Byakuya’s gaze lingers across the table. Rukia wraps her hands around her cooling tea and tries not to blush.
“You’re going to watch over the Kurosaki girls,” he repeats. The trees flower in the courtyard, soft and sweet and fragrant.
“Just for a few days. Kurosaki-dono is going to be away, attending a conference,” she says evenly.
“Do they not have an elder brother who can watch over his own sisters?” he asks, voice slightly dry. It’s nearly a facial expression, she thinks.
The corners of her mouth twitch. She keeps her brother’s gaze. “I think he’d prefer me.”
Byakuya shrugs slightly, his hooded eyes moving to look out into the green courtyard. “As long as your captain does not need you.”
She licks her lips. “I was only telling you, nii-sama. I wasn’t asking permission,” she says after a moment. It’s a moment that has to happen, that need to – she is past the constant search for approval. For one, she knows, somehow she knows, that her brother cares. For the other, Ichigo is a terrible influence.
But perhaps it’s just growing up, growing more. Energy slides at her fingertips, humming under her skin.
He makes a small sound, and nods. “I am glad you told me, Rukia.”
She smiles, and sips her tea. Outside, the cherry blossoms shiver in the breeze.
The front door to the house is unlocked. Her dress is light against her skin, with the warmth of late spring sun on her shoulders. The straps, thin and soft, slide over her shoulders.
Rukia goes straight to the kitchen. It’s an eerie sort of quiet, permeating through the house. Karakura Town is silent and still, and she’s wary of the silence, of the peace. She does not rest easily, she thinks. Her eyes flicker towards the clock on the wall, past the poster of Masaki; school will be out soon.
She sits on the kitchen counter at last, a glass of water in her hand. Condensation gathers and settles around the edges of her skin. She kicks her legs and hums, breathing in the heavy air of the real world. She feels everything harder here, as if the gravity is different. Her hair, longer now, sticks to her throat, the nape of her neck.
The quiet moments really are few and far between. She likes to spend them here, outside of the eyes and grasp of Soul Society. This is only her third trip back since Ginjo’s death, and the reaching of what seems like some kind of an end, in everyone else’s eyes. She’s too busy for much distraction, what with the thirteenth and Ukitake’s illness and training sessions and paperwork.
But still, she worries; there is Aizen in the depths of the jail cells, waiting; there is Ukitake and Kyouraku and the look in their eyes when Ichigo come to check in – which he does. He is a responsible Shinigami, and pays his respects to the Commander-General monthly.
If then he finds his way to the thirteenth barracks and kidnaps her for a few hours, she can’t help that.
So this, when she does get a chance to come here, she takes it. She is selfish in that, but she also cannot bring herself to truly care. Nothing is over, she knows. They should take the quiet and the peace where they can.
Her bare heels press against the lower cabinets. Gaze catching at Masaki’s picture, she swallows. Her thumb rubs against the gold band resting at her knuckle, a force of habit now. She thinks sometimes it’ll disappear, just as he has and she has, in the wide circle of what they’ve done and who they are. Every time she runs her finger across it, she smiles.
There are voices at the front door. Ichigo’s reiatsu is sharp through the walls, searching her out. She knows he’s been aware of her since she stepped through the gate and into Urahara’s shop. There’s a hunger, low and deep, that she can feel in the stretch of his reach for her. In the back of her mind, Shirayuki hums and sighs. The air cools; Rukia feels the give and peel of ice on her fingertips.
The front door closes. Yuzu and Karin’s voices dip and sigh as they hustle towards the stairs. Rukia tilts her head up and listens as the footsteps creak towards their shared room. She shuts her eyes, smiling slightly.
“Just making yourself at home, eh?”
She sets her water down on the counter next to her hip and looks at the doorway. Ichigo leans against the frame, arms crossed over his chest. The uniform sweater is lost and it’s just his button-down, open at the throat.
“Your dad said this was as much my home as yours,” she replies easily.
Ichigo’s mouth curls. He pushes off the doorframe and walks to her. Her knees part and he fits himself between them, his waist pressing into the edge of the counter. His hands land, warm and heavy, on her thighs. The hem of her dress sinks against her knees.
He looks at her then, his mouth turning downwards. Bright hair falls across his brow. She can feel the hum of his power, edging against her skin. She leans back against the cabinets, her hands rising to the collar of his shirt. It’s simple moments and intimacies, and she’s not afraid of them any longer, even as she still flushes with it.
“You look tired,” he says, and the concern isn’t just Ichigo – she can see the gold flecked in his eyes, feel the curve of his fingers against her hip.
“That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me,” she says at last, laughing.
“Stop it,” he says, shaking his head. He leans in, his forehead resting at hers. She shuts her eyes for a moment and breathes in, the sweat and spice and soap of him. It’s particularly human, she thinks; grounding. But she still feels the power behind the man; Zangestu is there, a sharp hum.
“You look tired,” he repeats, and he’s very quiet. His hands slide and cup at her waist, fingers dragging against the soft fabric of her dress. Her eyes catch on the pattern, greens and blues and flowers that remind her of the mansion.
“It’s been busy,” she says finally, looking up.
He grunts, shaking his head a little. “No kidding. It’s been a month.”
She sighs, because it has, and there’s little she can do to change it. Things are still shifting into a new vein, a new order – eventually, she thinks Ichigo will have to come to Soul Society on a more permanent basis and she doesn’t know if that’s what she wants. The future creeps up on them without warning and she’s trying to keep up and prepare, but it’s taking all of her energy just to stay in the present.
“It’s fine,” she says, and she doesn’t even believe herself.
Ichigo’s gaze narrows, but he says nothing, Instead, he leans in and kisses her, lips slightly chapped. Her fingers curl into the starched collar of his shirt. There’s his sigh, the press of his teeth against her bottom lip and she shuts her eyes. His tongue licks into her mouth and she’s hot and sticky at the crease of her knees and the back of her neck.
There are footfalls upstairs, giggles and groans, the bounce of a soccer ball. Rukia pulls at his shirt, dragging her mouth across his to his jaw. “Your sisters –“
“It’s fine,” he mutters, mouth wet and hungry at her throat. His teeth drag at her pulse, and she shivers.
There is the bounce of the ball again from above, the plop of a duffel bag. She slides her hands to the back of his neck and drags him away, her gaze steady on his. He is staring at her, wide-eyed and pupils blown. She wets her lips, her toes curling in the open air.
“Karin has a match. And this is the kitchen,” she murmurs. She slides her fingers through his hair, soft against her skin.
“I have done much worse to you before in here,” he drawls, and there’s the hint of a smirk at his mouth.
Flushing, she pushes him away and slides off the counter. His hand is at her elbow, steadying her. “No one was home,” she hisses.
He grins insufferably, running a hand through his hair. “Eh, whatever.” His eyes glance over her as the girls shift and start down the stairs once more. “I like the dress,” he says at last, his fingers skimming her hip.
She smiles. It’s soft, and only his, changing as Yuzu and Karin hurry in, crying her name. But he echoes in, in the shape of his mouth and the flecks of his eyes.
The sun is heavy and bright in the sky. The park, the open field stretches out before them.
She and Ichigo sit at the top of the hard wood bleachers. Yuzu sits with friends, passing out water bottles and granola to Karin and her teammates on timeouts and breaks. The game is a blowout, but Rukia likes this, the casual time spent. Watching Ichigo watch his sisters is always curious to her; there are some family bonds she might never understand, she thinks.
“School’s almost done,” he says, out of the blue near the middle of the second half. Karin trots up and down the field almost lazily, her feet moving nearly as fast as Rukia’s hands do with the blade.
Rukia tilts her head, looking at him. He sits with his elbows on his knees, staring intently out at the field.
“Oh?” she asks, a little hesitantly. Her hands spread over her thighs, pressing down into her skirt.
He looks at her, smiling slightly. In the background there are cheers, whistles, applause; another goal, she thinks. Slowly, she’s learning the lingo.
“Oh?” he parrots.
“What does that mean, Ichigo?” she asks, exasperated.
His hand covers hers on her thigh. She can feel the press of her ring into his palm.
“It means – I don’t know,” he says with a shrug, and she’s suddenly reminded that he is only almost eighteen, and that yes, there may be an old soul inside of him, but it’s one of many faces. This face, this is the boy whose closet she slept in and whose blood she cleaned from her dress after a rainy day in June.
“It means university, I guess. Or it means taking time off,” he continues.
“To do what?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I could – I could come to Soul Society. Figure this shit out, or whatever.”
“Or you could do what you’re supposed to do and go to university,” she says, suddenly cold.
He tilts his head and watches her, mouth tight. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing,” she murmurs, leaning back. The wood slats press into the small of her back. She slides her hands away to rest on her stomach. Her scars ache. She looks out onto the field, trying to identify the bitter taste in her mouth, the tingle in her fingertips.
She wants so many things, after so long of not wanting anything. It’s strange, and too overwhelming. There is the want to linger here, to be in this world that is his and this space. He isn’t a creature that belongs to either world, but straddles all of them; she just wants him to stay here , in this space and this world a little longer.
He’s quiet, oddly. His hand remains on her thigh. The spring breeze settles and shifts between them, sweet and grassy. She lifts the hair from her neck and sighs.
“I’m just saying – you idiots are rebuilding every goddamn week, and you’re tired and busy, and I just – I want to help you, Rukia,” he says at last, words almost lost on the breeze. The grass flutters under the kids’ feet on the field. “I want to help you, and get some fucking answers.”
Something softens, gives in her middle. She reaches out and drags her fingers over his bare elbow, where his sleeves are rolled up and stop. The sun is hot behind her, on her shoulders. She’s happy for the loose and light layers of this world.
“You have a life here. You should live it,” she says quietly. Live it until you can’t anymore, until they try and swallow you up in everything, she doesn’t say.
From the way he looks at her, how he catches her fingers in his, she thinks she doesn’t have to.
He leans back next to her, bringing her fingers to his mouth. It’s bold and sharp in the sunlight, in front of parents and friends and siblings. She flushes.
“I’m just tired of always saying goodbye, you know?” he says, sheepish. His mouth opens and closes over her knuckles.
A cheer goes up from the greater audience below. Rukia ducks her head, cheeks hot. Her fingers curl around his. “You’re an idiot,” she murmurs. “Bringing this up now.”
“I didn’t want to wait until you were halfway through the gate again,” he drawls.
“Like when this happened?” she retorts, wiggling her ring hand in his direction.
His brow furrows, mouth turning. “Uncalled for.”
“Oh, stop,” she mumbles. “It’s a nice day and your sisters are happy – we need to feed them.”
“This is the opposite of how I want to spend my time with you, you know,” he mutters.
She laughs, slides her fingers over his mouth. “This is fun, though.”
“This is my eight thousandth soccer match. They’re all the same,” he says lightly.
Rukia glances at the field, watching Karin. “She’s good, Ichigo.”
He sighs then, leaning his shoulder against hers. Their fingers lace together and rest on his thigh. “Yeah. She really is.”
There’s a moment then, as they sit there in the sunshine and the breeze, where Rukia thinks, almost, that this isn’t a match with Karin, but somewhere in the future, with–
And then she stops herself, amidst Shirayuki’s humming and cooing and the rise of color on her cheeks. She swallows and squeezes his hand at last, her skin buzzing with warmth and her own energy. Ichigo leans over and grazes his lips across her cheek, his nose near her hair. She sighs, and leans into him for just a moment.
They take the girls out for dinner, and it’s all surprisingly normal. Isshin truly is the catalyst and anchor for dysfunction in the family. Without him around, the girls are bubbly and taciturn in their own ways, and Ichigo is – well, Ichigo. Over noodles and teriyaki they talk about school, about soccer, about new recipes Yuzu is trying out on all of them. It’s soft and lovely and utterly steady.
Still, she does find herself missing Isshin, his strange outbursts, his wild affection for his children, and sometimes she thinks for herself. He is the lynchpin, no matter how Ichigo grumbles and Karin rolls her eyes and Yuzu sighs.
At home, the girls troop upstairs for homework, for bed. Rukia lingers in the kitchen, making tea, keeping her hands busy. She feels the lingering heat of the day’s sun in her skin; it leaves her a little dizzy, swallowing hard.
Ichigo sits with books at the kitchen table, reading, or so he says. She feels his eyes on her more often than not.
“What is it?” she asks at last. Darkness has fully settled over the town. Its chill seeps into the house, into the air. Shirayuki is a low hum in the back of her mind, invigorated by the closeness to Zangestu, the partners.
Ichigo sets his book down and leans back in his chair. “What?”
“You’re a moron,” she retorts, her mug of tea warm between her palms. She stands against the kitchen counter, ankles crossed. Her feet are bare. “Is this about earlier?”
He crosses his arms over his chest, shrugging. “You’re just very far away right now.”
Her cheeks flush. “You’re kidding.”
“All the way across the room, really.”
“This is the kitchen,” she hisses.
He raises a brow. “Is it better to do stuff across the hall from them?”
He grins and stands, approaching her. She keeps her tea in front of her, as a half-hearted defense.
“I’m just saying,” he murmurs. “Either way, you have to be quiet.”
“I do?” she drawls, setting her tea aside as his hands come to her waist.
It’s a quick jolt and then he has her lifted onto the counter once more, moving between her thighs. Her hands slide through his hair, down the nape of his neck, fingernails catching. “Yeah, you,” he murmurs as he leans into kiss her. He tastes of spices and tea, warm on her tongue. His hands are gathering the light folds of her skirt, pushing them up towards her waist.
She leans back and shuts her eyes, her mouth opening against his. There is her tongue at his lip, her fingers digging into his shoulder blades. His hands slide over her thighs, warm to the touch. He always runs hot against her; this does not surprise either of them.
“I want to go to university,” he says as his fingers slide against wet flesh, circling her clit. His mouth lingers near her jaw, at the curve of her throat. “I do – I just –“
Shifting on the counter, she presses her knuckles to her mouth, watching him with heavy eyes. “I know,” she murmurs, the heat unfurling low in her belly, the sharp peaks of it that make her skin flush and her throat tighten.
His thumb settles at her clit as there’s one – two fingers curling inside her. He edges closer, his mouth wet and needy against her skin. She can taste the day on him, grass and sun and that deep edge of books. But the rest of him is there in every curve of his mouth, every roll of his thumb, every slide of his hand over her breast – it is a ruby-dark tang of power, of energy. It’s a claimant, meant to linger on her long after the few days have passed and she goes back.
He bites at her throat. She sucks a sharp moan back into her throat, her hand curling into itself. Her teeth sink into the skin of her knuckles.
“I’m tired of watching you leave. We all are,” he murmurs. It sends a shiver right through her, deep in her gut.
“It won’t – it won’t be forever –“ she breathes out, voice low and soft as it crests through her, the press of his fingers and the slide of his mouth at her neck and it’s just never enough, it isn’t –
“No,” he says, meeting her gaze. His eyes are too dark, flecked with gold; it’s sharp and intense and beyond the man-boy from just hours ago. He pulls her in close and leans in, grazing his mouth with hers as she drops her hand away to grab at the edge of the counter. “No, it won’t.”
Then he kisses her and swallows her moans as she comes. His tongue rolls against hers and she’s breathless and wanting, the pleasure coming in waves. Her fingers shudder against the kitchen counter. She slumps back against the cabinets and he chases, his mouth always hovering. It’s nearly sensory overload, and she’s content to have him solid and real in front of her, under her hands.
His mouth is soft as she opens her eyes, soft and warm and breathless.
“One day, you won’t leave at all,” he says, and she believes him. She doesn’t have a reason not to.
They retreat upstairs, at last. The mug of tea and his book are left to their own devices, to be found in the morning.