Chapter Three – Prelude for the Straying Stars
“This is your idea of thinking of something?” Ichigo hissed, gesturing sharply towards the kitchen where Kuchiki – err, Rukia now – was sitting with the rest of his family, calmly enjoying her breakfast.
That wasn’t the problem. He couldn’t very well expect the Shinigami to continue taking meals in her room. And he wouldn’t deny her food. The issue was that she was dressed in a female’s school uniform to match the one that Ichigo currently wore. His father actually expected Ichigo to take her with him.
“How am I supposed to explain going to human school?” Ichigo added, feeling as though he were too young to be having this stress. His reiatsu agreed and attempted to lash out of his control. He thinned his lips, reining it back in. “And won’t the school and my friends find her appearance just a little… I don’t know… sudden?”
His dad looked at him, something dancing behind his eyes. “Ichigo, if you keep yelling like that all of our lies won’t mean anything.”
Ichigo worked his jaw for several seconds and forced himself to take a deep breath. He felt his forehead tick and reminded himself that this man was his father and therefore the responsible one. And if he thought this was going to work, then it probably was. Oftentimes, his dad had the luck of the stupid.
“Just how do you think I’m going to explain this?” Ichigo asked, and it was hissed more than spoken, as he struggled to lower a voice that wanted to yell loudly.
His dad grinned. “Don’t worry. Kuchiki-san is a smart girl. I’m sure she’ll figure it out all on her own.” He waved a hand of dismissal and pressed a palm to his chest. “Besides, you can’t very well keep her here for weeks on end. It’ll be fine, Ichigo. Don’t worry.” He clapped his eldest – at least physically – son on the shoulder.
Ichigo wasn’t quite convinced. Case in point being the sight in front of him, Rukia frowning in discontent at the juice box Yuzu had handed her five minutes ago. She’d yet to manage to get into it and kept turning the box over and over, as if expecting it to open on its own.
“Right,” Ichigo snorted, shaking his head. “She’ll fit in just fine,” he tossed over his shoulder as he moved into the kitchen and grabbed both box and straw from the pathetic Shinigami.
He really couldn’t see how this was going to work, not one bit. She knew nothing about the living world. And worse, he couldn’t tell her anything that would lead her to believe he was anything more than she interpreted him to be. Ah, confusing. Sometimes, Ichigo really hated his father.
“Thank you,” Rukia said quietly as he punched the straw into the carton and handed it back to her. “I admit to have never seen such a thing before. You must have been stationed here for quite a while.”
How easily she blended a compliment with a well-disguised query. Kuchiki was a crafty one, and Ichigo wished he knew how to handle her better. It had been hard enough explaining that she needed to take a gigai for awhile, and now forcing her to attend school with him? That was like asking for her to discover the truth.
Ichigo ground his teeth and plastered a fake look of casual disregard on his face, browsing the breakfast selection for something quick and easy. Toast it was then.
“You’ll get it eventually,” he responded vaguely, leaving her to puzzle out the truth behind his so-called mission. Ichigo felt as if he trod over thin ice in flame-covered boots. Things could get ugly. Really fast.
“Ichi-nii!” Karin hollered as she moved past the hallway, struggling to get into a shirt as she stumbled around in a sleep-daze. “Asano’s outside, and he’s making a big racket.”
Gold eyes darted to the clock, and Ichigo groaned. Damn but they were running behind. That was what he got for threatening his father first thing in the morning. He snatched his gakuran(1)off the back of a chair and shrugged into it.
“Alright, Rukia, let’s go,” he mumbled around a mouthful of toast, trying to remember where he left his bag.
She nodded and rose to her feet, tugging self-consciously at the short length of her skirt. Ichigo wasn’t even sure he wanted to know how his dad had acquired the item and was afraid to worry there was some poor girl out there missing her skirt from her clothesline. Either that or Tessai had been up all night sewing again. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Urahara Kisuke had to get all those ugly haori from somewhere, didn’t he?
“Have fun storming the castle, kids,” his father called after them cheerfully as Ichigo moved into the hall, grabbing his bag where it had been pushed into a messy sprawl to the side.
“Thank you for breakfast,” Rukia was saying politely, already halfway towards a bow that they really didn’t have time for. “It was-”
Ichigo clapped a hand on her shoulder, dragging her along with him. “While Yuzu is surely beaming right now, that’s really not necessary,” he grunted and urged the slow-moving female towards her own gakuran and shoes.
Just beyond the door, he swore that he could hear Keigo singing and the mere thought made him wince. The longer he made Keigo wait, the more obnoxious the boy could get. He really didn’t know how Mizuiro tolerated such idiocy on a daily basis. Or how Ichigo had been tolerating it for years.
“School must be important to humans,” Rukia muttered to herself, sliding into her shoes with a small amount of effort. Her mouth had drawn into a petite circle of annoyance, but she restrained herself.
Ichigo had the feeling that restraint wasn’t something she applied often. At least, not when it came to expressing her irritation. He wondered how long her polite distance would last when faced with the chaos that was high school and living at the Urahara household. Not long, he estimated.
He pretended he hadn’t heard her offhand comment and opened the door, stepping into a somewhat humid morning. Mizuiro stood by the fence, leaning casually on it as he chomped on his breakfast – another cereal bar. And Keigo was in the middle of some strange dance that Ichigo didn’t even want to fathom the purpose behind. His Ichigo-instincts kicked into action then, and Keigo immediately zeroed in on his childhood friend, crossing the ground with an elaborate twirl.
“Iiiichigooooo,” he sing-songed, looking far too happy for it to be this early. “How are you- Dear kami in heaven! A lovely lady!”
Behind Ichigo, Rukia had just stepped out and watched Keigo with a small amount of apprehension. For the first time, Ichigo appreciated her intelligence. Any female was wise to fear Keigo.
“Who is this vision of stunning beauty?” Keigo continued, holding out a hand to take Rukia’s. She wisely didn’t return the gesture, gaze warily flicking over the exuberant teenager.
“Kuchiki Rukia,” Ichigo explained shortly, hefting his bag over his shoulder as he started down the walk, the Shinigami following after him. Perhaps a bit closer than was necessary as she kept Keigo in her sights.
She watched Ichigo, too. Those blue eyes always assessing, no doubt wishing she could ask the questions that lingered in the back of her mind. Ichigo dearly hoped that she never got the chance. For once in his life, he was glad for Keigo’s obnoxiousness as it kept her occupied and not asking questions.
“Nice to meet you, Kuchiki-san,” Mizuiro greeted with a polite tip of his head, falling into line beside Ichigo and giving her a small smile.
She beamed brightly in return, almost surprising Ichigo with her sudden shift from calculating to bubbly. “Kojima-san, right?” Rukia returned, clutching her schoolbag with both hands. “Kur- Ichigo’s told me about you.”
Wow, she lied even better than his father; Ichigo hadn’t mentioned any of his friends. No doubt someone had given her a few pointers. Probably Yuzu or Karin, they were better at this stuff than him.
“Has he said anything about me?” Keigo inserted brightly, popping up in front of them and pointing a finger towards himself as if there were any doubt who he meant. “Anything at all?” he urged, giving off the impression of a puppy wagging its tail.
Rukia appeared to consider this, a devilish sparkle entering her blue eyes. “Hmmm… No. Not a thing, I’m afraid. Who are you again?” She looked so concerned, so interested that it was difficult to tell she was lying.
As Keigo deflated like a balloon that had lost its helium, Ichigo couldn’t resist a tiny smirk. He should be ashamed of himself, but really, the other teen made it so easy.
“Ichigo,” Mizuiro inserted as Keigo fawned and introduced himself with a grand flourish, again trying to take Rukia’s hand. “Who is she?”
He momentarily faltered, a great lie escaping him. “Err… A relative. On my dad’s side,” he suggested, though it was so obviously not true.
Mizuiro raised a brow, suspicious but not questioning him. Ichigo wouldn’t have reason to lie, after all. Even if it remained apparent that Rukia resembled no one from his family and especially not the Kurosaki side. Not that he’d known Ichigo’s mother all that well. But he still remembered what she had looked like.
With Keigo serving as a sufficient distraction, they made it to the school without Ichigo having to suffer any probing questions. Even more luckily, his dad had already contacted the officials about Rukia’s appearance, and her papers and locker were ready for her when they arrived. She had unsurprisingly been placed in Ichigo’s class, making things nice and simple. Or complicated. Depending on how one wanted to look at it.
Ichigo pushed Rukia ahead of him into the classroom, surrendering her to the masses. He allowed the girls to swamp her, offering their greetings and compliments as the boys immediately made plots to introduce themselves in a more suave and personal fashion later. That would at least keep the Shinigami from paying too much attention to Ichigo’s actions.
He tossed a glance from the corner of his eyes as he headed towards his desk and found Rukia blushing demurely. The smile on her face was pleasant, and only he could tell it was fake. Damn, she was good. Nothing to be worried about then, not that Ichigo would admit that his dad was right. Things still had the capacity to go to hell in a handbasket.
Ishida looked at him as he approached his seat, one hand pushing his glasses up his nose pointedly until they caught the gleam of the overhead light. “Bad enough that I have to suffer you… but now Seireitei trash?” he muttered in annoyance and flicked a bespectacled gaze towards Kuchiki before returning it to Ichigo.
He dropped into his seat with a grunt, glossing over Ishida’s less than savory comments. “Long story. Don’t ask. And I don’t think I need to tell you to be discreet. She has no clue what’s really going on.”
“Awful big word for you,” Ishida sniffed, all indignant, arching one brow as he seemed so fond of doing. “Unlike a certain someone, I have enough intelligence to know when to speak and when to keep my mouth sealed.”
Ichigo scowled, brow drawing together as his face darkened. “Look, I-”
Tatsuki interrupted, and he dismissed Ishida to focus on another of his childhood friends.
“Yeah?” Ichigo turned to greet her. Only to frown at her expression. “What’s that for?”
“A relative,” Tatsuki pressed, obviously not as accepting as Mizuiro had been. “And how is it that I’ve never heard of her?”
Her palms flattened against his desk, eyes stubborn and determined. Ichigo quailed just a bit. His Shinigami abilities notwithstanding, Tatsuki was easily capable of kicking his ass if the situation suited her. She was the strongest female he knew, except for possibly Yoruichi-san. Still, that was really saying something.
Ichigo’s eyes flickered to Rukia, who had been swamped and promptly glomped by Chizuru, her fake politeness reaching a threshold. “I couldn’t explain it even if I tried,” Ichigo finally answered. He wouldn’t even know where to begin in the madness that had become his life.
The spirit worlds. Hollows. Shinigami. All of it. How could he even begin to explain it? Myth, legend, fable, fantasy… That was public opinion. He couldn’t explain Rukia without explaining the rest, and that would take longer than he had.
“Just trust me,” Ichigo added as he held her gaze firmly. “It’s complicated.”
Tatsuki frowned, face unwavering. “You know,” she began softly, shoulders squared and resolute. “I’ve always gotten the feeling that you’re hiding something.”
Ichigo fidgeted, not wanting to have this conversation here and now. He glanced at the clock. Homeroom would start in five minutes. Not soon enough.
“Kurosaki-kun!” Inoue chirped, bounding up out of nowhere and displaying incredible timing as she bounced to a stop in front of him, clapping her hands together. “Your cousin came to visit! Aren’t you excited?”
Ichigo inched away from the exuberant girl; it was too early for perky. “Uh… sure, Inoue. Thrilled,” he drawled as she beamed at him, grey eyes sparkling.
The girl pouted, obviously not satisfied with his lackluster response. “Ah, you should be smiling. See?” She put her fingers to the corners of her mouth and drew them into a wide grin for his benefit. “Family is important, you know,” she added around her fingertips, looking quite comical.
He would have protested sourly, but Ichigo remembered that Inoue was a lot like himself. Her brother was gone, leaving her on her own. And yet, she still managed to be the optimistic ray of sunshine.
“Yeah, I know,” Ichigo agreed and was very relieved when he saw Chad approaching from the other side, distracting him from the conversation.
Inoue moved her attentions to Tatsuki then, further serving to deflect her from questioning Ichigo, and he bit back a sigh of relief. He had dodged something there, though he wasn’t quite sure what. Tatsuki had become more and more demanding lately, relentlessly seeking information. He wondered how long he would be able to hold out before she would wrangle the truth out of him.
The bell rang, cutting Chad off before he could speak, if he even intended to do so. And as Ochi-sensei clapped her hands for order and rushed the students to their seats, Ichigo shared a glance with his friend. There was understanding on Chad’s face, and Ichigo knew without having to ask that somehow, Chad knew Rukia wasn’t his cousin or any familial relation. But Chad didn’t question either, and for that, Ichigo was grateful.
Ochi-sensei ushered Rukia to a seat just behind Ichigo, and she passed between he and Ishida, her eyes darting from one to the other before brightening in sudden understanding. Clearly, she had just come to her own sort of conclusion, not that Ichigo would ask her to elaborate. He’d rather the Shinigami just make up her own story, rather than him trying to lie and keep it all straight.
And then, homeroom started, and Ichigo was saved from making conversation or offering any sort of explanation. His classmates accepted the utter lie that Rukia was his cousin easily and latched onto her with all the eagerness of children and something new. They, at least, kept her occupied from watching Ichigo too closely. Instead, she seemed to study them with equal focus, asking pointed but subtle questions and seeming to store it all away in some inner encyclopedia.
At one point, Ichigo swore he caught her stalking Chizuru and for reasons that he didn’t even want to comprehend. No girl in her right mind ventured that near to Chizuru. Or Keigo for that matter. The duo was two perverted peas in a pod.
Her behavior was odd enough that Ichigo forced himself to ask her about it. Though he waited until they were walking home from school without their usual Keigo and Mizuiro accompaniment.
“What were you trying to do?” he demanded, feeling a ticking in his forehead that was likely a headache beginning to form.
She blinked up at him, as though surprised by the question. “Helping,” Rukia answered succinctly, one hand rooting around in her pockets for something of great importance. “Obviously, your mission is too large for you to handle alone.”
Ichigo, for his part, was just a bit speechless. What had she decided in that dainty little head of hers was his mission? And he was half-afraid to ask because then it would lead to other questions he didn’t have answers for.
Instead, he snorted and shifted his bag against his bag. “Well, don’t,” he retorted lamely. “I… uh… I’m doing fine on my own. I don’t need any extra hands.”
“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and then the both of them were suitably distracted by the sound and feel of a Hollow in the distance. Hungry and hunting.
Wonderful. Since Ichigo really felt an urge to slash something down.
Weeks passed, and Ichigo found himself growing used to her presence. He really had no choice about the matter. Rukia wasn’t recovering as quickly as any of them would have liked, and her persistence in discovering the details behind his so-called mission was unrivaled. Ichigo wasn’t sure how he managed to keep evading her, but he knew he would run out of excuses soon enough.
In the meantime, he occupied her by helping her with her neglected Shinigami duties. She couldn’t hunt Hollows in her current state, so he responded to each appearance in her place. Ichigo quickly learned to hate her cell phone, as he realized it doubled as her communication device with Seireitei. Hollow locations were beamed down to her on a daily basis and often hourly. Sometimes, she dragged him out of school for it.
One such incident sparked an annoying turn of events that resulted in the Urahara household taking on another boarder. A mod soul who Ichigo named Kon and subsequently stuffed into a plush animal. It wasn’t like they had bodies just lying around for him to use anyway, though his father had claimed he was going to make one. In the meantime, both Rukia and the blond shopkeeper preferred he borrow Kon rather than use the flighty temporary souls in his Gikongan.
Still, Ichigo’s reputation would never quite be the same again. Not after the embarrassing and idiotic things Kon had done in his body. The girls kept giving him strange looks, blushing when he caught them staring and giving him a wide berth. Keigo wouldn’t talk to him for days – no big loss there. All because Ichigo had stolen a kiss. And it wasn’t even him!
A week later and Ichigo was still pissed about that.
At least, up until June rolled around.
It was a truth he hadn’t revealed to Rukia and one that he was certain bothered her immensely. Even more than the facts behind his assumed mission. The relationship between he and Urahara and his sisters and all the other residents of the shouten. Complicated and confusing, no doubt.
June brought the truth to the forefront because try as he might Ichigo never could forget the past. Not when the anniversary came about every year, reminding him of what a Hollow had callously stolen from him. His mother. Isshin. His humanity. His sisters’ peace of mind.
He didn’t despise Urahara Kisuke for saving him. And he was grateful that the geta-boushi had taken Ichigo and his sisters under his wing. Still, every year Ichigo remembered. And every year, he grieved.
“Why are we here?” Rukia asked, trailing along after him as they climbed the high slope, sun beating down on the back of their necks.
Ichigo wasn’t sure how to answer that without revealing too much. And he didn’t really want to talk about it anyway. He certainly didn’t want her to know anything. He focused his gaze on his sisters, walking a little ahead of them but not too far. He still didn’t trust that a Hollow wouldn’t appear out of nowhere to try and eat them.
“Wait here,” he said instead, drawing to a halt and pausing at the entrance to the memorial grounds. And then belatedly added a please when he saw that she was about to protest.
Rukia stared at him, eyes searching and evaluating, before she set her chin and nodded. “Fine.” She moved to lean against the side of the gate as she pulled out her cell, tapping away.
He was ridiculously grateful for the privacy, but Ichigo didn’t say that aloud. He just inclined his head and stepped by her, following his sisters to a familiar place on the grounds. Every year for five years they’d come here, and this year made six. He was sure that next year would make seven. Remembering what had been stolen from them.
Karin stood, solemn and gathered as she stared at the stone etched with their parents’ names. Her eyes were dark with grief but dry. Determined to be strong as she had vowed.
Yuzu openly wept as she did every year. Scrubbing the back of her hand over her eyes as she crouched in front of the combined graves.
The sun attempted to make things warm and pleasant, but with the echo of grief and loss that hung over them, it faced a losing battle. Ichigo squeezed his sisters’ shoulders briefly, letting them know he was there. It hurt, even six years later. He could still remember the smell of blood, the feel and sound of the rain, the sharp flash of zanpakutou against Hollow claw. The grating chuckle and the Hollow’s words.
And he could never forget the blame. The guilt he carried was heavy enough, but he saved most of the fault for Isshin. Ichigo had never understood the creatures he saw or the frightening cries he heard, the feelings that shifted in the air. And he’d been too young then to know the difference between the dead and the living, especially when no one had stopped to explain.
If Isshin had said something back then, anything that a small child could understand, things would have been different. If Isshin had just sucked it up and told the truth. If he’d not been such a coward, Ichigo would have known what that feeling in his gut was. That press of something in the air. He wouldn’t have gone after that girl. His mother wouldn’t have died.
So many ifs.
Karin sighed and lowered herself down, putting a hand on her twin’s back. “Hey,” she said softly. “You cry every year, Yuzu. Don’t you think she would rather see you smile?”
“Yeah,” Yuzu murmured, sniffling as she scrubbed her hand over her face again. “But it’s harder to do that when I’m standing right here in front of them.”
Ichigo unconsciously drew a hand into a fist. They’d never blamed him, Ichigo knew that. They didn’t blame Isshin either. They preferred to save their anger for the Hollow, and it had already been cleansed. Yuzu, their resident optimist, preferred to look to the future while remembering the past with fondness. And Karin was ridiculously good at hiding the breadth of her emotions.
But Ichigo couldn’t forget the past. Forget the look on his mother’s face, frozen forever in time. He couldn’t just forget that she had died to protect him. Killed by a creature she couldn’t even see or hear. And a part of him still wondered if she had even realized what she was doing. If she had even known that she would sacrifice her very soul to save him. If Isshin had even told her. Something. Anything. Even a hint of what he was.
If she had been deceived like the rest of them.
And that was probably the thing that angered him the most.
“Ichi-nii?” a light and quiet voice questioned, effectively cutting through the haze of his thoughts.
“I’m fine, Yuzu,” he replied automatically, uncurling his hands and forcing them not to be fists. Ichigo cleared his throat then. “Dad’s waiting for you at the bottom. Don’t dawdle.” He urged them towards the exit, wanting to be alone for reasons he couldn’t explain
Karin rolled her eyes. “Should I start calling you tou-san rather than nii-san then?” she asked teasingly, obviously picking up on his unvoiced signals and locking her arms with Yuzu.
“But,” the younger girl protested with a wrinkled forehead. “Are you okay, Ichi-nii?” She blinked up at him, big brown eyes worried.
He nearly gave in at her concern. Those eyes were dangerous weapons.
“I’m really fine,” Ichigo assured her and even managed a smile. “I just want a moment.”
“Come on,” Karin insisted, giving Yuzu a light tug. “Let Ichi-nii grieve on his own a bit. You know how teenage boys are.”
Yuzu was the more empathic of the twins, but sometimes, Karin seemed to understand Ichigo better. Perhaps it was because they were too much alike.
Reluctantly, Yuzu allowed her sister to pull her away, and Ichigo was grateful for it. He did need a moment alone. He didn’t know what he would say. Ichigo never did. He simply stood and stared at the numbers etched into stone, the recently cleaned memorial. The memories hadn’t faded, even after the years, though he wished they would.
“You’re here to watch the humans, aren’t you?”
Ichigo startled at the sound of Rukia’s voice and whirled, finding the petite Shinigami right behind him. “You…?” He was at a loss for words.
Hadn’t he asked her to wait? Did she have no concept of polite distance?
She shrugged, flipping her phone shut with a defined snap and sliding it into the pocket of her sundress, one borrowed from Yuzu. “I was tired of waiting,” Rukia said dismissively, peering up at him from beneath the rim of her equally borrowed hat. “You didn’t answer my question.”
He slouched, regarding her cautiously. How long had she been standing there?
“It was more like a statement.”
Rukia rolled her eyes. “And the Quincy, I can assume,” she continued but then frowned, obviously stumbling on something else in her thought processes. “Your friends… They have stirrings of reiatsu, but it’s only partially their own. Highly unusual. I’m not sure what it is.”
She was stumbling closer to the truth, and it made Ichigo uneasy. He settled for avoiding the pointed question altogether.
“As you’ve said before, Karakura has an unusual amount of spirit energy,” he dismissed with a wave.
“True.” Rukia seemed to accept that answer, though it was clear she hadn’t completely let go of her curiosity.
Unwilling to dwell, Ichigo turned away from the grave and shoved his hands in his pockets. He really wanted nothing more than to go home at this point.
“I get that’s your mission,” Rukia continued, falling into line beside him with her face drawn in contemplation. “You’ve made it obvious enough, but I wonder whose orders you follow.”
Always, always pressing for information. Damn but she was tenacious.
Ichigo winced but figured that he was in this deep, might as well keep making up shit as far as it would take him. With any luck, she would be healed and on her way to Soul Society before she could figure out the absolute truth.
“I can’t say,” he said. And it was the truth, but for a different reason than she might suspect.
She nodded, gazing at him for a moment before asking the oddest question. “Are you a Shiba?”
Ichigo blinked. “Excuse me?” That one had come right out of leftfield.
“Your family name,” she clarified with a vaguely hopeful tone that somehow also managed to contain dread. “Is it Shiba? I mean, I know what they call you at the human school.”
“No, it’s really Kurosaki,” Ichigo replied slowly, wondering if this was some sort of test.
Rukia seemed to consider that. “Are you related to them then? I can see a resemblance.”
Ichigo hesitated. He knew vaguely about a Shiba clan in Soul Society, but he’d never met them before. For all he knew, that could’ve been Isshin’s family. He didn’t really know much about his biological dad. Other than the fact that he was a former captain. And a liar. A big one at that.
The thought made him scowl.
“Eh, maybe.” He gave an indifferent shrug. “I don’t really know much about my parents. They were killed when I was young, and I was raised by a family friend.”
Which was all strictly true.
“Nothing at all?” she questioned with interest, studying him like one would a particularly fascinating bug.
“We didn’t talk about them much,” he deflected. “Still don’t.”
Again, true. Though he suspected that his dad and Yoruichi-san would be more than happy to tell him if he asked. He just never asked. Ichigo honestly didn’t want to know.
Rukia was incredulous. “But surely, you must know. They were one of the great families. Your mother could’ve been a cousin. Or a daughter. Perhaps your father-”
Ichigo’s hand tightened into a fist. He’d already thought about Isshin once today, and that was more than enough. And perhaps it was a mixture of that, of the fact that this was the anniversary of his mother’s death and that he was to blame for it, but Ichigo lost his temper.
“My birth father was an unmitigated bastard and a liar. I wouldn’t have trusted anything he told me, so it doesn’t matter if he did,” the teen snapped, voice perilously close to a snarl. Already, he could feel something stir inside him. Something dark and dangerous. But then, Isshin always brought out the worst in him.
She looked at him with wide eyes, and Ichigo shoved his gaze away, hating that he’d lost himself for a even minute. Rukia couldn’t have known that Isshin was a sore spot for him. Ichigo preferred not to talk about the man if he could help it. Preferred not to think about him at all.
“I’m sorry,” he said after several moments. “You didn’t deserve that.”
Rukia just nodded. “I can understand when family is a touchy subject,” she responded, face distant.
She was on the verge of saying more, but a jigokuchou chose that second to appear and flap in their general direction. Ichigo lifted an eyebrow as the dark-winged butterfly swept closer and landed on Rukia’s finger, relaying a message that only she could hear. He still wondered just how much contact she had been making with Soul Society. He knew of the phone, but that was the usual. Was she also sending messages to her captain? About him? About Urahara and his family?
Perhaps they hadn’t been watching her closely enough. Maybe it was already too late.
Rukia inclined her head, her mouth forming a thin line. The butterfly alit, fluttering into the sky, and she dropped her hand back to her side. Her forehead formed lines of thought, and Ichigo was half-afraid to ask. She didn’t offer any explanation either.
Ichigo had the feeling both of them were relieved when her cell beeped a few seconds later, alerting them to the presence of two Hollows somewhat nearby.
“Duty calls,” Ichigo muttered, rooting around for his gikongan.
The Shinigami’s hand was already busy searching through the small bag she usually kept across her back. In a few seconds, Kon was being shoved under his nose, the stuffed plush wiggling its limbs in protest.
“Ah, nee-san, I don’t want to help him,” he declared sulkily, and though Ichigo wouldn’t have ever believed it possible before, the stuffed creature glared.
That feeling, ironically, was mutual. Too bad she wasn’t giving either of them a choice.