excessive chain

They come home.

The air is heavy, the world moves too fast - Ichigo has been through death and back again, and he is changed. The world is not. For a moment, they are all still, stunned by the sheer life around them. Then they shift, they shrug their skins back on, they say their goodbyes. They part ways and the world spins on around them.

Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

Ichigo spends an hour lying in bed, too tired to sleep, definitely too tired to think.

This is crap, he finally decides. Rukia's safe, we did it and we all came back alive. Everything's okay. The fuck am I still awake?

Turning on his side, he falls asleep. He doesn't remember if he dreamed when he wakes, because the first thing he sees is his closet door ajar.

Rukia yawns and looks up when he yanks the door open.

"Did you have to do that?" she asks, peeved.

"The hell are you doing here?" he greets.

"What does it look like I'm doing?" She stretches, long and lazily, never mind that it should be impossible in a space she can barely lift her elbows in.

"What, Urahara threw you out? Doesn't mean you can come here."

She snorts. "Don't be ridiculous. I'm not staying with him."

He scowls. This was bad enough before, when he could at least tell himself it was a temporary arrangement. The prospect of a permanent lodger in his goddamn closet of all places is infinitely worse.

"You can't stay in my closet forever, dammit, this was bad enough before!"

"You'd rather I took your bed? It'd certainly be more comfortable," she says and smirks.

He splutters, she smirks harder and then he slams the closet door shut with a crash and ignores her yelp of protest and the following howl that says he nearly broke her elbow, asshole.

Yeah, well, see if he cares. And he's not bothering to get her breakfast either. She can just starve.

But Rukia is more ingenious in the food stealing department than he expected, and Urahara isn't at all interested in being helpful when Ichigo storms down to his shop. Well. Unless large amounts of money and/or the Ichigo's willing participation in some... experiments... was involved...

Ichigo decides he's not that desperate.


The second night, Rukia spends half an hour whistling nursery rhymes while Ichigo's trying to sleep, obviously for the purpose of driving him mad and making him throw her out the window. He retaliates by snoring, thereby prompting unflattering comparisons to various animals (which he doesn't hear, since he's fast asleep) and a shoe thrown at his head, which wakes him up and nearly does make him kick her out.

Things haven't changed; they've gotten worse.

The third night, he dreams of a rainy night, of watching her walk towards the glowing white-paper doors of Soul Society. But this time, he's standing, he's running, he's calling her. This time, she doesn't turn, doesn't look at him, but then it's his hand on her shoulder, spinning her around -

"Dammit Rukia, you idiot, what the hell -"

The words stop in his throat and he looks down into eyes turned inside out, black for white and white for black. She smiles, a thin, wavering thing, and reaches for him.

"Ichigo," she says, and her fingers are thin and light around his wrist. "Ichigo..." Her touch flutters, uncertain, and her words are an unspoken plea.

A plea for what? Her eyes hold him, alien and unknowable.

This was what was inside him too, he thinks. What it was like for those who faced him?

And then she crumples and he reaches to catch her and her form dissolves to white, choking smoke around him, the world breaking and unravelling into a thousand memories and the wisps in between, the could-have-beens and almost-weres and can-bes, with shards of pure impossiblity falling through them.

He wakes to the roar of blood beating in his arteries, fear and adrenaline. He's sitting up before he even realises it, and a movement out of the corner of his eye makes him look up.

Rukia is sitting on his window sill, legs hanging over the edge. She looks at him, eyes wide and inexplicably bright in the dim light, and definitely hers.


He takes a breath to steady his breathing, grimaces and shrugs, "Sort of."

She doesn't ask him what the dream was about, only turns to look back out the window. "You'll get used to it. Go back to sleep."

It takes him a while to figure what she's talking about. After days and nights of fighting through enemy terrain, peace and silence are suddenly strangers. Some sort of delayed reaction, he thinks; he was sleeping well enough before. He looks at her and wonders if she feels the same thing, the unfamiliar lightness of being alive and unafraid.

"What's with you? Can't sleep?" he asks.

She lifts a shoulder, lets it fall. "Just... thinking. Looking outside."

He studies her, dubious and not sure why he's bothering to care either way. Sensing his regard, her gaze falls to her lap.

"I'm fine. Really. I just need to think. Go back to sleep." she says.

He doesn't have the right questions for her either, any more than she does for him. He lies back down and falls asleep watching her still, straight back.

The street below is empty. She listens to the sound of Ichigo breathing behind her, slow and even and heavy, marking time. Eventually, she pulls her legs back up, leaving her precariously balanced on a ledge maybe five inches wide. Turning, she swings herself back in.

Sitting on the windowsill, back to the world outside, she looks around the room. Four walls, a desk, a bed, and a sleeping boy. His face is still and startlingly young, but the small shred of power still left in her glimpses the blinding fire in him, incandescent and wild, radiating through this room, this house.

She looks away, but she can still feel it, of course, a weight all around her. She wonders that she can breathe through it, but her lungs draw breath anyway. Or maybe it's not his aura that hangs heavy on her as it is her flesh and blood and bone, the awkward, leaden shell she must carry for as long as she lives now.

Dark thoughts for a dark hour; the meagre light that falls through the window past her small frame is the dulled yellow of the streetlamps outside. She should sleep but she's not sure she knows how to anymore.

She doesn't remember sleeping at all in the long weeks that preceded her execution - she didn't need to, it seemed, hour after hour of stillness and silence eating into her until everything faded into a sort of waking dream, with only Renji to shake her into consciousness every now and then.


She starts and Kon crawls out from under Ichigo's bed.

"You haven't been sleeping," he says, a faintly accusing note to the words.

"Yes I have," she says, but Kon doesn't buy it.

"That jerk doesn't get it," he says, standing up and brushing himself off. "Sister has been through a terrible time! She needs comfort! Love! Assurance! Someone to hoooold her! An idiot like Ichigo will never understand!"

She would brush him off, but she looks at his small, determined figure and doesn't. It wasn't his fault that he wasn't there, and it's one small thing to be grateful for.

"Thank you," she tells him. He blinks, surprised for a moment, then deflates.

"I didn't even do anything..." he says and sags.

"You did enough," she says. "Don't worry about me. I'm going to sleep."

The closet door shuts behind her before Kon can leap in. He looks at the door and thinks about asking if she'd like a cute plushie to hug while she sleeps, but leaves it. Flopping on the floor, he stares at the ceiling.

Sister didn't come back right, he thinks. That jerk Ichigo, I knew he'd mess it up. What happened? What did they do to her?

But he doesn't have the right questions either.

Inside the closet, Rukia stares at her four wooden walls, then closes her eyes. She'll get used to it, eventually.

She hopes she doesn't dream.

The first day of school comes too soon and Ichigo finds himself swamped with deja vu, only creepier, because he knows he's seen this happen before. The problem is that no one else does.

Rukia simpers and giggles like the practiced hand she is, and the school is smitten. It's ridiculous, he thinks, what the hell do they see in it? Cute is an alien word to his vocabulary.

At least this time she's not dragging him down with her. There are no more beeping alarms at inopportune moments, no more transparent attempts to "get him alone", and definitely no more reasons for her to sock him in the jaw and drag him out of the classroom (Ichigo can't imagine why anyone associated this kind of behaviour with them dating. Were people blind?)

Keigo is naturally at her feet, and Mizuiro is quietly appreciative of her technique, from one expert to another. Chad is his only bastion of sanity. Ishida was never something to count on and anyway, he has enough to worry about because, in its search for new fodder, the rumour vine has now latched on to him and Orihime.

Ichigo watches Orihime's complete oblivion and Ishida's complete horror and feels something akin to pity. Not much though. Better the dork than him.

Through sheer persistence and good luck, Keigo manages to get Rukia out on a "date". She sallies forth armed with Ichigo's grunted non-explanation of the concept of "dating", one of Orihime's weird stories (which she half believes) and 20 volumes worth of shoujo manga cliches.

To hear Keigo speak of it, it's an unparalleled success, maybe because Keigo's only ever managed to persuade a girl to go on a date with him some three times before. Sadly for him, it is not repeated.

Keigo is very nice, and charming, and a perfect gentleman! But she really needs to concentrate on her studies, Rukia demures on further enquiry.

Ichigo breathes a sigh of relief a moment too soon. The next day, she steals his lunch. He doesn't find out till break, by which point it's all too late because she's already strolled up to him with a smile and his lunchbox.

"Kurosaki, did you forget your lunch? You can share mine, I brought extra."

The audience (Keigo, Mizuiro, the whole damn classroom) reels. Ichigo grinds his teeth.

"That's my lunch!" he tries to hiss at her. She smiles, all teeth.

"I know," she points out, sweet as sugar.

Bitch, he thinks. He shares Keigo's lunch instead, and spends the rest of the hour trying to ignore his wails about how Kuchiki-san should have offered her lunch to him, because Ichigo was an ungrateful bastard who didn't appreciate the finer things in life.

It's hot on the roof. He stares into the blue sky in the distance, clear and cloudless. By now, Mizuiro's talk and Keigo's melodramatic yells are white noise, part of the background music of his life. Ishida and Chad never talked much anyway, and when Rukia joins in every now and then, she's easy to tune out too. It's only routine, after all.

Nothing has changed, and it should be a comforting thought, but it isn't quite.

Everything has changed.

Rukia gave little enough thought to her classmates before; out of necessity, she recognised enough names to carry an illusion of normality, but that was all. When she searched for memories to while away the long hours of waiting, she could barely recall their faces, only the blur of their gathered presence.

Now, faces stand out to her, from the sea of people that swirl around her every day and yet are never noted. To each face, a name: Chad, Orihime, Ishida. Their faces are marked to her, not because she owes them their lives, because they went to Death to save her - her, who barely knew them - but because of their eyes.

They have seen Death, after all.

Even now, they see it still.

A week after school starts again (she goes through the motions and only they know she has done this all before), she realises that they might not be the only ones.

She is sitting on the school roof when she sees Tatsuki cross the courtyard, then stop to bat the air. She stands for five minutes, snapping at nothing Rukia can see, then stalks on.

It's a small incident, but Tatsuki is Ichigo's friend and, as Rukia knows all too well, Ichigo has a habit of leaving his mark on those around him, whether he will or no. The realisation brings a sudden, sharp pang, lancing through her, too fleeting and complicated to be called jealousy.

She is blind now, and Death has closed it doors to her, whereas the other girl is only beginning to see. She is not sure which of them is the more cursed.

It would be easier if power had left her so completely as to leave no memory behind it; clean wounds heal, eventually, and if you are very lucky, sometimes they leave no scar. But she can feel the jagged edges of the gaping hole within her, large and empty and showing no signs of closing, not even weeks, a whole month after.

She can sense Ichigo's power too, wild and uncontainable. He doesn't (can't) see it, but his spirit fills the spaces around him, seeps under people's skins, curls into them. It presses against the edges of her spirit, rubbing them raw, seeping into her cracks and fissures, only to seep back out, washing more and more of her away each time.

It is then that she understands, feeling it run through her like sand through her fingers, the permanance of her scars.

She would not need water again in the Rukongai.

(But the memory of thirst will haunt her nonetheless.)

Rukia fails the first test of the term spectacularly. The teacher gives her four marks for sheer effort, but that's about as far as she can push it because even Rukia can't fake her way through Maths. Miss Omasu eyes her with a mixture of worry and suspicion, and tells her to meet her in her office after school.

Ichigo finds himself waiting by the school gate when Rukia finally comes out. She's studying at her test paper and frowning so hard she nearly walks into him before he says "Oi."

She looks up.

"What'd she say to you?" he asks, jerking his head at the school. She folds her paper in half and keeps walking.

"She wanted to know why I failed the test," she says.

There are a hundred reasons why Rukia couldn't pass that test, and no real way to tell a teacher why she's never had to learn complex mathematics in her life. Ichigo tries to remember how she faked her way through the previous term and fails. She probably copied his answers when he wasn't looking and somehow managed not to get caught.

"What did you tell her?"

"I said I was weak in the subject and not feeling well on the day of the test."

"She bought that?"

"... I don't think so."

And she still got out of the office alive and unscathed. Ichigo is never going to be that good at getting out of trouble; but then, he aced the test, so Miss Omasu is never going to have a reason to bother him either, orange hair or not.

She unfolds her paper again to look at the mess of red and blue ink. "I don't understand this," she says.

"What'd you do the last time? I don't remember you failing before."

"I copied your answers, what do you think?" she says, irritated. "I didn't have time to try and understand all these strange things."

"... You're worried now."

She doesn't answer. "It's too different from the Academy," she says to herself.

"What'd they teach you at your Academy, then?" She's too deep in thought to answer; he shrugs and they walk in silence.

She tried asking, once, what all these subjects they learned in school were for. Ichigo had snorted something about passing exams to get into universities so they could take more exams and eventually graduate to spending the rest of their lives sitting behind fucking desks. She had found the whole thing incomprehensible and left it at that.

But now that is hers too. She is here and human, and she needs to eat and breathe and drink and do all the countless other things people do. Ichigo tries to imagine Rukia in a desk job somewhere and fails. Well, he can't imagine himself in a desk job either, but hell, he can find something else to do.

This isn't her world. She's a good fifteen years too late for that. Ichigo can try, but he's an impatient teacher at best and he can't single-handedly drag her through the entire foundations of junior high just so she'll understand high school.

"So copy my answers again next time," he says. "You copy all my homework anyway."

She looks at him, then looks into the distance.

"I don't understand this world," she says.

He looks at her figure walking beside him, small and ordinary. Around them, black tar roads and concrete sidewalks, streetlamps and trees and houses and the distant sound of traffic. They stand worlds apart from the afterlife (for all they know how close it truly is). But it doesn't matter how well she carries the illusion of life, does it?

In the end, she is only a stranger here; and this will ever be the land of her exile.

Ichigo dreams Rukia is laughing.

He sees her standing in the distance, back to him, wearing a sundress that looks like she could have stolen it from Yuzu. The sunlight is bright in her hair, glinting until the air around her seems alive with colour, rose and violet and blue and green and golden yellow. She is laughing, and the sound is so unfamiliar he almost doesn't recognise it.

It's weird, but not bad. He thinks of calling out, but doesn't. He crosses the grass to her instead, waiting for her to hear him and turn around, and sees that the colours drifting in the air around her are settled around her feet as well in a layer of irisdiscence.

Something crunches beneath his foot and he looks down too see a butterfly's wing. The sunlight seems to shift, and suddenly, the ground around him is strewn with their wings, as far as he can see, a carpet of colour and light. He blinks and looks up, just as a butterfly settles on Rukia's cupped hands. She looks at him and laughs, really laughs, not one of those coy giggles, and he thinks he's never seen her smile like that -

And then she carefully pulls the butterfly's wings off, leaving them to drift to the ground while she drops the still squirming body into a dark pile by her foot.

"Is it pretty?" she asks him.

He opens his mouth to say No, and butterflies pour from his mouth, wings beating against the insides of his cheeks, his throat, rising from his gut.

Black, black wings against a blue, blue sky and her laughter filling his ears, high and childlike and clear; black wings in his eyes -

He wakes.

She dreams. Of course she dreams.

She dreams of asphalt beneath her fingers, blood down her front, pain and the ignoring thereof as she sits up and grips her sword with both hands.

She dreams of a boy, young and desperate and ignorant, who trusts her too, too much, holding her wavering blade steady between his hands.

She dreams of her sword passing through skin and flesh and bone until it comes out the other side and blood running down her face like rain - Kaien, she thinks, and then she opens her eyes and it's not and Ichigo tumbles into her lap, deaddeaddeadsodead and there's fire in her veins and it's not her blood anymore because the pain is gone, there's only his blood left now.

She killed him.

This wasn't supposed to happen, this never happened, but Ichigo is still dead, still heavy against her and now it's his power rushing right through her like a drug, and the Hollow looming above them both, howling, and the fire in her drives her to her feet before she can think, and he slides off her sword (easy, so easy).

The Hollow falls on them both and she lifts her blade. It cuts right through it - mask and spirit both, and white bone shatters around her and she looks up into Kaien's face. He smiles at her, his face split wide open so she can see right through him.


And then the Hollow dissolves and he falls at her feet and that's two men dead now, and how many more to come?

It begins to rain.

She wakes, cold and gasping. Her face is dry, and when she presses a hand to her chest, her heart flutters under her fingers. Still there. She wonders if this is how Hollows feel in their damnation, but that's a foolish thought for her heart is still manifestly here. It's the rest of her that's broken.

"... Rukia?"

Her fingers clench at the voice and she stiffens. She breathes - one breath, two. Ichigo's voice is quiet, uncertain. She doesn't reply, and he mutters under his breath.

"... just a stupid dream ..

He starts when she pulls the door open. There are a thousand things she could say, and a million things she should, but she doesn't have the words for them and so she is silent.

"What?" she asks.

He snorts and looks almost sheepish, mostly annoyed. "Eh. Nothing. Just... checking."

"Checking what? That I was there? Where else would I be?"

He scowls at her. "Hell, I was just checking, okay? Go back to sleep."

"You're the one that woke me up," she points out, climbing out of the closet. "What's the matter? Had a nightmare, Ichigo?"

His eyes widen at that; flicker towards her, then away. "Don't be stupid," he snaps. She ignores that to stop at the foot of his bed. Their eyes meet for a long, cold moment.

"What did you dream of?" she asks.

His eyes are far younger and more open than he knows. "You," he says, flat.

The answer silences her. He fidgets under her stare, looks away, then finds himself looking back to study her through narrowed eyes.

"What do you dream of?" he asks.

"The past. Death." A long pause. Her eyes are large and weighted with unspoken things. "You."

He looks out the window. For no reason he can discern, he finds himself saying, "I used to dream about my mother."

She understands, even if he does not. It's an offering, of sorts. "Do you still dream of her?"

"... Not so much." It's not so much a lessening of pain, but an adaptation to its presence. One day, he will be ready to speak of it, she thinks. That day might come sooner than he knows.

"I killed a man once," she finds herself saying in return.

He looks surprised. "What?"

"A fellow shinigami. My vice captain."

The air is heavy and suffocating, and she could turn away, pretend she never spoke at all. But she owes him this much.

He doesn't look at her. "... You want to talk about it?"

"No." She turns back to her closet. "It was not an accident," she says to the door.

She climbs back in and he doesn't speak. She's almost closed the door when he says, "I won't ask either, if you don't want to. It doesn't make a difference. I don't care."

She shuts the door. "I know."

It rains. Rukia never has an umbrella, so she's soaked in minutes, and her hair gets in her eyes. She has to push it back, which is when she realises, it's growing. It hadn't grown when she was in her previous gigai; she pauses, considers the matter and frowns.

Urahara. Of course.

She keeps walking. It's cold and grey and her wet dress weighs her down, her feet splashing and squelching in the puddles. She looks up at the clouded sky and thinks of the times she's found herself walking in the rain. Dark days, all of them.

It doesn't bode well, does it? Water runs down her back and her lips press thin against a shiver.

There's no one outside when she finally reaches Urahara's shop. They're probably hiding from the weather, and the shutters are down again (it's a wonder Urahara has any business but then, Urahara isn't here for the business). It's not locked though; Rukia drags it up high enough to let her through and ducks under.

She stands dripping until Tessai comes out, drawn by the noise she made coming in.

"Miss Kuchiki. Do you need anything? We're closed for the day."

"Where is he?" she asks.

He pauses for a moment, looking at her. She ignores him to run fingers through her wet hair, wring the ends with her fingers, and flick it back.

"He's taking a nap. I'll get him."

"No need. I'll go with you."

He stares at her, on the verge of protesting maybe, but turns anyway, and she follows him through the shop. They pass doors, some of them ajar, showing glimpses of shadowy rooms and tottering piles of boxes. Urahara is indeed napping when they find him, or at least, stretched on the tatami mats, arms pillowed behind his head.

Rukia stalks past Tessai, takes stock, and coolly kicks him in the head.

"Miss Kuchiki!" he greets cheerfully when he's staunched the blood from his scratch, hand still pressed to the swelling bruise gracing his left cheek. "What brings you here today? And in such weather too! Dare I say you missed us?"

If she hadn't kicked him already, that would have deserved a broken nose. At least.

"Don't call me Kuchiki," she says, flat. She left that name behind her in Soul Society. She left too many things behind her.

He smiles, a sharp thing. "Well. Miss Rukia, then."

And she understands; she might have left the name, left the place, but she has not, will never, leave the scars and inadaquecies that came with it. She doesn't let herself wonder how long she has to carry them before she finally gets to forget.

She is silent long enough for him to repeat, "So what brings you here today? Is there a problem with your gigai? Or improvements you'd like to have made, perhaps? You know I give discounts on interesting requests, and it's always a good price for my best customer!"

The problem is she doesn't know why she's come either.

"My gigai is fine," she says, then pauses. "My hair is growing." she adds, suspicious.

"Well, yes, I made some improvements on the realism," he agreed. "The previous one was a temporary stopgap, but this one is manufactured for long term usage. You should find the compatibility stays consistent, even without my maintanence."

She considers this, then looks at him, eyes narrowing.

"... Like your gigai?"

He blinks. "No, of course not," he says. "I'm a craftman, Miss Rukia, I believe in customising for my clients' needs!"

Of course he does. She should have kicked him harder while she was at it, but she'd known the risks inherent in trusting this man. Or she should have; she only has herself to blame.

"I'm sure you do," she agrees. "You've had a hundred years to practice, after all, Captain."

"Ah." He doesn't seem surprised. "Well, that was bound to get out eventually."

A hundred years; even by Soul Society's reckoning, the number is not insignificant. None of those years show; why be too realistic, really? Hard to get much done as an arthritic old man.

"Will my gigai age?" she asks.

He tilts his head back to study the ceiling. "Possibly. Depending on your preferences. Yours was designed to last a mortal lifetime, but it will decay, of course; if you would like to stay young and beautiful, naturally you'll need to come back every now and then, and we might have to work on the decay rates a little." His grin is comfortably mercenary. "Would you like to make advance appointments? I promise you I run ex-cel-lent beauty services!"

"That's not necessary." The thought of living out a mortal lifespan here is daunting enough. What would she do with immortal youth?

"My powers will never return, will they," she says, for all that she already knows the answer.

His eyebrows rise. "Well. That could be a little... unlikely, yes."

She looks away. "Then why do I still sense Ichigo's power so strongly?" she asks, eyes fixed on a distant wall.

He doesn't reply for a long moment. "Kurosaki's power? That's interesting. I suppose there could be any number of reasons... his high levels of power, his inability of control them, the remains of your power transfer...

What she doesn't say is that she senses him even more strongly now than she ever did before. That it rubs her raw with its presence, reminds her of a hunger she hasn't known since those long ago days in the Rukongai, only wilder, sharper. More dangerous, she thinks.

"Or perhaps you simply sense the bonds between you, forged as they have been by adversity and true-"

She gives him the poisonous look of a customer who's about to refuse to pay their debts, rob the store and then burn down the premises for good measure.

"- friendship," he finishes, with an innocent grin.

She could ask what the hougyouku did to her, if she wanted. But she's not sure he knows. She's not even sure he's telling her the truth.

Still no answers, in the end.

"What does this world hold for you?" she asks and looks over her shoulder.

Something old and dark and terribly familiar to her flickers in his eyes.

"What does it not hold, in the end?" he asks in return. "... Why do you ask?"

"... No reason." She's moved to stand in the half open door already. "I'll take my leave, then."

She makes her own way out of the shop and finds Tessai waiting at the entrance. He pulls the grille up for her this time; as she steps out, he locks it. She stands, back to the shop, not quite ready to leave shelter. No time seems to have passed at all since she went in. Maybe she should get one of those things mortals tell time by. Something to count the hours and days with. The sky is too grey to tell; the walk back to the clinic will probably be shorter than she wants it to be.

It's still raining.

Are you sorry you saved me, she asks, or words to that effect.

The question is distant. He turns to stare at her sitting in the closet, pencil in hand and a book in her lap. She doesn't look at him, so he slouches back in his chair.

"What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I'm not sorry. We did it, didn't we?"

"You could have died," she bites out. "You and your friends. Or have you forgotten?"

He glares at his textbook. "No. What do you take me for? We knew what we were doing," he says.

This is my own choice, Orihime had said, running to Urahara's shop. They'd all made their choices; who is Rukia to say otherwise?

"Fools," she whispers, more to herself than him. He doesn't know what she means by that.

"Yeah, you should talk," he says. "You didn't have to go with them in the first place!"

"That was different," she snaps.

Like hell it was, he thinks, and says as much. "We all came back, didn't we? And you're not dead either. What's with you?"

"Nothing," she says, still distant. She climbs out of her closet to brush past him and stand at the window. "Maybe it would be easier if I'd died," she says to the glass.

Easier? Nothing about her is easy in the first place, he could tell her. Instead, he feels an irrational anger rise in him.

"What's so easy about dying?" he asks, scowling.

"What's so easy about living?" she echoes, mocking.

Nothing, of course.

"So you'd rather be dead," he snaps. He can't bring himself to point out that she can if she wants, it's none of his damned business anymore; in a way, it still is and always will be, now.

"... No," she says. "I should. But I can't."

He doesn't understand what she means, what weighs her down even now. Ichigo's never been good with words in the first place; what do you say to something like this?

"Thank you," she says, suddenly.

She never said a word of thanks, not in all those long weeks. Maybe to the others, but not to him. He'd brushed it off as typical ungratefulness and left it; not like he'd done it to be thanked anyway.


She looks at him and he remembers a rainy afternoon, mud in his hair and rain in his face and the smell of his own blood in the wet air. And none of it mattered because he couldn't move, couldn't get up, he'd failed again and this time was even worse than the last because he knew what it meant, knew the truth now. He remembers cold fingers curled tight around his wrist, nails digging into his skin until it hurt.

"For not dying."

The rain stops sometime after dinner.

Rukia left before he woke in the morning and never showed up in school. By now, Ichigo hasn't seen her all day and Kon is beginning to fret. He looks up from his English homework when his window opens and Rukia climbs in, wet and sopping


"Eh, where've you be- Don't do that, you'll get water everywhere!"

She stops, a puddle spreading around her, gives him a look and then takes the hem of her dress in both hands and squeezes. Rainwater splashes to the floor.

He swears and hurls an old towel at her. "Goddamit, Rukia -"

"Don't be so mean to Sister! Can't you see she's cold and wet and hungry!"

He glares at Kon, mutters and drops back into his chair. "Just clean up your own stupid mess," he says. "Where've you been? Yuzu probably threw the leftovers out by now."

"Just walking. I'm not hungry," she says. "Stop shouting, Kon."

He looks at her. Her dress was a pale green, now wet and dull with rain. The cotton clings to her, so as she turns her back to him and pulls the towel over her hair, he can see the scapula in her back, unnaturally stark.

He's seen her bruised and bloody, broken and limping, but he'd never thought of Rukia as fragile until he'd seen her standing on that long, narrow bridge, teetered over an unimaginable height, eyes luminous with fear and hope and impossible things.

Now, tracing the lines of her bones with his eyes, wondering why she looks so thin, her fraility is a shadowy thing, curled under her skin. She turns abruptly and catches his gaze. He looks away and turns back to his book, but the words won't focus through her afterimage in his mind.

The black hole of silence behind him grates on his senses until he gives up and looks at her again. The towel is a crumpled heap on the wet floor.

"Don't just leave that there," he says, annoyed. She raises an eyebrow at that, picks up the towel in an uncharacteristic show of meekness and then throws it at his head.

By the time he's untangled himself and stopped swearing, she's crossed the room to stand beside him. Her knee bumps against his and she is suddenly too close, and not close enough; reflex tells Ichigo to pull back but her eyes hold him, ink-black and opaque, unsettling for reasons Ichigo can't explain.

She takes his face in her hands (cool, callused palms and fingers against his cheek and jaw) and then there is no distance between them at all, no space left for even thought, only instinct.

Rukia tastes like rain and earth and something headier that he can't name, but thinks is wine. He doesn't know how long it lasts, only that it comes and then is gone and then he's free. She takes a step back and looks at him and he can feel the blood under his skin rise and burn, washing all possibility of rational thought away.

And somewhere deeper, in the part of him he hasn't let himself think about since everything ended, since they came back, something shifts, twists.

She turns away and he catches her by the wrist. She doesn't look at him.

"What was that?" he finally asks.

Her eyes flicker to meet his, then look away. "It was nothing," she says.

He's not buying that. "Like hell it is. Something's wrong. What happened? You're..."

"There's nothing you can do about it," she says, quiet.


"You know my powers will never come back," she says.

The words are a reminder of a weight he barely acknowledges but knows is there anyway. Ishida will never be a Quincy again. As far as he can tell, Chad is fine, but the damage was done, nonetheless. All of them left something of themselves in Soul Society, some more than others. They were lucky they came back at all.

"Some wounds... never heal. I think you know that," she says. She draws her hand from his grasp and her fingers brush his face. "It's not your fault."

Ichigo knows how this goes in fairy tales. The heroes save the princess, the bad guys are vanquished, and then everyone lives happily ever after. But it's not like he ever put much stock in stories. He's not a hero (not when he's failed where it matters) and Rukia is sure as hell not a princess and -

Nothing about her is ever easy.

This night, he doesn't dream. When he wakes, the window is open and his room is too empty, and there's a dent in the bedclothes beside him where someone small could have slept.

He looks at Kon, lying forlorn on the floor.

"She left," Kon tells him.

Ichigo knows.

He makes a trip down to Urahara's shop, just to be sure. No answers there, but Ichigo wasn't expecting them anyway. He doesn't know if this is because Urahara is lying, or if she really did leave without telling anyone.

Tilting his head back, he watches the clouds and imagines her walking along a road like this one, watching this same storm-washed sky, criss crossed with telephone wires and bordered with oother people's houses. Or maybe she's sitting in a tree and watching through the leaves.

Maybe one day they'll meet again.

A thousand roads unravel around him. In one world, she never leaves, and no matter the scars, what does not kill you heals, in the end. In another, they have never met, or maybe they only really meet two hundred years later, in a world beyond Ichigo's imagining. In one world, she stays and breaks under the strain of power she cannot carry, and he breaks with her for failing one last, fatal time.

In one world, they meet again, years later, two strangers on a busy street, eyes meeting and then passing into seperate lives made brighter because they know they are still alive.

A thousand roads.

She'd better take care of herself, he thinks, or he's going to be pissed.

Ichigo goes home.


April/May 2005