A/N: This was…supposed to be a drabble. Whoops. Ah, well. How about an IchiRuki without the angst? Any takers? This is much lighter than my previous fare. No more pining! Spoilers for the current anime/manga arcs. Bleach and all its characters belong to Kubo; I just take them out for writing funtimes.
Also, please continue to keep the Japanese people in your thoughts during this difficult time.
Hope you enjoy!
Where are you?
Kuchiki Rukia darts through the crowds in the halls of Karakura High, skirting clusters of giggling girls and the elbows and feet of teenage boys who carelessly, haphazardly dominate the space around them. Periodically she slows to smile and wave at a familiar stranger, but she doesn't stop; the I-transferred-to-another-school-but-came-back-to-visit story will take time, and time is precisely what she can't spare right now.
Her violet eyes scan the hall for familiar, easily-disheveled orange hair. Where are you, Ichigo? All around her, students drain from the building en masse, eager to leave after a hard day of work. She can't find his tall, lean frame or the familiar slope of his shoulders in the crowd, and irrational fear strikes:
What if he's not here?
But then—yes—a glimpse of his hair, there—and Rukia comes to a sudden halt as her eyes soften and she simply looks with quiet wonder at the boy exiting with his schoolbag slung over one shoulder. He is entirely the same and yet utterly different: taller than he used to be, more solemn, with his gaze cast down to the ground. "Ichigo," she whispers, and then, louder: "Ichigo!"
He freezes in place at the sound of her voice.
For long moments he is still, entirely still, his whole being focused and unmoving in the way he only is before a battle, and then he turns, slowly, to look back over his shoulder with searching dark eyes that widen with unabashed surprise at the sight of her. Rukia takes advantage of the opportunity to duck and weave through the crowd, and it's only when she is finally closer, close enough to see herself reflected in his eyes, that she smiles.
And then—as though they haven't been apart for nearly a year, as though their mutual goodbye hadn't hurt them both, as though everything is ordinary and absolutely nothing has changed—Ichigo runs a hand through his hair and says, carefully casual, "Hey, Rukia. It's been a while, huh?"
She wants to kick him.
But then she glimpses the soft and serious set of his mouth, the shadows under his eyes, and the traces of deep unhappiness in his gaze. She's never seen Ichigo look defeated like this, weary and somber and…lonely. The sight makes her ache.
I missed you, too.
But those words are too intimate for the hurt in his eyes and the distance still between them. Self-consciously she tugs at the hem of the dress Ishida made her long ago, a garment she'd lovingly packed away with the rest of her precious Living World mementos. Out loud she explains simply, "This is the first time Soul Society's given me permission to visit."
Not for lack of asking.
Ichigo looks away. "Yeah," he says quietly, and she hears the quiet sorrow in his voice, and the grief, and suddenly she feels like time's skipped back a year and she's looking up at him again as his powers fade, trying to memorize the features of his face while his jaw tenses and his hands curl into fists inside the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt.
Please don't tell me to leave.
She's afraid that he might. It's been over a year, after all, and he is a human now and she is a shinigami and perhaps they are so far apart they won't be able to reach each other any more. Maybe Ichigo won't understand how strict the rules have been, how much bureaucracy she had to endure for even this simple visit, how nii-sama very nearly had to intervene.
Maybe he thinks he doesn't matter.
So she falls silent and wills him to look at her, trusting her violet gaze to speak for her, to say it hurt to be far from you and I thought of you every day and there is a place in my heart that exists only for you. And to her delight, when Ichigo glances up and his gaze meets her own his brown eyes soften. The furrow in his brow eases. "I'm glad," he says finally, that you—"
Keigo rounds the corner with his mouth open on the plaintive cry, but he stumbles to a halt at the sight of the two of them and the name dies on his lips. His features, almost always given to comic, elastic exaggeration, soften as he smiles. And from behind him, Rukia hears other, familiar voices: Mizuiro's cool and even tones, Orihime's laughter, and Ishida's lengthy, calm explanation of a homework assignment.
Not yet, she thinks desperately, not without a little pang of guilt, and sees a familiar sentiment mirrored in Ichigo's eyes. Once friends surround her, she knows, she will be laughing and talking and telling stories until nightfall. Not yet. I just want to see you alone. It's been so long. I just want to see you.
To her surprise, Keigo gives them one more glance—
—and then purposely looks beyond them, his eyes scanning the crowd. Go, the gesture means, hurry, I never saw you, and before Rukia can move or think Ichigo's long fingers close around her wrist and he tugs her forward.
"C'mon," he mutters, and she—caught by surprise, stumbling a few steps before she catches up and smacks him in the shoulder as a reminder not to do that again—follows him blindly through the narrow hallways of the school, into branching corridors that lead them farther and farther away from their mutual friends.
A voice she doesn't recognize—another friend or acquaintance undoubtedly—threatens to interrupt their escape. Rukia sighs, ready to give up, but Ichigo, operating on instinct and reflexes honed as a shinigami, takes the first right he sees and tugs her with him into a supply closet, closing the door behind them and leaning against it with a sigh. The small, enclosed space is dark and warm like his closet at home; Rukia glances around at shelves stacked with paper and blank school forms and decides instantly that she likes this place.
Then she stomps on his foot. "What do you think you're doing, dragging me around like that?"
Ichigo grunts and mumbles a curse, but his dark eyes hold good humor. "I just wanted a few seconds to think," he grumbles good-naturedly. "Geez." But Rukia, because she can read between his words, understands and shares the unspoken sentiment:
I wanted to keep you to myself for a little while.
A sweetly awkward silence falls as they avoid looking at each and instead examine the walls. She thinks that, probably, they should be talking. There's certainly a lot to say—about Soul Society, and how Renji's working his way to a captaincy, and what they've both been doing in this year apart—but in this small space they're close, pressed up against each other and sharing warmth in between walls of shelves, and Rukia feels suddenly that the pounding of her own heart might shatter her. She can't think of words, and she reaches out—
—to push him away, she tells herself, to gain her bearings—
—but her hands find his shoulders, instead, fingers gripping the rough fabric of his school uniform. He's taller, she realizes with some surprise, and the small revelation—another crushing reminder of how far apart they've been—threatens to overwhelm her. All the longing and hurt of missing him all this time floods through her restraint; she closes her eyes and tries to breathe through sudden and belated grief.
A heartbeat passes, and then Ichigo's arms are around her, strong and warm, and though he's held her before—atop the Sougyouku he hefted her tiny frame as though it weighed nothing, after all—this is different: an embrace simply for the sake of intimacy. Rukia relaxes into his arms and feels him give a little sigh that sounds relieved; his arms tighten around her.
She finds his heartbeat comforting and rests her head against his chest within the protection of an embrace that nearly bruises. He's still strong, she thinks, and the thought brings relief, because that strength means that he hasn't given up hope entirely. We'll figure everything out, Ichigo, she wants to say, but when she tries to look up at him his hand cups the back of her head and keeps her still.
Why don't you want me to look into your eyes?
Rukia wants to ask because she can sense the intensity of his longing, but before she can form words his warm lips ghost lightly over her temple and steal her voice. Her violet eyes widen. The touch is light enough to be accidental—so light that they can pretend it never happened, or that it's an entirely unintentional result of being crammed into this tiny space—but she knows that it isn't, and her fingers curl helplessly into the fabric of his school uniform as he does it again, leaning down so that his lips skim her cheek in a bare kiss-that-isn't, all warm breath and careful hesitancy.
She doesn't push him away.
Instead, she reaches up for his casually-disheveled hair, slides seeking fingers into the warm strands. His heart is beating quickly and it occurs to her dimly that there isn't anywhere near enough air in the room, but she doesn't pull back. They simply breathe together in the silence, holding each other, and it's only after several moments—moments counted in the sound of Ichigo's breathing as she strokes his hair—that he manages a husky, choked, "Rukia."
Rukia pulls back enough to look up at him.
And there, in those dark brown eyes, she sees everything he's tried to hide from everyone over the course of a long and almost unendurable separation: naked longing mingled with sorrow and regret and despair and resentment. The sight hurts her; she's never been able to distance herself from his suffering.
I'm so sorry, Ichigo.
But when she opens her mouth to say it—to offer meager comfort at best—his gaze softens. "It's okay," he says easily in response to the sorrow in her eyes, with the firm conviction that Ichigo always has when he intends to make something okay whether it is or not. "It's okay."
Somehow, she believes him.
Because even if Soul Society is closed to him, even if Zangetsu is beyond his reach, right now nothing is missing from his soul or hers. They're together, together for the first time in a very long time, and Ichigo…well, Ichigo can do anything. And if he says it's going to be okay, then it will be, because Ichigo's will is almost unbreakable. I always liked that about you, Rukia thinks, and the thought—or perhaps her proximity to him and the warmth of his body pressed against her own—makes her blush; when she looks up at Ichigo she thinks maybe he is blushing too, though the darkness makes it hard to tell.
Ichigo smiles then.
The rare sight scatters her thoughts; she can't breathe when he looks at her that way, his whole face alight with boyish happiness. And it's at times like these—when she is the subject of his intense gaze and focused attention—that he seems most like a shinigami to her: strong, protective, resolute. Tentative and yet confident, with clarity in his warm brown eyes and that smile still curving his lips, he hesitates awkwardly before leaning down—a merciless pause that makes her breath catch and her fingers tighten in his shirt—and claiming her mouth with his.
Nii-sama, Rukia thinks wildly as her eyes close and Ichigo's lips meet her own, will not be pleased with this.
But she doesn't want to stop and so she doesn't stop, because she has dreamed of kissing Ichigo many, many times and this is so much better than dreaming, because her dreams could never mimic this: the scent of him, the feel of his disheveled hair beneath her fingers, the way his hands cautiously cup her face—as though she is precious, as though she is somehow unreal to him still—and the warmth of his mouth against hers, the way their tongues touch, the gentle exploration of it that makes her breath catch and leaves her dizzy.
You, she thinks helplessly, because her senses are filled with nothing but him, with his scent and his warmth and the taste of his mouth, you're so special, Ichigo. And she trusts her mouth and the way her hands trace his shoulders to say what words cannot: I cherish your heart. His earnest desire to protect, his kindness, his stubborn will to make the world a better place…these things can't be taken from him, can't be sacrificed. His heart is what she will always love about him, what she will never forget, what anchors them to each other in spite of time and distance and separate worlds.
I need you like I need to breathe.
And it's the need for breath, eventually, that separates them. The kiss breaks gently, naturally, and Ichigo blinks, hair disheveled by her seeking fingers and his dark eyes heavy-lidded with desire. Unsure of what to say, he scratches his head and glances awkwardly to the side, and Rukia hides a smile. Oh, Ichigo. He's a walking contradiction, an impossible paradox: the calm and collected shinigami—who, at his height, surpassed the soutaichou—is boyishly unsure of himself in spite of all his bluntness, is hesitant and handsome and human.
Rukia likes all of it, likes everything about him.
And for now, this moment belongs to them. The small supply closet is warm and safe; the voices outside have dimmed and disappeared. Rukia closes her eyes as she tries to catch her breath and savors the lingering memory of his warm mouth on hers, the strength and gentleness in his touch, the feel of him beneath her hands.
Then she punches him in the shoulder. Hard.
"Damn it, Rukia!" Startled out of his awkward silence, Ichigo scowls instantly and rubs his aching shoulder as he sets himself up to block any more incoming attacks. The comforting familiarity of his response warms her, anchors them both to each other in this new and unfamiliar world of intense and aching tenderness. "That hurts—"
She stomps on his foot for good measure and fixes him with a glare. "You don't kiss a girl in a closet, Ichigo! That's not how it's done." Another stomp. "You have to do it properly. Nii-sama could tell you. Nii-sama knows everything—"
A scuffle ensues. And somewhere between the punches and kicks and grappling and Ichigo insulting her drawing and calling nii-sama by his first name Rukia realizes they are both smiling, almost laughing, and Ichigo's grip on her wrists gentles into a near-caress as his thumbs rub at the vulnerable underside of sensitive skin.
The touch disarms her more efficiently than Zangetsu might have, and she stills.
"Oi," Ichigo says quietly, "Rukia." And though he tries to hide the hurt and loss in his gaze, she can see the memories of the past year reflected there, the sudden stark loneliness and pain, the desperate need for answers, for certainty. He pauses, then asks, careful and casual: "Can you stay a while? I mean, I know you're probably here on a mission, but Yuzu and Karin would probably like to see you, and—"
She steps forward into the circle of his arms, rests her forehead against his chest, and smiles when she feels his arms tighten around her again. "I didn't come here on a mission," she explains simply. "I came to see you."
The tension drains from his shoulders. "Good," he says roughly, voice husky with all the emotions he won't name. "That's good." And he sounds happier, but he doesn't release her and she's glad that he doesn't. The outside world can wait, Rukia thinks, and so she doesn't stir from her place nestled against him and simply breathes him in.
No matter what separates us, I'll always find a way to get to you.