A great weight lifts from Rukia's chest the moment she steps into Ichigo's household. It's like a breath of fresh air after months spent living underground. Here, she does not have to pretend. Here, there are no expectations to be met. Here, she is neither Captain nor Kuchiki nor even Shinigami. Here, she is only Rukia, among friends.
Come to think of it, she is no longer a Kuchiki either. She tends to forget her change of her new name in a way she could never forget the adoption of her first one. It was fraught with too much heartache and anxiety to be let go of that easily.
But Renji is by her side now and thanks in part to Kurosaki, won't ever leave -- or let her leave again. He squeezes her shoulder when the others greet them and urge them to sit, as if allaying the disquiet that has become part and parcel of her daily life. She puts her hand on top of his and smiles up at him, unburdened for the first time in a long while. Renji relaxes.
Inoue serves tea after Chad's fight is over. Ichigo asks Rukia to sit with him in the kitchen and leave the idiots to fight over the programme.
"How are things?" he asks without ceremony.
"Oh, you know," Rukia says lightly over her cup. "I just got promoted to Captain. The usual."
"No one wanted to rush to replace Capt--I mean Ukitake-dono."
"It's been ten years. Surely Kotsubaki is not still making a fuss."
"He's very loyal. And he still won't accept a promotion to Lieutenant, despite all his hard work. That's how much he respected Kaien-dono."
"Sure that he won't see your promotion as disrespect then?"
"I..." Rukia places her cup back on its saucer. "I've tried talking to him. He gave me his okay, but I'm not convinced."
Kurosaki stares at her silently for a moment. "Well, you said he was loyal. He may not approve with the internal goings-on of his Division, but he knows it's for the good of the Gotei."
"You may be right." Rukia picks up her cup again, peering at the bottom of it. "How are things for you?"
"I don't have any exciting news, but that's not always a bad thing, right?" He crosses his arms on the table and leans some of his weight onto them. There's a question waiting to be asked, but he can't bring himself to utter it. They would go round endlessly in tiny spirals of small talk if she didn't stop this right now.
"You want to know about nii-sama."
She takes her eyes off the peonies on the windowsill in time to catch Kurosaki blinking. "How'd you guess?"
"He's fine. A little busy with clan matters now that I have made Captain, but not much more than usual."
He shifts on his seat, clearly in an uncomfortable state of mind.
"You don't have to keep tabs if you don't want to."
"But we're friends. I want you to know that you can talk about it if you want to. That's what friends are for."
Inoue and Kurosaki, they're the only ones she's told, and only because Inoue had become worried about her and Renji.
"Is everything alright between you two?" she'd asked, eyes full of compassion and concern. "I don't mean to pry, but you seem so... distant, like you're not very happy together."
Rukia had exchanged glances with her lawfully wedded husband, who had nodded and placed his hand on top of hers. "That's because we're not together."
The two in front of her had exclaimed their surprise in a volume Rukia had not been entirely comfortable with, but she let them have this moment. It must have been quite a shock to them.
"What do you mean? But we thought you were married!"
"Then what on Earth do you mean by 'you're not together'?"
What she meant was exactly what she had said. She may be wedded to Renji, but they are not together as a couple. Their marriage is just a cover-up.
Rukia has spent years observing her friend watching nii-sama's back, longing in every line of his body. Even nii-sama had not been above sparing a glance or two more than necessary for his subordinate. Their eyes lingered on each other, as did their hands, and their words lingered in their mouths, unspoken. Until Renji could not best nii-sama in a fight, he felt himself unworthy to speak what was on his mind. And nii-sama, he had his vows to keep. He would not bring shame and dishonour to his house again.
It was too much for any soul to take. So Rukia came up with a socially acceptable solution for Renji to move in with nii-sama: she proposed to him. As a noble, it was required of her to ask for the commoner's hand, as it was required of the commoner to join the noble's household, even if she, as a woman, lost her title upon marriage.
Renji's shoulders had sagged and his eyes had grown dull if still kind before he accepted. There was no hope for him to ever follow his heart, but if he followed her he would at least be closer to nii-sama. It was only later that she realised the gravity of his sacrifice -- he would be sharing not only his office but his living quarters with nii-sama close enough to touch but forever out of reach.
The event was celebrated throughout Seireitei. If their old friends from Inuzuri could have been there, they would have teased them with their approval, saying they'd always known the two of them would end up together. It had been written in the stars. The elders might not have been as forthcoming, as the match once again was made outside of their political circle, but nii-sama was glad she had found someone worthy of her, even if he would not meet her eyes when he made that statement.
It is hard work keeping a secret inside the walls of Seireitei for there are eyes everywhere. She had to wait for the servants to retreat and leave them to their wedding night before she could convene with both Renji and nii-sama. She'd bowed deeply in her bulky wedding kimono to apologise for her secrecy and the hurt she'd caused them. At first glance her decision might have been designed to drive them apart.
She'd left them in their stunned silence to talk matters over in private once they would have mastered their surprise. She'd gone outside to watch the stars that night. She took a shuddering breath of night air, knowing now that she hadn't acted foolishly, hadn't lost nii-sama's or Renji's regard, hadn't made the biggest mistake of her life. They'd been startled but grateful for her sacrifice, which to her felt like no sacrifice at all. She wanted happiness for them both, and if this was how she could assist them, there could be happiness in it for her, too. Now that she was a married woman, there would be no more talks of arrangements to meet prospective husbands the elders deemed appropriate. The slight breeze was freedom between her fingertips.
And true enough, by the next morning, the reticence both had cast around their tongues like nets to catch any stray word had retreated in favour of a companionable togetherness. It was not quite ease yet, for their work together had just begun, but their meaningful glances told her they had been able to clear the air between them and utter the words that had clung to the roof of their mouths.
Ichigo's face did a curious thing while Rukia was relating their story: his eyebrows rose in one direction, his jaw fell in the other. Inoue was leaning forward intently, the attentiveness in her large eyes making up for the pinch in her small mouth. Of course, Rukia was far from finished.
Years went by and she watched their love blossom like azaleas in the spring. Rukia was glad she had been able to repay their loyalty and friendship by offering them this, but a part of her was also growing tired. Tired of this charade, tired of the lack of acceptance for something so wonderful and harmless, tired of the arguments that had crept like blight into this happy union.
Nii-sama maintained that one day he would have to remarry for the Kuchiki name to continue, a position Renji vehemently opposed now that they had each other. He wanted, and Rukia nearly tripped over her shihakushou when she heard it, to start a family with nii-sama, expectations be damned. Naturally, they could have no children of their own, but adoption was always open to them. However, the only viable candidates were either too old to accept them both as fathers or politically disadvantageous to the clan.
So the topic was shelved for another day.
As it would happen, the solution once again fell into Rukia's lap. She'd gone to the Fourth Division for treatment after a Hollow attack, and Kotetsu asked her, in a very roundabout way, both hopeful and concerned, if she was expecting. There it was, that word again. Expecting what? Then it dawned on Rukia that her colleagues would be wondering when she would bear Renj a child, something she had not considered before her proposal. If she did not, inquiries would be started into her health and other reasons as to why she would not conceive to make sure she had not become ill as her sister once had.
Rukia had never had any intentions of becoming a mother, her own childhood fears of starvation so stark in her memory she found it unthinkable to leave any soul to that fate. But now, no child of hers would ever need to go hungry, and this realisation opened new doors -- Rukia would bear this child for Renji and nii-sama to raise until such time it could legally adopt the Kuchiki name and carry on this legacy.
Renji had hugged her till her bones creaked after she told them of her idea. "I owe you big time."
"You don't owe me anything. Once, you gave everything to save my life even after I had abandoned you."
He'd scoffed at her noble words. "But I failed to make a difference."
"I'm still alive now, aren't I?" She jabbed his ribs with her elbow, before adding softly, "And I believe your sacrifice made all the difference to nii-sama."
Rukia had taken a sip from her jasmine tea and waited for their reactions. Ichigo nearly fell from his chair. He was gesticulating wildly as he was grasping for words. She and Renji burst out laughing.
"Whaaat?! I don't understand anything anymore. You married Renji so he could be with Byakuya? What the hell kind of sense does that make?!"
"Is this not how you handle these matters in the human world?"
"Uh..." It appeared that Ichigo had never had to consider the intricate nature of marriage and relationships within a narrow sphere of social acceptance before. He scratched his head. "I dunno. I feel like it wouldn't be this complicated."
"But isn't it romantic?" Inoue threw in. "It's very courageous of you to overcome these obstacles in the name of love."
"It's what you do for friends and family, isn't it?"
"We're letting you in on this, because you're our friends, too," Renji added. "We can trust you to keep this a secret, right?"
Ichigo's reaction has been a source of amusement since then and will be for years to come. Renji is not letting him live this down, a fact of which Ichigo is painfully aware. Even now, as he's sitting alone with Rukia in his spotless kitchen, he chuckles softly to himself and rubs the back of his head somewhat sheepishly.
"I've always been meaning to ask," he says, quite serious now.
"Where are you in all this?"
"What do you mean?"
Hr exhales slowly. "Pretending to be married to your best friend is one thing, but you gave up your daughter so he could raise her together with your brother."
"I didn't give her up. I see her every day, how happy she is." How happy they all are, Renji bursting with pride when his daughter uttered her first words, nii-sama filled with lightness and joy when she took her first steps. Rukia smiles at the treasure trove of memories in her heart. "And she calls me mother, which is important when there is company."
"But isn't that weird?"
"Not at all. Why would it be?"
"I dunno. I thought maybe having two daddies and a mother might be confusing for her."
"Did you think growing up with a mother and only one father was strange?"
"That's different. All of my friends had only one mother and only one father, too. But you still didn't answer my question. You do all of this for their benefit. What's in it for you?"
Rukia looks out of the window at the shrubs fencing off Ichigo's property from his neighbours'. The whole scenery is suburban and idyllic. She tries to picture Renji and nii-sama moving into one of these houses by themselves, and wonders whether they would be free of judging eyes here. She's lived oppressed by this gaze for so long, she can hardly imagine a place it would not scrutinise.
"I get the knowledge I've done something good with this life you saved," she says finally. Ever since Renji, and moreover, ever since Kaien-dono, she had carried on with a crushing sense of guilt as her constant companion, more than she could ever have safely worked through. Or so she thought. Living this way, in the shade of a relationship that would otherwise never have had the chance to develop, and offering a life in exchange for the one she took, it makes her breathe freer and really appreciate the second chance she had been given.
"Isn't it lonely?"
Rukia shakes her head. "I have a family. If there ever were any feelings of loneliness, I would have enough work to occupy me. I have my Division and I have my friends and I am quite content with the way things are."
"Well," Ichigo concedes. "Can't argue with that."
"But if you ever need to talk or if Soul Society ever gets too much for you, you know where to find us. You don't have to do this alone, okay?"
"Thank you, Ichigo."
"So. What do you say I heat up some sake and we toast to family?"