Update: Edited to fix lazy writing. Big thanks to d'Anima and cricketchick1990 for pointing it out, and cricketchick1990 for telling me how to fix it without re-posting the entire story.
Disclaimer: Only Bleach I own is NaOCl. The story referenced was written by Ernest Hemingway to win a ten dollar bet.
Rukia slipped into the seat beside Ichigo just as the lecture began. He watched her from the edge of his vision and wondered how she did it. Even on a college campus it made no sense to him that such a young -- young-looking, anyway -- girl, carrying no backpack or books, could glide into any classroom without calling attention to herself. She leaned forward slightly with her hands folded in her lap, listening, but not even pretending to take notes. There was always an empty seat next to him when she visited. He didn't know how she did that, either.
When the class was over she stood and waited as he put his notes away. They walked out of the room together, then out of the building. Rukia paused at the top of the steps, looking up and shielding her eyes from the bright sun with her hand. Ichigo waited for her below. When she finished looking at the clouds she rejoined him and said, "Hi."
"Hi," he replied, as they started across the courtyard. "How long you here for?"
"Just the day. I saw Inoue and Ishida this morning. He still can't believe you're not going to be a doctor like your father."
Ichigo snorted. "Shows what he knows."
"He said..." Rukia bit her lip as she tried to remember the exact words. Ichigo grabbed her arm and steered her out of the way of two oncoming bicycles. "Oh! He said that a liberal arts degree isn't worth the paper it's printed on, and that he hopes you're reconciled to a future in the service industry."
"Do you even know what any of that means?"
"I didn't, so Inoue took me to get fast food." Snickering, she elbowed him in the ribs. "You're going to look so stupid in one of those paper hats." He elbowed her back and the conflict escalated until they had to walk single file to press through a crowd of students near the library. "Anyway, it was strange. The food wasn't very good and it came with a toy."
Ichigo glanced down at Rukia over his shoulder and tried to stifle laughter. "Aren't you a little old for that?"
She shrugged. "I just told the man I'd have whatever Inoue-san was having, and that's what they gave me."
He did laugh then, and laughed even harder when she smacked the back of his head. They turned a corner and came to a long expanse of grass lined with trees. Walking side by side again, they moved along the main quad. Their pace was leisurely as they passed from the shade of one tree into the next.
"Hey, what class was that today?"
"You should know, idiot. You sat through the whole thing." Rukia crossed her arms and shot him an imperious glare. Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Creative writing," he conceded.
"Is it always that stupid?"
"What the hell are you talking about, Rukia!? That's my favorite class. It's not stupid."
She looked at him incredulously. "You can't be serious. 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.' That's not a story; it's a classified ad."
Ichigo stopped. Rukia didn't. He grabbed her shoulder and turned her to face him. "Hey, hold up. That is so a story. What makes it such a good story is that it says so much in so few words!"
She blinked. When she spoke it was very slowly, as if she were speaking to a child. "It says that baby shoes are for sale."
"It's more than just the words! It's the implication, the subtext! It's tragic! These people lost their baby, and you know they're having money problems or else they wouldn't be trying to sell the damn shoes."
"I cannot believe you!" Rukia planted her hands on her hips and glared up at him. Sunlight passing through shifting leaves left dappled shadows across her face. "You just made up all of that! Maybe the baby's fine and they're selling the shoes because they didn't fit or something. You don't know!"
"That's retarded! Nobody writes a story about some baby's shoes not fitting. The whole point is--"
"That's what I said from the beginning! It's not a story!"
"Just... just shut up for a minute." Ichigo decided it counted as his victory since he was the first to stop yelling. People had been staring at them because of the shouting. He noticed two in particular, two guys, who had broken off their frisbee tossing to gape rather obviously at Rukia. He glared at them over the top of her head, then moved his body to block their view of her.
"What?" Her voice was lower, but not less annoyed.
"Huh?" Ichigo looked back at the two men, scowling with even more vehemence until they slunk away.
"Idiot! You told me to shut up and I did. What were you going to say that was so important?"
"Sit down; I'll prove you wrong. You can say a whole lot in six words."
He plunked down on the ground, cross-legged, not giving her a chance to argue. Rukia tried to perch over his shoulder when he took out a notebook to write in, but he shooed her away. She stuck her tongue out at him before retreating several meters to lie on the grass and watch the clouds.
Ichigo chewed on the end of his pen. In his haste to prove her wrong he hadn't really considered that it was difficult to write a story in six words. Especially a story that would convince Rukia it was one at all. He knew she'd see right through any attempt to bowl her over with symbolism or poetry. He needed something she would understand meant more than the mere sum of the words, something direct and personal. At that point it became obvious.
He wrote six words on the paper in quick succession then studied the sentence for a moment. It was missing something. He glanced over to Rukia as he considered it, gnawing at the pen again. She was still looking up at the sky, one arm raised and fingers moving as if she were tracing patterns in the clouds. She looked ridiculous. Ichigo scribbled another six words, directly below the first sentence. It was cheating maybe, using twelve words total, but he thought it made his point well.
"Here." He shoved the paper toward her. Rukia sat up and brushed blades of grass out of her hair before taking it. He had written:
"I won't forgive or thank you."
"All of your opinions are rejected."
She stared at the paper for a long time, much longer than anyone needed to read six words, or even twelve. Finally, she handed the paper back and looked toward him. She met his eyes with a stoic gaze, her face revealing nothing.
"Okay, what?" Ichigo snapped, irritated by her impassiveness.
"Okay as in 'you were right,' stupid," she threw back.
"Oh... huh..." He didn't know what sort of a reaction he had expected but it certainly wasn't acquiescence. Let alone a relatively graceful one (for Rukia, anyway). He didn't get any more time to think about it. Rukia jumped to her feet and pulled him with her.
"Where are we going?" Ichigo tried to sound more like he was complaining than curious. Usually they simply wandered when she visited, never a destination in mind.
"I saw a tree I wanted to climb the last time I was here."
"And I have to go because...?"
"Because I came here to spend time with you."
"Sounds to me like you came here to spend time with a tree," Ichigo grumbled, but he didn't stop her from dragging him along.
"Here we are!" Rukia pronounced. Ichigo couldn't see what was special about this tree, but he didn't bring it up. It had been at least fifteen minutes since she had kicked him and he wondered how long his luck could hold. He sat down, leaning against the trunk, and pulled a tattered paperback out of his book bag.
"Hey, give me a pen and a notebook."
"Hell no! You'll draw crappy, spastic bunnies all over it!"
Rukia had the nerve to look indignant. "When have I ever--"
Ichigo scowled at her and counted off each offense with a finger. "My math homework. Twice. My take home test for English class. My mid-term essay for Russian literature. My paper on--"
"Fine, fine!" She waved a hand dismissively. "Just give me a piece of paper and a pen then, Ichigo."
The fact that she always managed to sound like he was the unreasonable one never ceased to amaze him. Rukia took the paper, folded it in half, then rolled it around the pen to make as small a bundle as possible. Ichigo shook his head. At least she was less likely to fall than if she were trying to carry an entire notebook with her.
"What are you going to be doing?" She asked.
"Just reading for a class." He shook the book in her direction. "King Lear. You wouldn't like it, no pictures."
Rukia held the pen and paper in her teeth and started to climb. Ichigo almost regretted the "no pictures" comment when she stepped on his head on her way up the tree.
"Crazy bitch," he muttered, rubbing where her foot had come down with much more force than necessary. For a few moments he was struck by the occasional leaf dislodged by Rukia, then she settled in on a well shaped branch and the disturbances ceased. Ichigo lost track of the time as he read the play, pausing often to scribble notes or underline passages.
When an object struck the top of his head, surprise caused his hand to slip. He glared at the slash of red ink that now ran across the page and growled under his breath.
Her responding laugh was low and quiet, almost indistinguishable from rustling leaves. The offending object had bounced off his head and come to rest in front of him. Ichigo picked it up and saw that she had folded the paper in a series of triangles, turning it into a convenient projectile. She must have learned how to do it from Keigo; launching those at Ichigo had been one of his favorite activities during class.
Ichigo held up the paper missile so Rukia could see it. "All that time you spent coming to school with me and I bet this is the only damn thing you learned."
She was lying on her stomach along the length of a branch, one arm supporting her chin while the other dangled lazily. Her knees were bent and her lower legs, crossed at the ankle, rested against the trunk. Eyes half closed, the only sign of her previous activities was the pen tucked behind her ear. She didn't acknowledge his barb. He took it to mean she was waiting for him to read the note.
He stared at the paper for a long time, much longer than anyone needed to read six words. First it was a matter of reading the words over and over in disbelief. Then he stared intently at her handwriting as he waited for every trace of crimson to recede from his cheeks.
I think I might love you.
Ichigo didn't look up at her again until he was certain he wasn't blushing anymore. He was annoyed to find that Rukia looked far too calm for someone who had delivered such a message. She was good at that, making herself completely unreadable when any normal person would at least be a little nervous. Of all her maddening attributes Ichigo often suspected that would be the one to finally push him over the edge.
"That's not really a story, it's just a statement," he said, careful to keep his scowl in place and his voice level.
"It could be the beginning of one."
He continued as if she hadn't said anything at all. "And it's a pretty weak statement, at that. 'I think,' 'I might.' If you really love somebody you just do, without a bunch of qualifiers or conditions. You just love them, even if they're a huge pain in the ass and you don't get to see them as often as you want and you have to worry about them when they aren't around you and..."
Ichigo stopped abruptly when he realized there was no way to end that line of thought without embarrassing himself further. His eyes darted around nervously for a moment before returning to the tree branch that cradled Rukia. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight. Rukia smiled down at him. A simple, happy smile that brought her whole face to life in ways Ichigo was certain he had never seen before. He hoped he'd get to see it again.
"So... uh... the beginning of one, huh?"
"I think so."
He nodded and felt himself smiling back at her. It wasn't an easy thing not to smile when Rukia was staring down at him looking so... well, so... like that. Ichigo picked up his pen and went back to marking notes in his book, hoping she wouldn't see his smile turn into a full-fledged stupid lovesick grin. Knowing Rukia, he'd never hear the end of it.