Rating: R, for the f-bomb on more than one occasion and some sensual imagery.
Fandom / Pairing: Bleach, Ichigo/Rukia
Disclaimer: Bleach is not mine, and I'd never want it to be mine. Good God, did you not see that timeline?
Summary: Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.
Notes: For this year's contest over at the Ichigo/Rukia community. Spans the entire series as of 287 and then...extrapolates.
She clutches her arm even as she makes her way to his still form. He isn't moving, hardly looks like he's breathing, and she's worried, dammit. This kid - this child - just did several things that ought to be impossible, and she can't help but already be a little fond of him for it.
She's always had a soft spot for rebels.
Halfway to him, she swears and stops. She can feel the blood seeping through the kosode, and with most of her spiritual energy gone she has to treat herself first. Tie bandages, regain power, fix this, and leave, she thinks as she tears the material of the over-garb with her teeth. Her fingers are starting to lose feeling and she can't help but curse some more.
Finally, finally, she ties the last bandage around her ribs, outside of her shitagi, and gingerly makes her way to the prone form. When she manages to get around him, she sighs heavily and lets her posture fall. He's out cold, laying spread-eagled on his chest. The zanpakuto - hers, Shirayuki, she tells herself, and even then she is uncertain - is clutched tightly in his right hand, fingers white around the hilt.
She doesn't know how long she sits there, desperately trying to think of a solution even as the situation starts to look increasingly hopeless. She does know that the sound of geta against the cold concrete makes her stiffen and sit up. She does know that she doesn't trust him - this man who calls himself Urahara - as far as she could throw Jidanbou. She does know that when he offers to help, the small, young part of her is so grateful she could cry.
But she doesn't.
He's only known her thirty-seven hours, and already he wants to perform a soul burial on her. She drives him insane. Always harping on about souls and hollows. Shinigami this, shinigami that, and a constant, perpetual reminder of what he's just gotten himself into.
He finds himself staring at the same page of Hamlet for twenty minutes. Deciding that Shakespeare tonight is a bust, he instead leans back in chair and stares at the sky. It's an absolute, infinite blue, the kind of blue that artists desperately try to capture, and he finds himself enthralled by it, which is strange for him.
Something flickers at the edge of his vision, but when he turns there's nothing there and he huffs. He's mutters that the crazy must be catching and finds his thoughts lingering on his new roommate.
Kuchiki Rukia. She's as much a mystery to him as everything else that's happened to him in the last day. She's as hard and cold as ice, but then she draws like a child and asks questions about his daily life that frustrate him. She's a contradiction in terms.
And it's damn annoying. (Bitch, he throws in, for good measure.)
The sky is oddly clear in Soul Society, she notes. She had never noticed before, not until she'd seen the human world in all its hard-edged glory. The blue is an oddly vibrant shade, and the sun is oddly strong here.
She wonders if the creators of this world did that deliberately. It lends a latent intensity to Seireitei. The buildings are brighter, the colors more vivid. Compared to this, the human world - the "real" world - is gritty, dark, and muted. Compared to this, the human world pales.
Or, rather, it darkens; there is an edge to the human world. It's palpable, she thinks, as she shifts positions beside a window in the limitless white tower. It's a thin edge, as wide as the finest katana's gleaming blade, but doubly cutting. It's an edge that draws you in, pulls you towards it, and teases you with possibility.
She, who was raised in the Rukongai, had never seen that realm. Rukongai was her norm, and that place was the anomaly. Her patrols through the domain of the living, infrequent as they were, left her feeling. Simply feeling. Those who lived, it seemed, inhabited a world whose edges were blurred, the lines distorted. It was like looking through poorly made glass; the world was warped and strange-looking, though everything was essentially the same.
That world (his world, she thinks, and she imagines she feels a blip of his reiatsu before the sekkisekki gets to her) sharpened in her false body. Those oft-blurred edges hardened into ones with a heavy outline. Those muted, grayed colors gained vibrancy, so much so that they almost hurt. The reflection of sunlight on concrete hurt. The terrible (wonderful) ache of lungs and stitches in the side, of sore muscles and throats screamed raw, of fingers twisted into awkward positions from holding a pencil too long, and of hunger: real, proper hunger. All of it hurt.
Those defined edges fell into sharp relief even as she spent more time in this dimension, her home. The softened edges of Seireitei in her memory smudged and faded into the background, masses of color and textures sifting from her mind, erasing without effort. Her return caused her to shield the eyes of the gigai; Soul Society was too intense, was too high contrast for her vision to handle.
Her soul, however, held up just fine.
She touches the air at her hip and longs for the silent companionship of her most trusted partner. She misses the cold comfort of Sode no Shirayuki, and the name feels like pinpricks on the tip of her tongue.
The medical bay in Seireitei is oddly comforting. The traditional architecture is strangely soothing, though that may well be due to the near-zen courtyard his bed faces.
For all the kidou they used, he's vaguely amused that his final diagnosis involves extended bedrest. He isn't complaining about the quickly-mended fractures and cuts, though some of those scars are going to be tough to explain. Still, he feels vaguely amused despite (or, perhaps, because of) the cloud of the drugs. (Herbs, really, but it's not like technicalities like those matter in life or death.) Sedatives are sedatives in every world, the lucid part of his mind mutters, and the clouded part laughs derisively.
A quiet breeze blows through the ward; the others shift and sigh in their sleep, but his now-familiar insomnia (he really wants to go hunt Hollows in Karakura right now, but the lucid part of his mind is reminding him that that's not a good idea) is keeping him up for longer than he'd like. It's a biting, cold breeze against his flushed skin, and he's strikingly reminded of Rukia, of her in the white robes with that intensely grateful expression.
That one image is burned forever on his retina, flashing before his eyelids with every blink, leaving afterimages in psychedelic technicolor that only brighten each time he closes his eyes. He's never seen that look on her face before, and it's so striking that he can't seem to shake the image, can't seem to bring himself to move past it. She'd been so thin - so light - and it occurred to him like a bolt of lightning in spite of the haze of the sedative. Had he protected her, really?
That lucid, young part of him insisted that she was alive and safe, that that counted for something. But another part, a darker, larger, more Zangetsu-like part asserted that he didn't know what she'd lived through in her month of absence, that the workings and concepts of this place were utterly foreign to him. He felt a bit like a frog, shifting between land and water and not entirely comfortable in either.
He breathes in deeply and then exhales slowly. He wonders how bad Rukia's drawing of him as a frog would be. It's such a funny image that it makes him laugh like he hasn't in weeks.
It hurts to laugh.
It starts out innocently enough.
They're in a room. It looks like the open rooms the Vice Captain used to use as his unofficial office. There are placards on the far wall - Honor, Courage, and Loyalty - and a large sign proclaiming their division, under which Ukitake and his names are printed in formal kanji. She's relaxed enough that her perfect posture has slipped some. Her stance is relaxed, and Shirayuki's hilt is held between slack fingers.
But the room is different; there's a lamp in the corner, a bed by the open window, and a closet in the middle of the air - it doesn't make sense, but she doesn't question it.
Kaien-dono is speaking to her, but she can't hear the words; it's like he's speaking at a distance and all the articulation is lost on the wind. It doesn't help that his whole image is strange around the edges, not solid but blurred as it fades into another color. His hand comes up and cups her jaw gently, long fingers pressing quietly into her skin. She unconsciously leans into his touch, murmurs his name.
An obnoxious voice then asks her who "Kaien-dono" is, and she snaps out of it. The room is still that strange mix of the old Vice Captain's room and what she realizes now is Ichigo's bedroom. Ichigo himself is shaking her shoulder, asking her who "Kaien-dono" is, and she finds herself lost for words.
She blinks, and there is Kaien-dono, hand running down her neck, across her right shoulder, along the outer curve of her right breast. It's a gentle touch, content to simply trace her.
She blinks, and Ichigo is pulling her close by the waist, his awkward and gangly form supporting her. Long fingers curl into the space above her hip, and she feels a small shiver across her skin, leaving goosebumps in its wake.
She blinks, and Kaien-dono is kissing her, hand settled to holding her chin between thumb and forefinger.
She blinks, and Ichigo is kissing her, swiftly, arm still curled around her waist like a lifeline.
She blinks, and Kaien-dono is whispering to her about how much he loves her.
She blinks, and Ichigo is quietly asking her not to leave him.
She blinks and blinks and blinks, and suddenly he is both of them, black hair with orange streaks, one eye brown and one eye blue, the same mouth, the same hands, the same physique. And now, suddenly, the room makes sense, though she'd never questioned it beforehand. And there, that mouth that is both of theirs kisses its way down her neck; he pushes aside the dark material of her robes, and she feels her body respond in a way she hadn't anticipated, arching into him and gasping as he leaves openmouthed kisses over her pulsepoint, on her collarbone, on the hard plate of bone below the hollow of her throat. She feels her body warm, respond to the way his hand is large and warm against her hip, the way his height and bulk covers her, envelops her.
He bites on her, hard, and she gasps, pushing away. There's a strange, crazed grin on his face, and the strange blend of both their faces gives way to a bizarre, Hollow version of them, eyes unnaturally bright and skin unnaturally pale and wrong wrong wrong. The tongue waggles at her, and she wakes with a start.
Her nightclothes - the simple yukata and bandages underneath - are soaked through with sweat. One hand of hers is on the opposite hip, clutching it just like Kaien-Ichigo did, the other covering where the Hollow bit her. Her body shakes and the residual tendrils of pleasure skitter across the surface of her body like a light mist.
The guilt is first, and it sticks to her skin like grime, and she can't bring herself to wash it off so soon.
His room feels suffocating without her. Rain pummels against the window, the glass shaking in its frame as each sheet of water strikes, and the room inside feels oppressive in its silence. It's all too bright, too bare, too stark.
Too damn quiet. Even with the rain.
His pencil taps against the page, math homework at a standstill. (When the hell will he need to integrate an inverse function in real life, anyway?) Yuzu asked him why he wasn't taking food up to his room anymore. That had been awkward.
His eyes keep flicking over to the closet. Like he expects it to open or something. Stupid, really. Why would it open? It's not like there's anyone in there.
Focus, focus. Maybe the next problem - Integrate sinx times cosx squared over tanx squared in terms of x. Easy enough, right? Switch out tanx squared for sinx squared over cosx squared, bring cosx squared up and then--
He tosses the pencil down on the paper, the metal clip banging noisily against the surface of the desk as it rolls away, looking as angry as he feels. It's too fucking quiet, he thinks, and stands, pacing along the horseshoe of his room, desk to wall to window to wall to desk, over and over. He doesn't even notice how much noise he's making, doesn't bother to soften his steps.
It's too goddamn quiet. Even with the rain. Especially with the rain.
He sits back down at his desk and breathes deeply. With one last glance at the closet door, he flips on the radio and turns it to NHK, volume just high enough to muffle the sound of the rain. A couple of so-called pundits discuss the recent debates over legislation in the House of Representatives. It's white noise, easily tuned out and easily ignored.
But at least it's not so damn quiet anymore.
Renji's the one who tells her, the one with clearance enough to hear the news fairly early on. Orihime wounded severely, Chad in fairly critical condition, Tatsuki attacked, several dozen souls lost to an Arrancar. And Ichigo, powerless and fighting with a heavy handicap. She knows the upper echelon of Soul Society feels the rumbles of something in the air, and she knows that they'll need Ichigo. Soul Society keeps a very close eye on him, she notes distantly as she makes her way through the Kuchiki house, lost in thought. The few servants she comes across respectfully bow before making their way into adjoining rooms, silent as death.
(She remembers dodging Yuzu as she greeted Ichigo coming out of his room, telling him that breakfast was ready or that the bath was ready or that any number of other things were ready. She remembers stealing Yuzu's clothes and marveling at the cuteness of the wardrobe and lamenting the fashions of Rukongai and Sereitei.)
She knows she has a responsibility to help, to do something. She is both friend and partner and, she suspects, something else entirely. It's herright to interfere, she thinks, and a dark, stubborn expression crosses her features before relaxing into a thoughtful countenance.
Nii-sama gave her a courtyard of her own long ago, a year or so after she'd moved here. He'd told her she could do with it as she pleased, and it hadn't taken her long to realize that all she had to do was ask and she would receive. She had spent long hours designing her haven. In the perpetual early summer of Seireitei, she'd planted immaculate ume blossom trees, bordering a still pond rimmed by white limestone. A flat, black stone served as a kind of seat for her, at the base of the tree aside the pond.
She watches the hikari koi circle each other as the light slants lowly in the opposite direction, the garden utterly still around her. The fish circle once, twice, and the warmth of the obsidian stone settles into her skin and suddenly she feels a gust of biting, cold wind that moves nothing. She blinks and there is Sode no Shirayuki, fluttering in the wind. The breeze makes the length of fabric shift and ripple, folds flowing and straightening.
"Rukia," the beeze whispers, and the fabric whip-cracks at the second syllable of her name.
She shakes snowflakes out of her hair and takes a step forward, into the little clearing the midst of her forest. This is her inner world, a fierce climate of dark and pristine beauty with Shirayuki as her guide.
The winds shift and circle around the fabric, the fluttering snowflakes the only way she can follow the air. The cloth ruffles but stands upright, folds doubled over itself yet vaguely shifting, still.
"You need me," the wind echoes, and Rukia nods silently, hand quietly palming the base of her sword.
"Will you," she starts, and her voice cracks from disuse. She swallows and tries again. "Will you teach me to dance, Shirayuki?"
The winds stop - the snowflakes fall to the ground - but the cloth continues to float, as if teased by the wind. The falling snow nearly - very nearly - draws the outline of a woman, a geisha, a kitsune, a myth, but she blinks and the image is gone as a lighter breeze starts up again, the kimono sleeve once more buoyant and unrestrained, forever suspended in air.
"Yes," breathes the air, and a refreshing chill washes over her. She leans her sword against a tree and runs into the snow, following the kata of the air with her body, ebbing and flowing like the cloth above her.
There is an echo from far off. "Kuchiki-dono!" It echoes in the clearing, in the snow, against the trees at the edge and into the infinitely gray-white sky. "Kuchiki-dono!" It comes again.
She stops mid-motion, arm outstretched and fingers half-curled. "Forgive me, Shirayuki," she says, pulling herself upright.
The cloth ripples rapidly, the whipcracks staccato beats against the air; Rukia perceives that she is laughing. "Come dance with me again, my dear child," it blows into her ear before rising rapidly into the nondescript sky.
She opens her eyes and four servants are kneeling at the edge of her sanctuary, heads bowed in uniform submission. She rises, hearing her joints pop in protest, and bids them to rise. A light wind tickles the short hairs at the back of her neck.
It is cold.
He towels off his hair while kicking his bedroom door closed behind him. It's a routine action, something he does without thinking, has done for years now. With Rukia gone, he doesn't have to watch himself so much, doesn't have to double-check his habits. Water from his hair runs in light rivulets down his bare chest, making him feel hot and cold at once.
He lies back on his bed, the sheets sticking to the dips and crests of muscle and bone.
(It's an odd comfort, the feeling of stickiness. It's strange to be tethered by cohesion and adhesion, by impossibly small forces that mean so much more.)
--The towel falls over his face, damp and heavy in the cool air. He forgot to open the window, it seems, so the air is just what the fan above him circulates. He breathes through the terrycloth, reveling in the effort he makes with each breath. It's a sign of life, he tells himself, and inhales once more, labored and wetly.
Eventually, though, the towel gets pushed aside, and every free breath feels like a godsend. The fan spins, the shadows long and flickering against the white paint of the drywall. The blades spin so fast his eyes catch only the afterimages of their passing, but if he relaxes his eyes the blades seem to slow down and he sees them shift like it's a badly animated flip-book. The shadows deepen as he does this, and the false fingers of the blades creep ever longer towards the edges of the room. His mind starts slugglishly, idly wondering if those two blades aren't a little longer than the others, if the speed is constant, if the fan could wrench loose and kill them all, if if if until his mind is racing. He blinks, and the darkness recedes slightly, and the frenzy stops suddenly, the nonsensical thoughts crumbling away into the recesses of his mind. He stares fixedly at the ceiling, eyes watering despite being narrowed as his mind races while thinking of nothing.
(He can feel the Hollow's consciousness pressing against his own, massaging the back of his mind the way his mother used to knead bread. It feels like long fingers - not unlike his own - with long, sharp nails gently pressing into his mind, quietly digging into flesh. It's painful and pressured and persistent. It won't go away. It is neither a physical nor an emotional ache; it's the feeling of his soul being torn apart, square inch by square inch, and it's driving him insane.)
A warmth crawls across his face, starting from the left side, and an odd prickling in the corner of his eye makes him sit up sharply. A wet sucking sound follows him, the sheets unwillingly relinquishing their hold on him. He squeezes his eyes shut, willing the darker shadows and the pinpricks of strange energy to draw back. He presses the heels of his hands against closed eyes and tries to focus on the strange patterns of light on the insides of his eyelids. The tingle along the surface of his skin ceases, and he is breathing hard, heart in his throat.
The strange light patterns continue in his vision, renewing each time he blinks.
(There's a deeper shadow behind each one, and very, very faintly a soft laugh echoes.)
His spirit energy is gone, and she feels like she's groping blindly. His presence has consistently been a beacon of light on her inner map, and suddenly the world feels a shade darker. All the leaves, all the buildings; everything feels muted and darkened, as though a large veil has just fallen over her senses. She sends out tendrils of her power to try and locate him, and quietly, suddenly, her power snaps back. Wherever he is, he doesn't want to be found.
Or, someone doesn't want her to find him.
She runs through the little prefecture, trying every place she can think of, but eventually she finds herself at the door empty-handed and with a gnawing sense of guilt.
She walks in, hearing Karin try to reassure Yuzu, telling her that "Ichi-nii" will be back in a couple of days, like normal. Rukia can't help but cling to those words fervently, with hope far stronger than she's ever let herself feel. Kurosaki-sensei is oddly subdued as he tells his daughters to clean up, that he'll make dinner tonight and that they have the night off, just once. Yuzu hugs Karin tightly, and Rukia's eyes alight on the strawberry clip in her hair before looking away quickly. Kurosaki-sensei boils water to make noodles and Rukia looks helplessly around her at a twice-broken family.
Dinner is quiet and soft, a contrast to the usual raucous atmosphere over the table. There's no fighting, no yelling. There isn't even conversation, despite Kurosaki-sensei and his best attempts at cajoling a smile. Neither girl answers anything substantial, and Rukia insists on doing dishes as repayment for letting her stay with them.
The water is warm and the soap is light and slick on her hands. She mindlessly washes dishes, watching her false hands wrinkle in the water. In the Kuchiki estate, there are five servants for every dish, and each piece of china gleams so brightly that new hires will check their reflections in the plates as they pass by. But she finds herself in a rhythm, and before she realizes it, the moon is high and the dishes are stacked neatly beside the sink, dry. They don't gleam, but she's somehow happier at the sight of these than she ever has been of the curio holding those brittle, brittle dishes.
She showers quickly, so fast she hardly feels the water on her skin at all, and then crawls under the covers, waiting for the sounds of Yuzu and Karin's breathing to deepen and slow. When she's sure both of them are truly asleep, she lithely climbs onto the roof.
She looks up into the infinite darkness, strains her eyes to see the faintest of far-off stars. A cold wind blows by, very suddenly, whipping her clothes and mussing her hair.
The air stings her eyes, and she brings up a sleeve to wipe away the moisture.
It's not about the haze of blood on the edges of his vision, or the way the sun feels when the sky is clear and cloudless like it is. It's not about the way the metal of the blade feels as it twists slightly in his abdomen, or the massive headache he's giving himself as he tries to work out how he's got color commentary going on in his head when he's in his head.
His hollow - an eerie reflection of himself, all his strengths and none of his weaknesses and with all the ruthlessness he can't seem to muster - is talking, saying something he can't make out. The words reach his ears in echoes, half-drowned out by the pounding of blood in his ears. He catches glimpses and snippets of sounds, but only one word sticks in his state of shock.
(--Shock, he remembers reading in his father's medical texts, occurs when the body's systems cannot deliver oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and cells of the body. It can be caused by massive hemorrhaging, infection, or burns--)
FIGHT, a voice rings in his mind. (In his mind in his mind in his mind.) His breathing is coming faster now, and the blade gleams white in front of him, taunting him. A light shifts along the flat of it, moving towards him.
FIGHT, the voice repeats. A feeling of darkness and strength washes over him, a feeling not unfamiliar. He's reminded of bankai training and guessing games played while clutching the sides of buildings that never end.
FIGHT, the voice presses, against the walls of his consciousness, and he breathes deeply, wrapping his fingers around the white blade, painting it red with his blood even as the black seeps into the metalwork. The edge cuts into his palms, into the joints of his fingers, but he focuses on the hollow instead, as it swears vengeance.
The blade twists, but he doesn't feel it. There is only the warmth of the sun on his skin and the ruffle of the breeze through his long, black hair. The blade gleams in the perpetual sunlight, the light dazzling as it catches the moisture of the blood on the blade.
(It's about ownership.)
Orihime's spirit energy is easy to follow. It's completely, unabashedly hers, and it's one that Rukia counts on as she follows the path the strange little girl took when she grabbed her.
She stops where she senses that Orihime has stopped, but she doesn't see anything. It's the ultimate blind, and she's not sure what she isn't looking at. It's a building, for sure, a warehouse by the size of it. She gives herself a headache trying to focus on it; her eyes want to shift away, focus on the structures to either side that she can see and feel and know. Her eyes cross and she shakes her head and she looks up instead.
There's more stars out than normal, she notes distantly as she studies the features of the moon. Everything out is set in stark relief in the moonlight. It's all shades of blues and blacks and grays, colors like ice and snow and night.
There's a spike of muffled reiatsu from the building, and her head swivels to focus on it. There, again, and that line of tension in her shoulders, the faint wrinkle in her brow, the folds around her mouth - they fade away in that one moment, and she feels at peace. That consuming cold building in her chest melts away, and there, there is calm.
When Inoue leaves the impossible building, it takes less than a heartbeat for Rukia to offer to train the bubbly young woman. She knows, better than most, the full weight of wanting to fight and not being able to.
He's lucky that Hachi's barrier extends above the roof enough that he can stand on it and still be shielded. The air in the warehouse is stale and tastes of recycling; he hadn't realized how much he'd missed windy nights in late summer like this until now. He feels the press of the air, sliding past the angles of his face, around the lines of his form. He bends his sword arm back, fingers clasping around the hilt of Zangetsu. His other hand curls against the fabric of his hakama, arm limp at his side.
The moon is full and bright, the clouds around it purple from the haze of pollution and from the reflections of the city lights. The wind is cold against his skin, feels like a caress. He can feel his hair moving, the odd sensation of it being forced in an unnatural direction. He closes his eyes and breathes in deeply.
As he exhales, the push of the wind against his hair feels like fingers pressing against his scalp, tangling in his hair.
He breathes in again and it is just air.
He exhales, and now the (air) fingers feel like they're running along his jaw, three fingers pressing his chin down.
He inhales, and the wind grows stronger, the air much colder.
He exhales, and he can feel her pressed against him, arms wrapped around his back and fingers clutching his shoulders. Her face is buried in the front of his robes, and his hands are still at his side and clutching Zangetsu. He can feel his knuckles whitening, his grip turning vise-like.
He inhales and the image catches, like the picture on a television during a lightning storm, before reforming itself. Her legs are wrapped around his waist, her hands in his hair, her lips against his. His hands - suddenly empty - wrap themselves double around her waist. (She's too damn thin, he thinks distantly.) She makes some noise in the back of her throat that makes him feel like his heart is going to fucking explode, shifts her hips against him in a way that makes him feel like he's fucking dying, and breaks the kiss so suddenly that his lungs hurt like fucking hell.
"Ichigo," she says softly, breathily. He can feel the faint puff of air against his skin as she says his name. She moves to place a march of kisses along his jaw, saying his name over and over in that voice that's driving him in-fucking-sane.
She breathes into his ear, sending goosebumps to rise across his flesh, and says, "Ichigo," once more, this time like a sigh, but his eyes cross. Because it echoes; it sounds like a voice shouting, carried away by the wind. It comes again, and suddenly everything shatters.
He starts violently the moment Lisa claps her hand on his shoulder. "What?" he barks, Zangetsu clattering against the roof tile. The sharp noise echoes strangely in the space between them. He shrugs her off and stoops to hoist the sword onto his back, glaring at her as he straightens.
She looks back at him coolly, seifuku fluttering in the wind. "Break's over," she replies curtly and then walks away, disappearing over the edge of the roof.
"Bitch," he mutters half-heartedly, rolling his eyes. He jumps down after her, catching a window frame and slipping inside smoothly. He steps down the staircase slowly, the feel of the wind seeping out of his clothes with each step. At the foot of the stairs, he pauses and takes a deep breath.
The air is warm.
She checks her reflection, compulsively adjusting the cloak around her. It's heavy, the material soft and thick. Like everything else, it is of the finest workmanship, each seam stitched with perfection. She wraps her fingers around the cowl neck and breathes deeply; the fabric smells perfumed, like cherry blossoms and incense.
She catches a flicker of movement in the mirror and turns around, hands self-consciously smoothing down her pristine clothes. "Nii-sama."
"It suits you," he says, She sees him studying her form, the way the cloak contrasts with the material of her uniform.
She feels herself grow warm, though from the heavy cloak or the compliment she isn't sure. "Thank you."
He turns to go and before she can stop herself she finds the words spilling out of her mouth. "Nii-sama, are you sure?"
He stands, half turned away from her. She can almost see the corner of one eye, the edge of his kenseikan a white outline at the edge of his hair. "Aa," he says, and walks away.
Her nails press into her palms through the weave of the fabric, heart racing with excitement.
He takes the long way to Urahara's, never mind the corpse in his bedroom and the lack of a sign of forced entry. Kon'll manage, and if the world declares his body dead, well, there's always Seireitei. Karin knew most of the story anyway; he'll just explain the rest if when he comes back.
It's that strange time of night when things are sort of dark but the streetlights are just starting to warm up, so everything is that strange, dim sort of look. It messes with the look of the world he's used to; his spiritual form usually sees things in high contrast. Now, everything looks washed out, and it's that quality that his senses are emphasizing. Karakura feels like a ghost town, and it's setting him on edge.
Hey, partner, comes a whisper, and he stifles the urge to groan. The Hollow's voice is oddly close at times like this, when the world around him is unnaturally still. Nice moon, huh? The voice is almost uncomfortably near, really.
It's waning, he grouses back, expression darkening.
The Hollow laughs. You know that look doesn't scare me, it retorts, and he can picture the inverted version of himself smirking, the black and gold eyes slits in his face. He even knows what posture the bastard would use.
As if reading his thoughts, the hollow clicks his tongue. Of course you do, idiot, and there's a bored undertone to his words. And yes, I am reading your thoughts. We're the same person; what is yours is mine.
Yeah, right, he scoffs, catching himself before he sneers in the outside world. I'll still defeat you. I'll learn to control you.
Is that so? The voice sounds lazy, and the words come out elongated and drawled. Tch. Idiot boy.
And suddenly there's a strange falling sensation as he lands in a crumple in his own inner world. The remnants of their last fight are visible; the buildings are cracked and he can see the broken structures behind other, unbroken ones. Lounging on the glass is the hollow, false Zangetsu at his side.
"King," it says, grinning maniacally.
He says nothing.
"I love the sun. You know, it's always sunny before a fight in here?" The hollow's eyes flick to his before raking over the clouds once more. "You get excited, King." He runs his tongue over his teeth, the gray surface stark against the absolute white. "It's catchy."
"What do you want?" His hand rises to clutch at Zangetsu's hilt, the bandages slowly unraveling from the blade.
"Maa, maa. I didn't bring you here to fight. This time." The white figure stands and brushes off his clothes, shaking off dust that isn't there. "I'm warning you."
"Fuck this, I don't care." He turns around and takes a step forward.
"You're going to Hueco Mundo," the hollow starts, no humor in its voice. Ichigo stops in spite of himself. "The world that belongs to the hollows. Where no shinigami has gone before and all that shit." He flash-steps in front of Ichigo, grabs him by the neck. "It's not Seireitei, King. You're going to have to try harder to rip off that mask each time you use it."
His vision starts to blacken at the edges and he claws at the hand with a death grip at his neck. "Bastard..." he bites out, only for the hand to tighten.
"Stupid," he nearly sing-songs, black eyes coming closer to his. "I thought you knew? The ripest strawberry falls fastest." He tosses the orange-haired boy aside, half unconscious, and grins, teeth bared for full effect. "Ja ne," he says, mimicking Ichigo's one-handed parting gesture, and flash steps away.
Ichigo starts and finds himself a block away from the shoten. Suppressing a shiver - "It's cold," he mutters - he strides forward purposefully.
He flexes his hand and turns the corner.
The crunch of bone and glass shattering beneath her blade is wonderfully satisfying. The thought passes across her mind even as she lands in a heap on the floor amidst all the shouting.
She pulls herself up in the silence that follows, the espada's shouts echoing in the open air above her. Her nails scrape for nonexistent purchase in the surface of the stone, breaking under the pressure.
She won't die here. But fainting sounds like a good idea, and her body gives out on her, the severity of the wound finally hitting her full force.
(A white hand rests on her forehead, hot and cold at once. The sleeve, white as snow, covers closed eyes.)
Well, shit, he thinks. Here he is, breathing in dirt and dust and failure, and now he's immobile to boot.
"Yo, King." And suddenly he's in his head, on the industrial landscape all out of sorts. His hollow is leaning forward casually, weight balanced on the white Zangetsu.
Ichigo just glares at his reflection, face down on sun-warmed glass. The sky begins to grow cloudy.
"Tch, rain," the hollow notes, looking up. "How troublesome." He leans to the side, as if trying to see Ichigo's face. "King? You still there?"
Ichigo growls and flexes his fingers into fists.
"Aw, damn. I'd hoped you were finally dead." He laughs sharply. "Ah well. There's always next time."
Ichigo rolls his eyes. Not that anyone sees, so the effect is lost.
"Must suck to fail," it says suddenly, casually. "Lost to the fourth sword. That's awful. How're you going to defeat Aizen in that shape?" It whistles, a long and low sound. "Face it, partner," it says, and suddenly it's in the reflection he's pressed against, and he has to stifle a gasp. "You need me. Without me, you're just a failure." It grins at him, rows of sharp teeth bared menacingly in a perverse imitation of a smile.
Something catches its attention and it looks off to the side. "Well, well," it drawls, and it's back to leaning against the white sword. "Looks like we have company."
Ichigo has a hair's breadth of time to consider that before he's being rolled over roughly onto his back by a foot. He blinks against the bright light and stares at the figure above him.
st. elmo's fire
"Ichigo!" she shouts, struggling against Renji.
He is standing in the middle of a crater, hands tearing at the mask. His spirit power is spiking, at times recognizably him and at others soured with the touch of a Hollow. She sees the way his hands pull ineffectively at the mask, at the curl of his fingers into sharp, dangerous claws, and knows what's happening.
"Ichigo!" she cries again, redoubling her efforts to wrench free of her captor. "Fight him! You're stronger than he is!"
The black-clad figure turns to face her, yellow eyes deep-set in a red and white face and kosode billowing out around him. There's a tightening in her chest as she meets his eyes, and the orange irises narrow with pleasure.
He opens his mouth (too many teeth, toomanyteeth) and there comes a sound. The hairs on her arms, at the back of her neck, across her skin, rise as gooseflesh, and she winces despite her horrified fascination.
It's a Hollow's scream.
His power bursts forth from him in every direction, so intense it takes on color. Wide swaths of black crack against bands of orange, and Renji just barely manages to get them a safe distance away with his shunpo. A heartbeat later and his power would have consumed them, incinerating them by sheer pressure alone. As it stands, he is lost in the blinding flashes of power, somewhere between flickers of black and bolts of orange.
"Ichigo!" she screams, barely audible over the sound of his power. It's like lightning strikes, the cracking sound deafening at close range. The air tastes of electricity, and the echoes of (his) its scream skitter across her skin. Her eyes widen as she sees the black areas dwindle, the orange areas widen and grow. She struggles harder, desperation creeping into the background of her voice as she continues to shout, telling him to fight it, fight the hollow, that he's the stronger, even as the sensation of being near a hollow intensifies.
"Ichigo," she screams, over and over, until her throat is raw and she tastes blood.
It is a pleasure to fight.
Zangetsu slices through hollow flesh like diamond through...anything, really. The blade arcs upwards and the light catches along the fine edge, glinting and blinking like a beacon. In his mind (in his mind in his mind in his mind) the negative image of himself screams with pleasure, imitating his gestures. To the side, Ossan - the Old Man, Zangetsu - stands (floats) watching, face blank though his eyes shine like volcanic glass.
And then there's him. Rather, the dominant him, because ultimately all three of them are him. The hollow is as much a part of him as the Old Man, and he (the little boy with the big eyes getting wet in the rain) is no less a part of a whole. They're three sides of himself - wisdom, ambition, empathy. Why shouldn't his rather fractured personality manifest itself as three vaguely psychotic self-images? Whatever works.
The hollow looks over at him, expectant, and he nods. Change partners, keep them on their toes; ambition's just in it for the glory, anyway. As long as the Arrancar can't quite figure him out, they'll have the element of surprise. He watches dispassionately as his hollow joyfully swipes through three gillian, the blood spattering on his mask and robes.
"Tch," he says. Show-off.
The Old Man walks (floats) up beside him. "You're partners now?"
"Aa," he replies, gently touching the hilt over his shoulder. "We reached an agreement."
The Old Man is silent.
"I fight, he fights, or we fight." He snorts. "Bankai is easier when I'm not fighting on two fronts."
"Idiot boy," the Old Man grouses, then is silent again for a moment. "What will you do after the war?"
He sighs. "I'm not sure. I'm kind of hoping he gets his fill now and then is just quiet for the rest of my life." He shoots a cheeky grin at Zangetsu, whose lips twitch slightly.
He'll take what he can get.
"Rukia," says the wind. She looks up from her saucer of sake (steaming slightly - just the way she likes it) and cranes her neck up to see her addressor.
A woman, hair and eyes black as coal, stands tall before her. Her skin is white as milk, her kimono gray by comparison. Almost randomly, wide black lines swell and taper across the fabric - beech trees in snow. The only spot of color is on her lips: the deepest red Rukia has ever seen, more vibrant than blood, much darker than flowers.
The oval face relaxes into an amused expression. "Who else would join you on a rooftop in January to drink?"
"Matsumoto-fukutaichou," she's quick to respond, and Shirayuki laughs breathily, a sound like wind through bare branches.
"Point," she says, and covers the lower half of her face with an elegant sleeve, laughing lightly into the silk.
Rukia looks up, the saucer still perched elegantly in her hand and still steaming lightly, the white vapor rising and dissipating into an infinite black. She sighs heavily and tosses back the contents of the ochoko. Shirayuki holds out the tokkuri, long slender fingers wrapping around the neck of the small bottle.
"Something on your mind?" Delicately, she pours the alcohol out until the liquid touches the rim.
She sighs, heat rising in her face from how much she's drank. "Tomorrow we die," she says, and laughs harder than she ought to. Some of it sounds like sobs; most is just wet.
"Such is the price of battle," the white woman mutters, taking a swig straight from the bottle in her hands. "Oh, that's good."
"Only the best," she returns, and smiles humorlessly.
"You know, all warriors fear on the eve of battle." She takes another drink, more delicately this time, and lets the taste linger on her tongue.
Rukia follows suit. "I know," she replies after the heat of the drink has faded from her tongue. "All of us went to the temple today, as is the custom here. Not one of us - from Kurosaki-sensei to Ikkaku - knew what to ask of our ancestors." She sighs breathily and it frosts in the air before her; the red spreads across her cheeks in splotchy blots of color. "Most of us figure that by the end of the week we'll be the ones they pray to." She makes a sweeping gesture with the saké dish, indicating the little city below them.
"Well," she says, taking another delicate sip, "Everyone's gotta die some time. Isn't that what the balance is about? Humans die and their souls are moved. The souls die and get reborn."
She breathes a long sigh, the moisture in her breath crystallizing instantly. "Shirayuki?"
"Have you ever been in love?" She's not looking at the white woman; her eyes are glassy and unfocused as she looks at the moon instead.
Elegantly, the white woman sets down the tokkuri, the excess fabric of her sleeve pooling on the roof tile. "Yes," she replies simply, hands folded into her sleeves.
"What was it like?" There's an innocence there, a wonderment that Rukia rarely displays.
"It was..." She looks up at the cloudy night and traces the outline of the moon. "It was hard. It hurt, and it was ugly at times." Her expression turns internal and nostalgic. "But it was good at other times. It was really good at other times."
"Ah," she replies, and leans back on the tile. The ridges poke into her back and she nestles in, content to feel the slight discomfort. She revels in being alive, loosely speaking, and breathes in the cold, dry air deeply.
A shooting star passes overhead, and she doesn't make a wish.
The school bag feels oddly heavy in his hands after near-constantly wielding Zangetsu. He's not used to it, and his back feels oddly unburdened.
His scowl deepens with every step. Stupid sky. It's like it can't make up its mind. To rain or not to rain; that is the question.
Class is oddly quiet despite half the students returning from "leave". The teacher is comically excited when everyone walks into class, late but present. He hardly pays attention to the Shakespeare lesson, to the demonstration of applied calculus, to the lecture on the Warring States period. He looks out the window, at the bleak sky a uniform white-gray to the horizon. He almost wishes it would rain.
("Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day," a young Ichigo sings, stirring batter with his mother in broken English. Masaki laughs and pours a cup of flour over his head, dusting him white.)
His hollow stirs, something like a mental poke, and a few students perk up, looking around confused. The teacher falters in drawing the character on the board, and stutters for a moment. The sensation passes and the lecture continues.
This is normalcy. He's not sure what to make of it.
("Mommy," he says, mouth full of home made cookie and still covered in flour. "Why does it rain?"
"Hmm," she says, and takes a thoughtful bite. "Because the sky knows that someone, somewhere, is sad, and so it is sad, too."
"Yes, like Mommy. Mommy gets sad when she knows her big boy is sad." She smiles indulgently at the seven-year-old, chocolate around his mouth and flour in his bright orange hair.
"I'll never be sad, Mommy! I promise!"
She laughs and pulls him into her lap, resting her chin on the top of his head. Beyond the eaves, the rain spatters against the ground, the sound oddly consuming.)
Beside him, the desk is empty.
Miraculously, they make it to the awning before the storm breaks. The air has been humid, and the sky breaks open just as they straighten under the covering.
"Shit," he mutters, rubbing the back of his neck.
"We can wait it out," she says, leaning against the door frame of the store behind them. The shop is closed anyway, so no one will shoo them away. Casually, she drops the bags into the doorframe, the plastic crinkling loudly in the relative quiet.
"Aa," he replies distractedly. He's been like this all day, like he's thinking very hard about something.
It's bugging her.
She studies the lines of him. He's sixteen now, which is odd to think about. There's something strange about thinking of him as sixteen. Maybe it's because he can act so much older than that. Maybe it's because she knows what he's seen and done and lived through and died through. He shouldn't be sixteen, but he is, and she realizes he's so much more dear to her for that.
He twitches and she looks back at the rain. Each drop falls, splitting into fragments as it hits the ground.
He grunts in response and she has to resist rolling her eyes. Men.
"Do you ever wonder if rain is lonely?"
He shoots her a look like she's crazy. "No," he replies flatly, turning back to look at the puddles forming on the cement.
Unperturbed, she continues. "Every drop of rain is just that, though, isn't it? A single drop. When it hits the ground, it splits apart. It joins other drops, but it is never the same drop of water again. Instead, it is a large drop of water mixed with dirt and dust." She pauses to take a breath. "Maybe rain is lonely because when it falls from the sky it doesn't have any other drops of water with it."
There's a long pause, when all they can hear is the sound of rushing water.
He breaks it, vein popping out obnoxiously from his forehead. "THAT'S THE STUPIDEST--"
She grabs him by the collar before she can stop herself and pulls him down, kissing him firmly on the mouth. He resists, making a surprised noise in the back of his throat before pushing her away roughly.
"WHAT. THE. FUCK?!"
He's breathing hard, and the sound echoes between them, loud and harsh in the silence.
Then, before she can regret her actions, he grabs her shoulders and kisses her hard.
She's splayed spread-eagled on the bed, the headphones to his music player nestled firmly in her ears. He can tell her breathing is slow by the way her chest rises and falls, and because he knows what she looks like when she's asleep.
Very gently, he pulls the earphones out, and picks up the player. Orange Range? he thinks, and shakes his head. Turning it off, he sets it down on his desk. Then, he turns back to the bed. She can't stay like that, he tells himself, and moves towards her.
"Rukia." No response.
"Rukia." He pokes her in the side for good measure. She mumbles something about Watership Down and turns over.
There's a twitch in his eyebrow. "Oi, Rukia." He pokes her again, harder, and she squirms away.
"Rukia," he repeats, poking her between the ribs this time. She laughs breathily and sighs something that sounds an awful lot like this name. That, or, "Renji you idiot," but he'll take what he can get.
He pinches her nose closed between thumb and forefinger, cutting off her breathing. There's a moment where she doesn't react.
Then, her eyes open wide and she sits up so fast their foreheads knock together.
"FUCK," he swears, clutching his forehead. "Woman! What is wrong with you?!"
"ME? You're the one trying to kill me!"
"YOU'RE ALREADY DEAD."
"SO? YOU WERE STILL TRYING TO KILL ME."
There's a pause, and the silence rings.
He sighs first and rubs his forehead, a lump forming under his fingers. "Sorry. I shouldn't have woken you up like that."
She waves it away and yawns. "What did you need?"
He pauses, thoughtful. "I...don't remember."
She smacks her forehead with her palm, then curses from hitting the still-tender spot. "Ichigo, you're supposed to be a doctor. You're supposed to remember things."
"Yeah, yeah." He rolls his eyes. "Look, since you're up, do you want to come to the grocery store or not?"
"Sure. Can I get a juice box?" She grabs her purse - Inoue got it for her, he thinks - and follows him to the door.
"Whatever," he replies, locking the door behind them.
1. Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction. - Antoine de Saint Exupery
2. "I desire--and their speed makes night kindle; / I fear--they outstrip the typhoon; / Ere the cloud piled on Atlas can dwindle / We encircle the earth and the moon." - Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bryce Shelley.
3. 9000 words, making this easily my longest piece I've ever written. I hope you enjoyed it.
4. A ton of thank-yous are in order: Sophia, Jazzy, Ten, and Jai. You guys are amazing.
5. There are a lot of literary references in here, as well as a few homages to others' fanfictions. If you see something that resembles an element of your story, then please be assured that it is most likely a reference to you and I mean well by it.
6. For those of you a little confused, I've extrapolated a series of events from "st. elmo's fire" onwards. All of those take place in the future, with the last segment taking place in an ideal (read: unlikely) future. The ending is also something of a nod to Ranma 1/2.