Disclaimer: As much as I wish for it, I have nothing to do with Kubo Tite or Daniel Johnston. Le sigh. Oh well.
The broken wall was not explicable—how had his family blamed a runaway truck? Ichigo slid into his seat and looked side-long at his sisters. They suckled white milk from their glasses. The color of it was bothersome. Where is she? He huffed and turned his head. His father turned the page of a newspaper and made a low noise in his throat. Ichigo furrowed his forehead.
Isshin shook the folded newspaper and met his eyes.
"How are you?"
Isshin cocked his head. "What?"
Ichigo put a hand over his heart. It thudded in his sternum. There was a coldness in the rhythm. "Never mind," he said.
She moved unlike a flower, drawing inward rather than outward in a crisp line. The sheet glass all in odd angles reflected her. She frowned. It frosted over and she went on her way.
The presence of the man surprised her—sudden at her feet, laid out, wrapped in written-on white linen. She bent down until her face was level with his. His lidded eyes quirked. "Do you know my name?" she said. And when he did not answer, she pressed her lips to his earlobe and said again, "Do you know my name?"
She withdrew as he opened his eyes. He squinted. Her white hair slipped off of her sloped shoulder.
"No," he said, finally. Then: "Yuki-onna?"
"No," she replied. "But it is close enough."
She stood to her full height and shielded her face with a white hand. He did not move, except to attempt to shake his hair from his face. She bent again and tucked it behind his ear.
"It is bright, here," he said.
She plucked at the linen. "Do you know your name?"
He did not respond.
The words were faded, the fabric frayed. She rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. To her, it did not seem so strong. "Have you been sleeping?"
The line of his mouth wavered. Then he said, "Until recently."
Ink came off on her hand. The black of it was startling. She looked at it instead of him when she said, "He usually dies young, this one. Doesn't he?" It was in the creases of her palm. It made her heart line distinct. "Until us."
"My woman and I."
The glass beneath them grew colder. She knelt and rubbed her palm into the frost. "He was almost familiar," she said. She glanced up. "But now I see that he was not familiar at all." She glanced back down. The frost was already melting into a dirty puddle. "Do you mind it here?" she said.
He gestured vaguely with his chin. "I would prefer a garden."
"I am so sick of gardens," she said and as if cued, she coughed. There was something soft and felted in her mouth. She covered it with her clean hand, coughed again with open lips. A sakura flower fell into the hand and she frowned at it.
"Is there something other that you would prefer?" he asked.
"I do not like the rain," she said. She shook her wrist; the flower fell away and blew into the wind.
"Ah," the man said. "Then we have a commonality."
"Oh?" she said. He nodded, and she felt herself matching his movement. Then she smiled, chuckled. "Then I am grateful," she said, "for like minded company."
Rukia shifted beside him in her seat, crossed one ankle over the other and looked at her book as if concentrating. But Ichigo could see the scrawled animals in the margin, so he knew that she was not. He rolled his eyes up into his head and then back down at his own book.
Her school shirt was white and starched. Each pleat was perfect in her school skirt—it never crimped. Her bow was well-knotted. He wondered where she found the time or even the discipline to be so careful in her presentation, to be so falsely warm.
"Eh," he whispered.
"Shut up," she hissed in return. "Not here."
He glared at her, put his chin on his fist. A chill crept up his spine. She was bothersome.
"Oh?" she said, called out of some reverie. She sat beside the bound man, her knees neatly in front of her, her feet beneath her. The wind whipped by. It caught her hair and blew it around her head in a circle.
"Do you permit me to call you this because you died in the snow?"
"I like the snow," she said. Her hair caught in her mouth and she attempted to smooth it down.
The man had worked one hand free in the past weeks. He reached up to smooth the stray white strands.
She slapped him and said without malice, "You must not."
He looked at her, then at his hand. "Ah," he said.
"It isn't because I dislike you," she said.
They fell back into silence, and she closed her eyes against the brightness of the sun. At times, she felt a tightness in her chest, like a drawn wire. She wondered, were her woman to be taken away as she would at some point surely be, would it snap? "But I am safe here, for the time being," she said aloud. No conquering men. She opened her eyes.
The man was frowning. He swallowed. "It's bright," he said.
"Does it bother you?"
He nodded slowly. "At times."
"A shame," she said. Then she moved and knelt over him. Her hands hovered above his body and shuddered in the wind. She lay one on his thigh, slid it upwards. The man started. She smiled at him to soothe him, and felt for his pocket. She reached into it and pulled out a pair of sunglasses. "You've needed these," she said.
He stared at the sunglasses.
She touched his cheek—the one she had slapped—with the back of her hand and slid the sunglasses onto his face. "Is it better?" she said as he blinked and his eyes adjusted.
He inclined his head towards her. "I don't know how I came here," he said.
She gestured at the white linens. "You don't know who did this?"
"Try to remember."
The wind died. Her hair settled. What a sad sort of boy it was who would allow an aspect of his own soul to be discovered and bound. But then, she knew what it was to be conquered by another.
He shook his head. "It's gone."
She settled back into a sitting position.
"Yuki-onna," he said.
She did not respond.
"Yuki-onna, I think that you are a very beautiful woman."
She turned to him, let out a brief and perfumed breath. It curled over her face and his—a frost formed over his glasses. He reached up to wipe it away, but stopped when she said, "Do you think so?"
His smile was grim. He began to work loose his second hand.
Contemporary art: the lesson of a man in a felted coat in a room with a coyote. Ichigo thought that he might be able to relate—that shared space, the snarling animal.
He set down the text book and turned around in his swivel seat. Rukia's eyes were closed, her breathing controlled. He considered her closely, and was reminded of the hellebores his mother had once grown in the winter garden. Her cheeks were damp, but with perspiration and not tears. Her hair stuck to her forehead. Her skirt stuck to her thighs. It was intimate, to see her when she herself was turned so inward.
He blushed, stood suddenly and left the room. He went downstairs to the kitchen and opened the freezer. The cold that came out of it refreshed him. He almost smiled.
"What are you doing?" It was Yuzu. Her face was quizzical.
"Nothing," he said, and he slammed shut the freezer door.
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"I'll be in my room," he said, waving her off.
Rukia was still in the same position when he came back in. "What is she doing?" he said. "What if it had been someone other than me? She would have been caught."
"Nee-san's ignoring me!" Kon wailed. "She said she was lonely, when little Kon is so close by!"
"Lonely," Ichigo said. "Lonely for what?" Something twinged inside of his chest.
"Lucky stars!" Kon said. "She told me and not sweaty Ichigo!"
"I'm not sweaty," Ichigo said. He scowled at the plushie, and Kon cowered and whimpered before him.
"Both of you bother me," Rukia said suddenly. Her irritation was apparent and heavy in the air. She stood. "I do not need to explain any of my actions."
"You're a weird one," Ichigo said. "Lonely."
She shook her head at him and frowned. She climbed into the closet and slid the door shut.
"It's only going to be hotter in there," Ichigo said, perturbed. "Hey."
Kon walked up on squeaky feet. He slapped Ichigo on the knee. "You're mean! Don't you know anything?"
Ichigo kicked Kon across the room and fell into his bed. The window was open. Chill air came through it and cooled his face. There was a tightening inside his chest and were he a more honest person, he would admit that its presence had been a constant for many weeks. Lonely, he thought. He rolled over on his side. Lonely for what?
The man had freed most of himself—only small tatters of the linen clung to his coat—and they had taken to walking side by side in contented silence.
"He is not human, I think," she said at length. "Or I may have died when I came here." She paused. He mirrored her, also stopping in place. "Certain souls are not hospitable to what we are," she said. "And of course, you were here, like that. I think that someone must have known what he was, but wanted him to be human."
"Perhaps," the man said.
They resumed their walk.
"Have you remembered?" she asked.
"I have not."
"Ah," she said. "A shame."
"Perhaps not," he replied. His hand brushed hers but she felt the purpose in his touch.
She pulled away from him. "You must not," she said. "Not yet."
"When it is permitted," she said. Her fingers curled. "Your boy has made you somewhat impudent, I'm afraid. I'm disappointed."
"Is that so?" he replied. His stare was soft. "Then I apologize."
"Forgiven," she said, though she doubted his sincerity. "Am I the first of our kind that you've seen? You could not have known."
"I do not think you are the first," he said. His voice was measured. "But it doesn't matter. What's past has passed."
"It has not," she said. She stopped again, allowed a glare. "I have tongued the hearts of two men. What is past has never passed."
He made a blank face. She began to feel flustered.
"I'll show you," she said, and she opened her mouth wide and stuck out her sharp tongue. Blood dribbled off of it in two colors, one brighter than the other. It fell on her white sleeve and stained it. She shut her mouth. "What is past has never passed."
"Ah," he said, but it was breathy, hitched. He looked horrified. "Now you must forgive me, because this I did not know."
Her heart beat. She ignored its thud and waited for the man to shake the human expression from his face.
"Your sleeve," he said, and then he paused. He shook his head. He glanced at her face.
"Yes?" she said.
"But one is still alive. My boy, whom you so generously called a man. You should not regret his blood. It was necessary."
She set her jaw and smiled. "It was," she said. "But I wish it had not been." She shook her head. "Come," she said, and she took his arm in hers. "All is forgiven. You do not trespass." Her fingers tightened in the crook of his arm. "You do not trespass as I do."
Ichigo felt her hovering presence before she touched him—as if each of her fingers vibrated in the air. He stiffened. She put the hand on his shoulder. It curled into his muscle.
"Is—" she began.
"Ichigo! Kuchiki-san!" His friends had burst onto the roof. They swarmed in small groups and Rukia removed her offending appendage and held it in front of her face, flexing it.
"Is what?" Ichigo spat.
"Nothing," she said. Her fingers bent and unbent slowly. She closed her eyes.
"Kuchiki-san! Are you hungry?" Keigo said, and sidled between Rukia and Ichigo. He held up his lunch bag, and Ichigo turned away. "You didn't bring your lunch! Not that you often do..."
"Ah!" Rukia said, smiling suddenly and strangely. "It's a diet! For trim figures!" She gestured at a little arm and pumped it. Ichigo watched her and grimaced. He opened his bento box and slipped a cut daikon into his sour mouth.
"I have extra, Kuckiki-san," Keigo said, and he offered his bag.
"I couldn't!" she said, and she grinned falsely.
"You always have extra," said Mizuiro. He pointed and grinned for Rukia's sake. "This is a pig."
"Oh!" she said and flapped her hand as if amused. Her business, Ichigo thought. Let her be hungry. But he set aside his cucumbers.
"Kuchiki-san," Mizuiro said. "Do you miss your old school?"
"Oh," Rukia said. She set down her textbooks and her silly, girlish veneer slipped. Ichigo saw sad and dripping resignation. He arched his back and leaned away.
"Oh, I didn't mean to pry," Mizuiro said. He bent slightly. His face was flushed.
"No, no!" Rukia said. She straightened and was chipper and bright again. "It is a natural question, Kojima-kun! I was just surprised to be asked so suddenly."
Mizuiro smiled. "You don't have to—"
"There's not much to say about it, really," Rukia said. "In that place—" She caught Ichigo's gaze. "I had so many responsibilities." Her eyes flickered away and her cheeks pinkened. She suddenly beamed. "And I didn't have as many friends as I do now!"
Keigo launched into a wail about the merits of good friends. Mizuiro tried to quiet him. And while Rukia said no more, Ichigo shuffled his cucumbers back and forth.
"I think," the man said, "that I have remembered a little something of myself."
"Oh?" she said.
They stood at the edge of a tipped building. Thin wisps of clouds passed, close enough to touch. She waved at one. It grew heavy and released a small flurry of snowflakes, which fell at her feet and melted. "What is it?"
The man leaned close, though he did not touch her. He whispered three syllables.
She smiled. "Then we are friends," she said. "And we always shall be."
He nodded, and turned away to watch the clouds.
Snow thickened on the fences, the sills, the walkway. His house and all the others around it were grey. Ichigo walked towards it and chafed his bare arms to stave off the cold.
But a woman appeared in his path. He paused to look at her. Her hair was white and she wore a white furisode kimono. She was barely visible in the snow.
"Hey," Ichigo said in a soft voice.
When she didn't answer, he moved closer—to see her face, to check her pulse. She moved suddenly and laughed. The snow was red beneath her. She quieted and turned her head back to the ground. She lapped at the red snow.
When he woke, he sat up in bed. He ran a hand through his hair and looked around the bedroom. The closet door was open. Rukia was watching him. "Problem?" she said.
"No." He glared at her, though he wasn't sure that she could appreciate the full intensity of it in the darkness.
"Then go back to sleep."
"You go back to sleep."
"I will," she said. "In time. What did you dream about?"
He shook his head and made every effort to deepen his scowl. "Why? Interested?"
She did not respond. She only blinked, as if bored. The movement of her eyelids was languid and Ichigo remembered the white face of the woman in his dream. He crossed his arms and settled his elbows on bent knees. He could play cold-shoulder-and-the-silent-treatment, too.
The alarm clock ticked. Rukia's phone pinged. His annoyance grew.
"Well," she said. "It's good that you're awake, anyway. Let's go."
"How your young man distends me!" She rolled a shoulder, stretched her neck. They were forlorn and ugly, these buildings, these panes of unbreakable glass. She frowned. "Do you mind if I comfort myself?"
The man shook his head. "Please," he said.
"The place I come from is just as sharp and as lonely as is all of this," she said. It was an apology. "But it is not quite so glaring. I am—" She waved an arm. Snow began to form the air. "This modernity sometimes befuddles me."
"Ah," he said. He stood next to her. Only a smatter of linen still lay over his shoulder.
"He is very strong," she said. "He might even beat bankai out of you, if he ever figures that much out." She cupped her hand and collected snow in it.
"Do you dislike his manner so?"
"He is brash," she admitted. "He lacks the grace to which I am accustomed." She let the snow fall. It cooled her. "I don't know why I stay here."
"Is that so," the man said. He frowned.
"It's not that I dislike your company, or your friendship," she said. "These are comforts in hard times. But I love my woman. I ache for her company. I wish to return."
"Ah," he said. His frown deepened and he shifted slightly, so that he seemed taller than he was. He plucked the linen from his shoulder. He dropped it. It fell and disappeared into the snow.
She said nothing. Instead, she blinked the snowflakes from her eyelashes.
His jagged cloak splayed outwards in the wind. The raw edges of it caressed the bare back of her neck.
"I wish to return," she said.
The man gave her a weird look.
"Why don't I?" She shook her head. "Why don't I?"
He crouched beside her in the sleety snow. "Do you not see?"
His words were loaded. She opened her mouth and blood dribbled off of her tongue and into the white snow. She was not sure that she wished to understand him. She shut her mouth and sucked her tongue. "What?" she said at last.
"Sode no Shirayuki," he said.
"Zangetsu," she replied, and she felt shame without knowing why. When had he learned her name? A memory? Or—
"I see," he said.
"See," she repeated.
He gestured at her arms. She followed the motion with her eyes. There: the written on white linen. Its ink rubbed off on her kimono, blackening its seams.
She let out a little cry. The linen seemed to constrict.
The man was sad. "I think," he said, "that someone must have known what she was, but wanted her to be human."
The echo of her words seemed like a mockery. She shook her hair about her head.
"Sode no Shirayuki," he said, "did you really not know?"
"It does not matter," she said. The snow ceased. She coughed. Flowers fell from her mouth. "Maybe we will both die."
It was in the afternoon that Rukia paused suddenly on the sidewalk. Commuters bumped her shoulders, and Ichigo—eager to avoid their angry reprimands—grasped her by the wrist and pulled her towards a storefront awning.
"What are you doing?" he hissed as she staggered behind him. "You'll be smashed."
"Ah," she said, and yanked away from his grip. "Maybe I will."
"What?" Ichigo said. He bothered to look at her now, registering the vacant face she wore. When her eyes rolled to him, he blushed. "Whatever. You should thank me now."
"Back there!" he said, and he jerked his thumb. Passers-by gawked at his rudeness but he didn't care.
"Oh," she said.
She still seemed vacant, elsewhere. Ichigo leaned down until he was level with her eyes. "Hey," he said.
"For two months, it makes sense," she said.
"What?" He blushed all the more, now—he could feel the heat of his cheeks rising up into his hair.
"Hmm?" Rukia said, as if becoming awake. "Oh, nothing. Let's go home—I'm hungry and you need to sneak me some snacks. Something sweet, I would think."
He did not want to comment on her weird change in attitude. Instead he scowled. But when her small hand found his elbow, he felt the muscles in his face slacken a bit.
"Hey," she said. "Are you listening to me?"
"Idiot," he said. "That's what I should have said."
The bonds made her sleepy, but she knew better than to close her eyes. There was a tension in the air—she felt its familiar oppressiveness in her marrow. "So," she said. Her shoulders sagged. "So."
The man eyed her covertly, though she caught his glance more than once. His lips were in a thin and wrinkled line. "We must prepare ourselves," he said.
"No," she said. She sighed. "No, you must hide yourself."
She did her best to ignore his pointed look. Some small part of her was frenetic—Rukia, she thought. She knows, also. She will leave without me.
"And—" she began, but bit her tongue. There were things that he would learn in time.
He did not respond.
"What we want to protect and what our shinigami want to protect—sometimes they are the same." She stretched her fingers. "And so I have trespassed."
"You were welcome," he said. His voice was graveled, rough. "That night—you were permitted."
"Ah," she said. "I see, Zangetsu."
"Ah," he said.
The moment became comfortable—like their walks, their shared company. But the tension pulled at her ribs, and she remembered herself. The smile that she had not been aware of dropped from her lips. "You will hide yourself."
He nodded his head. "Ah."
"Yes." He bent and kissed her hair. She did not scold him. His lips were dry on her scalp and then he stood upright and sank into the tilted wall of a tilted building.
The wind rose. It carried the smell of rain and of flowers. She almost laughed.
"Aniki," she said. When he had come, she was not certain. But she thought it best to acknowledge his presence before he considered her silence a slight.
"Don't," he said. His mask did not move, and she wondered whether the same would be true of the face beneath it. "You are overly familiar. I will cut you out. I will not hesitate to break you."
"Ah," she said. She leaned over the tilted wall in a small bow. She could see through the tinted glass—she could see the man's shaded eyes. He looked back at her and his hair obscured his face.
"You are shameful," the newcomer said. "Bound with spells and stupidity."
"Yes," she said. "I think that you should take me back, now."