The second of all two Ichiru fics I've written thus far. This one is set approximately five years in the future, and Ichigo is a college kid. What would he study, do you think? I wonder…

Rated for adult situations. I am aware of inaccuracies, they're deliberate. Enjoy.


He meets her at the university gate and carries her the rest of the way on his back. Rukia protests this treatment, but Ichigo ignores her; they both know she's too weary to really put up a fight. Her latest mission has clearly exhausted her and she was favoring a leg when she walked, though she insists it isn't serious. In her black and white uniform she is a ghost, a tiny weight on his back that he scarcely feels.

Ichigo occupies a single room in a dorm now, and there is no closet for her to sleep in. He puts her in his bed and climbs in next to her, and they sleep side by side, chastely, like children

It is autumn, and the air has a brisk chill to it. Rukia has a supply of human clothes to wear when she visits Ichigo. Today it's a fluffy white turtleneck sweater and a pair of dark denim jeans. She looks like any other girl, albeit a small one, as she wanders around the campus, with only one difference—she's with Kurosaki Ichigo. The other girls watch her curiously, perhaps a little enviously, wondering who she is, where she came from, whether she and Kurosaki are related (please oh please let them be related). He was very popular with the girls for a while, until he rejected so many advances that they finally gave up. Now they have their own theories about him—he's celibate, he likes men, he's secretly rich and has a supermodel fiancée waiting for him at home—and the tiny black-haired girl turns them all upside down. How is it that she talks and laughs and fights with him so easily, and why does Kurosaki's face soften so much when he looks at her, the closest that any of them have ever seen to a smile?
It's been a month since she's seen him last, and Rukia can't stop thinking that he's taller—as if he needs to grow more—though surely that's her imagination. He's twenty now, past the age when people usually stop growing, but he always seems a little different to her every time they meet. His life races ahead while she's gone, like a runaway train about to veer off the tracks, but she is at a standstill, her existence stationary, never changing. Her time with him reminds her of the fragile, fleeting nature of mortality. How will things ever stay the same between them, when his life changes day to day, as rapidly and unpredictably as currents of water in a storm-tossed ocean?

When she worries, he reminds her that things have already changed, dramatically. That their relationship now is vastly different from what it was five years ago. That she frets too much, and she should stop it and just trust him, because there are some things between them that will never change.

She knows all the ways he looks at her, and this reassures her.

They walk in the city together, side by side, occasionally holding hands. He tolerates her when she has to stop at every pet store they pass to coo at the bunnies in the window. They watch a recording of a rock concert on the TVs in one store, and she comments on how strange and ugly human music is these days. When did screaming replace singing, she wants to know. She hums an old ballad she knows, and he tells her that she shouldn't be judging anyone's singing, and they bicker for a good fifteen minutes before the issue is driven out of Rukia's mind by the sight of ducks in the park.

She makes Ichigo buy her food from every vendor in the area, and feeds most of it to the ducks. There are a couple of boys, middle school punks, who harass the waddling birds, chasing them and trying to pull out their tail feathers, until Rukia intervenes. Ichigo watches bemusedly as she manages to send the boys home crying, one with a bloody nose and the other with half his hair yanked out of his head.

It is, by all accounts, a very normal visit.

She doesn't want to tell him. She knows she must, but the thought of it is like a physical pain to her—it makes her chest hurt and her breath come short, and her eyes burn like she's going to cry, but she doesn't, she won't. Not in front of him. She doesn't want him to see her pain, for he'll take it as his own. She can't bear to hurt him. So she doesn't tell him, not yet.

They have supper at a popular destination for the university students, a "burger joint," and Rukia enjoys using a straw with her fizzy drink and eating the little round patties with her hands. They walk around again in the darkening twilight, aimless wanderers in the city where lights come on one by one like an onslaught of multicolored stars. At her request, Ichigo tells her everything he knows that has happened among the people they both care about—Ishida, Inoue, Chad, Ichigo's father and sisters—since the last time they spoke. He talks until the subject is exhausted, and then they're both silent.

In a near-deserted street on the way back to the university, Ichigo suddenly catches Rukia's hand and pulls her just outside of the glow of a streetlamp, and there he pushes her back against the wall of a building and kisses her. One of his hands is cradling the back of her head, keeping it upturned, and the other is on the small of her back, holding her against him. Her knees have gone to jelly and she clings to his shoulders, forgetting to breathe until he pulls back. They breathe together, quietly and urgently, faces close, still entwined, and then he kisses her again, harder.

He is rarely gentle. He was tentative once, but that's gone and now his kisses are rough and intense and demanding, but she doesn't care, she revels in it, because it's him. They go on again at last, but there are a number of shadowy alleys along the way, and progress is very slow.

Rukia doesn't think about him when she's away. She can't. She has a job to do, and to be distracted from that job is a fatal mistake. In Soul Society, Rukia has seen husbands and wives treat one another with the coldness of strangers. She has seen lovers turn against each other, sweethearts ignore one another, friends betray friends for the sake of a mission. For survival.

But she has Renji to look after her, and Byakuya-nii-sama to supervise her, and between the two and Rukia's other superiors, she's far too busy to think much about Ichigo. It's only late at night, when a mission is at a standstill, when she should be getting what rest she can, that she has the luxury to feel the aching, crushing weight of the hollowness in her chest, the part of her that's missing when she's not with him.

In the morning, in the light, zanpakuto in hand, she makes her heart stone so that she can stay alive, rejects him so that she can return to him.

The night air outside the window is cold, but Rukia is hot, deliriously, feverishly, burning hot. She's losing herself in Ichigo's presence, his weight above her, pressing her down into the mattress. They are both wearing little, token barriers of cloth between their bodies that are easily traversed. His hand is on her bare midriff, sliding up under the thin cotton of the tank top she wears to bed, and his mouth is on hers for a long time before he moves to kissing her throat.

Rukia traces over the musculature of his shoulders, finding the scars he has earned for her sake. This body has protected her, sheltered her from harm whether she wanted it to or not. The hands on her skin, calloused and rough, these hands have held the sword he drew time and time again for her sake. These hands have held her. The strength of him has kept her by his side even in her worst moments of fear and despair, for the strength with which he's bound her to him is the strength she's always trusted.

She clings to him desperately, the only solid thing for miles around. She's delirious, or maybe she's dreaming, and her shirt is gone (when did that happen?) and his mouth is on her bare skin, and they're both breathing hard and feverish to the touch and very, very close when she whispers breathlessly, "I won't be back for a long time."

Ichigo goes still. She has no idea what made her say it at this moment, but she did, and it hangs in the air between them like a dead thing.

He props himself up on his arms to stare down into her face. "How long?"

She licks her lips. "I—it's not my doing. There's a mission. Renji warned me before I came—"

"How long?" he interrupts, his face still and closed.

"Six months, at least," she whispers.

His expression doesn't change, but she sees it in his eyes—a flash of pain, there and gone, a wound in him almost like a betrayal. It hurts her like a knife going into her chest.

He draws away, sitting on the edge of his bed with his back turned to her. She doesn't dare touch him.

"It will go fast," she offers. He makes no reply.

"Time passes quickly in this world," she tries again.

He turns to her, catching her wrist in his hand, and his eyes on her are dark and intent. "Don't go."

Those are painful words, forbidden words. She knows he understands the laws she is bound by, the price she must pay for even this much time with him. It's why there are words they don't speak, and things they don't do, for the sake of preserving what they have, these brief, bright moments of happiness. Someday she won't go. Today she must. So she makes what promise she can.

"I'll come back."

He kisses her palm and lays down with her again, in silence and stillness and the dark.

Her shoulder is gored wide open, a mess of flesh and muscle torn nearly to the bone, and as the blood flows down her slackened arm all she can think is how terribly, horribly unfair it is. That after all this time, after so many long months, after keeping herself alive until she could finally cross the worlds again, she should encounter a Hollow upon her arrival and have her sword arm nearly torn from her body.

She cannot lift her zanpakuto. The Hollow's mouth parts like a gash in the earth and it bellows its triumph.

Warm blood dots her face and Rukia opens her eyes. A zanpakuto like a giant machete has pierced the Hollow's skull. She is sheltered against Ichigo's body, his arm around her, and the Hollow, mere inches away, is frozen, its maw gaping wide in a horrific parody of surprise.

Moments later it's gone.

Ichigo shifts her in his arms and lowers her onto her back on the ground. The pads of his calloused fingers brush almost tenderly across her cheek, where blood from a gash on her forehead has flowed down to her jaw. His voice is very dry. "What are you doing?"

She smiles. The pain of her shoulder and the weariness of her body and the touch of his fingers on her face are glorious. She is here. She is alive.

"Coming back."

She is too badly hurt to walk. He carries her home for the last time, not on his back but in his arms.