Roadmaps- Sometimes the only way to get to your destination is to stumble around blindly in the dark with your hands held out in front of you.
The theme for myself was 'more than friends, less than lovers'.
A/N: A gift from me to you, for welcoming me so warmly into the Bleach fandom! Wishing you all a Happy New Year, and luck on your own journeys as we begin 2012.
Thanks to everyone who keeps reading my stuff, putting me on favorites, alerts lists, and leaving reviews. Kind words and harsh criticisms are ALL appreciated. In particular I would like to thank Vera Rozalsky, who lets me beta for her original fiction, even though I never fail to live up to my penname! Thank you SO much!
Timeline: Post- Bleach speculation.
Warnings: Fluff. Some cursing.
Standard Disclaimer: Bleach is solely the property of Kubo Tite, and I am merely borrowing his playground.
Graduating high school was like the end of an era. As one last hurrah before everyone went their separate ways, all the human friends decided to take a trip together to camp in the northern reaches of Hokkaido where there were hot springs, beautiful lakes, and pristine forests.
Rukia wasn't really sure what this 'camping' was, but the trip seemed to mean so much to the group of human friends and would go a long way towards repairing the bonds that were sullied and broken in the basest of ways.
Chad, Orihime, and Ishida had been kind enough to extend the invitation to Rukia, having long considered her part of their inner circle, even though she was from the other side of the veil that separated the world of the living and the dead. Rukia was glad that she was able to go and the happiness of being included in their group warmed her more than she would ever let on.
Ishida, ever the loner, decided to take a flight and meet everyone there. Tatsuki had gotten her license the same time as Ichigo and wanted to drive, so Orhihime went with her to keep her company. Where Orihime was, Chizuru was sure to follow.
Chad, Keigo, and Mizuiro decided it was not worth sacrificing their sanity to catch a ride with the three girls, so they took Mizuiro's sporty car instead. There wasn't enough room to seat more than three people comfortably, so Ichigo decided to take his dad's car with Rukia accompanying him. Strangely, though they offered, no one wanted to carpool with them either.
After they waved goodbye to Isshin from the driveway, they were off.
"Ichigo," Rukia asks, tugging at the claustrophobic seatbelt, "why can't we do flash step instead? We could get there in no time."
"Who's going to carry all this stuff?" he says, jabbing his thumb towards the back seat and trunk of the car.
Rukia crosses her arms and gives him a look seems to say- You are.
"I'm not your pack mule, Rukia," Ichigo drawls.
"Most of that stuff isn't mine," she points out.
"Yeah it is, you just don't know it," he mutters under his breath. "Besides," he continues smiling a bit, "a road trip is part of the fun. You get to see more of the countryside. There is a lot more to Japan than just Karakura. It's really...a beautiful place. You'll see."
"Ichigo..." she trails off. Ichigo parses his words carefully. For every word he speaks, there were always two or three that never left his mouth, but she hears them anyway.
Guilt shoots through her as she glances at him, studies his profile as he keeps his eyes on the road ahead. I'm sorry, she thinks, even though she doesn't say it. Words aren't ever adequate enough to express the kind of things she wants to say to him.
His brows crinkle up in a frown. "What's with that stupid expression?"
"What are you babbling about?" Rukia frowns, inclining her head and directing her gaze out the passenger side window.
"You do know that I can see you out of the corner of my eye."
"If you can see me, then you're not watching the road are you? What a bad driver you are!" Rukia exclaims theatrically as she watches the trees fly by in a blur.
"Hmph. Shut up."
"Your comebacks are just the height of wit these days," Rukia smirks at her reflection in the glass.
"Whose fault is it that I'm out of practice?" he returns quietly.
Rukia presses her lips together as her nails bite into the palm of her hand. There are some things they don't talk about and her absence is one of them.
The sounds of the wind whipping outside the car, and the road under the tires, was as loud as the sound of silence between them. Beside her, Ichigo's steady hands directed the steering wheel subtly, following the curves of the highway.
"Hey Rukia," he says with determination, "we're going to have fun, fun okay?"
He turns and holds her eyes for a moment before focusing back on the road. "You know how do that, don't you?" he says, softly teasing.
Give us this moment, his brief gaze seems to say. And Rukia was never more aware of the fact that Ichigo stands on a precipice, with one foot in each world, neither here nor there, getting pulled in two directions. He will no longer have any choice but to choose and it won't matter what he choses because either way is going to be a long goodbye. Sometimes life is unfair. So is death, maybe even more so because death is indiscriminate and unavoidable. She knows, having been its agent for so long.
"Fool," she says softly, with eyes downcast. "Or course I know how to have fun. I've been having fun long before you were born," she snorts. It's a patent lie, but he doesn't call her out on it.
Being a passenger in a car is something Rukia has no experience of, and so it is with great interest that she watches Ichigo fiddle with the controls and knobs. He had taught her how to work the radio dials, but his patience only allows for thirty minutes of classical music before he commandeers the radio.
Rukia is sure that Ichigo would probably set the radio to one of those caterwauling modern music stations that she so detests, but interestingly enough he settles on jazz. These days he's full of surprises. In those seventeen months of separation and absence he had grown into a young man. It's the kind of growing that happens best in those in-between moments.
"Ichigo, don't you think you're driving a little slow?" she teases.
She watches with amusement as his brows knit together in his trademark scowl and knows him well enough to know that he is often less irritated than his expressions let on.
"I'm going the speed limit," he says flatly.
"You're getting passed by little old ladies," she remarks. "It will take forever for us to get there at this rate."
"Why don't you stop being noisy," he says tossing a map towards her, "And start being useful."
They are about an hour into their trip, headed to the northern tip of the country when Rukia decides to ask a question that has been on her mind since the beginning of the ride.
"Ichigo, what is this camping?" she asks, tapping her fingers against her knees. Being in the car makes her jittery, and the seatbelt is constricting.
Ichigo sputters disbelievingly. "You...you didn't know what it was and you still came along?"
"It sounded fun. Now tell me what this tradition is," she demands.
Ichigo groans and claps a hand to his face. He sounds like he can't decide whether he's more exasperated or amused. Amusement wins out and he finally lets out a soft chuckle.
"You're unbelievable," he drawls as he gives her a sidelong glance. He then goes on to explain what camping is.
"Ah, like what Renji and I used to do in Rukongai!" says Rukia, feeling pleased at her quick understanding. They too, used to pitch rough tents and sleep in the outdoors when there were no empty shacks to spend the night in.
Ichigo's hands clench the wheel in a white knuckled grip. "No...not like that...there'll be lots of food, and places to cook, places to shower, hot springs..." He looks at her, and she sees a thread of worry in his eyes. "Do you still want to go?" he asks roughly.
Rukia smiles reassuringly. "I haven't done anything like this since my adoption into the Kuchiki clan." She pauses recalling those memories that now have a sepia tone of age to them. "In those days, that was the best kind of fun that could be had in Rukongai."
"Ah," he quietly replies with a neutral face, but Rukia can read the sudden relaxation in the tense set of his broad shoulders. He is as endearingly transparent as he has always been.
The road signs, dotted lines on the pavement, and trees pass by in a colorful blur. It's like flashstep, except her body isn't keeping up with her mind's perception of movement... and she's not in control.
She looks down at the map Ichigo had handed her earlier. These human maps with their delineations and boundaries, with their squiggly lines and numbered markers mean nothing to her. Neither did human reckoning of time. Nothing of the living world is constant or solid to a god of death. Those from the other side of the veil pass through bricks and mortar as if they were insubstantial as mist. Death gods too, when not living in false bodies were no more substantial to most humans than air and memory. When Rukia closes her eyes, she can feel the soft brush of Ichigo's reiatsu pulsing steadily against hers. If there was one thing she could depend on being a constant...
"How much longer?" Rukia asks as she stares at the passing scenery.
"Six hours, maybe a bit more," Ichigo answers glancing over.
"That long? You didn't tell me this!" Rukia crosses her arms frowning.
"You never asked! And why are you complaining? I'm the one driving," he says scowling into the distance.
"...you're right," she says turning to stare out the window again.
"Hey," he says nudging her with his elbow, "what's wrong?"
"Nothing," Rukia murmurs absently.
Ichigo scrutinizes her face out of the corner of his eye. "Rukia...you don't get motion sickness, do you?"
"...of course not, I'm a shinigami." Her voice is laced with mild annoyance.
Thirty minutes later...
"Stop the car, Ichigo!"
Rukia leans on the side of the car with her hands on her knees, taking big gulps of fresh air. Iron-clad control, sheer stubbornness, and pride keep her from actually loosing her stomach contents, but it was a near thing. The panic on Ichigo's face was priceless, though, and she would be laughing if she didn't think there was a good chance the snacks she consumed at the last rest area revisiting her from the opposite direction.
Ichigo makes his way around the car with a bottle water in hand. "Shinigami don't get motion sickness, huh?" he remarks as he hands her the bottle.
Rukia kicks him. "If you tell anyone about this, I'll kill you," she threatens weakly.
"Ow, Rukia! It's not my fault you got car sick!"
"I didn't! It was this false body. There's no way I could get motion sickness. How would I have been able to manage flashsteps? I must have eaten something bad." Rukia huffs, feeling thoroughly betrayed by her body.
Ichigo rolls his eyes as he leans beside her against the car door. "Right. Just keep telling yourself that." He watches her quietly as she tips the water bottle back.
She meet his eyes, their rich brown color is deep and clear, each emotion written clearly for her to see. "Quit worrying," she says closing her eyes.
"Like I would worry about you," he scoffs.
Rukia smirks slyly. "I said quit worrying...I didn't say anything about me."
Red color creeps across his summer tanned cheeks. "You...!" he sputters running a hand through his hair, pausing to compose himself. "Whatever you say, Rukia. It's ok to admit to a weakness. Everyone has them. Gotta say though, you're the last person I'd expect to get motion sickness."
His insufferably smug look elicits a compulsion in her to stomp on his toes. "And what might your weakness be? I mean aside from being a fool, inability to manage the simplest kido, general recklessness, and a tendency to leap before you look?"
"Funny," he says in a dry voice, as he raises one eyebrow, "you're a regular comedian."
"I try," Rukia grins. "You give me so much material to work with."
Ichigo ignores her light jab and gives her a mysterious smile. "What are my weaknesses...wouldn't you want to know?"
"I would," Rukia answers honestly. Ichigo is strong...perhaps the strongest in all of Soul Society, but not unbeatable. No one is ever unbeatable.
"Too bad. I'm not telling you," he says crossing his arms. "Besides, you already know most of them."
"Do I?" Rukia wonders whether that is true.
"Any more would just be unfair." Ichigo pushes himself off the car, stretching. "Think you can make it to the next rest area? We can get something for your motion sickness."
Rukia tosses the half empty bottle of water between her hands menacingly.
"...I mean for your food poisoning," he amends quickly.
"Look out the front and not the side windows. You'll feel better that way," Ichigo instructs as they get back into the car. "Just focus on the road ahead."
"Easier said than done," Rukia says quietly.
Ichigo's shoulders stiffen. "I know," he answers.
Vacations for Gotei 13 lieutenants are hard to come by, but her captain is a kind and lenient man. In fact, when she had asked for a vacation, Captain Ukitake had practically pushed her out of a senkaimon gate into the living world.
"I suppose I have been working really hard lately," she muses to her reflection after she had splashed some water on her face. A girl with pale skin, short dark hair and serious eyes stare back at her. Outwardly, nothing has changed save the style of her hair. Inwardly though...that's a different story.
She has experienced that rare taste of accomplishment one gets when they surpass their own limits, exceeding every expectation that they had ever had for themselves. Rukia braces her hands against the cool porcelain edge of the sink and closes her eyes. All her life, she had merely existed. She had been asked to devote herself to duty, to kill, and to die, but no one, not even herself, had asked her to live. No one, except Ichigo, who demanded it. By all rights, and odds, she should have died on that hill. But on that day, when her last moments should have been the sight of a giant firebird against the backdrop of a cloudless summer sky, he had stood before her, held off the fires of execution with the unmatched brilliance of his soul, and demanded that she live, not for anyone else's sake, but for her own.
And here she now stands, hammered upon the anvil of heartbreak and despair, tempered through the heat of battle, like a sword reforged and made anew, stronger than ever. Looking back, she never would have guessed, not even in her wildest dreams that she would have made it to lieutenant. Who would have thought that a chance meeting with a stranger with brilliant hair, a deep scowl, and hidden kindness in his heart, would set her on this path, this journey, with this destination?
She is grateful, and so very thankful to have met Ichigo. Because they met, she was able to find her place in the world, form and strengthen bonds with so many wonderful people who have enriched her life, and discover the true strength that lies within herself. The strength that allows her to protect those dear to her heart, the strength that allows her to stand and fight beside Ichigo, and to lend him a shoulder should he ever falter a step.
Ichigo is waiting for her outside the restrooms, slouched against the wall, hands shoved in his pockets, hood up over his hair, eyes closed as if sleeping.
Rukia takes a moment to study him. Over 17 months of static silence on both ends, and during that time...he had grown and changed. The subtle changes to his jawline, the light stubble on his chin and cheeks tell it all.
Blink and you might miss it, she thinks.
What used to be a hint, a promise of strength and power in his once reedy body has now been fulfilled. Not only has he grown a little taller, but the span of his shoulders are wider. He looks sturdy and rough, all sharp lean lines and hard angles. But inwardly, the substance of his soul remains the same, only he's a little wiser now. Just a little. And a little less carefree than he used to be, but that comes with the territory. His orange bangs spill out from under his hoodie, shadowing his eyes, but even so, she can see the dark circles underneath.
This is a brief respite, a grace period in which Soul Society has allowed Ichigo time to come to a decision. The mantle of authority granted to him by his birthright is his to take if he wants, but there is no room for him to be both human and shinigami. And maybe there never really was, and maybe all this time he spent, shuttling back and forth between worlds was borrowed on the clock. That borrowed time is now running out, and each second will be cherished and lingered over like the sweetly aching memories of childhood summers long gone, or the thin white puckered trophies of battles, strewn haphazardly over her body.
Whatever choice he makes, she wants it to be the best of all outcomes. She has always wanted the best for him, much as he has always wanted to protect her. But, she wonders if he wants the best for himself too. She wonders because Ichigo fights for others, always, and hardly ever for himself.
She brushes her cool reiatsu against his, and between one heartbeat and the next, Ichigo's eyes blink open and when he sees her, he straightens up and smiles. Just a subtle upward curl at the corner of his mouth that others would easily miss. "I was beginning to think you got lost and I'd have to send out a search party."
"Hardly. I am well-versed in the ways of the living world," Rukia said crossing her arms and nodding sagely. "In Soul Society, I am considered an expert!"
Ichigo snorts, gaze amused and challenging. "Right. An expert...who didn't even know what camping was."
"That is advanced, even for me, you fool! You should know that the Academy was interested in hiring me as an instructor for Living World Studies," she says, full of pride.
"God help them," Ichigo mutters.
For that impudent comment, Rukia treats him to an elbow to the side.
Rukia looks over her shoulder at Ichigo.
"What d'you want? Just get it," he says gruffly.
She slides open a glass door to a cooler holding a variety of brightly colored liquid contained within translucent glass. Her small hand hovers over the bottles before deliberately plucking one out. She hands it off to him.
"Oronamin C, energy drink," he reads aloud raising one eyebrow. "You finally branching out from juice boxes?"
Rukia grins cheekily, shaking her head as she dumps a couple of juice packs in his arms.
"Of course not," he mutters, rolling his eyes good-naturedly.
As he pays at the register, Rukia's eyes flicker back and forth, scanning the area. Habit, she supposes, but it has come in useful from time to time.
"Ichigo, I am tired," she pronounces, as they make their way out of the rest area complex.
"So sleep in the car," Ichigo says, half turning as he hefts the bag of snacks and drinks over his shoulder.
"I don't want to sleep in the car," Rukia says, coming to a stop and planting her hands on her hips. "I would like to stretch my legs."
"So stretch them in the car," he says carelessly.
Rukia glowers at his back. "I'm going to kick you," she threatens.
There's a pause, and when he turns around, his eyes are amused. "Sorry, but you're gonna to have to wait 'till we get to the car," he drawls.
Rukia makes good on her threat, though delivered with only half the shin-shattering strength than she would have normally used. "Do you enjoy provoking me? Or do you enjoy getting kicked? I can't tell."
"You really gotta ask? You know the answer to that," he says with a low laughing lilt to his voice, a crooked half-smile curving his lips up, and dark eyes that gleam with humor, and a host of other things.
There are lots of things that they can't say, not right now anyway, not while she's stuck in eternity, and he's still changing, still in transit, still neither here nor there, not really dead nor alive. Rukia blinks and looks away. "You are a fool," she murmurs. "I'm not ready to get back in the car. Not yet."
The furrow in between his brows soften somewhat, as he clasps a hand to the back of his neck. "Alright," he grumbles nodding his head towards some benches, "c'mon."
"Weren't you in a hurry to get to the campsite?" he tosses over his shoulder.
Rukia smiles. "Didn't you say there was no reason to rush?" she retorts. "We are on leave so we may as well enjoy it," she adds softly.
Ichigo situates himself comfortably on one of the benches and stifles a yawn with the back of his hand. "Oi, don't wander off to where I can't find you."
Rukia nods once in assent though she knows that he can easily find her by reiatsu. There is no denying he is good at it, and there is no place in this world or any of the others that she can go where he cannot find her. She has told him not to worry about her, repeatedly (with kicks and punches, and sharp words), but in the way of sheer obstinacy that is classic Ichigo, he does it anyway. Though now he does it with enough tact that it doesn't embarrass her horribly or insult her pride as a warrior. Even now, his reiatsu reaches out and brushes reassuringly against hers, the way experienced shinigami seek out their friends in the midst of a heated battle. Only he does it unconsciously, and though she would never admit it, so does she.
Rukia wanders around the rest area, watching the cars come and go. She glides by silent and inconspicuous among people who never seem to see her, the slip of a girl with wide eyes sharpened with just a touch too much curiosity. She watches the people go by, mothers pushing babies around in strollers, men and women laughing and talking. She wanders amongst them feeling like a cheat and a fraud in the false body of hers.
She walks around examining the contraptions and wonders of the modern world, like the coffee machine that automatically dispenses a perfect cup (how does it know when to stop?), the neat perfectly packaged food items, and the bright letters and flashing neon signs of advertisements. She feels perfectly out of place. The living world is bright. Much more so than Soul Society. Its clean edges cut, engrave, and bite deep into the memory. To Rukia, it all pales in comparison to one thing.
When she heads back over to the benches, she is unsurprised to see that Ichigo is asleep. He sleeps with his head thrown back, mouth slightly parted, tendons of his neck relaxed. His arms span the back of the bench and his reiatsu crests and troughs like sea tide, laps up against hers gently, pulls at her like waves of warm salt water. He's only napping lightly. It's strange, how much you can learn of a person's sleeping habits just by living in their closet for some months.
She slips quietly into the bench across from him and stares at the flat top of the table. Absently, she traces a line down the weathered length of grey brown wood composite, bisecting the table into two discrete halves with the tip of her index finger, a line between them. There are lines and then there are Lines. She draws her hand up to her mouth and presses her thumbnail hard against her lips. She will not ask him; she has no right to it, Rukia reminds herself sternly. It is not her right to ask, but his right to tell, so she waits.
She fishes an energy drink out of the bag and nudges it across the midline of the table. And then she leans her head back against the bench, closes her eyes, and waits. Somewhere north of her stomach and south of her throat sits a hot coal.
The route that Ichigo has planned follows along the western coastline, an area of rugged mountains and dark pines. They stop to take a detour to a scenic look out on Mt. Hakusan, and then later they drive past Mt. Tate.
"Mt. Fuji is also one of the three holy mountains, but it's off to the south east. Well, two out of three- not bad. Maybe we'll see it on the way back." Ichigo explains as Mt. Tate recedes in the rearview mirror.
"I'm surprised. You're really good at this," Rukia murmurs. It's not often that she compliments him, and when his eyes flicker over to her, she sees that they're warm with appreciation.
A sly expression slips across her face. What's a compliment without some playful needling? "You're a good tour guide. Maybe you should look into that as a possible career?"
"Ha, ha, funny. You're killing me today. I think you're more suited to waving a flag and bossing people around," he says scowling at her, without any real heat. There's half a beat of silence before he says, "Just because I haven't said anything, doesn't mean I don't know what I want to do with my life." His voice is strong and vibrant, full of certainty.
"Oh really? I thought that you were just clueless," Rukia says trying to keep her voice light. Her hands close in on themselves in her lap, nails biting into her palms.
"Tch, I'm not that clueless Rukia. I know it's best to stick to my strengths." He doesn't elaborate further and she doesn't ask.
A couple of detours here and there, and the whole day has slipped away. It is now dark.
She wishes Ichigo could get the best of both worlds, because he is the best of both worlds. He is human and shinigami, and embodies the best qualities of both. But because he straddles the divide between life and death, he must make a choice. It's not fair that he must exchange one-half of his heritage for the other. She feels that in having to make a choice, something precious might be stolen from him. She wonders if he feels the same.
"Oi Rukia, what's the next exit number?" Ichigo's question jars her out of her thoughts.
"Let me see," she says scanning the map frantically.
A couple of exits whizz by in a flash of brightly colored signs. "453 East!" Rukia shouts.
Ichigo sighs. "Too late!"
"Dammit," Rukia swears, throwing down the map disgustedly, slumping into the seat, and crossing her arms.
"You're a terrible navigator," Ichigo laughs.
"Shut up," she grunts, pouting a bit. "I got us this far. You can always turn around and go back," she suggests.
"No," he says with a strange note in his voice. "I kind of like this. We're still headed north so we'll see where this road takes us."
"Why don't you navigate and I drive?" Rukia asks.
Even from the side, she can see him rolling his eyes. "That's an even worse suggestion. For starters, you don't have a license." He pauses and looks over at her. "For another, would you be able to see over the wheel?"
Rukia's face darkens under his scrutiny and she frowns. "You're teasing me."
"No, I mean that as an honest question. Can you see over the steering wheel? I'm thinking you could use a booster seat..."
"Very funny, idiot," she says, punching him lightly on the arm.
"Hey! Don't mess with the driver," he says grinning unrepentantly.
Headlights of passing cars flash by them one after another. She keeps her eyes straight ahead, peering into the dark and trying to make out what was approaching in the distance. As they continue the drive, Rukia sits silently ill at ease and it takes her a moment to recognize the source those uneasy feelings.
She has lived all her childhood under constant threat of starvation, in the filth and squalor, and grinding poverty of the Inuzuri district. There are no maps there, in the lawless outer districts of the Rukongai, just landmarks. That's how she and Renji got by, with landmarks and street savvy, always having a route and a destination in mind. They're in this vehicle, hurtling through the dark unknown at high speeds. Not knowing how they will get to where they want to go...is a bit daunting.
"Hey," Ichigo nudges her arm with the tip of his elbow. "You worried that we're lost?"
It's as if he reads her mind sometimes. Is that what she's worried about? Rukia wonders that maybe it is, but that doesn't seem right either. "Should I worry?" she asks.
His hands are loose and easy on the steering wheel. "We're not, so relax. I have a general idea where we're going, it's just different than what we had planned."
"Funny," Rukia says wryly, "that's the very thing people says when they get lost."
He makes an exasperated noise in the back of his throat. "We're going in the right direction, and that's all that matters. It's called winging it. Not like you've never done things on the fly."
"Unlike you, I play by the book," Rukia says, tilting her chin up haughtily.
"Oh, I can think of a couple of times when you didn't..." His lips quirk upwards.
Rukia arches one fine eyebrow. "And yet strangely, you're always somehow involved."
"Heh, damn right." The corners of his mouth curl into a grin and the flash of his teeth cut through the dark. There is an edge of pride to his sharp smile.
It's fun, their back and forth banter. It has the comfortable and familiar feel of easy camaraderie. "Idiot," she huffs, rolling her eyes. "You're lucky you met me, any other shinigami..."
He shakes his head and leans back in the seat, grasping the wheel loosely with one hand. "If meeting you was lucky, then what would you call unlucky?"
"Meeting you, obviously," she jokes without missing a beat. "Look where that got me."
"Hey, I saved your ass didn't I?" he says lightly. "You were lucky to meet me after all."
She is. Though, she'll never admit it aloud. "I saved you more," she returns.
"Yeah," Ichigo says quietly, "you did." His eyes catch the soft glow of the dashboard and they gleam dark and warm. "It doesn't matter how we get there as long as we get there, right?" Ichigo says confidently after a beat of silence. And there's nothing like simple camaraderie in the lingering sidelong glance he gives her.
It ignites a slow heat that spreads across Rukia's skin and the feeling it evokes is the same she gets when she wanders into unfamiliar territory with no map in hand. Rukia closes her eyes and leans her head back against the headrest.
"Oi, Rukia...wake up." Something is shaking her by the shoulders. She starts awake and on instinct her left hand darts out in a quick fist as her right reaches for her blade-that-isn't-there.
"Fuck," Ichigo swears rubbing his jaw. "Do you have to do that every time?"
"What do you think you're doing, hovering over me like that! No respect for personal space! A simple tap would have sufficed." Rukia snaps. Old habits die hard.
He rolls his eyes. "I tried a simple tap, but you kept snoring away."
"I do not snore!" Rukia's eyes are wide with consternation.
Ichigo leans in, grinning. "Believe what you will." And then he rubs his cheek, giving her a wide-eyed wounded puppy look. It's fake of course, and Rukia knows it. These days he heals at an amazingly fast rate.
"God, I forget you hit harder than half the guys in the Gotei," he complains. "I think you broke my jaw."
"Stop exaggerating," she says. "And come here," she adds as an afterthought, even though the hidden compliment pleases her. She does hit hard. Maybe not harder than half the guys in all thirteen squads, but hard enough. She's a lieutenant after all and part of that means she must be able to defend her position against people who would challenge her.
The power of healing kido hums through her hand as she skates her fingers lightly up his jawline to his cheek.
"You never take it easy on me," Ichigo mutters low in his throat with eyes closed against the glow of the spell.
"You're such a whiner," she retorts under her breath.
"Better now?" Her fingers skim over the smooth plane and warm skin of his cheekbone, lingering just a moment too long.
It's perhaps a mistake, because he leans almost imperceptibly into her hand that rests lightly over his cheek.
"Yep, all better now," he says softly, warm breath caressing against the delicate skin on the inside of her wrist. His eyes are half-lidded and dark, nearly unreadable. And he's too close. Much too close. She retracts her hand and leans back.
"Wimp," she says, not liking the weakness in her voice, the near shakiness of it.
It's not that she lacks self-awareness as Renji often accuses her. And it's not that she's stupid or oblivious. Like any proper Kuchiki, Rukia picks and chooses what to acknowledge and what to ignore. She is not unaware of what Soul Society says behind her, no both their backs when she defends Ichigo so vehemently. They haven't the courage to voice their sordid implications to her face, or to Ichigo's.
They are more than friends, but not lovers, not in the way people think they are. From the moment her blade pierced his heart, from the moment their powers touched and sparked off each other, and maybe even before then, something deep and indefinable connected and tied them together in unbreakable bonds. It's the kind of thing that keeps from one lifetime to the next. It thrums under the surface of everything they do, and it's something else that they don't talk about. It is unknown territory.
She feels rather than sees his eyes on her and in the dark, she can't easily make out the lines of his face. The air in the car presses hot against her and so do the words inside her chest. Rukia takes a deep, steady breath. "Are we there yet?" she asks, turning her head and glancing out the windows.
"Almost," Ichigo answers. "I figured we may as well stop and see some of the local places. There's a real famous lake around here."
"What's there to see?" Rukia murmurs, as she peers out into the murky pre-dawn darkness.
Ichigo doesn't immediately reply. Instead, he reaches over her knees and opens the glove compartment, pulling out a flashlight. He flicks it on and off experimentally, shaking and smacking it against the heel of his hand until the light flickers on. He grins and his dark eyes gleam in the light. "No idea. Let's find out."
Ichigo leads her up a gravel trail that goes up a rocky embankment. He's light on his feet and gracefully sure of himself, even in the dark. His long-legged gait takes him up just a little faster.
The pebbles crunch and slide under Rukia's sensible flat shoes as she makes her way up the steep incline and her skirt brushes against the skin of her calves.
"What's the hurry Ichigo? Is this lake going to dry up soon?" Rukia grouses as she pushes herself to match his pace. For once, he's more enthusiastic to get somewhere than she is.
He doesn't say a word but he slows down and waits patiently, sweeping the beam of light in her path. When he gets to the apex, he extends a hand to her.
Rukia focuses a heavy narrow-eyed gaze at him, and considers swatting his hand away, as she might have done if it were anyone else offering. In a culture like Soul Society, where one can move up by defeating their superiors, any show of weakness at all is simply unaffordable, but when she looks up at his face, he isn't teasing, and he isn't condescending, rather he is sweetly serious in that unaffected and genuine way of his.
He offers his hand not to be a gentleman, or because he thinks she needs it, but because he's there, he can, and he wants to. It's for those same reasons that she watches his back in every one of his battles, even if he does have the power to contest all of Soul Society by himself. She purses her lips and swallows any reproach she has on the tip of her tongue and takes his hand.
He pulls her up easily, and steadies her with a hand on her hip, thumb skimming over the crest her hipbone. It's warm and solid, his hand, and it rests on her hip like an anchor. It does not linger long enough to offend propriety, but it does send a shiver up her spine that has nothing to do with the balmy summer air.
Ichigo stands no closer to her than he usually does, but in the dark, where she can see no more than five paces ahead of her, the proximity, the heat from his large body, and the buzz of his barely restrained energy brushing up against her own reiatsu makes her hyperaware of each movement. And of course the false body doesn't help either.
"So," she says looking around in the dark. "lots to see here..."
"Shut up," he says, flicking her in the forehead lightly. "Just wait till the sun's up."
"What is this place anyway?" Rukia asks. There's a sound of waves, and if she squints her eyes she can make out a body of water before them, but much else is beyond her scope of vision.
"It's called Lake Tazawa." He goes on to explain that it's a caldera lake, formed through local volcanic activity, and is completely round. It's also the deepest lake in the country and it's for that reason that even thought it's located in the northern tip of Honshu island, it never freezes.
"You know a great deal about this lake," Rukia murmurs. A light breeze sifts through her short hair, lifting it around her face.
Ichigo shrugs lazily. "Not really. I had to study it for a geography test."
"That's not as impressive," she says. It's such a typical Ichigo thing to say, she turns her face away to hide a smile.
"You've never been here before?" she asks. Rukia is curious about all the facets of his human life. She isn't a part of it.
"First time I've ever seen it. This is the farthest I've ever been from Karakura," he replies nonchalantly.
Rukia's fists clench against her side. "I'm sure there are a lot more things to be seen in the world," she murmurs, voice low and calm.
"Eh? Maybe...maybe not," Ichigo says slowly, cautiously. "I guess I could travel all over the world, and see everything, but it's no fun to go alone." The way he says it is almost casual, off-handed, but unspoken things hum in the air between them.
"I wish you didn't have to choose," she says quietly. The words scald her throat, spill out of her mouth against her will. Rukia closes her eyes, immediately regrets it. She has stepped over invisible boundaries.
When she looks over at him she sees that his eyes are bright, and there is something soft in him when he meets her gaze. "You nag and worry about me way too much. I get a say in this, don't I?" he asks. Trust me, his gaze seems to say. And she does. She always has, but it doesn't stop her from worrying, though.
Rukia grips the fabric of her skirt, bunching it in her fist and looks up at the dark velvet canvas of the sky. There is, she thinks, room for negotiation in anything. And if there isn't, Ichigo will make it. Soul Society isn't as rigid as it once was. Ichigo who has the power to change people, who holds the power to crush destiny, will do things on his own terms, the way he wants.
"I've made my decision," Ichigo says with a hint of that cocky edge of confidence to his voice, so familiar and dear to her. "Rukia, I..."
She knows what his decision will be. Deep in her heart, she might have suspected it all along, but that makes her no less sad, because the road that Ichigo will walk is not an easy one. Nothing worth doing ever is. She already knows his decision, so there is no need for words. Instead, Rukia places a finger against her lips in that universal gesture for silence and points.
The sun is just peeking over the ridge of the mountain and the darkness of the pre-dawn recedes before it. They watch quietly as sunlight touches the dark resplendent tips of the pine trees, light and sky reflect from the still mirror surface of the lake. Two white cranes glide their way across the water, wingtip primaries barely skimming ripples on the face of the lake before disappearing into the lightening sky.
"This is stunning," Rukia whispers. There is such grand beauty that exists in the transience of the living world.
"Yeah," Ichigo agrees. "We would have missed it if we went the way we were supposed to go."
She glances at him in surprise. His gaze, touched with golden sunlight is equal parts intensity and warmth, unexpectedly tender and strangely vulnerable, inviting her to go on another journey of a different kind. Inviting her to walk along beside him...that is, if she wants to.
Rukia fixes her gaze forward, eyes soft and half-shuttered against the light of the sun and tucks a strand of windswept hair behind her ear. As her arm to drops to her side, she brushes against the back of his hand, and slowly, tentatively, she slips her hand into his.
Ever so softly, his long fingers wrap around her cool slender hand. Warm, and rough, his hand cradle hers, thumb brushing against her palm. He gives her hand a squeeze, a warm flutter, a surprisingly gentle touch for such a large and calloused hand. It sends a tendril of heat to course through her chest, up her neck, and into her cheeks.
When Rukia darts a sidelong glance at Ichigo she sees that the skin over his sharp cheekbones are dusted with a dusky red, yet he holds her gaze steadily, honest and unabashed, with deep trust and profound affection. His heart and his sword call out to her, and she answers. This is one of those in-between moments and it is in these moments that they are in the process of becoming who they are. Together, they both change, redefine, and defy boundaries and definitions, but all the while remain the same- essential to each other.
"We don't need maps to tell us we're going in the right direction," he says quietly. And, silently asking permission all the way, Ichigo bends down, achingly slow to draw his mouth against hers. She tilts her head up to meet the firm press of his lips half-way, one hand in his and the other pressing into his hair.
They are unusually tentative, and slowly with the sweetness of long yearning, they explore new territory. For once, Rukia thinks that where they're going, it's the journey that will count for more than the destination.
This is the longest one-shot I've ever written, so I hope it wasn't too boring. Thanks for reading! Btw, Lake Tazawa does exist and it's really beautiful. I do just enough research to seem credible!