It stays with her for a while.
“Listen, I won’t be long.”
Ichigo stands at the foot of his bed. She watches him tie his tie; the thread is coming loose at the end. It won’t last long.
“I know,” she says. She doesn’t roll her eyes. Her fingers flex in the bed. “School is important,” she says too. He rolls his eyes. She knows he worries. They both worry. He’s just worst when it comes to showing it.
“Dad’s downstairs,” Ichigo warns.
“I know.” Her mouth purses and she sounds … far. She licks her lips. “I told him I’d help in the clinic today.”
He blinks. “Seriously?”
She shrugs and pushes herself off of the bed. The twins are off to school. She could go to school, but it’s a terrible distraction. She thinks of Seireitei.
Her skirt catches at her knee. “He asked.”
“He has a plan.” Ichigo groans, rubbing his eyes. “He never just asks.”
Which is true. Isshin doesn’t ask. He didn’t ask then; he won’t now. Sometimes she suspects that his father is purposely putting his place as some sort of test. Tests are coy. His father is coy and with much more patience than his son. It’s like an age-old tradition with nothing to stand.
She thinks it’s because of what happened that it’s coming out more. And more. She is not supposed to miss her brother this much. He wouldn’t have wanted it that way. Then again, she has always been terrible at asking.
She touches Ichigo’s wrist.
“I’ll be fine,” she says.
The clinic is empty.
The paperwork sits on one of the desks. She hears a door shut. Isshin calls out for dumplings and there is a cheerful reply that she doesn’t hear – a nurse? He has one or two, she remembers.
She sits on a stool, swinging her legs. The stool squeaks into a steady hum.
“Kurosaki-dono,” she says politely.
He rolls his eyes. “And to think, I thought were past that.”
She smiles a little. He grins again, leaning back against the wall. His shoulders are tense. It makes him less severe though. She has stopped thinking about what kind of captain Ichigo’s father might have been like. She still sits comfortably at lieutenant. You think less about those things this way.
She watches him light a cigarette though. It slips into his mouth. The smoke waves and disappears. She smells it into a swallow.
“You’re not sleeping.”
“I’m sleeping,” she says. Ichigo, she thinks and sighs.
“No,” Isshin says. His head cocks. His eyes are sharp. The corners of his mouth are decidedly crueler too. “You’re not,” he tells her. The grin is back. “Ichigo mutters.”
“He’s a moron,” she mutters.
He saw her after. He saw her way after. She has learned too much about what living in this world means. She cannot imagine being powerless. She doesn’t want to imagine being powerless. Ichigo still wears it worse than his father and that, right there, is more than enough to think about.
She didn’t tell him though – it was Hitsugaya, she remembers. No, no. It was Renji. It had to be Renji. Ichigo had her wrist in his hand. Someone was calling Renji a freeloader. They were somber and the sixth was lost. Two people had called her the heiress. She didn’t want to be called the heiress. It’s too many less about a family name and kuchiki makes her think in deaths.
“I blame the old man,” she says quietly.
Isshin puts his cigarette out against the wall. He doesn’t answer. First, he lights another one. The light catches against his watch.
“I know,” he murmurs. His head drops back against the wall too. “You do that.”
“A lot,” he echoes.
She stops swinging the stool.
“I knew the Shiba kid.”
Her mouth thins into a line.
You told me.
Rukia does not say this though.
You told me speaks of warnings that she doesn’t want to go back to. Weeks ago, she sat in a room with the other lieutenants and she think they all sort of knew then. They breathe war. Breathing war is not the same as watching it walk into your home. Seireitei is no stranger to poor choices.
But this doesn’t matter now.
“And your brother.” His voice lowers. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “To survive, Rukia-chan, is to make some foolish, foolish choices – you cannot sit and wonder and wait for death like the others.”
“Family honor,” she mutters.
Isshin laughs. It’s a hard sound. Ichigo frequents it too. She wonders who hides it better.
“That’s one way,” he agrees. The new cigarette sinks between his fingers. “My wife,” he says carefully, “was so much better at this than I was. I learned to be this way for her, for the girls – I always knew that my son would – ” he sighs and then he’s distant, the look in his eyes just as absent as it’s been so many other times. She finds this odd.
“He’s a good kid,” he finishes instead.
“The best,” she agrees. At her hip, there’s a buzz.
She pulls out her phone. It’s her other phone. The real phone is sitting upstairs, on top of Ichigo’s bed where she left it. There are still hollows. She is still the lieutenant of the thirteenth. She is still better suited to this world instead of the other. She could get into it, but she won’t.
Her skirt sinks back over her knees. She flips the phone. The charm at the end swings and skids over her knuckles. It’s Ichigo.
Her mouth twists.
“Ah young romance!” Isshin exclaims.
She rolls her eyes. “Honestly.”
“What?” he pushes off the wall and moves into her space. He pokes her forehead and she flushes. “I must live vicariously through my son and my cute, cute daughter! Love is love. My –”
“We’re not married,” she sighs.
“Ma,” he waves his hand. He throws her a cheeky grin. “Semantics.”
Her phone trills again.
It blinks. Then: srs stupid answer what did dad do
She chokes. Isshin is looking down, over her phone too. He says something. She doesn’t hear him. Or she’s not paying enough attention anymore – you can pick. It doesn’t matter. She’s supposed to be helping out.
But her fingers are flying across the keys (she almost slips and it’s coordinates – but almost) and it’s an easy pay the fuck attention, Ichigo because that is what he should get to hear. He shouldn’t have to worry about her too.
Her mouth dries this way.
There are a total of three patients.
A little girl falls and skins both knees. Two doors down, a neighbor appears and asks Isshin about back remedies. In between, he gets a call from the hospital and doesn’t go. He gets a call from his nurse too – or the second one, she thinks – and it’s about dumplings and she almost offers to go out and get them, but it’s neither the time nor the place.
The last patient leaves one of the rooms. Isshin smells like smoke and she watches as a schoolgirl takes her little brother’s hand and pats his head. She looks away and tries to swallow. She has never looked like that.
“It’s been such a long day,” he yawns and stretches.
She looks at the clock on the wall.
“It’s three,” she says.
Isshin grins. “Exactly.”
Her mouth curls in amusement.
He moves to lock the door and tosses a few files to a separate desk. Ichigo isn’t due for a couple hours. His sisters will come first.
“We could drink,” he offers.
She shakes her head. “That’s a terrible idea,” she says.
He softens, but doesn’t grin. “That never works,” he says, and she’s sure, then, that he’s thinking about Shunsui and Nanao.
Her hands frame her face. She leans back against one of his desks. Her fingers pull into the strands of her hair and she wonders if she can actually go and say it. It took years with Kaien. She has long stopped thinking that it would have taken years with Hisana. She stumbles in between those thoughts here and there.
“But you still love my son,” he says too.
Rukia freezes, eyes wide.
This is not about a secret. This is not about how she cannot just go and say niisama is dead and gone because she is far from romantic. The furthest, actually. It’s still strange to hear someone else say it.
“I don’t blame him,” she chooses to say. It’s too easy.
Isshin scoffs. “What do you take me for?”
“I don’t know. Is that what you’re asking?”
He laughs and it’s that sound again. It’s hollow and hard. Then it’s not. She wonders if it’s because she can never quite tell what Isshin is to her, beyond a place to stay and Ichigo’s family. She doesn’t know what to call her family still.
“You’re not an idiot, future daughter of mine,” he says gently. He moves to her. He tucks her hair behind her ear and smiles. Fondly.
“I’m not,” she agrees.
“He’s not gone,” he tells her, and she blinks, meeting his gaze. The older man holds a dark gaze. He is calm and sullen. It sends her stomach into knots. Byakuya looked at her like that; once, a very long time ago, and she was new to his house.
“I don’t want to think about that,” she murmurs. There are rules.
“I do.” This is not a confession. “You can’t help it,” he says. The lines in his face crease; it’s how he looks like Ichigo the most. “It lurks –” he taps the side of his head, mouth twitching. “It’s just there. Even good, little soldiers learn that.”
It’s the first dig at the old man today – the very same who can no longer look at her. Her throat catches and tightens. It’s a flush against her belly. She’s unsettled.
“Were you one?” she asks, and then stops herself. Her fingers slip at her mouth.
His mouth twists.
“Look at my son,” he says.
She doesn’t smile. “I know,” she says.
And there, then, it’s almost too strange to think of. Her brother, distant, hovering over her, watching and waiting and listening when all she could think of is he doesn’t have to be here and am I really worth this. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is grieving, really grieving. She’s carried Kaien. What’s carrying one more?
The phone is in her hand before she even realizes. She just can’t be selfish.
She never could.
Later in the day, she is curled against the window.
Ichigo’s bed is low and molds into her hip. There is a breeze and she watches as he drops his tie after it hangs out of his school bag.
“I don’t know if I miss him,” she confesses.
He pauses. A shadow cracks in the corner of his mouth. Downstairs, she can hear Karin yelling at Isshin. Something crashes.
“You do,” Ichigo murmurs.
“Maybe,” she says, and her throat burns. Her eyes close and she listens to him drop his bed. The bed then sinks after and his fingers are over her hip. “Maybe,” she says again.
He’ll curl around her – that’ll come later. It always comes later. Where his legs open and hers sink into his and she should remember the first time she fell asleep in his bed and there was no point where you could tell where he began and she ended and how really they were really meant to be.
She thinks and hopes for all things her brother wanted for her – she can count the number on her fingers, one to five and then backwards. She knows Ichigo has always known more than she has; it’s about unintentional reason and middle ground, after all.
But that conversation is for another day. She doesn’t know if she’s ready for it.
His fingers form a ring around her finger. His nail scrapes over a scar and she sighs.
“I’ll never get used to this,” she says.
He doesn’t smile. Her eyes squeeze shut and he’s close enough.
There’s a new umbrella by his door.