaving the Division seemed to be night and day.
"Traitor," Ichigo heard her say under her breath.
"Actually, Ichigo-kun, I was rather hoping that you'd be so kind as to take the position in his absence."
It had been so sudden. Had Ichigo heard right? He wasn't sure, but the stunned expression on the girl Third Seat's face made him think that maybe he had.
"What do you mean?" he asked. His gaze darted from Ukitake's easy smile, to the Third Seat's slack-jawed astonishment, to Rukia's more subdued – and distinctly delighted – look of surprise.
Finally, Ukitake spoke once more. "I'm asking if you'll be my co-Third Seat with Kiyone here," he said, gesturing to the girl. Kiyone! That was it. He'd really have to get better at remembering names if...
"Shouldn't I start at a lower rank?" Ichigo asked, still stunned at the offer.
Ukitake chuckled at that. "If anything, you should start at a higher one, but I suppose that will have to wait until my work is done," he said neutrally, without joy or sadness, though the affect it had on his two subordinates was not so unreadable.
Again Ichigo felt his brain stall. "Ukitake-san..."
Ukitake's raised hand seemed to close Ichigo's throat right up. "Now, now, none of that. Everybody has their time, Ichigo-kun. When mine arrives, I'd like very much to know that my Division is left in capable hands," he said. When he noticed that none of the three before him were breathing anymore, he cheerfully added, "But that's not for a long while yet, so for now, you can be my Third Seat", and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, as if ashamed.
The three let out a collective sigh of relief in spite of themselves. Ukitake did look a little worse for wear, which probably meant his sickness was slowly progressing, but as long as he stayed happy, he carried with him the amazing power to put them all at ease with just a smile.
So Ichigo would make him happy.
"Okay," he said firmly, then cast a glance at Rukia.
"It's no problem, Ichigo-kun," Ukitake replied to the question he hadn't asked. "My vice-Captain and Third Seat have been married before. There's nothing to worry about."
Blushing, Rukia gave Ichigo a firm, confident nod, before turning back to her Captain and going a little pink. "But Sir, Ichigo recently died. By the laws of Soul Society, we are no longer married," she pointed out. For a moment, Ukitake seemed bewildered, then howled with laughter until he had to cough a little.
After a tense moment in which Kiyone looked about ready to faint, he straightened back up. "Well then, we can fix that," he said cheerily.
As a Captain of the Gotei 13, Ukitake apparently had the authority necessary to officiate weddings. Ichigo's family was quickly rounded up, along with their friends (of whom he noticed Toshiro, looking less adolescent), and Byakuya, who tagged along with Karin and brought some men he guessed were servants. Inside the barracks of the Thirteenth Division, Rukia was about to take her place beside Ichigo before she was tugged aside by Karin.
"Do you think you guys could find Rukia-san a wedding dress?" his sister asked politely to one of the servants. One of them took Rukia's arm from Karin and bowed lightly.
"Of course, Lady Kuchiki."
Ichigo didn't register much of anything after hearing that. At least, until Rukia returned sometime later, wearing a more traditional, layered, Japanese-style wedding gown. To Ichigo's surprise, she was just as red in the face as she had been at their first wedding seventy years before. Conversely, the exquisite beauty she brought to the dress as she walked carefully toward him was entirely expected, but still, just the same as before. He wasn't sure she could look bad in anything.
No, the only real difference seemed to be that he wasn't nervous this time around. A few short, simple words from Ukitake and one long-but-not-long-enough kiss later, everything was right again. He was her husband again, and she his wife.
Forever and always.
That's all, folks. Well, all for this story anyway. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.
The next Bleach story I'm working on is the sequel involving the children of Ichigo and Rukia, and Karin and Byakuya. But be aware that, before that, I may write some shorter, 10-20 chapter something is a pallet-cleanser, and also to make the time span between the stories more noticeable, since the stories themselves are gonna be years apart. Silly, I know, but I think it will work. Plus, my hyperactive mind seems intent on flooding my head with ideas for a Ranma 1/2 story, and until I write them all down, they won't stop cluttering my head. So maybe I'll do that first, but know that the sequel IS coming, I AM brainstorming it, and the ideas are already flowing. So keep an eye out, and Happy reading!