Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach and I'm not making money off this.

Rating: PG

Continuity: Three years after the Soul Society ark, so there may be some slight spoilers.

Summary: A look into the kind of relationship Ichigo and Rukia might have…

Pairings: Ichigo x Rukia


Beneath the Surface

She doesn't really know what awes her the most, the fine softness of the warm sand between her toes or the way the sun glitters off the crests of the waves. Her small body halts its movement, a quizzical twist to her mouth and her blue eyes wide as she takes it all in.

"Rukia, are you coming or not?"

Her eyes turn from the ocean to Ichigo, who is standing a few feet ahead of her, body turned in profile. The sun is behind him and outlines his orange hair in brilliant gold. It leaves his face somewhat shadowed, but she can still see the annoyed expression on it.

"Fool," she starts, "don't you ever stop rushing into things long enough to look around?" She feels derisiveness is the right response, but she isn't really bothered by him at all. She's learning the phrases and the attitudes Ichigo hides behind and she knows that when he criticizes her for lagging behind or for being slow it's because he misses her by his side.

It took her three years of real annoyance to learn that.

He gives her a sour expression, scowling and wrinkling his forehead. "You've really never seen a beach before?"

"Stop asking questions you already know the answer to."

He shrugs nonchalantly. "Let's go. You can stare with that stupid face once we find a spot."

"A spot?"

"Yes. A spot on the sand."

Her delicate eyebrows push themselves together as she looks down at the light yellow of the sand, wondering what color the spot they are searching for should be. She feels him glaring at her and looks up again, noticing the beach towels and chairs spread out amongst the sunbathers behind him. Ooooh… a spot.

A little embarrassed at her misunderstanding, and hoping he doesn't guess the reason for her hesitation, she jogs up to him, falling into step with his long legs when he turns around. The rest of the gang is a short distance beyond them now, Kiego and Mizuiro ogling the girls, Inoue walking with head thrown back and arms outstretched, and Chad and Ishida following.

They catch up just as Kiego jumps and shouts happily that this is the "absolutely most perfect place on the beach for them to stay." She looks around, letting her small bag drop to her feet with a soft thud. Not far away, and in clear view, is a crowd of about ten teenage girls all donning similar swimsuits and towels with the name of a summer camp embroidered on them. She's known Kiego long enough now to see clearly why he finds this spot so perfect.

"Ichigo, Mizuiro, Chad, Ishida… we men must be careful to protect the girls. It is our duty! Such frail and innocent creatures…" He turns to Ichigo, a devious smile on his face, "Ichigo, let's—"

He doesn't finish his sentence because it is interrupted by Ichigo's fist slamming into Kiego's mouth.

Rukia tries very hard to stifle a giggle, but she's sure Ichigo hears it.

"Wha aye ya doyin'?!" Kiego slurs around his split lip

"Protecting the girls."

She knows she'll start laughing if she doesn't say something, so she uses the sweet façade she has been employing around Kiego and Miziuro for years to cover her chuckles. "Why, Kiego! Are you okay?" Her voice sounds like honey sliding over chocolate.

Kiego mutters incoherently, but she's not really listening. She's already turned away and is staring back at the water, watching the people splashing in the waves.

"Kuchiki-san, would you like some sunscreen?"

Rukia glances at the blond-haired girl holding a small white bottle out to her. The girl really is stunning. She's always reminded Rukia of a more ditsy and more innocent version of Matsumoto. They share the same voluptuous curves, the same inviting expression, and the same bright gaze. But Inoue is infinitely more childlike and kind-hearted. It's those qualities that have endeared Rukia to her over the years. Before, Rukia's friends had always been male. She'd never realized how badly she needed someone like Inoue to talk to.

Rukia blinks down at the suspicious looking bottle. "Uh… sure!" she says hesitantly.

Inoue seems to sense her unfamiliarity with the object. "It's for your skin," she says, pointing to a bare white arm and then rubbing it in circles. "You put it on and it keeps you from getting sunburned."

"Sunburned?"

"Yup." Inoue nods curtly, her long hair swishing around her narrow shoulders. "Make sure to put it on your face especially. Or else it will get all red and then… oh, and then you'd look like a strawberry and we'd have to call you Ichigo and everyone would get confused because you'd have the same name as Kurosaki-kun."

Rukia turns in time to see Ichigo's glare. "I don't think anyone would mix us up, Inoue."

Inoue puts a finger to her chin thoughtfully. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Kurosaki-kun has a much deeper frown."

Ichigo rolls his eyes. "Whatever." He kicks off his flip-flops and drops his backpack onto the sand. "I'm going swimming."

She watches him walk lazily to the water's edge, hands folded behind his head.

"That's strange." Ishida comments, pushing his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose. The sunlight glints off them and nearly blinds her when she looks at him. "Kurasaki didn't take off his shirt to go swimming." A wicked smile suddenly warps his neutral expression. "Could it be that he's self-conscious? Maybe he's put on weight or something…"

She scrunches up her nose, squinting at Ichigo's tall figure as he wades into the water and then runs forward to dive into a wave. The orange head bobs to the surface again, water dripping off the sleeves of his white t-shirt.

"We would know if he had," Chad says matter-of-factly, but without any possible air of arrogance. "Ichigo likes to wear tight clothes."

She watches as Ichigo dives into another wave, the movement fluid and graceful. It reminds her of the way he moves when he fights, springing through the air with his sword outstretched—headstrong and brash and smooth and elegant. It's so Ichigo. She knows she'll get caught staring at him if she doesn't do something soon, so she hands the sun lotion back to Inoue, telling her she'll put some on later but that right now she is hot and eager to get into the water.

Then she slips her small feet out of her sandals, sighing as she immerses her tiny feet fully into the sand. The sky is so clear and blue today and she thinks that Soul Society never looks quite as pristine as this. Every time she goes back, she is amazed at how much less adequate her old home feels. Like this… this beach. She grew up with lakes and rivers but never with anything like this.

The first touch of the water lapping at her ankles shocks her with its icy fingers. It's an intoxicating feeling, arousing the spirit power within her. She's always felt a deep connection with the water in all forms, whether it be rain or snow. The first time she wandered to the Rukongai River with Renji, she'd been the first to dive into the slightly muddy water, knowing instinctively how to glide through it like a fish. They'd stood on the bank, only Renji willing to go deeper than his waist, but his boldness only led to her having to drag his drowning butt back to the bank.

She doesn't dive into the water like Ichigo did. Instead, she walks carefully through the waves, dropping under the surface when it's deep enough and swimming underwater until her lungs force her up for air. She suddenly understands why the uncomfortable spandex "thing" Ichigo calls a bathing suit has to be so unforgivably tight. The water slides seamlessly over her skin.

When she surfaces again, Ichigo is there only a foot away, treading water and smiling.

"I was wondering if you knew how to swim."

"Of course I know how to swim," she replies.

He snorts. "Obviously."

She notices then, that he looks completely relaxed and that it is an expression she almost never sees him wear. It makes him seem younger somehow, not in maturity but in spirit. His reiatsu buzzes around her lightly, surprising her a little. He's gotten to the point now where he can usually control it, and it only flows past his barriers when his emotions are exceptionally strong. She feels lightheaded and euphoric.

She thinks about reprimanding him for not having better control of his spirit, but she decides she likes this right now.

He is looking out at the endless expanse of water, rising and falling with the undulation of the waves. They are far past where the water crests and breaks on the shore, out deeper than most of the other swimmers. It's peaceful and quiet. He turns to her suddenly, a devious expression on his features and a challenging edge to his amber eyes. "You wanna race?"

She looks at him as if he is crazy. "To where?"

He gestures toward the open water and she follows the line of his arm to a small oval floating a distance away. "The buoy," he says.

"Why is it out there?"

"To tell boats to slow down as they approach the shore."

Examining the horizon, she manages to find a few small specks that she guesses to be distant ships.

"Well?' he prods. She can feel how eager he is.

She smirks slowly. "Okay." Then she kicks forward with her feet and yells, "Go!" She barely hears him splash next to her as she thrusts her face into the salty sea.

She wins. But only because she manages to give him a swift kick in the gut every time he comes up beside her. She has to give him A LOT of kicks to ensure victory. He's much faster than she'd expected, but then she often forgets how much stronger he is than when she first met him. At eighteen, he is no longer a scrawny boy but a rather athletic-looking man. It seems funny to her that humans age so quickly while she looks the same as she did the first day she stepped foot into this world.

They clasp the bright red buoy, both of them panting heavily.

"Beatchya," she manages smugly.

He glares at her. "Only—huff—cuz you—huff—cheated you little—" he trails off with several obscene expressions that only make her smile wider.

It's further confirmation of her victory. "Don't make excuses, Ichigo. You never specified any rules. Simply admit my superiority and be done with it." She wants to cross her arms over her chest authoritatively, but the gesture doesn't work well with keeping afloat.

"Like hell!" he grunts. "Come here you little squirt…" He lunges for her, grabbing her shoulders to thrust her underwater. She tries to dodge but he suddenly fakes her out and redirects his hands to reach under her arms to tickle her.

"-GASP- Ichigo… no… I can't… breathe."

"Good," he says, not stopping.

She tries to squirm away, but somehow he manages to keep her in his grip. She feels lightheaded and wonders if she might actually pass out. At least if she drowned she'd have the satisfaction of knowing he'd feel guilty for the rest of his life.

"Oi, Rukia?"

"…" She can't really muster the breath to answer.

"Race you back." And then his hands are suddenly gone and she has to grab at the buoy desperately to keep from dropping underwater. Water splashes up into her face and she blinks. Ichigo is gone. He's a good five strokes ahead of her by the time she manages to push off the buoy and chase after him.

She still wins. Though she has to be a lot more creative this time. Swimming to the ocean bottom to find a nice large, round, rock to throw at him as he reaches a point shallow enough for him to finally stand costs her some time, but it pays off when she wings it at his head and sees him fall forward with his first steps. She runs past him, splashing loudly as he finally manages to get up on his knees, enthusiastically cursing her.

Her feet reach dry sand and she does a little victory dance, spinning in circles and lifting her arms.

"Idiot," he mumbles, stumbling up to her and rubbing the back of his head. "Don't you ever play fair?"

"No," she says simply. She's about to add another snide comment about how she's beat him again when the shrill sound of a whistle interrupts her thought.

"HEY! YOU!" Someone yells. She looks over Ichigo's shoulder to see a young man in bright red swim trunks jogging toward them. His face is angry and he has a tank top with the word "lifeguard" written across it.

Ichigo's eyes widen as he glances over his shoulder at the man and then back at her. "Umm… run."

"What?" she asks, surprised.

He grabs her shoulders and spins her around, giving her a firm push forward so that she has to run to keep from stumbling.

"Remember that buoy?" he asks as his long strides bring him to her side.

"Yeah?"

"Well, we're not exactly supposed to go that far out."

"You idiot!" she yells, running a little faster.

---

They don't need many words. Their words usually only lead to fights or meaningless banter. It's only with long silences in between or dramatic events to pad them that they amount to much else. So, as they sit on the sand dunes, drying off and watching Kiego, Mizuiro, Inoue, Chad, Ishida, and the summer camp girls play Frisbee, their speaking is intermittent and brief.

By the time they'd gotten this far from the water, the lifeguard had given up his chase. They'd both collapsed to the ground exhausted, and neither had bothered to move since.

Her knees are drawn up to her chest, chin resting on them, strands of black hair dripping water onto her legs. Beside her, Ichigo is leaning back on his hands, legs sprawled out in front of him and his saturated shirt clinging to the defined lines of his torso. It's strange to see his hair flattened out and sticking to his temples this way. His eyes stand out more and the customary downward turn of his lips is more obvious. It's not a frown, but rather the natural shape his mouth seems to take. He actually looks quite content, she thinks.

"Ichigo, why do you wear a shirt in the water?"

"Because I don't want to get sunburned."

"That's lame. You're too bullheaded for something like that. I'd expect a sentence like that from Ishida, not you."

He shrugs, ignoring the insult. "My dad's a doctor and also quite likely insane. He scared me with stories of getting skin cancer when I was a kid."

She puckers her lips. "What's skin cancer?"

He sighs. "Idiot."

She throws a handful of sand at him but she's not really mad. She knows that he's just tired of talking and that he'll explain it to her later, or will at least throw a book at her that will explain it. He always does.

Silence. The Frisbee game continues, boys against girls. The girls seem to be winning, mostly because Kiego is too busy ogling at the opposing team to ever catch anything. The flat silver disk ends up hitting him in the forehead several times. It amuses her for a while, but then she grows bored with it, much happier to be watching the horizon glitter under the sunlight.

"You know, Shakespeare once said…"

She snorts, and he stops speaking, surprised eyes turning quickly toward her. "What is it with you and this Shakespeare guy?" She'd tried reading one of his plays once, something called "Romeo and Juliet," because Ichigo said it was the most famous one. None of it made sense to her and by the fifth page she'd grown frustrated enough to throw it across the room and refuse to read anymore. Inoue had once told her that Ichigo must really be a secret romantic to like Shakespeare so much, but Rukia had yet to see any evidence of that.

"Fine then, I won't tell you." His voice sounds angry, and this time he really is frowning as he turns back to the Frisbee game.

"Stop being so childish," she huffs. "Why do you like that guy so much anyway?"

It takes a moment for Ichigo to answer and he seems to be thinking, though still frowning. "Because he spends half the time making fun of everyone and the other half criticizing them and its like a big joke because so few people are smart enough to realize it."

"Are you calling me stupid?" she asks in a dangerous tone.

"No! I—" he pauses abruptly, looking at her with his intense eyes defiant. "You know what? I am. Whatchya gonna do about it?" He smirks tauntingly.

In one fluid motion, she slips behind him and wraps her arm around his neck, holding him in a headlock while grinding a fist into his hair.

"Ow!"

"Are you going to be nice?" she asks sweetly.

"No…"

She grinds harder.

"…I mean, yes! Yes!"

Satisfied, she lets go of him, returning to the indent her body had left in the sand.

"Not…" he breathes quietly, but she chooses to ignore him.

They are quiet for a while and the silence seems natural. She feels closer to him now than she had while they were speaking, sighing contentedly and leaning back to imitate his sitting position.

"All the world's a stage," he mumbles to himself after several minutes, and though she doesn't catch the reference, she understands exactly what he means.

---

It is all or nothing with the two of them. When they are together they are together and when they aren't they are as far as possible from one another. When Ichigo was younger, he tried to limit how much time he spent with Rukia under the scrutiny of the public eye, but now he doesn't seem to care anymore. When she's here he spends as much time as possible with her, though he still complains about every single moment of it like it's torture. But that's what makes their time together so charming. There are the surface Ichigo and Rukia and then there are the real Ichigo and Rukia. They understand the difference, even if the rest of the world doesn't.

They never discuss the possibility of a romantic relationship, hinting at it only when he tells her he doesn't want her to leave every time she returns to Soul Society. For the most part, though the sexual tension is definitely there, things are pretty platonic between them. Theirs is a connection too complex and too deep to be easily classified.

She imagines that one day he might ask her to marry him, some years in the future. It won't be until she says yes that their relationship will suddenly change. She knows that the transition will be a violent one, like a faucet quickly turned on. Their level of passion won't change. It will be the same as it has been for years. The expression of it will just make the switch from "nothing" to "all." That's their nature. All or nothing.

After dinner, she doesn't feel uncomfortable about climbing through the window of his bedroom in the cabin the boys are renting for their week at the beach. The girls' cabin is only next door and she figures if they're going to be that close anyway, she might as well hang out in his room.

He's not there when she hops lightly onto the wood floor, but she hears the shower in his bathroom running so she shuffles through his suitcase until she finds a Naruto comic and plops down on his bed to read. She's too engrossed in the story when the water stops running to notice the change in sound.

The bathroom door creaks open and she distantly hears Ichigo grumble, "What the hell are you doing here?"

It takes her a moment to tear her eyes away from the page, being that Naruto is currently getting his butt kicked in a battle, and by the time she looks up he is walking hurriedly past her to his suitcase in the corner. He's wearing only a pair of shorts and it dawns on her suddenly that in the last three years she hasn't once seen him without a shirt. At the same time she notices that he is walking awkwardly, like he is purposely trying to keep his chest out of her view.

Leaning halfway off the bed, she grabs his elbow with a small hand. He stops, but doesn't turn. "Something's not right," she says.

"Let me go, idiot. Can't I ever get any privacy?"

It's more instinct than anything else that induces her next words. "Face me."

He doesn't move so she yanks his arm to force him to turn, adjusting her body at the same time so that she is sitting at the edge of the bed in front of him. He sets his face in an angry scowl and won't meet her eyes as she leans back to inspect him. He's more muscular and defined than she'd expected, full of sharp angles and lines, but the things she notices most are the three scars tracing ragged, vicious-looking canyons across his skin, one on his collar bone, one over his heart, and one across his abdomen. She feels her mouth drop open and her eyes widen as she tries to swallow. The white lines are thick and long and are obviously the results of deep slashes. They are also old, healed as much as they ever will be but still looking painful.

"You done admiring the view?" he asks sarcastically, crossing his arms over his chest.

She doesn't say anything and he turns away, rummaging through his suitcase in the corner. She's trying to figure out when he got those and it takes her a few moments to suddenly realize it, her chest feeling heavy and thick. Byakuya, three years ago.

"Are those from—"

"Yes," he responds before she can finish.

"I that why you always wear a shirt?"

"Yes." He pulls a dark blue tee over his head and doesn't turn to face her until he's pulled it all the way down. His cheeks are flushed. "Anymore questions?" He sounds annoyed.

She lets her head drop a little, fingering the hem of her tank top. After a pause she says, "You idiot. I told you not to follow me back then! Bullheaded and stubborn and—"

"Pfft. Is that any way to thank your savior?"

She glares up at him, but then her gaze softens and she looks away again, bangs falling across her eyes.

He sighs. "Silly. YOU didn't give me those scars. It was your insane brother."

She still doesn't look up. "You got them trying to protect me."

"So? That was my choice." He shrugs. "I really don't mind the scars."

"Then why do you hide them?" she asks accusingly.

"Because I don't want to share them." The pause at the end of his sentence is a little unnatural, as if he is realizing that what he's said might not make sense.

She finally looks up at him, meeting his intense gaze. It's his turn to look away. "I understand," she says quietly. And she does. It's the same reason she doesn't tell anyone about the day she was forced to kill Kaien even though she probably loved him. It's her memory and it's her heart, but most of all it's just plain hers. She thinks then that if they ever did get married, he might display those scars proudly. It's all or nothing. Right now this isn't the surface Ichigo the world gets to see.

He studies her for a while, arms again folded across his chest before finally seeming to believe that she really does understand. "Okay," he says quietly. He blinks, seeming to remember something. "I almost forgot…" He turns back to his suitcase, kneeling down and digging around for a while before whirling around and holding a pamphlet up triumphantly. He throws it into her lap. "Here. Dad forced me to take this since he knew I was going to the beach."

She looks down. It's a pamphlet about preventing and detecting skin cancer. "You were serious about your father…?"

"Of course I was. The man is loony. He starts every summer with a family meeting about proper skin cancer precautions to take."

She chuckles at her memories of Ichigo's funny parent, as she skims through the pages. Ichigo grabs her abandoned Naruto comic and flops down on the bed next to her, lying on his stomach so that his shoulder is pressed against her hip. It's all the contact they need as they read silently. They don't speak again for hours.

It's times like these that she feels most connected to him, and she feels like she is swimming again, body gliding beneath the surface.

END