Disclaimer: It's Kubo Tite's sandbox. I'm just here.
The Single Step
The rain starts suddenly. It slices down, pinging against the street lights, swirling through the blood on the pavement and rushing pink down the storm drains. It runs through Rukia's hair and into her eyes, and that must be why the body at her feet is blurring in her vision.
"EXECUTION, RUKIA?!" Ichigo shouts, and Rukia turns. He's standing by the body of the other shinigami, the woman, sword balanced on the back of his neck. It has gotten so much bigger since that first night, she thinks. He bows forward under its weight now.
What have I done?
"This is not your concern!" she shouts back at him. "You idiot, you shouldn't have come! What part of 'go into hiding' did you not understand?"
"Go into hiding my ass!" He starts toward her and makes it two steps before he staggers. He stabs the sword onto the sidewalk and leans on it, glaring at her over bloody hands. "What the hell were you gonna do? Just go along with them and wait to be killed?"
"I would have handled it," she answers coolly, clenching her fists.
The man at her feet groans.
"If by 'handling' you mean—"
"We have to get out of here," she interrupts.
"Fine," Ichigo says, standing almost straight and wiping the blood from his eyes. There is so much of it – it plasters his hair to his forehead, makes his uniform stick awkwardly to his sides. His socks are splotched pink and red. She isn't sure how much of the blood is his. Not enough, she fears. Soul Society will not ignore this, will not turn a blind eye to the mess this boy has made of two of their own. They will make him pay for every drop of Secret Mobile Corps blood he has spilled tonight. "But we're not—"
"You do not understand," she says, kicking the moaning shinigami hard in the head. He stops moaning.
"Rukia!" Ichigo sounds appalled.
Ichigo is a fool.
"We have to get out of Karakura," she says. "Now. Before they wake up, or reinforcements find them."
"Leave TOWN? What the hell's the matter with you? No way I'm gonna run! If more of these punks come to arrest you we'll just take care of them like we did these!" He lifts the sword and uses it to point at the heap of bloody woman passed out on the ground beside him.
"There is no IF, you fool!" Her voice comes out unexpectedly shrill. She takes a breath and tries to keep her voice under control as she continues, "There will be more, and they will be far stronger than these two, and even if you should succeed in 'taking care' of those then there will be still more and sooner or later they will kill you! If you had just listened to meand laid low—"
"LAID LOW?! While you were EXECUTED?!"
"—then they might have left you alone, but you just had to interfere, and now you've assaulted representatives of the Secret Mobile Corps and they know what you look like and they are going to track you down and then they are going to kill you! You idiot, idiot!" The rain runs down her cheeks, over her lips.
"She's right." Rukia looks around in surprise. Ishida is leaning heavily on the lamp post behind Ichigo. She'd forgotten that he was here too. She wonders when he picked himself up. "The shinigami will be ruthless."
Ichigo glances back at Ishida, then returns to glaring at Rukia. One hand sits cockily on his hip, but with the other he still leans heavily on the sword. "Sorry if I'm not persuaded by that unbiased opinion."
"If you stay," Rukia says, fingers digging into the wet fabric of her dress, "if you are still here when they come again, your family will be in danger."
"What?!" he cries. His hand falls from his hip. "What do they have to do with anything?"
"Nothing! That is the point, Ichigo! You think Soul Society will care about a few humans caught in the crossfire when they marshal forces to kill you?'
"Isn't the whole purpose of your Soul Society to PROTECT PEOPLE?"
"Yes," she says, shoving her rain-soaked hair out of her eyes, "Yes. And now that you have been stupid enough to harm officers of Soul Society and prevent them from fulfilling their mission, you will be seen as a threat to that purpose. If a few innocents get in the way of taking you out—" she cannot finish.
Ichigo's face is stricken. Rukia cannot seem to find any air through all this rain.
"I can delay these two for a while," Ishida says, pushing up his glasses with a hand that is bleeding through its bandages.
Rukia nods at him. "Do not let them see you." Then she looks at Ichigo. "If there is anything you want to pack," she says, "you will have to hurry."
Ichigo shoves another shirt into his duffel bag and tries to block out Kon begging Rukia not to leave him.
"But sister, how can I protect them in this body?"
T-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans.
"You can call Ishida if anything happens you can't handle, but things should be much calmer here once we're gone."
Pajamas, underwear. He'd be embarrassed about throwing his boxers around in front of Rukia, but right now he couldn't care less.
"But I could be so much more helpful if you take me with you! And I won't take up much space! Sister, please, don't leave me alone with this crazy family!"
Inside the bag, Ichigo's fist closes around his pajama pants. He turns and snaps, "You're staying here, Kon!" Rukia lifts her head and blinks at him, towel frozen against her hair mid-rub. Kon just gapes. Ichigo glares at them both. "You're staying here, and if anything happens to them—" he cuts himself off, grinding his teeth.
Rukia's expression softens. She opens her mouth and the band-aid on her chin bunches, blood peeking out. Ichigo turns away before she can say anything.
Kon sniffles. "Sister…"
Socks. Where the hell are all his socks? He digs roughly through the nearest drawer, then slams it shut. He stalks past Rukia, who's hovering by his desk. She looks up at him, but he ignores her and walks out the door, shutting it behind him as forcefully as he dares.
He finds a bunch of his socks in the dryer, along with some of Karin's shirts and Yuzu's skirts and dresses. He pulls the socks out, piling them up in his arms. Starts to leave, and pauses.
Rukia has that little backpack she took with her when she ran off… but he'd lay odds she doesn't have a single change of clothes in there. Since she apparently hadn't intended to stick around this world, the stupid goddamn bitch.
Ichigo glares at the socks he's holding and dumps them on top of dryer. He pulls out one of the dresses. Stares at it. "Shit," he says, and stuffs it back in the dryer. Then he pulls it out again. This is brilliant, he thinks. He's leaving his family, leaving his sisters alone with his crazy fucking father to go fuck knows where, and now he's stealing his little sister's dresses, too.
He tries to pick the ones Yuzu doesn't wear a lot.
He bundles it all up under his arm and goes back to his room, stuffs it in the bag.
"Are you ready?" Rukia asks quietly.
"No." He slips into the bathroom for his toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo. Like he's going on a sleepover. He grabs an extra box of band-aids.
Watch, wallet… that's everything. He stands there and stares at the bag on his bed and barely resists picking it up and dumping everything in it all over the floor.
"Yeah." He zips the bag.
They crowd under the same umbrella – Ichigo only had the one in his room – but don't speak on the way to the train station. Ichigo is taking long, quick strides and Rukia half-trots to keep up, but she can't seem make her feet match his pace. Though the rain is falling straight, her shins are wet, shoes squishy, by the time they get there.
Inside, Ichigo scowls at the big, brightly colored map for a few minutes. Rukia looks at the map too, but it makes little sense to her, so out of the corner of her eye she watches Ichigo instead. She thinks about telling him she is sorry for all of this, but the words are trapped under still-bleeding wounds and rain and explanations she cannot give.
Ichigo mutters something under his breath – "Sapporo," it sounds like. She repeats the word as he walks over to the quietly humming ticket machines. "Where the train's going," he says over his shoulder. Rukia looks back at the map and raises a finger, follows the spiderweb of colored lines out from the dot that reads 'You Are Here' until she finally finds the Sapporo-dot, far to the north.
"Rukia," Ichigo says then, and she comes down from her toes and crosses the platform to wait with him.
In a few minutes the train arrives. It is empty enough that they both get seats, on opposite sides of the aisle. Rukia is grateful for that – the seat is hard and this will not be a comfortable way to make a long journey, but it is better than standing. She looks out the window behind her, watching the city lights flash by. By the way they blur, she guesses that they are moving almost as fast as any shinigami reasonably skilled in shunpo. She wants to close her eyes, but doesn't.
"Oi." She looks around, startled, and finds Ichigo standing in front of her, duffel bag over his shoulder. "Our stop."
It has only been a few minutes. "Ichigo, we have to –"
"We have to change trains in Tokyo Station if we're going to get anywhere, idiot. Come on."
"Oh." She stands and follows him onto the platform.
They sit on a bench against the wall, Ichigo's duffel bag between them, and wait for their train. Ichigo changes position every five minutes or so – crossing and uncrossing and re-crossing his legs, folding his arms, slouching, leaning forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, leaning on the bag, draping his arms over the back of the bench. Rukia folds her hands and sits straight and still as befits a Kuchiki, and catalogues every movement. Ichigo taps a foot for a while.
It is almost an hour until their train arrives; other trains pull in and then out again, each one accompanied by small waves of people, most of them disembarking, hurrying home in the dark.
Finally, as the squeal of one incoming train echoes along the tracks like all the others, Ichigo stands. "This is us," he says, as the train hisses to a stop. A woman's voice plays over them, listing cities in a hollow, mechanical tone.
This train is nothing like the trains she has been on before. Rukia follows Ichigo through the open doors and then down a quiet corridor. More doors, another corridor. There seem to be no seats anywhere. Finally he stops and slides open a door on their left. Inside is a room containing two narrow bench seats made up like beds with hardly room to stand between them. It is bigger than the inside of Ichigo's closet, but barely.
Ichigo tosses his bag onto a shelf overhead, then drops onto one of the beds. Rukia sits on the other.
"Might as well try to get some sleep," Ichigo says, reaching up with a foot and sliding the door shut. "We're gonna be here for a while."
Rukia sits on the bed with her legs crossed under her, back against the wall, and does not watch Ichigo sleep.
It has only been a few minutes when there is a soft tap on the door. Rukia sits forward sharply as it slides open to reveal a man in a dark blue uniform. He bows, glances at Ichigo, and then quietly asks Rukia for their tickets.
She blinks at him, imperious, helpless. Tickets… are a human thing. Ichigo must have them. "I do not want to wake him," she says, and feels her expression falter, because it is true.
The man gives her an understanding nod. "Of course," he says, "I am very sorry to disturb miss, but the tickets are required to ride in the private rooms."
Rukia looks around, grabbing fistfuls of the blanket she's sitting on, but sees nothing in the compartment but them, their shoes, and their bag, and she knows Ichigo has not opened the bag since they left. She feels the dull pressure of tears gathering behind her eyes, and almost laughs at the idea that she might cry over such a thing. She forces herself to relax her hands, and does neither.
"Begging miss's pardon," the ticket man says, "but I believe those are the tickets there, in the young man's pocket."
She looks at Ichigo and sees that the train man is right – the idiot has two large pieces of paper sticking out of his back pocket, almost hidden by that fact that he is sleeping on top of them. Rukia sighs, and stands.
Her hands hover in the air for a moment, then she gently braces one hand on Ichigo's hip and tugs on the tickets with the other. They don't budge. She tugs harder. One of them starts to tear. "Fool," she mutters. Slowly, carefully, she adjusts her grip on the tickets, slipping her hand ever so slightly under Ichigo's body, and with her other hand she delicately attempts to tilt him out of the way. The train rocks, and her fingers tighten over rough denim and bony human boy.
With another push on his hip and another tug she has the tickets out from under Ichigo, and she hands them to the train man, who thanks her as he takes them. For a moment, she thinks of waking Ichigo to tell him that she did it, she figured out this stupid human ritual and completed it herself. The impulse passes, and she decides she must be more tired than she knew.
The train man tears her tickets in half and hands a piece of each back to her. Rukia takes the pieces and frowns at them as the man bows again and slips out.
After a moment she kneels and stows the pieces in a pocket of her backpack, then climbs back onto the bed and closes her eyes. She does not sleep.
Ichigo wakes up looking for Rukia, but for a moment he can't remember why. Then he realizes where he is, and that he's awake 'cause she's shaking him, and that that means he's going have to go kill whoever's after her. Or her. Toss up. He growls, "What the hell, Rukia," and sits up.
"You've got to get a handle on your spiritual power," she says, backing up stiffly and sitting on her own not-quite-a-bed.
"What? That's what you woke me up for?" He flops back down on his bed. He really is going to kill her. "Crazy…"
She stands. "I mean now, Ichigo," she says, voice hard. "This isn't just about attracting Hollows anymore. You are emitting spiritual pressure like a beacon for anyone tracking us and it is a risk we cannot afford."
Attracting Hollows. He sits up again, slowly this time. Scowls at the ground. "If I could just hide my power or whatever, wouldn't you have taught me before?"
"It was more important to teach you to fight. But now... to survive…" She folds her arms and looks away.
Ichigo stares at her, at the broad bandage on her cheek, the wrapping on her arm. To survive. He puts on his tough-stuff-big-deal-bring-it-on face and sits forward, grabbing the edge of the bed. "So what do I have to do?"
She slides her eyes back over to him but doesn't move her head. "Close your eyes."
He does, but he rolls them a little first.
"What do you sense?"
He frowns, and manages to shut his brain up long enough to pick up the spirit ribbons around him. It's like one of those 3D magic eye things – once he's got the ribbons, he's got them, so he opens his eyes and says, "You, mostly."
She looks startled for a second, but before he can even open his mouth to ask her what the problem is, she nods. "Good," she says, "Now find your own spirit ribbons."
"Huh?" How the hell's he supposed to do that? Ishida had grabbed his ribbon that time, but hadn't…
"Your own spiritual power," Rukia says, folding her arms. "There's a great deal of it, it should not be that hard to find."
Ichigo looks around, but all he sees are the white ribbons of the people on the train hovering around, and the thinner ribbons of the people outside, in the city, whipping across his vision. He looks back at Rukia, a dark spot in the center of her own pale red ribbons.
"Is there some kind of trick to this?"
"If you call self-awareness a trick," she says dryly. "You sense your own power all the time, you simply have to learn—" she reaches out suddenly, and Ichigo jumps, though she doesn't touch him, "—to notice it." In his face she waves a fistful of spirit ribbons, red as old blood.
Ichigo blinks, because suddenly he can barely see Rukia – except for her hand, which is still in his face, and in some strange way, on him – through the ribbons he can feel are his. Every few moments there's a flash of white as some normal human's spirit ribbon drifts between his own.
"Okay," he says grumpily, "So I can see it. Now what?"
She shakes her head. "You need to be able to find it on your own." She opens her hand, and his power runs out of it, all his spirit ribbons vanishing as the last one leaves her grasp.
Ichigo closes his eyes again, tries to call back the way he'd been aware of his power when she was holding it, but the sensation has already faded. His fingers tighten on the edges of the bed and he opens his eyes. "This ain't working."
Rukia sighs. "You should have years to learn this," she says, so low and quiet he almost doesn't hear it over the rumble of the train. The she reaches toward him again, and his spirit ribbons rush back into sight. She is holding one of them, just one, and she pulls on it gently. He feels that – like a tug through his chest, only not – and finds himself standing. Rukia steps to the side and turns slightly, making room for him. "Give me your hand," she says.
He pauses a moment, then sticks his hand out, stiff, like he expects her to shake it. For a moment she just stares at him with that familiar look of I-wish-it-surprised-me-that-you're-that-stupid, and he glares automatically in response. She grabs his hand and turns it roughly palm-up and slaps his spirit ribbon down on his open palm. Her hand stays there, flat against his, holding the ribbon in place.
"That," she says, "is your power. Get to know it."
All it feels like is a ribbon, and Rukia's small hand on top of that. Ichigo scowls. "I'm going to lose it again when you let go."
"I know," she answers. "We're skipping that step. Just try to pull the ribbons into yourself." She looks at him expectantly.
"…So you're not letting go this time." Why the hell does he sound like such an idiot, he wonders, then makes himself think about trying to distinguish between the pressure of Rukia's hand on top of his and the pressure of her power humming through it. He doesn't think it should be this difficult.
"I am not letting go," she says, pressing her hand down hard. He thinks for a moment that he can feel her impatience through it, and her – fear? Then he thinks he should stop imagining things before she kicks his ass. "Focus!" she says sharply.
See, he says to himself.
"You can see the ribbons," she says in a slightly gentler version of her instructor voice, "now twine them together, tight as you can, ball them up, and pull them in."
Ichigo screws up his face and tries it.
The only thing Ichigo sucks at more than finding his own spiritual power is, apparently, controlling it. After an hour, with Rukia doing half the work for him, they manage to get most of his spirit ribbons to braid together and stay that way, but nothing they do seems to enable Ichigo to stuff any of his power back inside himself. Rukia got a weird look after the last attempt, and abruptly declared that what they'd done was good enough for now. Ichigo wanted to keep trying, but he still couldn't even find his own damn spirit ribbons without her help, and she had stretched out on her bed, apparently so she could pretend to sleep.
Ichigo thinks about telling her he knows she's faking. Maybe if he keeps her up she'll tell him why she suddenly changed her mind about how much they need to hide his spiritual pressure… On the other hand, maybe if she fakes it for long enough she'll actually fall asleep. She looks so tired. And she'll probably be able to help him manage his power better if she's not all crazy from sleep deprivation.
So he sits on his bed and leans against the window, rocking gently with the train. He can't see anything out there – now that they're out of the city, even the dim lights in here are brighter than outside. He could turn the lights off in here, of course, but he doesn't feel like going to sleep again.
He doesn't feel like staring at his reflection in the window, either, though. He'll just close his eyes for a minute.
The train rumbling over the tracks sounds almost like a voice.
When he opens his eyes he's sitting in the middle of a pale cityscape under a darkening sky.
"The hell…" he mutters.
"Oh," a voice rumbles behind him, "so the boy made it in here after all."
Ichigo turns, and finds himself staring into the open mouth of a bear.
"AAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!" He scrambles away, hands and feet slipping on the glassy surface beneath him. The rumbling voice – the fucking BEAR – laughs, and Ichigo looks back to see it sitting on its rump, one massive white paw on its pure white belly. Ichigo stops trying to run. "What the hell are you? Where am I?"
The bear pulls back its black lips in a way that might be a snarl or a smile, and answers, "Look around you."
Ichigo stares at the polar bear for another moment, then slowly looks around him. These buildings are all sideways, he realizes. And the surface he's sitting on isn't glassy – it's glass.
"Is it the world that's sideways?" a voice squawks suddenly by his ear. Ichigo whips his head around. A small white bird is circling him, up and down, and the polar bear is gone. "Or is it you?"
Is he… sideways?
Then he's falling.
He shouts again as the ground rushes up toward him – then there's a flash of white and black and suddenly he isn't falling anymore. It takes him a moment to realize he's kneeling on the side of the building.
There's an arm around his shoulders and he's snugged up against a body… a female body, he realizes and starts trying to twist away. "Oh, I don't think that's a good idea," says a woman's clear voice. Ichigo pauses, because it sounds a little like Rukia, but only for a moment, because it also sounds like the bear, and like something else altogether.
A cold hand closes around the back of his neck.
The hand tightens, and Ichigo goes still. "You're looking at this the wrong way, Ichigo," she says. "Is your savior someone you should fight against?" Long black hair blows across his vision. "Or do you want to fall again?"
"Who are you?" he asks, trying to turn and see her face.
"You know me as well you need to," she replies, moving her hand from his neck to his other shoulder. Then she steps around to stand in front of him, never loosening her icy grip on his shoulders. Wind Ichigo can't feel seems to whip around her, blowing her black hair across her face, obscuring her features. "What you should be thinking about now is learning to stand in this place," she says to him, then turns her head to look over her shoulder. "You were right," she calls, "he has no idea how to change his perspective."
Ichigo frowns and follows her glance. He sees a ragged shadow at the top of the building – nothing else.
"What the hell is that?" he demands. "Who are you talking to? What the fuck is going ON here?"
She turns back to him. For a moment, Ichigo glimpses coal-black eyes before they are gone again behind the whirling hair. "We are all trying to teach you, Ichigo. Come now; it is time to stand." Her cold, sharp hands slide down from his shoulders to take his hands. Her grip is like iron, like teeth – Ichigo knows he will not fall as long as he is in her hands. He also knows she is going to let him go any second. "The world is sideways because you are, foolish boy," she says, and releases his hands.
He staggers, but his feet find purchase on the building. He looks at the dark window under his feet, and finds that it is down.
So the world is sideways. Big deal.
He looks back at the woman, but she is gone – where she stood, a snow leopard sits now, long tail twitching. "Imagine that," the snow leopard says, getting to its feet. It pads forward and circles Ichigo, brushing against his legs. "Progress." Its voice is that of the woman, and the bear, and it has the strangely hushed quality of sound in falling snow. It looks up and grins a cat's vicious grin at him, then says, "Ask Rukia where she's been."
It flicks its tail up, against his belly, and then the world vanishes.