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DAY 1

 

 

She can feel the very instant she fades from his sight. They do not look away from each other but she can tell how suddenly he begins searching. His irises dance, he blinks once, and she knows. She's gone from him. She's faded from his senses. She's been fading for days. It's been a slow torture. She wishes for one more second of that torture.

Her fingers curl in her palm, the bite of her nails forcing her to keep steady as she slides her gaze to their friends out of the corner of her eyes. Ishida, Orihime, Sado stand mere feet away. They all still look at her. Their eyes don't search. She wonders if they can see the wetness that clings to the corners of her eyes. Rukia swallows. Ichigo still stares at her, unseeing. The material in his hoodie's pocket bunches up. His hands are fisting too. One hand lifts and almost touches the edge of his sweater, but she catches it quick and forces it back to her side.

"Good-bye," she whispers. Thinks about how he hates that word.

She faces their friends. Orihime is trying not to cry; Rukia is grateful for that. Ishida touches the other girl's elbow gently. Orihime gives her a watery smile. Ishida and Sado both nod.

Rukia's chin dips, and she hurries away, her flash step unsteady when landing a few rooftops away. She looks back towards the Kurosaki clinic and chokes back a wet lump in her throat that feels too much like a sob. Her heels dig into the roof. She hates crying and she won't. It's foolish. He's alive. She's alive. That's what counts.

It's what's important.

Her teeth press down on her lips; she swallows, looks up.

The sky is blue and bright. It's a sunny day.

She leaps off the roof, heads to Urahara's. Behind her the sun dries two wet spots.

When she gets to the shop Urahara opens the Senkaimon without a quip, his shadowed eyes too knowing. On the other side Renji and Byakuya wait for her. She kicks at Renji when he covers her head his large hand, messing with her hair. Her eyes mist at the touch. He hisses and glares but smiles. She rolls her eyes. Nii-sama only touches her shoulder, his words soft. He leads them away from the Senkaimon.

"Welcome home, Rukia."

She nods. That's right, this is home too.

 

 

 

DAY 2

 

 

"Rukia-chan, I've been thinking," Ukitake starts, pleasant and sure, "I think it's time we start giving you a little more responsibility."

Her head snaps up. The tea cup in her hand fumbles. Deliberately, carefully, she sets it down.

Ukitake only smiles. Behind her she can hear the not so quiet whisper of the Third Seats.

"Taicho?"

"You're an excellent shinigami, Rukia, and your skills merit more than the position you're in right now." His lips soften, the edge of them curl. "You should at least be a seated officer."

"Y-yes, sir." She can't believe it.

Finally, a part of her whispers. It sounds like Ichigo, it sounds like Renji, it sounds like Sode no Shirayuki. It sounds like her.

Now his perfect posture slumps a little. "Sadly, right now all seated positions are filled, but," he pauses, his eyes meeting with Rukia's, lighting with what she would almost called mischief, and taps his chin. "But I'm looking to change some positions soon enough. Until then, I hope you won't mind shadowing our Fourth Seat. With the Winter War over they're getting quite swamped and need someone to help overlook training sessions."

Rukia blinks. Fourth seat, she repeats to herself. Fourth seat. She's been unseated all the years she's been in the Thirteenth and now...

"Rukia-chan? Rukia-chan?" Ukitake leans forward, his dimples flash.

She rises to attention and drops into seiza, her head touches the floor. "Yes, sir! It would be an honour, sir!" Her cheeks are hurting from controlling her smile.

She feels a gentle hand touch the crown of her head and she looks up. Ukitake's smiling widely at her. She can hear Kiyone and Sentaro's very loud whispers of who's happier for her already starting up. Ukitake stands and she follows.

"You've made me very proud, Rukia-san," he says, walking her to the door.

"Thank you, Ukitake-taicho." Rukia bows and leaves. She loses ten minutes fending off congratulations from Kiyone and Sentaro before finding the Fourth Seat, Pema Furuhata, and discussing what her work will entail. There's a fullness in her heart that she can't completely explain. She's been part of the Thirteen a long time but ever since Kaien a part of her felt unworthy of being in the division if she's honest. Today, with his words, Captain Ukitake finally quieted that part of her.

She's half way to the Senkaimon when she realises: she can't even tell Ichigo about it. It stops her in her tracks for a whole minute. Her chest feels heavy for several minutes afterward.

She can almost hear what he would say.

Man, Ukitake must be really sick if he's finally decided to give you a seated position. then later, Does that mean you're going to order me around more, midget? then even later, Fourth Seat, huh? I don't know why he just doesn't make you vice-captain. and finally: I'm proud of you, Rukia. his words fluttering against her temple and into her hair.

She sighs. He's so predictable.

The wall is cool where she leans on it. Overhead, a flock of birds fly by and are blotted out by the sun. She doesn't know long she stays standing there, in the cool shade of the Thirteenth before she pushes herself off and nods quickly to herself.

Thanks, Ichigo.

She sets her shoulders and heads over to the Sixth.

 

 

 

DAY 14

 

 

"Geez, Rukia, what are you trying to do? Reach bankai?" Renji grumbles, eyeing the wound on his thigh.

Rukia says nothing, only shoves a handful of bandages at him.

Renji's eyes fly up to her.

"Seriously!?"

"Come on, let's get you to the Fourth," she says, under her breath, slipping Sode no Shirayuki back into her sheath. The sound of the hilt meeting the sheath is like a sigh.

Renji limps up, the wound is a little deeper than she had thought it would be; she really hadn't meant to hit so hard. Damn. She slips an arm over her shoulder. Renji's weight is heavy and familiar at her side. She remembers the days he would fight off men two, three times his size, even before his growth spurt, when they were kids just so she and the others could get way. He would always the be warmest in winter and they would all huddle around him.

They make their way to the Fourth, slowly. The wound isn't bleeding much anymore, but she doesn't want him to exasperate it.

"It was a hell of a hit, Rukia."

"I didn't think it had that much power behind it," she confesses.

He laughs; shaking at her side. "That was you holding back? Man, warn me next time."

"Shut up," she mutters.

They walk slowly and silently for a beat. His bandages are bleeding through. Yeah, too much power.

Near the entrance of the Fourth, his arms pulls her in a little closer and she can hear his smile. "So, bankai."

"You and Ichigo reached it."

"Yeah, we did." They both remember just why they did.

"You were both crazy."

He shrugs, teeth flashing, "Well, I really wanted to kick your brother's ass too."

"Renji," she scolds, but they both know she doesn't really mean it. Both his and Ichigo had their reasons to fight Byakuya that day, more than enough of those reasons have to do with her, there are others that are theirs alone. She's okay with that. She never did want it to be completely about her anyway.

"If you really want to you'll do it, and I'll help. Probably shouldn't tell Kuchiki-taicho just yet though."

Rukia sighs, "I--"

The Fourth is creeping up on them. It's doors wide and open. The Fourth welcomes everybody.

"Thanks, Renji."

"Yeah, yeah." He ruffles her hairs and limps in. She glares. To be honest, she's not sure if she wants to reach bankai or more to the point she's not sure there's much of a choice. It's something she feels the edges of when she sleeps and when she trains. Something Sode no Shirayuki whispers to her in her dreams and during mediation. Those are the moments she can smell snow and ozone; were she can feel the licks and strings of power that slip out of her grasp.

She really had thought she was holding back with Renji today because it was just a friendly spar, neither of them in shikai, and she was bored, so was he. They needed sometime to fill the hour. Her because she itched for the Living World, Renji for whatever reasons he had. But then he charged and his power flared for an instance. Her reaction had been quick and instantaneous. She had seen the shock on his face as her body speed up and the hit struck at little too true.

There was the smell of snow for a minute.

Sode no Shirayuki hums at her side.

Bankai, she whispers, so low Rukia barely hears her.

Soon, Rukia thinks. Maybe too soon.

 

 

 

DAY 20

 

 

Isshin smiles up at her from the open window. Rukia flushes under his gaze, but knows she's caught and hops down to where he's giving a small wave, telling her to come in. Karin's at practice, Yuzu is doing homework. Ichigo...he wouldn't even know she was in the room. Rukia forces down the lump that grows in her throat. She follows Isshin to the clinic.

He settles in his chair, kicking back until only two legs are holding him up. His feet cross on his desk.

"It's nice to see you, Rukia-chan! It's been...a few weeks." He teeters in his chair, but doesn't fall. "Checking up on my son? He's in his room, moping and doing homework. Well, I hope he's doing homework!" Isshin laughs; it's not a real one. Kurosakis are bad liars.

Rukia leans against the wall. "I know."

Isshin's eyes narrow.

"Know?"

"Know where he is, what he's doing."

"Of course you do, Rukia-chan! Of course you do!" Leaning far back enough that Rukia worries about him falling with his chair, Isshin looks towards the ceiling. There's still two more floors between them and Ichigo and the only other Kurosaki that would sense Rukia's presence is out. The chair squeaks under Isshin's strain. "He'll figure it soon enough, don't worry."

"Kurosaki-san?"

The suspended legs of the chair hit the floor; it echos lightly in the room.

Isshin's smile is too big for his face. "Didn't I tell you to call me, Daddy, Rukia-chan!"

The edges of her mouth soften. "Never, Kurosaki-san."

"Bah! I blame Byakuya-bo. He's made you too serious."

"Nii-sama is just serious enough. He's..." Rukia rubs the hilt of her sword, looks up to the ceiling. Two floors separate them and it wouldn't even matter if it was thirty. She's faded from his sight. It hurts more than she thought it would, given how much (or is it how little) time has passed. She swallows. "Nii-sama was the one that opened the Senkaimon for me."

"The manor's?"

"Yes," she says.

Isshin grins again, but now it feels more real that all the ones he's been feeding her before. "You Kuichikis always rebelling when it counts."

"Kurosaki-san?"

He stands, slaps his hand on his thighs and the crosses over to her the look on his face familiar, yet Rukia doesn't think she's ever seen it directed to her. It makes her feel very young.

"Daddy-chan, Rukia, daddy-chan." He leans down to her, eyes wobbling with tears.

She rolls her eyes, forces her cheeks to stay as they are. "Never, Kurosaki-san."

"Maybe one day, then," he pats her shoulder and moves towards the clinic doors. Rukia follows, knowing it's time to leave. He opens them for her and then leans against the frame. "Don't forget to say hi next time you drop by."

She almost waves him off, thinks of telling him that she won't come back any more, that it was a one time thing, that she can't and won't, but there's a look in his eyes at stops her. There's something else there. Remember, I can sense when you're near. For the first time she really sees the captain in him, can picture him with his haori and wonders how ever she missed that hum of power under his skin. He won't buy her excuses and lies and he definitely won't let her get away with them this time. Rukia nods.

"Of course, Kurosaki-san."

Isshin nods. "Maybe you'll come back with stories to tell me."

Rukia flashsteps away to the near roof top and that's when she realises what the look on Isshin's face was before. It's how he looks at Karin and Yuzu, how he looks at Ichigo. It's how he looks at his family.

Rukia shakes her head. Yes, she will bring back stories.

 

 

 

DAY 31

 

 

The bang of something heavy hitting her desk jolts her awake and she looks into the shining, laughing eyes of Kioyne.

Rukia blinks. "Kioyne-san?"

"Ukitake-taicho told us to wake you, make sure you get some dinner, and then make sure you head home to get some real rest, Rukia-san." The ways Kioyne's eyes are twinkling make Rukia nervous.

Then she processes the sentence.

Her eyes widen, her cheeks heat up. "U-Ukitake-taicho saw me like this?!" She straights immediately in her chair, hands shifting through the papers to make her work space seem less than the mess it was now.

Kioyne grins, "Oh, about twenty minutes ago. Don't worry, he wasn't mad. He was worried you weren't getting enough rest." Rukia immediately understands that Kioyne is not happy with her for worrying their captain. Worry exasperates his stress which can worsen his condition. The third seat leans forward and help straighten a pile of paperwork. "Rukia-"

"I'm sorry, Kioyne-san. I just," she grabs a small stack of papers, taps their edges to the desk to even them out, "I want to do a good job. I want to make Ukitake-taicho proud."

Kioyne's face softens. "You're doing great, Rukia-san, but don't overwork yourself. It's already so late we were surprised when we came by and saw you still at your desk."

"Sleeping," Rukia mutters. Her neck feels hot.

"Rukia-san?"

"No, nothing." She nods, "I understand."

Kioyne smiles. "Good. Now, come on, dinner and a proper rest. Taicho's orders!"

Together the close up the office and Kioyne convinces her to come eat with her and sister for dinner. Rukia agrees. Half way there she quirks her gaze at Kioyne.

"You didn't have to wake me up by dropping that book, you know."

Kioyne laughs. "But it was so funny!"

 

 

 

DAY 50

 

 

She finds out by near mistake. She's in the right place at the right time it seems, sitting at Captain Ukitake's side taking some notes down on the schedule for the week as he sends Kioyne and Senetaro off for some tea. Sometimes she thinks her captain only drinks so much tea for the few minutes of peace and quiet it buys him from their excitable Third Seats. Captain Ukitake is a smart man.

He's also very kind which is why he doesn't kick her out of the office when Captain Kyōraku and Nanao walk in. Kyōraku enters as he always does, with the sounds of doors banging open in his wake and a loud greeting.

"Juu-chan! Have you heard?! It looks like we're getting Shinji-chan back! Kensi-san and Rose-san too. What a happy day, I've brought my best sake to celebrate! Oh! Hello, Rukia-chan! How are you this lovely day!?" He announces, as Nanao presses her lips together in the background, effectively shutting the doors right after have you heard. Rukia hopes to one day be as quick and efficient as Nanao. She blinks at the news, the names Kyōraku mentioned slowly firing synapses and bringing forward memories to Rukia. She hadn't been around them much but she thinks of Ichigo's mask.

Her eyes snaps to her captain and she scrambles to get her notes in place. "I-I'll take my leave, taicho," Rukia say quickly, feeling that she's not supposed to be privy to this news.

Sighing at his friend, who plops down next to them with a wide smile, Nanao at his side, Ukitake waves her off her suggestion to leave. "No need, Rukia-chan. You can stay, we still have some work to do. Even though it seems we might be needing to work around some new distractions." He glares at his Kyōraku, but centuries of friendship seems to have made the other man immune. Behind him Nanao sighs.

"If you require any assistance, Ukitake-taicho, Kuchiki-san, I'd be happy to help." Nanao offers.

"Thank you, Ise-san," Ukitake smiles at her and invites her to sit down. Nanao only hesitates for a second before doing so. They all ignore Kyōraku's comments about how great it is that Nanao-chan has joined them, one arm wrapping around the woman's shoulder. The fan snaps out quickly, tapping fingers but there's a look shared between captain and vice-captain that Rukia thinks is best she not think about.

"As for you, Shunsui, you could have waited to start the celebration." Ukitake says, pulling papers away from the sake's splash zone. Rukia does the same, watching the exchange with a curious gaze, wondering why she's still in the room. Ukitake continues on, "And we don't know if they'll take Yama-jii's offer. A lot has changed since they were captains."

Rukia bites the inside of her cheek. She knows the basics of what happened to the Vizard captains and vice-captains: Aizen, Urahara, the order from the Central 46. Unconsciously, her hand drifts to her chest where her uniform covers the scars. They are not the only Aizen and the Central 46 have sentenced to death.

Across the table Nanao catches her eye and smiles. Rukia drops her hand to her thigh. It curls around the fabric, but she smiles back.

"True, true, but that's exactly why I know they'll take it. A lot has changed."

Rukia makes a show of ordering the papers she and her captain were working on because she's pretty sure Kyōraku's gaze falls on her right then. She thinks about Ichigo, who they never call Vizard, but all know he is. He is also their saviour. They treat him with a respect she sometimes cannot quiet understand.

Ukitake laughs, soft and quick. A small cough follows it, but he doesn't cover it up, so they all know: no blood. No need to worry.

"Yes, you're right, Shun-kun, a lot has change." He turns to Rukia, handing her a stack of papers.

For the next few minutes she, her captain, and Nanao work on the order forms for the division as Kyōraku-taicho sips his sake. It goes much faster than usual with Nanao in the room as the woman seems to know what every form consist of. She also helps Rukia weed out which are the more important forms to those that can be delegated to lower seats in the division. They are only interrupted once when Kioyne and Senetaro come back in only to trip over themselves, almost spill the tea -- Rukia saves the tray with some quick reflexes -- and head back out with forms Rukia hands them. All in all they are done in record time.

"Thank you for your help, Rukia-chan." Ukitake-taicho says when they're done. "Why don't you take your lunch break now? We'll reconvene when you return."

Nodding, she carefully takes the papers, adds them to her own, and stands. "Yes, sir. I'll bring them back when they're ready, sir." Bowing, she makes her way slowly out of the room.

"No need to rush, Rukia-chan!"

She steps out of the office, closes the door behind her, and lingers in the hall trying to make sense of what she just learned. Vizards in Soul Society. The voices are muffled but she can still make out a few words. She tells herself to move away. Rukia shifts closer to the wall.

"You shouldn't gossip, Shunsui," comes from a decidedly female voice and Rukia's mouth opens in a silent 'oh' because there's only one female now in her captains office and that was a very familiar way of addressing one's captain. While it's no secret just how close Nanao and her captain are, Rukia still gets surprised at times.

"It wasn't gossip! They are coming back! Technically they're still the captains of those divisions. They weren't exactly fired. We don't fire people, remember." His voice grows dark towards the end. Rukia swallows.

"True enough," she hears Ukitake say, "but still. They haven't agreed yet."

There's a silence in the room for what would seem to be an uncomfortable silence even though Rukia doesn't think it is one inside the office and then Kyōraku-taicho's voice come in, clear and strong. Filled with memories. "Juu-chan, they agreed a long time ago."

With those words something lead-like settles in her gut and Rukia takes her leave, quickly. Some conversations aren't meant for her. When knocks on her captain's door after lunch when she's finished with the paperwork he set gave her Kyōraku-taicho and Nanao are no longer there. Rukia smiles and walks in. This time when asked for tea, Kiyone and Sentaro do spill it. It's cleaned up quickly enough. The day continues normally enough.

 

 

 

DAY 71

 

 

"Hello, Kurosaki-san," she says, dropping to the ground next to Isshin from her perch on the telephone pole.

"Rukia-chan! So lovely to see you. How's my favourite Kuchiki?!"

She really tries not to smile because it only encourages him, but she can't help it. Rukia smiles.

"I am fine, Kurosaki-san."

"Daddy-chan, daddy-chan."

"Never, Kurosaki-san."

He laughs, leans back on the door to the clinic. "He's not here."

It never fails to impress how these Kurosaki men can change in an instance, forever keeping her unbalanced.

"I know."

"He took Karin and Yuzu to the park. I think Urahara's brats went with them."

She nods, fingers the ties that hold Sode no Shirayuki to her. "I know. I'm glad."

"Me too, Rukia-chan."

 

 

 

DAYS 96-100

 

 

She convinces Renji to go with her on a mission. It takes them the better part of the week to track and take down the hollows, but they do their job. If she's a little extra ruthless when fighting Renji is the last person who would say anything. She's grateful for that.

When they return they spend a few hours in the Fourth and a few hours after that drinking. It's mostly Renji drinking with Madarame and Ayasegawa, but later on Hisagi and Rangiku join them. Rukia doesn't drink much on principle, and when she gets home she's still closer to the line of sober than her companions were when they all left. Renji isn't, so she deposits him in the guest room, smiling slyly at what his reaction will be in the morning. Nii-sama's too.

In her room, she strips off her uniform, slips on a sleeping yukata and drops down to her futon. Her heel of her palm press into her eyes and she takes deep breath. Then another. Then one more.

It's silly, it's so silly.

Curling to her side, Rukia sighs.

It's so silly to count.

Her pillow is damp in morning.

 

 

 

DAY 109

 

 

"Rukia."

"Yes, nii-sama?"

"Let's go out for dinner tonight. That new okonomiyaki restaurant I hear is quite good."

Rukia blinks up at Byakuya; he hates going out for dinner. He doesn't even really okonomiyaki. It's one of Rukia's favourite dish.

Her cheeks twitch and she nods.

"Okay, nii-sama."

They eat dinner quietly, for the most part. Byakuya asks about her new position in the Thirteenth and Rukia can help the overflow of words when talking about her new duties and the antics of the Third Seats during meetings. Between them, herself and the Furuhata-san they run the majority of the division, in all honesty. It would make her feel awkward to admit this but most of the time Ukitake seems proud of the fact.

As her chopsticks close over a piece of shrimp Byakuya speaks.

"You do the Kuchiki name proud, Rukia."

She feels the flush rush down her neck. "Thank you, nii-sama."

The line of his mouth softens and then he's concentrated in battle with a stray piece of octopus. Rukia grins.

 

 

 

DAY 120

 

 

Skidding on the gravel of the training ground, Rukia curses as Sode no Shirayuki blade sparks while Zabimaru strikes and keeps striking the long blade nearing whipping around her. Grunting, she pushes on her hold, forcing the momentum of Zabimaru blades away from her and she almost thinks she can hear Sode no Shirayuki's frustrated sigh. Renji's sword is strong and stubborn, just like her friend, and it blocks against her strikes with something near glee.

As the blades come at her again, Rukia wishes she could send a glare to Renji who has not moved from his position but knows she can't afford the distraction. She needs to time this just right. That was the second strike of Zabimaru's shikai. There's only one more left until Renji has to pull the blades back. So Rukia focuses her energies, blocking the slash of the blades waiting for--

Here comes the third strike.

Renji is smart. He attacks from the side and then switches the direction of the blades from back to front.

She smiles.

They've known each other for too long.

Her sword lifts over her head and she whispers.

"Tsugi no mai, Hakuren."

Ice covers Renji's blade, forcing him to pull back and gather Zabimaru faster than he meant. Rukia launches herself forward. "San no mai, Shirafune." She has not stop the Third Dance, it still barrels towards Renji, and ice now follows the swing of the sword. Renji lifts up to block. Sode no Shirayuki sings under Rukia's hand.

With her other hand she called outs Hado 33: Sōkatsui.

Renji's eyes widen and in the second it takes him to defend against the spell, they both know:

He's lost.

Sode no Shirayuki's ice has wound around his wrist. His knees hit the floor just as Rukia's hado singes his hair.

She pulls her sword to her side, the ice retreats. Sode no Shirayuki's snow white turns back to steel. "Nice dodge," she offers.

He glares up at her. "I can't feel my hand, Rukia!" He shakes out the hand in question and Zabimaru shudders in his grip, turning back into a katana in a red flash.

"Don't be such a baby, it's just a little ice."

"Ha! I've seen what that ice can do--Oh my god, is my hand going to shatter!" He lifts his hand and brings up to his face, blowing on it as if it will speed up the heating process.

Rukia rolls her eyes, kicks at his shin. Years of knowing her and training has him easily sidestepping her. She scowls. "Of course it's not going to shatter, you dumbass. It's just a little numbing chill just so you can get a taste of Sode no Shirayuki's power."

"Yeah, taste, my ass. More like full meal," Renji mutters.

Chuckling, she shrugs, spilling her sword back into sheath. "Wimp."

"You know..." He narrows his eyes at her, "You sound like the Strawberry more and more every day."

She waits for the mention of Ichigo to make her chest ache, for her ribs to feel too small to hold her lungs, for the lump in her throat. It doesn't come. Her heart still squeezes and her stomach tightens, but it's not pain. If anything it's warmth. She turns to Renji, her face soft. "He hates it when you guys call him that."

Renji shrugs, cheeky grin in place, but Rukia can see. They've known each other for too long. He misses messing with Ichigo too, probably more than her, because half the time she's not messing with Ichigo; she's just with him, like he's with her, and they understand what all those moments mean. But Renji. Ichigo was his friend and it’s less complicated than what she and Ichigo have by a ton, but they were still friends. Good friends, best friends, who learned to understand each other by swords, blood, bankais, and saving her. Rukia understands that. Right now Ichigo is gone from them and when your friends are gone you miss them.

"Sometimes I think about going and messing with him. Pranks, you know. Switching his shirts to sizes that actually fit him--"

"Hey, I like how his shirts fit him!" She defends, because really, she does. How they stretch snug around his shoulders and how when he lifts his arms there's always a strip of skin.

Renji rolls his eyes. "Of course you do, but I'm pretty sure Ikkaku doesn't appreciate it when Yumichika's eyes roam." Rukia laughs. Renji sighs, "Anyway. It doesn't matter does it. He won't see us or sense us. He won't know it's us."

She shrugs, and because she has to hope, can't give up hope, she says it. "Maybe he would. None of the others would do something like that. Maybe he would know it's us."

"Maybe," says Renji. He throws an arm over her shoulder. "So, t-shirts?"

She shoves at his ribs. "Leave them alone." I like them, stays unsaid.

"Spoiled sport."

 

 

 

DAY 125

 

 

There's a list she and Renji show Isshin titled: Ways To Mess With Ichigo. It goes on for about five pages, with handwriting from near all the divisions. The Eleventh had a particularly good time helping them fill it out. Some of nii-sama's suggestion were crossed out on the account of they could be a bit life-threatening. Nanao's suggestion had everybody, save nii-sama surprisingly, taking a seat back from the woman, with a new fear and respect for both her captain and her respectively. (Rukia hopes Kyōraku never truly angers Nanao.) Yoruichi-san's suggestion were just plain perverted that they had to be crossed out too, even though Rukia could tell Isshin was trying to read them.

In the end they don't do anything of the list. But they sit and laugh with Isshin, Urahara, Yoruichi, and Tessai for about an hour discussing what would have been Ichigo's varied reactions.

 

 

 

DAY 126

 

 

Well, okay, they do pull of one prank. They have Isshin dye his socks, underwear, and few undershirts pink. Sakura blossom pink.

She laughs from the roof as she hears his screech. Then when he starts muttering about how in the hell a pink kimono got into his wash. It make her eyes water. It's just the sun burning her eyes too as she looks up at the clouds. It's just the sun.

Her lips are salty. Her hands curls on the material inside her sleeve. She might have stolen a shirt from the laundry basket before she and Isshin put the others to wash with the borrowed kimono.

 

 

 

DAY 140

 

 

She always skips the SWA meetings. Okay, fine, almost always. It's not that she doesn't like her fellow female shinigami, it's just she's not interested in three-fourths of what they do. Sometimes nii-sama sits in her for when it's mandatory meeting and she's working. Work is something Nanao understands just can't be skipped. Rukia works hard and often. Sometimes she does go though. When nii-sama does his calligraphy class, or the beach trips, or when Nanao stand in front of her and just shifts her glasses on her face. Rukia knows better than to argue with Nanao then. It's how Nanao has an extra key to the manor.

The SWA's interest in Kuichiki manor's grounds and amenities does amuse her though. At first she thought it was because they had all been interested in Byakuya -- after all, according to the SWA's poll he is one of the more popular males in the Seireitei -- but soon she learned that they mostly just like to see if he'll react to them (he does; Senbonzakura has destroyed a great many pools to Rukia's dismay, and more than few hot tubs and a couple of gazebos.) and because the manor really is that nice. After that she had given up the extra key to Nanao, though of course not without a fight, but Nanao knew how to fight dirty. Dirtier than Rukia had expected, and really, she just didn't want to be forced to go to all the meetings. However Rukia had gone straight to Byakuya and guiltily admitted her failure. Kuchiki's don't fail, don't you know? But he had just looked at her, sighed, and adjusted his scarf.

"Nanao-san would have found other ways, I'm sure. It is fine, Rukia," he had said.

Rukia had blinked. "Are you not mad?"

"Nanao-san can be very crafty,” Byakuya had said, “Did you hold out long?"

"Yes, she can be!" Rukia had replied, reassured that she was not the only that saw the sneaky depth in Nanao's eyes. "And yes, for five days."

Byakuya had nodded. "That is impressive."

Rukia had beamed. And it had meant she could skip all the meetings she wanted, except the mandatory ones. Or the ones that Byakuya sometimes sent Renji on for punishment, because those were just hilarious. It was a good deal. She liked it.

Until a mandatory meeting came along.

Shifting in her chair, Rukia sips the thick concoction of Rangiku's margarita. It was the annual We've Survived Another Year Meeting. Party, actually. Generally Rukia enjoyed them, but she just didn't feel like celebrating this year. Unfortunately for her there was a lot to celebrate. Looking around the room -- and really she was slightly nervous about when nii-sama got home and saw they had taken over the fancy dining area, but she was letting Nanao and Ran-chan worry about that -- she sees that she's not the only one sticking to the corners of the festivities. Hinamori looks a lot better, her recovery is progressing steadily, but sometimes she still get the haunted look in her eyes that makes Rukia's chest ache. Her scars feels tight when she thinks Aizen and Hueco Mundo.

They feel tight and raw right now. She tries not to think about how warm tan hands would cover them and press kisses to the raised skin. She would do the same. They had scars to match.

Taking another long sip of her drink, Rukia smiles at Nanao, who she passes on her way across the room. Yachiru's sitting next to Nemu, her face already sticky with chocolate smudges at the corner of her lips and the apples of her cheeks. They seem to be talking about the best ways to dismember an opponent, smiles on their faces. The Eleventh and Twelfth are in Rukia's opinion weird. Rukia's mind flashes back to Hueco Mundo in that instance, remembers how those two were the only two people who didn't seem taken aback by the strangeness of that place and Las Noches.

Weird but tough, Rukia thinks agains, smiling and warning Yachiru about what would happen if she spills (again) on nii-sama's carpet as she passes them. Nemu reassures Rukia that she'll make sure no spills occur.

The voices of the other members of the group filter and fill the room. Rukia can hear Yoruichi and Rangiku make another toast, sees as Kioyne waggles her brows at her sister, clearly teasing her about something. Everybody is flushed and smiling. More like almost everybody.

Hinamori flinches as Rukia takes a seat next to her.

"Rukia-san, sorry," says Momo. She fiddles with the pink, loopy straws that Rangiku had stuck in their drinks.

"It's okay, Hinamori-san, I didn't mean to startle you." Rukia smiles gently.

Hinamori's blush is dark against her too pale skin. Rukia notes she hasn't seemed to taken a drink from the wide, rim sugared glass. There's a pile of tiny folded butterflies by her plate of cake. Her full plate of cake. Rukia remembers how when she was waiting for her powers to come up and she couldn't summon her sword she filled up every empty corner of her sketchbooks, her hands searching for something to do when she was only occupied with her thoughts.

Rukia picks up on the tiny butterflies. Hinamori's eyes follow her hands.

The butterfly is flimsy and colourful, made out of the Chappy napkins that she had brought for the party. Her only contribution, if you didn't count the setting. She doesn't; Nanao earned that key.

"They're not as sturdy as they should be," Hinamori says, the words rushing quickly together like an apology.

Rukia waves the unspoken apology off, silently curses at Aizen. "Still, they're nice."

"Thank you." Hinamori blushes easily Rukia is noticing.

She nods to the full glass and plate. "Do you not like the food, Hinamori-san?"

The blush reddens and Hinamori's hands flutter to towards the forgotten food and drink. "Oh, no, it's not that I don't like it, Rukia-san!" One of her hands twitch, hitting the rim of her drink, and almost knocks over the glass. Rukia catches it. It's cold, a little spills on her hand, the glass is wet to the touch; condensation making her palm slick. She smirks thinking about the warning she had given to Yaruchi.

"Oh, Rukia-san, I'm sorry!" Himamori says.

She shakes her head, licking at the bit that fell on the back of her hand. "It's fine, Hinamori."

Still Hinamori dabs at invisible drops on the table.

Gently, Rukia reaches out and stills the young woman's hands.

"Nothing spilled."

Hinamori's voice is quiet. "Oh." Then:

"I--I--" Hinamori swallows. Her eyes are dark and deep when they look at Rukia. So many shadows, Rukia thinks. The sounds of the others surrounds them but it's faded, like as if they're in different room all together. Rukia waits for whatever Hinamori has to say.

"It's not the food, Rukia-san. It looks delicious, but my stomach; it just feels so heavy and yet empty, but when I go to eat I--it still feels emp--" Her eyes take glaze over for a second and her folds her hand over her stomach as if she's making sure it's still there; that she's there. Rukia remembers back to how she would press her palms to her chest while she was healing to make sure the scars were there telling her you survived us. She can't help but think that for all the scars Hinamori has the deepest ones are invisible to them all but Hinamori herself. "The food looks delicious but it's probably too heavy for me right now anyway. My stomach has only been fully functional for a few weeks." She looks at Rukia, her blush mostly gone, but still stands out on Hinamori's pallid skin.

Rukia touches Hinamori's shoulder. "Come on, let's get you some green tea and I think nobody's touched those tiny cucumber sandwiches Nanao made. I'll have your cake and drink." She stands and helps Hinamori manoeuvre the wheel chair she's still in around the lawn chairs and decorations strewn across the room. Rangiku really does loves the tropical theme. Rukia doesn't even want to know where she got the tiny palm trees.

"You don't have to do that, Rukia-san."

"Nonsense, it's my duty as your host. A Kuchiki does not ignore their guests." Her voice drops and octave as she says this, a horrible imitation of nii-sama, but Hinamori laughs as she rolls her chair towards the food. Together they load up a plate with the soft sandwiches and Rukia grabs some of the lighter sweets Nanao brought. They should be okay for Hinamori's constitution right now. She then tells Hinamori to wait a second while she heads to the kitchen and charms nii-sama's special green tea from their cook. When she comes back, Hinamori is nibbling at one of the sandwiches, and she's sitting by the half open shoji screen. Sloppy, Rukia thinks, for Nanao to leave nii-sama such an opening but it sparks an idea within Rukia.

Hinamori has their plates and Rukia's drink. She thanks Rukia for the tea when Rukia reaches her side. Rukia tilts her chin to the veranda. Hinamori smiles gently, nods her thanks.

Rukia helps Hinamori out of her chair and together they sit on the edge of the veranda, feet dangling over the edge, the sounds of their friends filtering out to them as the moon rises in the sky.

Hinamori is quiet for the most part, but she tells Rukia a couple stories from the Academy about herself, Renji and Kira before silence grabs hold of her again. Rukia knows what it's like to not want to talk, some days she still can't even think about what happen in the lab of the Ninth Espada because the nightmares are sure to follow, so she finishes Hinamori's drink and cake without questions. She picks at some of the extra sweets they grabbed. She won't have nightmares tonight, but her chest aches. She thinks about fading. It's been another year she's survived, but she faded, more than once, and her scars don't only live on her chest.

It's the clatter from Hinamori setting the tea cup down back on the tray that draws Rukia attention.

Hinamori's eyes are wide and dark.

"Momo?"

"I just realised--"

"Oh?"

"I never got to say thank you to Kurosaki-san! He must think I'm so rude!"

Rukia blinks, then blinks again. Bursts out laughing.

Hinamori looks at her, her blush visible even in moonlight and then starts laughing too.

Their laugher draws out their other companions. "Hey, what you two doing out here!? Sharing secrets!?" Rangiku's arms drape over Rukia's shoulder, her breast heavy at Rukia's back, almost pushing her off the veranda. The other just behind her. Nanao's glasses flash in the moonlight, and Rukia can see her soft smile. Unohana-taicho has a smilier one as she looks at Hinamori.

"Oi!!" Rukia pushes at Ranguki. The woman slides off to Rukia's side. She leans down on her side, her breast only barely staying in the confines of her shirt, not spilling a drop of her drink. That has to be a learned skill.

"So, what are you two doing out here?"

Yachiru squeezes in the space between Rukia and Hinamori, fingers reaching for any left over sweets. They're gone is seconds.

"Just taking in the night's sky," Rukia says, flashing a small smile at Hinamori. "And the quiet."

"Mean, Rukia-chan!" Kioyne says, hopping in front of her and plopping down on the ground using Rukia's legs as a back rest.

Slowly everybody else settles around them. Rukia slides a lock of hair behind her ear. You can't really escape family and friends, can you? Someday she's still uncomfortable knowing she has so many people that matter to her, that she matters to them too. Somedays, not tonight.

Isane is the one to say, "It's a peaceful night, isn't it?" Her soft voice carrying over all of them. The moon is near full and bright in the sky and they all survived the year. They all fought for this peaceful night. Everyone here, everyone not, even a few wayward souls in Hueco Mundo, her brother, Renji, her friends from the Living World, Sado, Ishida, Orihime, Urahara. Ichigo.

They all fought for this.

Rukia smiles, whispers, "Yes, it is."

She knows she won't have nightmares tonight. Her eyes catch Hinamori looking at the moon, then she looks over the girl's head and meets Nanao's, and hopes here will be no nightmares tonight for anybody.

They deserve a peaceful night.

 

 

 

DAY 165

 

 

Nanao sits quietly across from Rukia, hand folded in her lap. Her kido book like a stone at her side. Rukia waits. From the small white teeth biting at Nanao's bottom lip and how her friend's hand are twisted together Rukia can tell that Nanao is not her usual calm self. But she will not push. Nanao will tell her when she's ready. In the meantime Rukia polishes her blade. Training with Renji and the new schedules at the Thirteenth have been testing her skills, her sword, and her sleep schedule.

It's near five minutes later after one aborted attempt to leave from Nanao, that Nanao expels a heavy breath. Her hands are clenched together.

Rukia licks her lips. "Nanao-san?"

"Yadōmaru-fukutaicho declined the offer to return to the Gotei 13."

"Oh," Rukia says. Tries to remember the story and history there. What Ichigo didn't tell her, and he told her most of it, she's picked up since the battle in Karakura Town.

"Yes."

Rukia is not sure what she's supposed to say. Thoughts of Kaien-san come unbidden and she knows what her feelings would be if she was informed he could suddenly return to the Thirteenth. It's completely different though. Rukia is not Nanao and her relationship with her captain is nothing like Nanao's with Kyōraku, to say the least.

As she starts to respond, Nanao speaks up and Rukia is grateful because she had no clue what to say.

"I was relieved, Rukia-san, and then I hated that felt that way. Yadōmaru-fukutaicho was my role model. I wanted to be just like her for a long time."

"And now?"

Nanao shakes her head. "If I was like her I don't think Kyōraku-taicho and I would work in the same way." She looks down, touches her kido book. "I like how we are now; I was scared it would change, but Yadōmaru-fukutaicho--" She breaks off, laughs, her gaze still on her book. "She said, 'No, thank you' and then threw her shoe at him. Something about corrupting Nanao-chan and then wished me good luck, with, and I quote, 'the lazy, drunk oaf' because clearly I'm doing something right and I'm too good for him."

Rukia bites her lips, her throat tickling with laughter. Yadōmaru sounds awesome.

"Ah. And did you need her to say that? Did you--was it something you were worried about, with the Vizards being pardoned?"

"I thought so, but the second she answered I understood that as lovely it was to hear her approval, it wasn't one I needed. I just thought I did. I'm confident with my place at the Eighth." With Kyōraku, lingers in the air unspoken.

"Did you think you were going to lose your position?"

Nanao smiles, fingers adjusting her neckline. "For a silly second, but I think I always knew deep down that the Eighth is now Koyraku's and mine."

"It has been for a long time, Nanao-san." Rukia grins.

"I guess we all just get protective of what's we consider ours at times, right, Rukia-san?"

Thoughts of Ichigo flash through her head and how many hollows she kills when she goes to Karakura, not just for him but their friends, Karin, Yuzu; Rukia thinks about how she ad Renji would fight the men that would threaten their makeshift family growing up, how she followed Ichigo to Hueco Mundo, how Byakuya followed her.

Her eyes land on Sode no Shirayuki.

"Yes, we can be."

 

 

 

DAY 193

 

 

It's a hectic day. There are meetings, training, more meetings. Ukitake had a difficult episode day before, the blood on the cloth is too bright and red in her mind, and he's been forced into bed rest for the day. Kiyone and Sentaro are going back and forth between the division's offices and their captain's quarters. That means she and Furuhata-san are running everything in-house. Kyōraku is spending the day keeping his friend company, which means that Nanao is running back and forth for her division too. Nii-sama came to visit Ukitake and spent a few hours with him, which meant Renji was doing extra work and in the midst of this they looked at each and nodded -- no bankai training today -- neither of them had the time or energy, especially considering all the worried callers to the Thirteenth.

Now, Rukia loves seeing how much people care about her captain, for she cares for him too, but they just don't let him rest, which in turn doesn't let her or Kiyone and Sentaro rest, which means they have foist more work to lesser seats.

It's vicious circle that Rukia puts a stop after she comes back from a very late lunch and sees the dark circles in her captain's eyes. Kioyne and Senetaro are at the offices, covering for her, so her captain doesn't have his two very loud crowd dispersers.

Rukia sighs, then slams the shoji doors open.

All eyes turn to her.

She sees: Yachiru, Captain Hitsugaya, Rangiku, Captain Kyōraku, nii-sama, Shinji Hirako (who has been spending quite a bit of time in the Seireitei lately), and to her surprise Nemu and Captain Soi Fon. She also sees the tired look in her captain's face.

"Out!"

Everyone in the room blinks.

Rukia inhales, fists her hands on her hips, and, "OUT! Taicho needs his rest and all this chatter and -- is that sake! -- disturbances are not allowing him to! So all of you out!" Nobody moves. "I will call Unohana-taicho in and tell her you're all disrupting her express orders for rest and relaxation." Like magic the room empties in a second, the sake is picked up by Rangiku and Kyōrakum, shocking no one. Rukia sighs, drops her chin to her chest as the room empty.

"Rukia-chan," comes softly from across the room.

Rukia's eyes snap up to her captain's smiling eyes and awed face.

Then, it clicks. Captain Hitsugaya, Captain Kyōraku, Captain Soi Fon. Nii-sama.

"Oh my." Her face heats up, her knees start trembling a little, and it's only thanks to her captain moving to her and taking her elbow that Rukia doesn't collapse. Not that she was going to collapse, she's not a weakling. Still. Oh my, oh crap. She yelled at captains, and ex to be new captains, she amends thinking of Shinji Hirako. She yelled at nii-sama.

"Oh fuck," she mutters, then blushes deeper because she just realised she cursed in from of her captain. What a day. She drops to the chair nearest the bed.

Ukitake only laughs though, settling back on his bed. He's still to pale, but his colour is better than it was yesterday and this morning. Maybe it's because he's laughing at her.

Swallowing, she bows her head, drops into seiza. "I apologise for my actions, Ukitake-taicho! They were uncalled for and rude! I beg your forgiveness."

"Oh, Rukia-san," he say, making her look up. Ukitake is generally rather informal with her and she's never minded it so his dropping of the diminutive honorific is a bit of a surprise. "You don't need to apologise, you just did what I've been wanting to do for hours." He looks towards the door, still open. "I do love my friends and those who worry for me, but sometimes I just need some quiet."

Rukia blinks.

He smiles, "Take your seat, Rukia-chan, it must have been a hectic day for you."

She nods and does as asked, hands folding in her lap. "It has."

"You've been doing a wonderful job, and really I must thank you, not just for what you just did, but what you've been doing."

"Taicho."

"You're a very good shinigami, Rukia."

"Thank you, taicho."

He nods, smiling gently, and then another coughing fit occurs. His handkerchief flies to his mouth. It's short, but the coughs are thick and dry. It makes Rukia's shoulder tense, but she knows what to do now. The tea is still mostly full and she quickly serves him a cup, tapping in the medicine Unohana sent over this morning. She waits until he's done, stands close enough to see only a few drops of blood, like accidental splashes of paint on cloth. Too bright. Still they're not the thick drops of yesterday where they covered his handkerchief so densely the smell of copper filled the cloth. Taking quiet note of the blood, she hands Ukitake his tea without a word to how he folds the cloth and tucks into his sleeve. Arranging his pillows she watches as he leans back and breaths in the medicine laced tea's vapours.

"Are you all right, taicho?"

"Yes, Rukia. It wasn't so bad." He motions to the chair she just left. "Sit, join me for a cup until Kiyone and Sentaro return."

It's not a bad idea so Rukia sits, cupping the warm tea with two hands. One of her fingernails is chipped, she realises and curls the finger into her palm. There's a light breeze from the open shoji that passes through the room, makes her hair shift on her neck and cheeks. She's been thinking it's gotten too long; needs a haircut.

"Taicho?"

"Yes, Rukia?" He sips at his tea.

"I yelled at three captains and at nii-sama."

Ukitake's eyes shine with mirth. "Yes, you did, and I dare say, I don't think your brother has been prouder of you. The other captains too."

Rukia lifts her tea cup to her lips, her mouth stretches across the porcelain with a smile.

"Oh and Rukia?"

"Yes, sir?"

"It was four captains, not counting Byakuya. Shinij-kun had just come in to tell us he and the other ex-Vizard captains have indeed decided to officially rejoin the Gotei 13 and fill the vacant captain spots."

"Oh," says Rukia. She swallows. "I see."

"Now they'll know not to mess with my future vice-captain," Ukitake says, sipping peacefully at his tea.

Rukia's own cup slips and clatters on her lap, then floor. Thankfully it does not break.

Vice-captain? What?

As she said, it's been one very hectic day.

 

 

 

DAY 195

 

 

"Ukitake-taicho offered me Vice Captain," Rukia blurts out to Isshin, slipping into the living room. He's reading the newspaper and drinking from his WORLD'S GREATEST DAD mug. The kids are at school.

Isshin looks up her, then barrels towards her. Rukia sides-steps him easily enough.

"RUKIA-CHAN, I'M SO PROUD!" He crawls to her, but she moves towards the coffee, foot to his face. Rifles through the cupboard for her old Chappy mug. He doesn't seem to mind and heads to Ichigo's mom's poster. "MASAKI, LOOK AT OUR LOVELY THIRD DAUGHTER! A VICE-CAPTAIN! WHAT A JOYOUS DAY."

Rukia tries not to giggle into her coffee. She's mostly successful.

"Kusosaki-san," she sighs.

Isshin wipes wet, proud tears from his eyes, and stands. The tears are gone from his face. The proud sticks.

"It doesn't surprise you?" she asks, she has too. It's been bubbling inside since Ukitake told her and then told her to think about it. She hasn't told Byakuya or Renji, their reactions would be… Hmmm, she's not sure, not really. She thinks she knows what their reactions would be. Pride, worry, wariness, especially from nii-sama. Isshin was predictable; loud and predictable. He's the first person who knows about the offer. The first she told. Not the first person she wanted to tell.

She tries to imagine Ichigo's reaction.

Well, fucking finally. What was Ukitake waiting for, bankai? then, Are you okay with that? and finally, You deserve it, you're the best they have. The words muttered in front of their friends, said carefully in the privacy of his room, whispered against her hair.

Rukia sighs, tightens her grip on her Chappy mug. I think I am okay with it. Thanks, she answers him.

"Nope! Never! Rukia-chan is a wonderful shinigami!" Isshin says, bringing her attention back to him. His grin is in place, wide and manic, then it sobers an inch. "I'm not surprised at all, Rukia."

"I was," she admits. It feels good to say that. Something near a relief.

Isshin crosses the room and sits back down with his paper and coffee. Rukia sits across from him.

"I was too, when Yama-jii offered me captain."

"Really?"

"It was a lot of responsibility. I wasn't sure I was ready for it."

She nods. "Were you?"

He shrugs, "Not really, but I learned." He looks at her and she thinks he looks like a dad. It's an odd thought to have, Isshin is a dad. "You're ready for this, Rukia."

"I know." Her response surprises her. She does know. She is ready. I am. Her eyes widen. She sets her mug down. Thinks about she'll have to wash it and put it back in the cupboard when she leaves. Doesn't want to leave, but it's better that she does, and that her mug goes to the back of cupboard.

"See, you are ready!" Isshin grins, jumps to hug her again. Rukia hopes she didn't break his nose.

After she heads to the highschool. No one notices. She masks her reiatsu. Ichigo's staring out the window, she's in his line of sight, and she mouths the words to him. Nothing happens. She runs home.

 

 

 

DAY 203

 

She turns in her futon, Ichigo's shirt -- stolen from his closet five visits ago -- shift around her thighs. It smells like him still. Once the smell fades she'll switch out another shirt, but not yet. His scent still lingers and she misses him so much. It's silly to count, but she still does. Her fingers trail the edge of the worn collar and follow the dips of her body down.

She can imagine this shirt on his body, how the cotton would stretch over his shoulder. The material just brushes her thighs but it would barely pass his waist. When he would lift his arms there would be a strip of skin peaking out. Her fingers reach under the shirt to same strip of skin on her body. Sometimes the edges of his boxers would show. Her fingers trace the edges of her underwear.

Biting her lips, she remembers how she'd strip him of this shirt, and slips her hand down the band of his boxers. How his fingers would dip into her and curl inside her.

Rukia's hands follows the memory of Ichigo's hands on her body. One finger curls inside her and it's not the same, at all, her fingers are too small. She adds another. Her other hand closes over her breast. Ichigo was so tall he would have bend to lick at them. Rukia moans softly at the memory, her fingers pumping and spreading inside her. Presses the heel of her palm presses against herself. She turns her head to her shoulder, inhales the smell of Ichigo that lingers in the cotton. Her thumb catches her clit.

She bites at the cotton. Her hips snap up. Her thighs are slick, her underwear soaked. She'll change it in a second.

She wipes her hand on the shirt. Sighs, licking her lips. Her body feels heavy but it's a nice feeling; an excellent feeling. Her eyes flutter. For a second she contemplates giving it back to him like this, smelling like her, but she won't, couldn't. Still, she wonders.

 

DAY 212

 

Rukia yawns.

It was her first day as Vice Captain of the Thirteenth and she never thought it possible but she has some new found respect for Kaien-sama, every other vice-captain she knows, which to be fair are a lot, and even Kioyne and Sentaro because just the paperwork to make her position official was overwhelming and there was barely any time after the official handing of the badge before stacks, oh so many stacks Rukia sighs, of forms and other important paper were settled on her desk. Not that Rukia is looking to complain on anyone, but she does think Kioyne looked a little to happy to hand off the work.

Stretching her arms over her head, Rukia smiles. It was good work; too much, but good.

Closing the offices, she starts for home. Isshin had been right. She was ready. Her hands drift to the badge at her left shoulder. Sode no Shirayuki murmurs in pleasure and pride.

There's the whisper of snow in Sode no Shirayuki's voice.

Rukia listens, she--

"Hey, Rukia!!"

"Rukia-san!"

"Rukia-chan!"

Familiar voices call out to her and she looks up to the face of all the other vice-captains, the SWA members, more than a few members from her division, and Yoruichi heading towards her.

"Um, yes?"

Renji and Rangiku reach her first. Renji's arm goes around her shoulders, Ran's boobs go into her face. She pushes them both away.

"Hey!"

Nanao walks up and grins at her.

"Nanao-san, what's going on?" Rukia asks fending of Yoruichi's hugs and Yachiru's tugging at her hamaka.

"We're officially celebrating your first day as Vice-Captain of course," say Nanao, like it's the most obvious in the world.

"But we already had a party…"

"That was only for the promotion! Now it's for you surviving you first day!" Rangiku says, grinning. She trails off with a speculative look on her face, "Not every vice-captain does, you know."

Rukia blinks and turns wide eyes to Nanao. "Is that true?!"

Nanao shrugs, and next to her Nemu answers. "It's very rare, but there are documented cases. Would you like me to search my data banks for them?"

Everyone behind Nemu shakes their head.

Rukia hides a smile. "No, thank you, Nemu-san."

Nemu nods, "I suspected the question was rhetorical in any case. I gathered nobody would want to hear about vice-captains who lost their lives on their first day when it is their own first day in the position. However, it is always better to ask." Behind Nemu faces range from amusement to disturbed shock.

Rukia has to press her lips together, her bottom lip folds over her teeth. She nods very seriously though to Nemu.

Renji recovers first, reaching out and patting Nemu on the shoulder. "Well, thanks for that, Kurotsuchi-san! Now! We should really get going or else we're going to be late to the bar." Nemu looks at his hand on her shoulder then back at Renji. The hand flies off Nemu's shoulder. Renji's ears are turning red.

"Let's move!" he mutters.

Her arms are getting pulled. Rukia’s propelled forward. She's trying not laughing (unsuccessfully, she gathers as Renji's glaring at her), and apparently she's having a party to celebrate her first day as Vice-Captain. She's also exhausted, but she can't deny it feels good that all her friends decided to do this for her. There's only a few things that could make this night better -- perfect, but she doesn't dwell -- and when Byakuya shows up for a few minutes, well, it's one less thing.

 

DAY 237

 

Seriously, why did no one tell her how much work a Vice-Captain does?

(Also Rukia is seriously starting to think that Kenpachi pays off, no wait, threatens his Third, Fourth, and Fifth Seats to deal with the workload that Yachiru is clearly not doing seeing as the girl is currently depositing stolen koi fish in Captain Ukitake's pond. Koi fish that Rukia finds familiar… Wait, hold on, is that Fluffy? She'll have to check the koi at the manor later.)

Yachiru giggles and plop! There goes another koi. Her captain only smiles at the girl.

(But no, really, how does the paper work get done in the Eleventh?)

Rukia adjusts her tekkou, pulling them comfortably to the crease of her elbow, and gets back to work.

 

DAY 250

 

She goes to Ukitake and asks a favour. His eyes are soft when he agrees.

In the Living World the Kurosaki's go to the cemetery.

It's the closest she's let herself get to him in months. When Ichigo goes ahead with the girls to start the picnic, Rukia stands with Isshin as he finishes his cigarette. It doesn't rain. The clouds drift slowly in the sky. It's a beautiful day.

"Masaki would have liked today," Isshin says before moving towards his kids. Rukia goes on patrol that night, makes sure no hollow get near the clinic. Karin gets nightmares when hollows get to close at night, Yuzu tosses and turns, and Isshin keeps himself alert. Ichigo can't sense them anymore but he sleeps so uneasily anyway, listening for Karin and Yuzu, Isshin tells her. Tonight Rukia will make sure they all sleep soundly.

 

--

 

"Urahara-san, I'm sorry for the late hour, but can I rest here tonight?" Rukia asks when she heads to the shop in the early morning. Her clothes are dirty and she has more than a few small cuts and bruises from patrolling.

Urahara looks at her through the shadow of his hat and nods. "Of course, Rukia-san. It seems you had a busy night."

She rubs her shoulder, looks at the stacks of candy in the shop, at the nicks in the wood. Sharp shadows cover the area.

He moves quietly, motions for Rukia to follow him. "Tessai will be happy to give you a healing session the morning." He leads her to room Jinta and Ururu used to share; it's Ururu's now. Kids grow. Rukia's noticed it in Karin and Yuzu too. She's forgotten the last time her body has aged, but her soul feels decades older since her last spirit growth, since the last year too.

"Thank you, Uruhara-san," says Rukia, slipping into the room.

Uruhara nods, face gentle. "Sleep well, Rukia-san."

The screen closes behind her and Rukia prepares the futon, takes off the beaten up uniform, listens to the soft breaths of Ururu, to the sounds of Urahara footsteps moving down the hall. Finally Rukia closes her eyes. Sleep does not come quickly, washing over her as the first inches of sunrise peek across Ururu's window.

 

DAY 261

 

She stands behind her captain as Captain-Commander Yamamoto calls out three names:

"Otoribashi Rojuro, Hirako Shinji, Muguruma Kensei. We welcome you back as captains of the Third, Fifth, and Ninth divisions."

Rukia can't help take note of the vice-captains behind the three. Behind Captain Otoribashi, 'Rose' Rukia's heard the captain being refereed as, Kira looks a little sick. Hinamori is still in her wheel chair but she has a small nervous smile as she nods to Captain Hirako. Rukia thinks that's at least partly because of the wink he sent her. Hisagi just looks proud and a little awed behind Captain Muguruma, the reason behind 69 tattoo suddenly clear to Rukia.

Once Yamamoto finishes his short speech, there's a light but sincere round of applause that fills the room, which is of course started by Captain Kyōraku. Nanao is gently beaming up at him. Captain Ukitake grins.

Then as the sounds of welcome and welcome back die down, Hirako sighs loudly.

"God, how am I going to make a tie work for this outfit!"

 

DAY 262

 

"Kuchiki-fukutaicho?"

Rukia turns to see Shinji Hirako smiling at her.

"H-Hirako-taicho! Hello!"

His smile grows.

Rukia's neck heats up, "Can I help you with something, Hirako-taicho?"

He shrugs, "Just wanted to meet you. Introduce myself…" He trails off and then his smile turns well, it makes Rukia feel nervous. "Ya know, he used to say your name in his sleep during his hollow training."

Her neck feels really hot. "Hirako-taicho!!!" Her reiatsu swirls out unexpectedly. Rukia tapers it back down.

"Oh yeah, I can see why he likes you."

"That is very inappropriate, Hirako-taicho."

He fiddles with his tie, looks over her shoulder, "I know." When he looks back at her the inane gaze in his eyes that she didn't really realise he had been holding is gone and she's face with a calculating and frankness that surprises her. "Some would consider your relationship with our Substitute Shinigami very inappropriate, wouldn't you say, Kuchiki-fukutaicho?"

"Ex."

"Sorry?"

"Ex-Substitute Shinigami."

To her surprise he smiles and waves off the correction. "Oh right, that."

Rukia bristles at the dismissal. Ichigo almost gave up everything for them and that's all he gets. She snarls, "Is there a point to this, Hirako-taicho?"

His large teeth flash. "Oh there are many points, Kuchiki-fukutaicho. Many points, and you're clearing so many up for me."

"I am?" To say she’s surprised is an understatement.

"Kuchiki-fukutaicho, tell me when you see this what is your first instinct, your first thought?" His hand swipes across his face, his reiastu spikes, and Rukia is now looking at gold eyes and a bone mask.

She stands her ground, she is not scared.

"Ichigo's reiatsu is higher when he pulls his mask on."

Her thumb swipes over the hilt of her sword.

Hirako's eye catch the movement. The mask starts to fade, his toothy grin looks much more sinister with his gold eyes, and by the time it's fully gone Rukia feels she understands one of the points better now.

"He does," says Hirako. "That boy, always showing us up."

Rukia's lip curls.

"You were smart to go to your sword, Kuchiki-fukutaicho."

"I was not scared."

"Oh, I know you weren't. I think, by now, it would take quiet a lot to scare you, Kuchiki-fukutaicho."

"It would." It’s true.

"Still, you were smart." He adjusts the knot of the tie that is hanging off his neck and tucks down his uniform. She smirks, her hand curls over the hilt of her sword lazily.

"I see you found a way to incorporate a tie into your wardrobe."

He gives a look then brighten, laughing. "Yes, I did! Ichigo-kun is lucky to have met you, and don't worry about his sleepy ramblings. They were very tame." He winks. "Mostly."

Rukia's growls and suddenly through no fault of her own and she will maintain that her sword's hilt hits Hirako's chest. He stumbles back. His eyes widen, breath catching. Rukia stomps away.

"Yep, I can see why he likes you! You're perfect for each other!" She hears the man call out to her.

She waits until she's turned the corner to shake her head, her fingers touching her lips, covering their curve.

 

DAY 278

 

"Hello, RUKIA-CHAN! How are you today?"

She glowers at Hirako. "We don't know each other well enough for you to call me that."

He frowns. His mouth looks ridiculous, his lashes flutter. The man is ridiculous. "Don't we?"

Next to him, her captain pretends he's not laughing at them.

Rukia gives a flat, "No."

Hirako sighs and turns to Ukitake, mutters, "Kaien liked me."

Ukitake smiles, nods his thanks to Rukia as she hands him the papers that need his signature and seal. "Kaien-san liked everyone."

"Byakuya-bo didn't."

Rukia bows and heads back out but not before, "Proving once more nii-sama has great taste." Rukia slips out of the office, declaring herself the winner of this round. As she closes the door behind her she can hear Ukitake sigh and Hirako gasps dramatically, then:

"I'm never letting her meet Hiyori."

"Oh, how is she!? She should visit." Ukitake says.

The door clicks shut and Rukia heads to her desk. Just another day in the Seireitei.

 

DAY 299

 

Renji is working; nii-sama has some familial obligations this week so Renji's stuck in the office. Rukia has Urahara's cavern all to herself. It's awkward training without a real opponent but at the same time Rukia enjoys the solitude. Being Vice-Captain takes much of her day and she's slowly realise how much free time she used to have. She wouldn't change it for anything. It's still odd however having so many count on her, look to her in her Captain Ukitake's stead. The Thirteenth has been without a vice-captain for years and now she can see how much that had slowed aspects of the division down. If she thought Kiyone and Sentaro were exhausting before it was nothing compared to now. They mean well, she know, she even appreciates it, but sometimes she misses having time for herself.

Sode no Shirayuki gently agrees as Rukia calls out her dances.

She calls them out in order, increasing the force behind them each time, and while there's no opponent to fight them, to challenge her, right now Rukia only needs her sword and it's guidance.

Sode no Shirayuki buzzes louder in her ears, in her soul, each time.

Snow, snow, snow, snow, she thinks; Sode no Shirayuki echoes. The smell of it along with the sharp sting of ozone fills Rukia's nose. The desert cavern chills. Rukia's fingertips tingle. Sode no Shirayuki laughs gently. There's a name hidden in the brisk sounds of her laugh.

Yuknnnnnnn-

sshooooo

There's part missing, the key. Rukia calls out:

"Some no mai, Tsukishiro!"

"Tsugi no mai, Hakuren!"

"San no mai, Shirafune!"

"Juhaku!"

Flies around each of her own attacks as the encircle her and throws out her sword calling on the ice and forming a cool rope from her hand to the hilt.

Sode no Shirayuki's whispered glee pulls at Rukia's chest. Learn this, remember the feel of this, Sode no Shirayuki says. I am more, as are you. Rukia moves flashes in and out of her attacks shattering the ice to the point the shards are so small they resemble

snow, snow, snow.

Sharp little snow shards. Deadly tiny crystals that melt in Rukia's hands, cheeks, and hair. One shard cuts her cheek. So very sharp.

She stand in the middle of the cavern, in the middle of a snow storm of her own making, and Rukia breathes in. The sting of the cold flushes her cheeks, penetrates her chest, and nip at her feet. Sode no Shirayuki sighs like she's home; almost.

So close, Rukia-sama.

"Yes."

It will be soon. Can't you feel it?

"I can taste it." It's not until she says the words that Rukia knows it's true. She can taste it. Her tongue is stinging with the bitter sting of sharp ice. When she touches her lips her fingers come away with frost.

Sode no Shirayuki laugh tinkles in her ears. It reminds Rukia of her sword's edge.

 

--

 

Back at the Seireitei, she goes to see Renji and finds him having lunch with his friends from the Eleventh. Yachiru seems to be comparing their hair colour and asking Madarame why he doesn't tattoo his head since he has a lot of room. Both men look at Rukia in relief when she join them and Yachiru hops to her side asking Rukia about new hair clips and her opinions on them.

Renji eyes the cut on her cheek. His brows quirk.

Rukia shrugs. She picks a little skull and cross bones clip out of the pile on the table and slides it to Yachiru. The girl's eyes grow wide, fingers training the little bones.

"You know, you could talk to Urahara-san. He has ways."

Yachiru holds up the clip to Rukia and asks her to help her with it. Rukia turns to her fellow vice-captain, her words pointed at Renji.

"I don't need Urahara-san's ways." Rukia slides a look to him before concentrating on the girl next to her.

Renji laughs. "Well, now."

"Shut up." Her fingers gather strands of pink hair.

Madarame looks between them. "What the fuck you two talking about?"

Renji and Rukia look at each other quickly. Rukia's foot connects with Renji's leg. "Nothing," Rukia mutters. "Training shit," Renji mumbles, wincing. Madarame's painted lids thin, then he scoffs. "Che, whatever. Come on fukutaicho, we have a places to be." The clip is fastens in Yachiru's hair and she hops up on the table gathering the other discarded hair clips.

"Thanks, Ruki-chan! Bye, Painappuro-kun! Come on, Baldy. We have have to see Ken-chan."

"I'm not bald!" The sun glints of Madarame's head.

"I'm not a pineapple!"

Rukia waves. "Goodbye, Kusajishi-fukutaicho! Madarame-san."

As the other two walk away, Rukia glares at her best friend. "You almost spilled!"

Renji scoffs, "You know that Ikkaku has bankai. Hell, everyone knows Ikkaku has bankai."

"But I don't want everyone to know that I do. Or that I'm planning to."

"Fine, fine. Secret it is."

Rukia sighs, "For now, anyway."

"Sure," says Renji.

Smiling, Rukia looks up at her friend. "New bandana?"

Renji's hand drifts to the dark swatch of cotton now covering his hair line. "Oh yeah, the old one was getting worn."

"Mmmmhmmm."

"Shuddup," he hisses.

Rukia grins. "Hey, did you notice nii-sama changed his kenseikan? It's much nicer than his last one."

"Did you tell him that?"

"Of course not!"

They sit and eat in companionable silence for a while -- she takes his tuna, he grabs her unagi -- and then Renj smirks. "So you don't need Urahara's special training method, huh, Rukia?"

She sniffs, "I don't."

"Hmm, good for you."

"Thanks, Renji."

 

 

DAY 300

 

She doesn't want to go, but Rangiku persuades them all to have a spa day. It's Hinamori's last week on medical leave and while the girl looks the best she has in months there's a slight nervousness in her eyes and tightness to her lips. All the SWA go. Rukia sits in between Nanao and Isane as they do their nails.

Nanao flips lazily through a magazine, "I think I'm going to get a massage. God knows with my captain I need it."

"I thought your captain would enjoy giving them to you," Rukia adds in quiet aside.

"Rukia!"

On her other side, Isane stifles a laugh.

"Isane-san!"

"I think I'm going to do one of those clay masks. They look fun." Isane dutifully ignores Nanao's outburst. "What about you, Rukia-san?"

Rukia leans back in her chair. Her hair is heavy at her neck, falling between her shoulders like a thick dark curtain weighing her down.

 

DAY 304

 

Sōkyoku Hill shadows the Seireitei and as Rukia looks upon it her chest aches. Nobody can quiet look at her in the eye today. They all know what day it is. They all remember what happen and how it began everything. She remembers the feels of the bindings at her wrist and ankle, the collar at her throat, the heat of the flames, the feel of shock when Ichigo showed up wearing that stupid coat.

It's been two years.

It's day three-hundred and four.

It's silly to count but she can't help herself.

Her life was saved, a war started, and it's been so many months since she's been able to talk to Ichigo.

The scars are pale and now fade into her skin like they've always a part of it. Rukia's hand covers them. Some things you can't help but keep track of.

 

DAY 307

 

"I cut my hair," she whispers at Ichigo's window from her perch on the telephone pole.

Isshin then pokes his head out and tells her it looks nice. Karin's eyes widen from her window. Soon Yuzu's face is next to her twins. Karin whispers something and Yuzu waves, giving her a thumbs up. Rukia waves back, knowing Karin will tell Yuzu she did. She spies Kon's face pressed between the twins.

 

DAY 318

 

Isshin had told her that she should meditate if she was having troubling calling forth her bankai when she admits her training to him. She's meditated before but she's not great at it. She's never been particularly good at sitting still.

In Urahara's cavern she sits cross legged Sode no Shirayuki on her lap. Her eyes close.

They open in a brightly lit world. She's on hill and there's a light covering of snow on the ground. She can smell it mixed with the pine of the trees. The clouds reminder her of stuffed animals, they are tinted the lightest of lavender. So is the snow, she realises, reflections of another. The trees are so tall and twist into each other. Her feet are bare and they sink into the snow. She is not cold though. Turning her head she see Sode no Shirayuki standing regal and still at the corner of a well. Rukia walks to her. Her feet make tracks in the snow.

"Sode no Shirayuki."

"Welcome, Rukia-sama." Her hand pulls at the rope on the well. A crystal bucket is revealed, full of water. It's ripples gleam in her inner world's light.

Sode no Shirayuki pours some of the water into small tea cup that lay on the well's edge.

"Have some," she extends the water to Rukia.

Rukia's finger close on the cup. "Will it help me?"

Sode no Shirayuki smiles. "You don't need any help, Rukia-sama. You already know, you just have to understand what you know."

"What I know?"

Sode no Shirayuki says nothing, tips her cup to her lips. They come away shining and frost tipped.

Rukia blinks then does the same, slowly.

The water washes and cools her entire body. Rukia shivers from the inside out. She lifts her fingers to her lips.

Frost.

Her eyes lift to Sode no Shirayuki, wide. Her sword spirit smiles.

Rukia's eyes open in Urahara's cavern.

Her mouth is cool and calls out.

"BANKAI! Yukinokesshō!"

She turns her sword in her hand and feels how the hilt reshapes and extends in her hand, how the blade changes, splitting and fanning out like butterfly wings made of ivory. The sleeves of her kimono refashion themselves on her arms; the black of shinigami uniform has melted away; faded. She faded once too. She's no longer afraid of it. She's blinding. As blinding as Sode no Shirayki is. Her arms move in swinging arch above her head, around her body, behind her back and then extend straight out, perpendicular to her body.

There is snow. Ozone crackles in the air.

 

DAY 319

 

She gets to the Living World early. Catches him walking home from school. His gait is lazy, but there's a heaviness in his steps that were never there before. Her chest feels tight. She wants to hop down and press her forehead against his and tell him, "See, I got bankai too. See, I'm still here, idiot. See, I'm still here. See, look at me. See me." It's whim she can't afford to give into. It's dangerous and it hurts. Somedays she forgets how much it hurts to miss him when she lets herself remember. It's funny because most days she swears can still feel him just under her ribcage, pressed against her heart, but her fingers would pass through him.

Turning, she makes herself go. She's already late.

 

--

 

Isshin grins at her twenty minutes later. He's late too. Ichigo took the girls for ice-cream. It's a warm day. Except for her snow.

"You even had to match him."

Rukia growls, leaning on her weapon. Leave it to Isshin to ruin the moment. "We don't match!" She waves to herself. "Completely different colours. One would say THE OPPOSITE COLOUR."

Isshin looks at her, studies her, and then his eyes light up. He nods. "Good point, Rukia-chan! So smart!"

She rolls her eyes.

"Maybe you don't match, but you're certainly complimentary." He draws a hand out and lifts it palm up. Snow falls into it.

"Be careful, it's sharp."

"Of course it is, Rukia-chan," his eyes level with her. Rukia stands firm. She sees the captain looking out at her. "It's a weapon, a very beautiful one."

Her fingers touch the edge of her kimono. It's so different from her uniform. It's so light but she feels no cold.

"Thank you, Kurosaki-san."

Blowing at the too sharp flurries in his hand, Isshin grins at her. "Daddy-chan, Rukia. Daddy-chan."

She smiles. "Never, Kurosaki-san."

 

DAY 331

 

"HOLY SHIT, RUKIA."

Her head snaps up to her best friend as he barrels into her office.

"Renji?" She blinks. He's staring at her, an odd look on her face.

Oh.

"Shut up."

"When?" He drops down to one of the chairs by her desk.

She hisses under her breath, "A couple weeks ago."

"And you didn't tell me?" He asks, hurt colours his tone.

Rukia's bottom lip folds over her teeth. "You didn't ask."

Renji leans forward, his voice is sharp. "Bullshit."

"You didn't!"

"I shouldn't have to!"

She narrows her eyes at him. He narrows his back. Fine, he has a point.

"How'd you figure it out?"

Renji looks away from her, fiddles with the edges of his belt. "We trained today, idiot."

It takes her a second to connect what he says to what he means. She thinks about their training. Her pushing and pushing and pushing for weeks, months, and today she fought the same, except she didn't. She just fought. She was faster, surer; the fight had felt too simple. Neither of them had walked away with wounds.

Oh.

"So I should have cut up more?"

Renji picks up her tiny Chappy statue -- pink with the flower in the ears -- and tosses it at her. Rukia fumbles to catch it.

"Hey! This is a limited edition!"

Renji sticks out his tongue, "Serves you right." He trails off, flattens his gaze at her. "Next time, you're showing it to me."

"Whatever, asshole." He wants to see her bankai? Oh he'll see it. Rukia holds the Chappy statue to her chest, looks at him through her lashes, eyes glinting. You don't mess with her Chappys.

 

DAYS 390-391

 

It's been over a year. The air is cool in Karakura Town. She can't help herself and follows the traces of Karin and Isshin's reiatsu to where they are because nobody's home and when she doesn't know where they are she worries. It's an old instinct that she can't help even knowing that Karin has acute hollow sensitivity and that if he wanted to Isshin could easily kill every hollow in the town. Still, she follows them.

She wishes she hadn't.

The ice-rink has been set up again. She stops of the roof, her scraping the edge as she drops down.

It's the same roof as before when they had--She can't stay there.

Rukia jumps from it and perches herself on a tree close to the ice-rink. She notices how Isshin and Karin's turn to where she's hidden in the leaves, their faces working before they relax, recognising her reiatsu.

Her eyes immediately track and find him. He's not on the ice. Ichigo's lanky frame is sprawled on a bench near the concessions stand, hands in his pocket, scowl on his face. Rukia wants to hop down and trace it with her finger. He wouldn't feel her though so there's no point in that. She can't help but watch though. How he sits, how his shoulders seem broader and his legs longer and she scolds herself because of course they are. It's been over a year. It's been months. He's grown over the course of their time apart. Part of her has know this because she watches Karin and Yuzu -- she did Isshin a favour a few months ago and helped them buy bras because no way Karin was letting her father near a lingerie shop -- and seen how they've grown. She seen some of his old shirts are now being used by Karin when playing soccer. He's grown. In some ways she has too even though her body doesn't show those marks like his does.

They both grown.

She watches how his scowl goes from bored to predatory and she follows his line of sight until it lands on--Oh, you idiot.

Rukia chuckles, cheeks folding and shaking her head.

Across the ice a boy has skated up to Yuzu.

Ichigo makes a move to stand and then out of nowhere Karin slides up to her sister, saying something that has her twin laughing. Together they spin away, arms hooked together. The poor boy looks flummoxed and then smitten.

By the concession stand Ichigo has sat back down. Isshin's joined him. She can't hear what they're saying from her distance but from the looking on Ichigo's face and Isshin begin Isshin--one, two, three

"SHE'S THIRTEEN!" Ichigo looks about ready to kick his father across the ice and right into the tree that Rukia is inhabiting as Isshin drops into his dramatics. On the ice Karin and Yuzu's attention have drifted to their father and brother. Karin looks like she's about to kill them both. Yuzu like she's trying to figure how to prevent that and any more Kurosaki themed violence from happening.

Rukia grins and settles in the tree for a bit longer.

 

--

 

Sometimes -- never really, but it's easier to say sometimes -- she forgets how much she misses all of them and how she fit into their lives.

 

--

 

About to step into flash towards Urahara's later that evening, Rukia stops, eyes going to Karin and Yuzu's window. Karin crawls out, a soccer ball in hand.

Rukia changes her plans; makes her way to where half Karin's body is out the window.

"Don't you have school tomorrow?"

Shocked, Karin turns to her, eyes wide, her hands fumbling her soccer ball. Rukia catches before it drops to the ground. Karin stares at her.

"You're still here?"

Rukia hand the ball back to the younger girl. "I was just about to head back. What are you doing, Karin?"

A soft blush rises on Karin's cheeks.

"Karin."

"He protected us for long so! I had to do something to now that Ichi-nii--now that--I have too."

Sighing, Rukia knows she can disagree. In her own way Karin's just doing what Rukia does every time she comes to Karakura Town. They're both protecting what they hold dear. Her hand starts reaching for the girl's shoulder but Rukia holds back. Her nails bite into her palm.

"It's late, Karin-chan."

The fierce set of Karin's chin reminds Rukia too strongly of Ichigo. "I always feel more of them at night."

"You know there's an official shinigami in town, right?"

Karin scoffs. "You mean Afro-san? Please! I'm better than him."

"I have no doubt," Rukia smiles, "But it's his job to deal with the hollows, not yours."

A look crosses Karin's eyes and oh man, she should have seen this coming. "Ishida and Sado-kun still deal with hollows. It's not their job."

"They made a choice, Karin-chan."

That fierce look is back. Kurosakis, Rukia curses silently. Yuzu is the only she doesn't have to worry about doing something rash.

"Then I'm making a choice too. And don't tell me I'm just a kid. It's hypocritical." Karin stares into Rukia's eyes and they both know she's right. Sometimes it's easy to forget how young Ichigo really is with the unquantified strength in his reiatsu, the trials he's faced (they'd faced together), and the feeling that she's known him for lifetimes. But he's only six--no, seventeen now.

"I'm not, but Karin, you're untrained. Going of in the middle of the night by yourself is dangerous and reckless. Ichigo can't sense you if you get in trouble, Yuzu doesn't have the same sensitivity you do, and your father--"

"Goat Chin can sense me fine!"

"Your father doesn't only have you to protect." Rukia gives a significant glance to two windows.

Karin deflates. She looks back inside her room to where Yuzu is breathing lightly. It makes Rukia feel bad, but Karin's is hers to protect too. Even from Impulsive Kurosaki Well Intentioned Decisions. When she looks back at Rukia she looks so young that it makes Rukia hate everything that's thrust this family into this life. (She knows that in no small part it means her.) God, it's so dangerous for them. Especially now with Ichigo's powers gone, Karin's raw and untapped, Yuzu's quietly simmering and Isshin worrying over all three of his kids. There were times she wondered why Isshin had kept his secret for so long but now she understands all to perfectly.

Now she doesn't stop herself from reaching out to the girl. Karin's shoulder are small but strong under her hand. Her eyes are large and dark as they stare up at Rukia, her body still half out the window. One leg dangling in the air.

"Karin, I'll stay in town tonight and patrol, okay?"

"Rukia-chan…"

She tucks one of Karin's thick locks of her behind her ear. "Tomorrow, you'll go down to Urahara-san's shop and ask him to start training you like he does with Jinta and Ururu."

"Really?"

Rukia sighs. It's not the most ideal situation but it's all she can think of, "Yes."

Karin's arm fly out and wrap around Rukia's shoulder. "Thank you! Thank you, Rukia-chan!"

Arms curling around the young girl, Rukia wishes she felt better about this.

 

--

 

She waits until Karin's back in her room and asleep -- her reiatsu evening out in rest -- before she turns to start on her promised patrol of the town. Before she leaves she turns back and stops short when she sees Kon at Ichigo's window waving sadly to her, she waves back and makes herself flash away.

The next morning she sticks around for breakfast at the shop, listening to stories Yoruichi has about nii-sama, waiting for Karin, who shows up before school starts just like Rukia knew she would.

 

 

DAY 403

 

Rukia swallows when Byakuya ask how her last trip to the Living World went.

They're having dinner in the manor.

She fingers at the glass of plum wine on the table. It's a sweet wine, makes her think of candy. She thinks of Urahara's shop and how she knows the exact number of flash steps it takes from there to the Kurosaki clinic.

"It was fine, nii-sama. All seems normal."

Byakuya's lips press together. His hands are graceful as they pick up a slice of eel. The chopstick click together.

"And are you well, Rukia?"

She considers that. Wonders on it as she takes a bite of food. The curry is thick on her tongue.

"I think I am, nii-sama." It's true enough.

"That's good, Rukia."

They eat in companionable silence for a while.

"Nii-sama?"

"Yes, Rukia?"

"Is it true Yoruichi-san, Urahara-san and Kurosaki-san would babysit you?" She asks, making sure she's avoiding her brother's gaze.

The chopsticks snap in half in his grip. Rukia takes a sip of the wine, her lips curving against the rim. She thinks she hears her brother mutter something about she-devils, were-cats, asinine nobles, and idiot scientist, but she can't be sure because she doesn't ask.

 

DAY 419

 

She's having lunch with her captain, Nanao, Kyōraku, and Hirako when her captain asks her an odd question.

"Rukia-san?" That's how she knows it's the beginning of an odd and serious question.

"Yes, taicho?"

"It took you several months to recover after Kurosaki-san drain you of your powers, did it not?"

Rukia blinks, eyes darting across every face in the room. "Yes, sir."

"He also drain your powers completely."

This is old news, she's not sure why they're asking, but she answers anyway because this is her Captain asking her, "Yes."

"Do you think he would have drained any other member of the Thirteen completely, as he did you, Rukia-san?" Hikaro asks. "Let's say, a captain like Kyōraku here."

Rukia has to admit she's never wondered on that. She's never thought of anyone but her that night with her sword pointed at his heart and their ties only starting to knot together. But now that the question's been asked she can't help but imagine. What if? What if it had been Renji? Or nii-sama? Or as Hirako has suggested Captain Kyōraku or some other individual with more power. The answer comes to her blindly fast and clear.

"First, it's Kuchiki-fukutaicho, Hirako-taicho." (Hirako only grins.) "And yes, I think he would have," Rukia answers.

Kyōraku hums in agreement. "My thoughts exactly, Rukia-chan, my thoughts exactly."

Then Nanao brings up the subject of the new buildings they need funding for and the subject is forgotten, mostly. It picks at Rukia for the rest of the day until she and Ukitake are walking out of the offices that night. Almost everyone is gone; Kiyone and Sentaro are closing up tonight so it's just the two of them as she walks him back to his home.

"Tachio?"

"Yes, Rukia-chan?"

"Why did you ask that question about Ichigo earlier today?" She glances up at him.

Ukitake looks at her for a second, smiles, and then turns to the street. The street lamps add a gently glow to the already softly pinking building as the sun sets. "Just some old men's curiosity. Ichigo-kun's powers never seem to stop being a mystery, don't you agree, Rukia-chan?"

Licking her lips, she nods. It's not worry or suspicion she's feeling but something. Something big. Like she's had an important puzzle piece handed to her but she does not yet know where it goes.

"Yes, sir."

 

DAYS 449-455

 

The whole week is a series of unfortunate upon extremely unfortunate events. Rukia gets very little sleep.

Same goes for the whole Seireitei.

At the end of it she practically crawls into her futon and just collapses with exhaustion. She is not the only one. (She can almost hear the sigh of relief as nii-sama closes his bedroom door. If she hadn't been so tired she would have made note of the tired expression on his face.) Everyone is late to work the next day.

Everyone.

 

 

DAY 500

 

Counting is silly. She needs to stop. (She knows she won't.)

 

DAY 517

 

Urahara sends a butterfly for Rukia to come the Living World the next day. Ukitake tells her to go ahead and even take the day off. Her back feels tense the rest of the day.

 

DAY 518

 

Isshin and Yoruichi are flanking him. Urahara pulls a book from his sleeve, flips it open to a page, and sets it down on the table. He turns it so it's facing her and slides it over to her. Rukia's fingers brush the edges of the pages, her chest is aching, her hands feel sweaty. She pulls her hands back, wipes them on her uniform, and with steady hands reaches for the book. Urahara's scrawl is tiny and unfamiliar but she understands what's she seeing quickly enough.

There's parts she doesn't understand and parts she's not sure she cares to understand, but there in-between all the words and theories is hope.

The puzzle piece falls and it all clicks finally into place. Her breath is stuck in her throat. She makes herself work past that. It'd be too much to look at Isshin right now so she focus on what the words in front of her are telling her.

"Can you really do it?" Fingers curling tightly on the soft worn pages of his notebook, Rukia looks up at Urahara.

The hat casts shadows on his face, but she can see his eyes clearly.

"It will take time, and I'll need everyone's help if it works. Yours most of all, Rukia-san."

She nods. "Okay."

"Everyone's worried about this new acquaintance Kurosaki-san has made."

Rukia sighs, she remembers the conversation between her and the captains. "They're worried, I'm not."

Urahra sly smile takes over his face, fan flipping open as he laughs. "Well, in that case I'm sure it will all be fine."

 

DAYS 519-529

 

Life continues on as it does in the Sereitei. She spars with Renji, lunches with her friends, dines with brother, co-runs the Thirteenth, and waits. It's different waiting now than it was before. She does not worry. She doesn't. She makes herself not worry, but now she's in the Living World almost every other day going to Urahara's for updates.

There's a tension, a weight on the days, that wasn't there before. The waiting has changed, if it was ever waiting at all.

Rukia feels like she's been running. Running for months, just keeping pace in her life. Now there's a goal. She can feel it in her bones. Anticipation floods in her now; waiting is near unbearable. Her chest feels heavy all the time, her nerves are vibrating every second.

 

DAY 530

 

Urahara calls her to the Living World. He waits with Isshin in dark room. The only light comes from the cylinder in front of them. It glows with Isshin's powers. His gift to his son.

Both men turn to her.

"Just place your Spiritual Pressure in here and it's done."

Rukia walks up to them. The cylinder casts an eerie glow on all of them.

"Right," she says. She'll be the first, but not the last.

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

DAY 548

 

Isshin hands her the sword as they reach the woods. It glows in her hand and she thinks of lightning. The rain is falling hard and Ichigo's collapsed in it. Ginjo's stolen everything from him and it makes Rukia want to run the man through with her own sword, but no, she won't, she has other things to do. In the end it's not her fight. It's Ichigo. She's here to make sure he gets to fight it. To remember he's not alone. Across the roof he's on his knees and drenched. His cries and sobs bite into her, make her ache for him. (Part of her is glad she made Renji and the others wait to see if the sword took because she could not bare for them to see him in such a state. She's protective even now. She almost wishes even Urahara and Isshin weren't here as well but she knows they'd never stay away. It's Ichigo, after all.)

She watches him struggle, keeps near Isshin and Urahara, and holds off because feeding him the sword now would be too easy. He needs to remember why he fights.

Stealing a glance to Isshin's face she wonder how he's dealing with this. For all Ichigo is to her and others, to Isshin he's still his son. For once, Isshin's face is unreadable. His eyes dark and narrowed on Ichigo's head as he shouts to Ginjo.

And then, the idiot stands, his face set into familiar determination and demands his powers back. Rukia bites down on her bottom lip.

Ginjo looks shocked.

Ichigo's gaze is fierce.

Rukia moves.

She knows just where is heart is. She won't miss.

When he turns after he realises what's happening and their gazes lock -- her lidded, his wide -- her lips curl, a shiver works its way down her spine. She can see the glow of the sword in his eyes.

The sword pulses in her hand as his body accepts the power and like before his reiatsu explodes around them, blinding. Nothing is faded anymore.

 

 

DAY 549

 

It's early morning, the sun's just rising. They made it back to the house only a couple hours before. Karin and Yuzu are sleeping safely in their bed. The others, the hurt, are being taken care of at Urahara's. Isshin said he's going to catch a few hours of sleep before the clinic's hours start. Rukia watches as he headed off to his room, rolling his neck. Grabbing his mug, she takes it to the sink. She wonders if Ichigo fully understands what his dad did for him. Rukia sighs. He probably does. Ichigo sometimes understands too much. She thinks of the Combat Badge. Sighs again.

A pair of hands slide over her waist. Fingers curl in, clenching over the swell of her hip. She can feel the bite of his nail through her uniform.

Her hands tighten on the edge of the kitchen counter. It's all she can do not to start crying.

"You know, midget, we didn't get say hi before." His face buries itself in the curve of her neck. She can feel him brush his nose through her hair, inhale against her skin, skim his lips over the shell of her ear. The muscles in her thigh twitch.

She laughs softly, it's a wet sound. (She's not going to cry.) "No, we didn't. You had a fight to finish." She leans back against his frame. He is taller, she notes. His chin doesn't hit the top of her head anymore. Otherwise he feels the same; it’s an odd relief.

"Always seems that way," says Ichigo; his lips close over her earlobe. Rukia grins.

"Yeah, it does," she turns in his arms. His hands drift up her back. Hers reach for his face. Her palms frame his cheeks, her pinkies slide under his ears.

His breath's warm against her cheek. Rukia's fingers move to curl into the soft hair at the nape of his neck. She licks her lips. His eyes follow the movement. Her stomach clenches.

When his lips slide against hers, she opens them easily, quickly. Their teeth clack and the noses smash together at first, from their rush but their awkwardness eases off as the kiss continues. His tongue presses against hers as he licks into her mouth. She flicks hers at his top lip, dragging him closer with her hands. Ichigo has the same idea. Rukia feels his grip on her shift and then she's being lifted, her ass slides against the kitchen counter as her thighs close over his hips. Ichigo presses against her. The smell of rain clings to his skin; she breathes it in.

His lips skim their way from her lips, across her cheek and down her jaw. He sucks at the skin just where her jawbone curves under greedily. She can already tell she's going to have a mark there. He's so predictable.

Her lips stretch into a smile. Pulling away, she leans back and takes him in. He's mouth is swollen and downturned -- she did interrupt his hard work -- as her eyes drift over his face. He's so blindly familiar and solid under her fingers. It makes her feel almost giddy.

His fingers card through her hair, tilting her face up to his. He presses kisses to her hairline, her cheekbones, brows, nose. His eyes roam over her face too.

She grins, tugging him closer, and buries her nose at the space between his collarbones.

"What?" He says against her temple. He's so warm, she can't help but think again. Warm, solid, and smelling of the rain. She shakes her head against his chest.

"Rukia?"

She looks up, "It's nothing, I promise. Hi," says the last word against his lips.

He grins under her mouth, "Hi."

 

DAY 550

 

He curves around her on the bed. He always does. Hand at her hip, his thumb strokes the jut of her bone, "Hey," he says agains her shoulder, "you up?"

She hums in the affirmative; rubs her nose against his bicep.

"You know when you go back I'm going with you, right?"

She snorts, flips over on the bed. One leg slides between his, the other is thrown over his thigh. His thumb slides to the crevice of her hipbone. The tattoos on his chest are still a surprise to her. She traces the one thick line with her finger.

"I figured as much."

"You did?" He grins, his teeth catch on his lip.

"You like making a scene," she says, biting at his chin. Her teeth only leave slight marks that are already filling in by the time she lays her head back on the hard pillow that his arm.

"Look who's talking, Miss Stabs Me With A Glowing Sword," the hand on her hip moves. It slides over her backside. He pulls her closer.

She rolls her eyes, but her hips tip up against his. "Are you complaining?"

Ichigo grins, rolling onto his back, taking her with him. Her legs shift and adjust as they move, bracketing his hips. "Never," he says, cupping her face and pulling her down to him.

Rukia lets herself sink into him, knows hers is welcome weight.