Author's Note: This chapter…annoys me. But it must be written so! I'm worried it's OTT. Please tell me if it is!
Thank you to And She Breathed No More, kagali-angel, musicinme123, Anonymous Reader :D, Veronica111111, darklover, Toushi, omaomae, headyzest, Aizawa Ayumu, , and glon morski for their reviews.
AND oh my goodness we made 100 reviews! I am unduly excited! First story to break that mark. I'm so very grateful to you all, that if you'd like to have anything written (e.g. one shots) then please tell me and I'll see what I can do! I will definitely do one for Toushi, if you want, for being the 100th reviewer. I'm feeling very inspired.
Thanks for reading!
Byakuya questioned the boy's mental capacity. Was he actually so naïve to think he was visiting Rukia unawares? No, not visiting. Intruding. Disturbing. Bothering. Being Generally Unwelcome. Some might find his naivety endearing. Byakuya found it only irritating.
He'd known of Kurosaki Ichigo's…intrusions ever since Unohana had mentioned it in passing, and since then he'd kept a better look out for any sign of him. He wasn't sure where he went or what he did between the times he was annoying Rukia, but he had a suspicion Renji might know something on that part.
On Unohana's advice, he'd relented and allowed the boy to continue to see her, but that didn't mean he'd forgone his previous plan of killing him on sight. If he so happened to chance upon him, that plan was still at the forefront of his to-do list.
…At least, it had been. Watching his sister now, in the middle of the night and with very little sleep, any previous desires had been thrown away and replaced by an all-consuming exhaustion.
Rukia lay half on her side, her sheets draped loosely around her, a bowl of cold water on the table beside her bed. She coughed again and turned her face into her arm. "Rukia-san, please try and sleep." Unohana stood patiently beside her bed and rested the back of her hand against her forehead. "It's the best thing now."
"Rukia, you must sleep," Byakuya ordered. She flinched and attempted to sit up and bow at the same time. "Forgive me, Nii-sama -"
He frowned and sat back in his chair. The fact that she was still insistently submissive, even at this stage, unnerved him. He turned to speak to Unohana, but paused when he felt a presence of reiatsu approaching the door. His eyes narrowed slightly, and his hand curled around the hilt of Senbonzakura.
Ichigo wandered leisurely down the corridor, stifling a yawn. He really needed to get his visiting hours sorted. He was about to push open the door to Rukia's room when he felt a familiar reiatsu inside and froze. "Shit, shit!" He stole a panicked look up and down the hallway and started to back away.
"Come in, Ichigo-san," a pleasant voice called from within. He winced, and hesitantly nudged his way through the door. Unohana stood smiling genially at him. Byakuya stood glaring at him with an almost-imperceptible look of smouldering death.
"Ah, yo, Byakuya. Unohana-san." Ichigo rubbed the back of his head nervously. "Hey, Rukia."
She watched him silently for a moment before looking back at her brother. "Kurosaki Ichigo," Byakuya rumbled, and took a step toward him, "You -"
"Kuchiki-taicho?" Unohana stepped in front of him. "I think Rukia-san's going to be fine if we step out for a moment. I'm sure you'd like some rest, perhaps? A little something to eat? Ichigo-san will watch her while we're gone."
Byakuya stared at her, before glancing back at Rukia and then finally looking at Ichigo. He kept his gaze as he strode past Unohana and stopped before him, pouring as much contempt and warning into his gaze as he could. Ichigo gave him a nervous grin. "Ah, Byakuya, it'll be -" He broke off when Byakuya lifted his chin and brushed past him. "- Fine." He sighed and shrugged. "Uh, sorry, Unohana-san."
"There is no need for an apology." Unohana smiled at him. She went to follow Byakuya. "But remember," she stopped just past him and the smile dropped from her face for a moment, "Our visiting hours are not in the middle of the night."
"Yeah." He grinned uncertainly. "Got it." He looked back at Rukia, who had rolled to her other side to face the wall. He crossed the floor and stopped beside her bed. "Are you alright?"
"There's no air in here. I feel like I'm…suffocating." She stayed curled onto her side, but arched her back and lifted her chin, swallowing lungfuls of air. Brittle strands of hair obscured his view of her eyes. "Maybe I am."
"Don't say stupid things." He sat on the edge of her bed. "I thought…you were getting better."
"Do you know what I want to do, more than anything?" A ghost of a smile graced her lips. He tilted his head to look at her. "I want to run…anywhere. No, outside. On grass." Her smile widened, and she let her eyes close. "I didn't realise I missed air rushing past my ears so much." She laughed shortly.
"When you're better, then you can go for a run. And I'll watch and laugh at how stupid you'll look."
"And breathe fresh air." She suddenly rolled to face him. "You know when it's too hot, or you're wearing a scarf, or you're winded, and you just can't get enough air in? And no matter how hard you try to breathe deeply enough, it never is enough? I can't - I just want to -" She inhaled sharply, choked on the air, and tried again. She gasped and turned half-wild, sleep-deprived eyes to him. "Ichigo, I can't breathe."
"Calm down." He ordered gently, and touched his hand to her shoulder. "You're just working yourself up. If you couldn't breathe, you wouldn't be talking. Here," he put his hands under her arms and lifted her to a sitting position, "now breathe."
The air caught in her throat. She dropped her head. "Ichigo -"
"Slowly." He moved his hands to her shoulders and lowered his head next to hers, keeping his eyes on her blanket. "Now breathe in. Slowly." Rukia closed her eyes, and her shoulders rose as his did. As they exhaled, she stopped trembling.
She sighed, and surprised him by moving forward an inch and dropping her forehead to rest gently against his. He started at the sudden contact, but checked himself quickly and closed his eyes as well. He tried to control his heartbeat. "Again," he said softly, and they did. And again. And again. She raised her hand and placed it against his chest, as if she needed to feel the proof of his existence as much as he needed hers. His heart slowed beneath her fingers. Their breathing slowed too, and became a steady, metronomic, almost meditative pulse that calmed them further still.
Ichigo wasn't sure how long they stayed like that. He did know that he had no desire to move - he felt more at peace then than he'd felt in a long time, and he was quite content to never move again. Not when he could feel that at that moment, she was as alive as he was.
For weeks, he'd been consumed by the idea of her death. He'd seen her suffering from the disease, but the thought that she would - could - die eclipsed thought of anything else. He hadn't comprehended that she was in pain as well. Subconsciously he tightened his grip on her arms. Not only was this thing threatening to kill her, but it also had to hurt her while it did it. It was taking away her dignity as a shinigami as well - for Ichigo knew her work was everything to her, and what use was a shinigami who couldn't work? And if she did die, then this would be how he would last remember her - weak, exhausted; a withering shell of the person he first met.
He wished that he could do something to help her. No, wished was the wrong word. Wishing was something you did at birthdays when you wanted a new bike or rollerblades. This, though…every fibre in his body screamed with the agony of not being able to protect her. Something inside him - was it his heart, his stomach, or his lungs? - twisted into torturous knots. He couldn't physically cope with her pain.
So if this was the only thing he could do, then he would do it. If all he could do was calm her and help her to breathe, then at least it was something.
But hold on, that wasn't the only thing.
…But that would involve moving.
Groaning inwardly, Ichigo opened his eyes. He had to work on not freaking out at how close she was. "Rukia," he said, and straightened up. She flinched at the loss of contact and sat back. She raised her eyes to his.
"Let's go for a walk."
"A walk?" Her eyebrows shot up. "Ichigo, I can't go for a walk! I have trouble getting to the bathroom!"
"Enough with the details." He stood up. "It's ok. I'll carry you."
When she shifted unsurely he rolled his eyes and crouched down. "It'll be fine. Bring your blanket."
"Do you want to stay cooped up in here?"
"Uh…ok." Pulling her blanket around her, she climbed carefully onto his back, looping one arm around his neck and securely holding the blanket with her free hand. "What if someone sees us leave?" She muttered as he stood up.
"I found a back way outta this place," he answered, and tried not to dwell on how light she'd gotten. "Ready?"
She couldn't help but grow a little eager. "Onwards and upwards, knave!"
"Alright, alright. You don't need to go all medieval."
"Never mind." With a quick check down the hallway, he headed for the service exit of the hospital. "See? No one around."
At the end of the corridor, Unohana sighed and watched them leave. "One trip won't hurt," she smiled, and turned away.
"So, where are we going?" Rukia nudged her head against Ichigo's neck.
"I don't know. Where do you want to go?"
"Aren't you supposed to have this all planned out? You're unorganised."
"What do you mean have it planned out? I didn't plan to take you for a walk. It's an impromptu thing."
"You need to organise these things!"
He twisted his head back to look at her. "No I don't! You don't organise trips for a dying person to get some fresh air. That sort of forward thinking is morbid."
"You're supposed to organise any trip where you take a girl out. Otherwise it looks lazy."
"This isn't a date, Rukia."
She glared at the back of his head and kicked his leg. "I didn't say it was!"
"That hurt, you idiot!" He glowered at the path in front of them. It was surprisingly fortunate that there was virtually no one around. Then again, he realised, it wasn't even dawn yet, so it wasn't really a surprise after all. Subconsciously he headed toward the upper levels of Seireitei. Rukia liked high places.
"Bit of a sucky date if it was, anyway," he murmured as he continued walking. "Spending it with a sick person."
"Shut up!" She kicked him again.
"Hey! You're supposed to be too weak to walk, let alone kick me. I just meant I'd be spending half the time worrying if you're about to pass out."
"I think I'm going to."
"No you don't."
"I do." She dropped her head limply on his shoulder. "I feel faint."
"You do not."
She glared daggers at his hair. "Well if I did, then you'd be in trouble for not believing me!"
"Rukia? Shut up. Your voice is annoying." Anticipating another kick, he smiled when she chose to rest her cheek against his shoulder and watch the streets below them as they climbed. The change of scenery seemed to be helping already. He was happy that she hadn't forgotten how to joke with him.
And still had the energy to do so.
"The air feels good," she said quietly, more to herself than to Ichigo. She breathed it in deeply and smiled. "It's a beautiful morning."
"The sun's not even up yet, moron."
"That's no reason. We say the day is more beautiful than the night, only because we're never awake to see if that's so."
"You spend too much time observing it." He paused and glanced back at her. "You're not cold, are you?"
"If you're sure. Here, this'll be a good place." He stopped on a flat section of a courtyard protected by a low, wide wall that dropped straight down past the cliff to the streets below. He unhooked Rukia's arm from around his neck and gently slid her off his back. Shaking, she gripped his sleeve for support and fought to keep her knees from buckling under her weight.
He watched her without speaking, and wondered if he'd ever see her as the person he and his friends had risked everything for ever again.
"C'mon," he said softly, and half-lifted her to sit on the wall. He checked that she was steady before sitting next to her and dangling his feet off the wall. "You ok?" He glanced sideways at her. "Don't fall off."
"No. This is good." She gazed at the warren of streets below them, exposed by the slowly lightening sky, and inhaled deeply. "Ichigo, thank you." She turned to him, her eyes glinting with happiness.
"Ah, it's no big deal." He grinned and rubbed the back of his head. "Don't worry about it."
"I won't, then."
They watched in silence as dawn crept upon the sky. Sunrise began with a thin gleam of yellow on the horizon. The edges of the lowest morning clouds glowed golden, and the light washed gradually through them, setting alight the other scraggly, unkempt puffs of cloud. The fire marched slowly across the sky, burning the white clouds to shades of yellow and gold scarred by fiercer blazes of red.
"…I never thought we'd end up here."
She turned to him, surprised at the sound of his voice. "Ichigo?"
He stared at the rooftops below them. "I've seen…done…a lot of things I never thought I could. Things I couldn't even conceive before I became a shinigami. Even after I did…I still couldn't conceive this. There was so much to do…I wouldn't have been able to believe something like this could happen."
"And now?" She asked, her words halting. "Do you believe it now?"
"I don't want to," he whispered, and his eyes darkened.
She dropped her eyes as the fire faded from the clouds. "…But do you?"
He hung his head and was silent. The sky blushed pink, and Rukia pulled her blanket further around herself. At last, Ichigo raised his head to look at her. "People are gonna start wandering around here. We should go."
"No," she said firmly. "I want to stay a bit longer." She turned to look directly at him. "I don't know when…or if…I will be able to come here again."
He flinched at her words, and she felt a little sorry if she had been too harsh. She hadn't meant to. But he didn't move and so she returned to surveying the sky. She sketched the shapes of the clouds in her head, went back over the edges in ink, and then filled them with colour. Remember them, she warned herself. She traced the lines of the rooftops, the shadows of the narrow streets, and the occasional smudges of people hidden between them. Again and again she went over everything she could see before her, committing the scene to memory, and all the time knowing she'd have only a faint blur in her mind by the next morning.
"Ok," she said finally, and her voice sounded unnatural after the silence. "Let's go." She held her hand to Ichigo as he stood, and he pulled her up with him, holding one arm around her waist to keep her steady. A northerly breeze blew leisurely by them, and he suddenly felt chilled to his core. He shivered. Rukia quietly leant forward and rested her head on his chest. Surprised but touched by the gesture, Ichigo smiled. He wrapped his arm round her shoulders and hugged her to him.
Byakuya stood at the entrance to the courtyard and watched them silently. Thin lines of golden, early morning light edged their half-silhouettes against the awakening sky. They stood together for a long time. Too long, Byakuya thought, but someone's voice murmured softly in his mind, and against his better judgement, he turned and left.
Author's Note: Wow, that was one reaaallly long scene with not much else. :/ So, I hope that was ok. Please do tell me if it wasn't, what mistakes there were, what you liked/didn't like/want to see etc. And also if you want to request a particular one shot. Thanks for reading! x