Crucible

Rukia was dozing lightly when she felt the storm front that was Ichigo's reiatsu moving within the Kuchiki Manor. In normal circumstances, she would've moved to go meet him, irate and sour that he literally broke into private property in the middle of the night. Her brother's private property.

However, Byakuya was still at the Central 46, along with Yamamoto-sou taichou and the rest of the surviving taichous. He would be there for a long while, she gathered, since the commanding forces of Soul Society had many, many, many things to discuss. With Aizen's death after a long, dark three years of endless war, there was so many things broken that needed gentle, conscientious hands to repair. So many lives shattered and so many things destroyed.

Even though she could faintly hear the still-booming sounds of celebration from the depths of Seireitei and even the Rukongai, she couldn't help but feel bittersweet about it.

The door to her suite slid open and her attention was suddenly on the dark form that was standing in her doorway. The guard less handle of Zangetsu knocked against the door frame as Ichigo entered her chambers unbidden. She tried to open her mouth to berate him on proper manners, like knocking, but the barbs died on her tongue as the low light from the coals that kept her warm tonight threw illumination across his face.

"Ichigo," she breathed out. She stood, mindful of the tightly wound bandaging around her torso, standing in front of him. Her browns knitted together in concern.

"Rukia," he replied, the word barely passing his lips. He glanced down at her, his normally honey-amber eyes dulled to a near blackness, sweeping over her form, vaguely taking in the beige edges of the binds that her keeping her wounds sealed shut around her arms and torso. She noted how his eyes narrowed at her chest, leering at it in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with perversion and everything to do with regret and self-loathing. "How are you feeling?" he offered lamely after several uncomfortable seconds of silence. Rukia shook her head, a spark of anger welling up in her as she brushed aside his concern.

"Ichigo, I'm fine. But you, you look like hell." His face was haggard and worn, his darkened eyes barely focusing on anything for more than a few seconds before they swerved away to something else. Even with Zangetsu on his back, his shoulders were bowed, his posture slumped and every inch of his presence screamed to her that he was spent in every way; down to how his usually brilliant, rough reiatsu, always pressing at the edges of hers like the insistent heat of sunshine, was so very dim, roiling, and dark. It sunk to the floor, crept along the rugs and sunk into the crevices of the floor like smoke.

"Did I wake you?" The question is soft and seems to have little power behind it, not even the nervousness that he should be advertising on his cheeks at finding her late at night, dressed in a simple and thin sleeping yukata in her room. Its then that Rukia realizes that whatever is so terribly wrong with Ichigo, its enough to drive him to her doorstep at this hour despite his pride. Her gut churned with worry and she gently grabs his wrist to lead him into her room and out of her doorway.

"Sit," she says, a gentle command that brooked no objections. Sliding the doors shut, she pulls out an extra mat from a drawer against the wall and lays it out for him. She doesn't know if he needs to talk or simply can't stand to be alone right now, but she knows that he won't be leaving for a while. Obediently, Ichigo slides down to the floor, turning to face the smoldering coals, his back to her. He pulls the blanket up around his shoulders, hunched forward towards the heat. The room was not cold, though and Rukia takes her place on her mat, her eyes locked on the patch of dark orange that spiked up over the horizon of his wilted shoulders.

"I see Kotetsu-taichou released you, or did you just get up and walk out?" she ventured, light-hearted scorn attempted to shade her voice, breathe some brevity into the room, but the attempt falls empty in the air.

"Rukia..." his voice is so low and tired that Rukia barely recognizes her own name. One hand clenches till her nails are leaving crescent scars on her palms and her knuckles are cold white; the other reaches over to lay on his arm, a quiet gesture meant to both comfort and encourage him.

She anticipated him needing to vent in some matter, lift whatever weight that was pulling his shoulders and spirit down. She expected to have to ease slowly into whatever it was he needed to talk about. She expected for it to be a slow, stuttered process because Ichigo was Ichigo just as he was also a man. Men spoke in actions and gestures, not in words, but there were simply somethings that had to be said aloud. She expected this, but it wasn't what happened. His next words floored her.

"He said he could bring Mom back."

She blinked, once, twice before her brain kicked in. Her hands reflexively tightened on his arm and against her own hand.

"He said all I had to do was stand back and let him go to the Royal Dimension. Just stop fighting and he could bring her back..." his voice cracked. "He made it sound so... easy. So f-fucking simple and ..." He was shaking now as he yanked his arm from under hers to cup his face and hide the tiny edge of his face she could see. They were both mute as he forcibly stilled himself. When he began again, his voice was flat and distant.

"He said he could back Inoue's brother and Ishida's grandfather, Tessai-san and Hiyori-san, Kira and Hisagi-san too. Everyone that died, he said he would bring back, said that he could make it like nothing had ever happened. Make everyone happy." He gave a visible tremor, but remained still.

"He used his hypnosis to show me Mom." Rukia inhaled sharply, her heart jolting. She moved closer to him, viciously squashing the urge to reach out and console him. Not now, not when his very heart and soul seemed to hinge on this.

"We were home and she was putting dinner on the table. She and Dad were...I haven't seen Dad smile like that since she died. Karin didn't have that scowl on her face and Yuzu wasn't constantly smiling just to make everyone feel better..." He audibly gulped. "And Mom... she looked exactly like she did the day I... she..." He pulled in a bubbling, harsh breath.

"She said she was happy. That she loved us and couldn't wait to see me graduate high school. She said she was proud of me...and she just leaned over and hugged me and..." his fists suddenly slammed down on the floor as the last of his control crumbled to dust. His shoulders pitched up and down as Ichigo Kurosaki, hero of the Arrancar War, slayer of Aizen, Savior of Soul Society and the World of the Living, Protector and Hero broke down into silent, wracking sobs as he confessed to his worst sin.

"I was going to say yes! I wanted her to be real, wanted so bad...f-fuck! I was ready to trade everything away for it! Betray everyone! I was saying yes when..." He stopped to gasp for breath through his tears, unaware of the slim arms that ached to hold him.

"My Hollow stopped me. My fucking Hollow stopped me." He was panting now, between his sobs. "I was hugging my mother and then I just feel blood running over my hands and Zangetsu's in them and I've... its...in her chest and I'm suddenly looking through my mask at her..." He doesn't notice how Rukia manages to turn him around and embrace him tightly as she can, pressing his face into her shoulder where his tears soak into the fabric of her yukata and his shaking body makes hers quiver too.

"I killed her...again. I've killed my mother twice!" Tears are rolling down her cheeks as she cries with him, for him, because she knows what its like to have to kill someone that was such a deep part of your heart twice. Her arms tighten around him even more and he reciprocates because the weight of his guilt is crushing and the stone walls he'd built up to keep the grief and pain that has accumulated in his soul at bay for years are failing and he's clinging to her like she is the only thing thats keeping him from drowning in the deluge.

"And its suddenly gone, she's gone and Aizen is standing there and smiling and all I want is to kill him. I wanted to kill him with my bare hands, I wanted to see him suffer. I hated him so fucking much and all I could see was Mom's face and my hands covered in her blood, all I wanted was for him to die. I didn't care about saving everyone, I wanted to beat him just so I could kill him myself. I wanted to tear him apart, rip him to shreds, watch him scream in agony."

Something in her gut twisted at that moment. All during the War, even as early as when Aizen had retrieved the Hougoyku from her after her failed execution, she had feared Aizen. But it wasn't until this moment, with Ichigo coming apart in her arms, that an ice-white hatred for a dead man settled into her gut. She wanted to resurrect his corpse just so she kill him herself.

"I just...grabbed him around the throat and I wanted that smile gone, so I just... ripped his jaw off. It was so damned easy, all I heard was this popping sound and something wet ripping. I tore him apart, like some fucking animal!" he choked out. "And it was me, I did that to him... not my Hollow, me! And you know what?" He reared back brought his hands to her shoulders, fingers curling into her shoulders till they would leave bruises. "He still won. I could see it in his eyes, even as he was dying, he knew he had won."

"Ichigo..."

"I'm a fucking monster, just as bad as my Hol..!"

His vision went white for a second as his head was whiplashed around so hard that his teeth accidentally clacked down on his tongue, a well of blood filling his mouth. Still panting, he turned his head back around, his shock deepening at what he saw.

Rukia glared at him, fury making her cobalt and violet eyes the color of midnight. Her hand was still in the air, hovering from where she had slapped him so hard her palm was red with the force of it. The cacophony of emotions that were melting together on her face: rage, sadness, anguish, pain and something else Ichigo couldn't quite name, furrowed her brows and narrowed her still tearing eyes. Her stinging hand reached up and fisted in his hair, pulling him down so that his nose was millimeters from hers.

"Kurosaki Ichigo," she hissed, "you are going to shut up for once in your life and listen!" Her hand trembled against his scalp. "You are not a monster! Aizen tortured you, can't you see that? Anyone else, even me, would've reacted the same! You have never been anything except you, Kurosaki Ichigo."

"That doesn't change the fact that if my Hollow hadn't done something, I would've said yes! I would've let Aizen win just to indulge in some stupid fantasy!" A trickle of blood rolled down his lip, the gouge on his tongue still bleeding. "That alone makes me worse than Kurotsuchi or Ichimaru or any of those other sickos out there!" He let out a roar of pain as Rukia, hand still in his hair, shook him fiercely.

"Don't act like you're the first person that's ever submitted to temptation!" His eyes locked to hers, both pairs dark with anguish and pain. His head spun in a centrifuge trying to understand what she as saying.

"Rukia, what are you...?"

"Shiba Kaien, do you remember me speaking of him?" Ichigo nodded slowly. The dead brother of Kuukaku and Ganju, Rukia's former mentor that she killed in self-defense after he had been taken over by a Hollow. Every where he went in Soul Society, he always heard whispers behind his back about how much he resembled the eldest Shiba son.

"When we went to Las Noches the first time, the Espada I fought and killed had the spirit body, memories, and zanpaktou of Kaien-dono." Ichigo gave a start at this, she in the four years since their first invasion of Hueco Mundo, had never spoken in depth about her near-death encounter with the Espada. She locked eyes with Ichigo.

"He asked me if I was willing to offer my life as apology for murdering him. He said that, instead of my life, if I brought him the heads of my nakama, that would be satisfactory repentance." Her hands clenched, just remembering that fight brought a fresh wave of shame. "At that point, I thought that whatever it was, it couldn't have been Kaien-dono, it was just a copy, an illusion! But it knew all my moves, the spells favored by my brother, my first two dances, things that only Kaien-dono could possibly know. And when I knew for sure that it was truly Kaien-dono's body, that I had failed to save him from becoming a Hollow...I lost the will to block his blade."

"So thats when..." he rattled out with a raw voice.

"Yes, when I died."

There was a long, heavy silence as Ichigo considered the story. He remembered the cold, icy dread that hit his stomach the instant he felt her reiatsu waver that day, fleeting, weak and so far away. The bone-deep relief of seeing her alive and whole and yelling at him to get his ass in gear...something had shifted in his heart that day. He hadn't had the time to sit and analyze until days later, after the first assault on Karakura Town had been repelled, and then, that time had been overrun with the blooming horrors of war as Aizen began his long, unrelenting offensive against two fronts.

"Ichigo..." her hands were on his cheeks, lifting his face to hers again, the touch surprisingly gentle considering how emotionally stressful the last ten minutes had been. Ichigo tilted his head into her hands and sighed. "When that Espada asked me if I would give up my life to atone for his murder... I said yes."

"...What?!" He was now glaring fiercely at her, a legendary scowl in place.

"I thought it was Kaien-dono! I would've done anything to make up for what I had done then, to rid myself of that guilt. Death seemed like a convenient way to do that."

"I don't get it," he snorted, "if this Kaien was such a cool guy, why would he even suggest something like that? Why didn't you figure that out?" She pressed her lips hard and gave him a square look.

"The same reason you wanted to give in to that illusion... you were tired of the pain, sick of the guilt."

Ichigo's protests died a quick death on his lips. Letting out a trembling sigh, he lets his head dip down till his forehead is pressed against her, even as his gaze never leaves hers. His expression makes Rukia's heart break for him. Completely vulnerable, years of walled off suffering, loneliness, guilt and unspoken pain were there, painted on his face in weary colors and exhausted lines. Her face echoed in a similar way, though time and forced confrontation had made her wounds a little more healed on the surface.

So they sat there for a while, both coming to grasp with what had just transpired. Both hearts fluttering with a strange lightness they did not anticipate.

There were no more secrets between them.

Every sin and shame was laid bare, scars and still bleeding wounds exposed to the air after being hidden under layers and pretenses for so long. They laid there, breathing in silent wonder at the mutual scars and shared anguish.

Her heart swelled in her chest as her thumbs began to stroke his cheeks in slow circles. For a moment she marveled at how four years and brutal war had hammered out the last vestiges of boyhood from his features and mind. Her knuckles traced along the solid line of his jaw, down the column of his throat to rest on the stark ridge of his collarbone, jutting out against the higher planes of his shoulders, broad and corded thickly with muscle and scars. He may not pay it much mind, but she, as well as nearly every other female in Seireitei, knew for a fact that Kurosaki Ichigo was a beautiful man. Beautiful in a way that was completely different from the cold marble perfection of her brother, or the nurturing, fatherly features of Ukitake-taicho.

Ichigo was wild power and masculine force, enthusiasm and determination tempered to flawless steel by a heart bigger than his body could hold and a generosity in the form of hands offered to defeated enemies and unfaltering support for those he cared for. He was the warmth of the sun, sunlight that made all it touched grow. A smile tickled at the corners of her lips as a human song floated in the very back of her head. You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...

Her skin prickled when something rippled through her, from the top of her head to her toes, leaving shivers and goosebumps in its wake. When she looked up at Ichigo again, taking in his face and his eyes, she gasped as she felt the floor open up beneath her as her heart spun with revelation.

She loved him. Kurosaki Ichigo, this brash, broken, amazing, wonderful, unexpected, imperfect and perfect man she loved to the depths of her soul. Loved him to the point that it brought tears to her eyes and made her breathless with the wonder of it. Shaking, she looked at him and with a watery voice and a smile, said the only thing she could.

"Thank you, Ichigo. Thank you so much..." Ichigo's eyebrow arched up as he watched Rukia's face transform and give him an expression of utter tenderness. Ichigo felt completely flummoxed from the sudden turn of emotions from the woman in front of him.

"What are you...?"

"I never said thank you for everything you've done for me, have I? Saving me on Soukyoku Hill, for letting me live in your closet, for giving me back Renji and beating my head in until I believed I was worth something," she breathed deeply. "Thank you for being in my life."

"Ru-Rukia, what are you talking about...?" He fumbled to reclaim the thread of the conversation and to work past the lump that had set itself firmly in the depths of his throat. His stomach was churning oddly and his blood was rushing in his ears, which made him feel all the more disjointed, considering how his head felt after his girly emotional breakdown. Oh no, his masculine pride wasn't suffering at all right now.

Rukia just gave him the same small, calm smile again. Her fingers gently raked into his hair, now permanently falling to his waist in wake of his mastery of his Resurreccion. She stuffed down the wry thought that it was unfair that the man she loved had prettier hair than she did.

"Rukia?" he ventured again, still uncertain as to why the whole tone of their conversation had shifted to something so intimate. Her face was millimeters from his and he just wanted to...

His train of thought promptly derailed itself when Rukia's lips pressed themselves against the corner of his parted mouth. It was completely tender and held no urgency or demand in it; her breath ghosted across his cheek and tickled over the shell of his ear at the same time her fingernails dragged gently over his scalp. Electric sparks echoed from his spine and out across every inch of flesh and bone. He gasped – surprised at her action and how a barely-there kiss managed to sweep away all his exhaustion and the raw headache that began to grind at his temples.

She nuzzled him gently, her lips not moving from his as she whispered three silent words against them. Confused, he cracked his eyes open and met hers straight on and all her emotions were etched clearly in them. The metaphorical lightbulb clicked on. He understood.

God, he understood.

Reflexively, his arms curled around her and crushed her to him in an instinctual motion that tried to pull her whole soul into himself. Why was he shaking again? Damnit, why did he feel tears prickling at his eyes again? He buried his face into the crown of her head, in the faint smell of some flower that he didn't know the name of, and sighed out.

"Rukia, I..."

Her thin fingers came up to silence his lips. She shook her head at him, rising up on her knees till her face was even with his. Her heart had been ready for this for a long time, truthfully. She had been ready to open her soul to his ever since that quiet and dirty hour they had spent in the deserts of Hueco Mundo waiting for Nel to open a Garganta to Soul Society. She had been ready and waiting for a long time, but he hadn't. Any confession from him night now would always carry the taint of being extracted from him when his emotional barriers were decimated and his mind and heart in turmoil.

No, when Kurosaki Ichigo confessed, it would be at a time when he was truly ready to give himself to her. She understood pride, especially the stubborn male variety, and Ichigo's was important to him, so it was important to her. She didn't care if it took months or years, or maybe just till tomorrow, she could wait.

"You need to get some rest," she whispered. The sky outside was still dark, a good handful of hours left in the night. He nodded against her shoulder, finally pulling away from her. She silently mourned the loss of his warmth and scent, he morned the loss of his anchor.

"I can try," he muttered, the mat and cover spread out by the dim coals was wrinkled but he collapsed onto it just the same. "I dont think I can."

Rukia regarded him for a moment before scooting over, motioning him to rest his head in her lap. Ichigo complied, his brows narrowed in confusion as he rested his shoulders against her knees. Making no indication that she was bothered by it, she pulled his hair out from under his head before she started at his hairline and delved her fingers into his hair again, gently scratching the scalp and working her way back across his head.

For a few seconds, Ichigo tensed under her hands, but as he began to relax, he felt his eyes droop and his jaw go slack. Oh damn, this felt good. Rukia's fingers reached the base of his skull and began back again at his temples, this time her nails combing through his hair with slow and easy motions. She worked across his head and back, even scratching the back of his head and the base of his skull. Under the ministrations of her careful fingers, Ichigo uttered a few small grunts before before the tempo of his breathing slowed and he was out like a light.

Rukia smirked in triumph as she allowed herself a few moments to twirl a few sunset strands around her dainty fingers, admiring how soft his hair felt against her calloused fingertips. Maybe tomorrow, she'd find her brush and sit down and brush out the entire mane, if she got him good and relaxed, he might even let her braid it. Her lips cracked into a grin as she gently shifted her legs from under his head, sliding over to her own mat across the basin of coals.

Settling down, she looked out her window and noticed that the sky hadn't even changed color yet. The whole ordeal probably took less than an hour. She sighed in wonder – less than an hour to go from a sore and exhausted soldier to a woman in love, heart made light by the fact that the only thing she had to worry about was tomorrow. For the first time since her fate was twined with Ichigo Kurosaki's, she had the luxury of time. Time to let old wounds finally close and heal, to breathe, to savor the coming days with him, with Renji and Nii-sama too.

In sleep, he looked so young and peaceful, his eyebrows unfurrowed and face relaxed. Her heart skipped a merry beat when she realized that she might get to spend a lot more nights like this – one day.

One day, not now, probably not tomorrow either. But it was in her grasp, all she – they – had to do was reach for it. She closed her eyes, finally letting herself drift back to sleep.

As long as she had that promise for one day, she would be content.