A/N: This is written for the awesome people at Deathberry, in celebration of Ichigo's upcoming birthday~ Happy birthday Berry boy! Hope you get reunited with your ray of light soon:3
Fair Warning: lengthy oneshot ahead.
The footfalls of the man running through the deserted streets of Karakura town are drowned out by the steady rainfall. As he pushes himself faster and further, feet splashing in puddles and merely adding to his already drenched attire, Ichigo can't help but marvel at the fact that he is spending his birthday like this.
His heart is pounding against his ribcage like it wants to break through. Sweat mixes with the rainwater as it rolls down his face and his hands are so tightly clenched that his fingernails have all but embedded themselves into the frail skin of his palms. He can't feel the cold or his own exhaustion; not even the ache in his muscles is enough to sidetrack him. But the fear of what he believes -what he knows- will happen if he doesn't make it in time is enough to leave him nearly breathless.
A cynical part of him thinks that this is certainly not his first choice on how to spend his birthday. Then again, when he really thinks about it he knows that he finds himself in his current situation precisely because of the events that had taken place on his last birthday.
It isn't a memory that he can easily forget…
It was a dry, calm night. Ichigo did not find himself in the town pubs celebrating or in the quiet of his office, but in the dark depths of the woods that bordered Karakura. He was, at the moment, crouched behind some fairly sized and leafy shrubs along with his colleague slash enemy slash friend, Uryuu Ishida. Both men were professors at the respected Karakura University, and at the moment they liked to believe that they were strictly conducting research for the department of archeology.
Beyond the shrubs that concealed their forms, they spied on a group of about seven or eight men seated around a fire. They spoke loudly and laughed merrily, their chortled words being accompanied by the clinking of their beer bottles. Had they not known any better, they would have passed off the group as nothing but a bunch of drunk bikers just passing through town; but both Uryuu and Ichigo did know better.
They had been advised about the group of thugs by none other than Kisuke Urahara. The men were ordinary thieves, but word had it they'd landed a few priceless antiques after storming through a museum a couple of towns over. As Ichigo watched them then, clumsy and loud and stupid, he couldn't help but wrinkle his nose and wonder how such people had managed to pull anything off that required more skill than opening beer bottles with their teeth.
"Do you see it?" Uryuu asked quietly, though the precaution seemed unnecessary given the state of the intoxicated men.
Ichigo shook his head. "I'm going to get a better look."
"Wait, Kurosaki!" Uryuu hissed as the orange-haired man rose slightly from his crouch, still bent low as he moved past him. "What are you-?"
"Relax, Ishida." Ichigo dismissed him as he approached a tree not far from the shrubs they had been hiding behind, but closer to the campfire. He bit back a groan as he straightened after what seemed like an endless time squatting down, aching muscles crying in relief. He kept himself concealed behind the trunk of the tree, feeling his companion's piercing eyes on his back. "I'll only be a moment." He said over his shoulder.
He reared back then, without warning, leaped up. He wrapped his arms around the lowest branch of the tree, dangling for barely a second before pulling himself up with an agility that betrayed the frequency of similar stunts in the past. He moved easily and quietly, climbing further up and onto the branches that extended towards the small opening from which smoke rose.
Hidden by the leaves and the sheer darkness, Ichigo was able to spy upon the rowdy thieves from a much better vantage point. Now he could see the bags, beyond the controlled pyre of flames that had kept it from his and Uryuu's sight before, which undoubtedly contained their recently acquired spoils. He could see some of those out in plain view as well; elaborate masks being worn by men making phantom-like noises, archaic artifacts being tossed from hand to hand as they fumbled looking for a use they would never find, and priceless jewelry and gems slipped unto stubby fingers and fat necks in a parody of the royalty that once wore them.
Still, Ichigo's eyes scanned the perimeter out for a specific item. It was the reason that a collector with as vast a compilation of treasures as Urahara had given any interest to the heist in the first place and why Uryuu and Ichigo had agreed to look into it at all. One of the items rumored to have been stolen was the Yuki no Crystal.
It was an ancient jewel rumored to have godly abilities, endlessly sought out by countless men for centuries. It had been tracked down only a few years back by famed archeologist Mayuri Kurotsuchi. Not long after finding the treasured gem, however, Kurotsuchi passed away.
That was the other thing. The Crystal was also said to be cursed. And, while Ichigo had never believed in such nonsense, the fact stood that the Crystal had quite an impressive history of death following it everywhere it went. After Kurotsuchi's death, it was put in the care of the Rukon Museum, and less than one year later the museum owner was found dead in his own house for unexplained causes. And those were only the most recent cases; everywhere the precious stone could be traced was littered with a trail of inexplicable deaths.
Among those who knew of its existence, there were those who feared the Yuki no Crystal and those who actively sought it out -whether for prestige or in belief of its supposed magical qualities-. Ichigo fit into neither of those groups. As an Archeology professor he was merely interested from an academic point of view; and, less nobly, he wasn't averse to the price that Urahara would be paying for the stone. Curse or no curse, he would be getting that Crystal.
The only problem was, he had no idea what it looked like.
The realization that it was technically the morning of his twenty-seventh birthday, and he was in the middle of the woods perched up on a tree not knowing what he was looking for was more than a little upsetting, if not a bit depressing. Irked by the thought, he scowled and decided 'to hell with it'.
Not wanting to waste any more of the night straining his eyes, Ichigo did the only sensible thing -in his opinion-. He swung down a couple of branches, no longer caring for stealth or silence and, with barely a look down to assess the distance from where he hung to the ground, dropped down on all fours with a thump, only a few feet away from the drunken men.
About three seconds passed in stunned silence from the men as they turned to look at the new arrival with wide eyes and struggled to comprehend his appearance through their undoubtedly clouded minds.
"HEY! Who the hell are you?" One of the men shouted out -the living picture of eloquence. But it was as if his yell had woken up the rest of his companions because all at once, their glazed over eyes narrowed in unanimous hostility towards the stranger.
"I come in peace." Ichigo said as he rose to his full height, hands raised at his sides to indicate that he really meant no harm. "If one of you would be so kind as to point me to the Yuki no Crystal and give it to me, I'll be on my way. No harm done."
The men looked at each other in evident confusion, then back at Ichigo as if unsure of what to do. Ichigo tried not to let his impatience show on his face as he waited motionless… And mostly failed. Finally, one of the men pointed at him and exclaimed, "He wants to steal our stuff!"
How he had arrived at that absolute conclusion, Ichigo did not know, but it seemed like good enough logic to the rest of the group as they all snapped into motion. Yelling angrily, they came at Ichigo like a pack of alley dogs who just cornered a stray cat.
Ichigo let out a tiresome sigh at the reaction, before bursting into motion himself. The first man was upon him in seconds, fist moving in an arc that was laughably clumsy. He easily moved out of its way, grabbed the man's wrist as it passed clear off his face and pulled hard, knocking the man flat on his face with barely any effort. The next one was already coming at him from behind, but Ichigo ducked the kick and swept his own leg out under the man's foot, effectively throwing him backwards.
"Kurosaki!" Uryuu's familiar voice screeched as he burst out of the hiding spot, face red. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Speeding up the process!" He shouted back as he blocked a punch and drove his fist into the attacker's gut -not his face, so as to avoid causing damage to the tribal mask he wore-. "You just gonna stand there or help?"
Uryuu's finely trimmed eyebrows twitched, irritation practically radiating off of him. Ichigo knew his friend would have liked for nothing more than to knock the cockiness right off his face, but at the moment the dark-haired man directed his violent urges at the nearest group of bandits.
The fight was laughably uneven; Ichigo and Uryuu were barely panting from effort by the time they were the sole people left standing next to the fire. Most of the men had probably already been on the verge of passing out under the effects of the alcohol anyway, there really hadn't been that much for the college professors to do but… speed up the process.
Ichigo had a smirk on his face while Uryuu glared at him. "Why must you always rush into things? Don't you possess even a shred of finesse?"
"No, I prefer to get things done." Ichigo replied nonchalantly as he wiped a streak of blood from his cheek where one of the men had scratched him with a jagged old knife.
"It amazes me how little progress you display above the mentality of a barbarian." Uryuu remarked dryly.
"Che. Whatever." Ichigo's eyebrows slanted back into his customary scowl. "Let's just collect our winnings."
The two set out to gather all the artifacts that the men had carelessly tossed about before and gathered them together in the crude bags where the rest of the loot was kept. All the while, they kept their eyes peeled for something out of the ordinary, something particularly attention-grabbing… Not the easiest task when essentially every object was a unique treasure on its own.
Ichigo was starting to question whether those guys had even taken the Crystal at all when he saw it. Among the elaborate ornaments and cultural wonders designed to be obscenely luxurious for their time, it was easy to miss the lone jewel cut out in the shape of an hexagon, lacking any superfluous adornments, not embedded in some finer set of craftsmanship. No, it was just the jewel; if anything, it stood out for its simplicity.
Almost in a daze, Ichigo picked up the gem and held it up to the already dying fire. The orange-yellow light of the flames was reflected upon a dark, glossy surface. It was difficult to make out the color in the dark, but he could see hues of blue, edging towards violet. The deep color gleamed almost like liquid, giving the illusion of great depth within the fist-sized stone.
As he watched, strangely mesmerized, he knew; he couldn't pinpoint exactly why, but he knew with absolute certainty that he was holding the Yuki no Crystal.
Ichigo and Uryuu went back to town afterwards, agreeing that they would visit Urahara the next morning. Uryuu took the recovered museum artifacts back with him, intending to return them as soon as possible. Ichigo on the other hand, took the Crystal home with him; he had at least a few hours to study it before he turned it over to the eccentric collector.
One year later, Ichigo can't help but think that he simply isn't very good at birthdays. After all, what kind of person willingly decides to spend their birthday cooped up in their room studying an ancient, cursed piece of jewelry? Fortunately -or unfortunately, depending on perspective-, that birthday did not go quite as planned.
He was sitting at the cluttered desk in his bedroom, glasses on as he examined the jewel more closely under the lamplight. He had noticed a series of markings along the smooth surface of the Crystal, most likely an inscribed message. It wasn't something he could translate, however, and try as he might he couldn't even place the language to any civilization. He had leafed through book after book, searching for symbols that might at least resemble the Crystal's markings in order to get an idea of how to start decoding the message.
Luck was not on his side. The numbers on the clock of his nightstand changed to 3:09am when he finally set the Crystal down and leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his disheveled orange hair and groaning. Try as he might to tell himself otherwise, he could already feel his eyelids becoming heavier, eyes prickling from the strain of reading obnoxiously small fonts for the last two hours. He gingerly removed his glasses and rubbed at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, disappointed when it did nothing to ease their growing irritation.
With a reluctant sigh, Ichigo stood and rubbed the nape of his neck while he exited the room. He took a hot shower, uncoiling the muscles of his body that always cramped up after long scholarly sessions. Afterwards he threw on a pair of old sweats and a plain t-shirt, still fussing with the towel over his dripping tangerine spikes when he made his way back to his room, ready to hit the sack.
Except, someone had apparently hit it before him.
"Get off that bed!" Were the first words out of his mouth as he returned from the bathroom only to see a person casually seated on his bed.
The woman -who looked barely older than a teenager, if that-, and was dressed in what seemed to be an out-of-season Halloween costume stared back at him flatly.
"Is that how you greet all your guests?" She asked in a voice that was much deeper than he'd expected, though still distinctly feminine. She stuck her nose in the air, keeping her arms -gloved from wrist to elbow in a red fabric slightly torn at the ends, perfectly matching her dress- firmly folded over her chest with a definite air of haughtiness. "Back in my day, men had manners."
"Back in your day?" Ichigo scoffed then, eyeing the protuberances sticking out of her raven hair to simulate tiny yellow horns and the overall ensemble that echoed the fashion of a clichéd demon. "When was that, last week?"
Her eyes widened at that and she gaped at him in disbelief. "I'll have you know, that despite my appearance, I am ten times older than you!"
"Whatever, lady." Ichigo's eyebrows knitted close together and all trace of humor disappeared from his face. "I don't care how old you are." As he spoke, he tossed the towel aside carelessly, eyes fixed cautiously on the woman he had never met. "What the hell are you doing in my house? If you're a thief, you are one sad pathetic excuse for one."
"I'm no thief." She said seriously, her eyes flashing in a way that struck him as familiar, though he couldn't immediately place why. "And I'm here because you brought me."
Ichigo stared blankly at her for a full five seconds. Then his expression fell into a deadpan. "I'm sorry, that's the best you could come up with? You really are sad." He shook his head, almost pitying the woman for a lack of imagination, if nothing else.
She stared at him incredulously at first, as if she couldn't conceive the idea that he actually didn't believe her (did he actually look that gullible?). But then something like realization dawned on her face. "You really don't know what I am, do you?"
He raised an eyebrow at her casual reference to herself as a 'what', but otherwise said nothing.
She shook her head in apparent disappointment. "You really are more of a fool than I thought."
"What are you-?"
"I'm the Yuki no Crystal." She spoke with a straight face, not a trace of humor in her voice. "Idiot." she added for good measure.
Ichigo was torn between the urge to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of that statement and wanting to pinch himself to wake up from the oddest dream he'd had in a while. Seeing the utter seriousness of the woman as she stared expectantly up at him, he decided on doing neither.
"You actually expect me to believe something like that?" He looked at her like she was crazy; which was a possibility that seemed stronger by the second. "The Yuki no Crystal is right-"
He cut himself off as he pointed to his desk, where he knew he had put down the Crystal before. Only stacks of open books piled one on top of the other covered the wooden surface now, no sign of the gleaming jewel. He whirled on the small woman.
"Where did you put it?" He yelled, his composure evaporating rapidly. "If you don't give that back, I swear I'll…" He trailed off, the woman entirely unruffled even as he felt the menacing spark lighting his eyes that would usually drive grown men away upon appearance.
"I did not take it!" She snapped, eyes blazing in that familiar shade of… blue-violet. "I told you I'm not a thief!" A slight fluttering sound accompanied her outburst, but he barely had the mind to spare to it.
It was impossible, what she said. Ridiculous; something only a child or an idiot would believe.
And yet, his house was equipped with a more than decent alarm system (it should be downright impenetrable considering the amount he paid for it), and it had not made so much as a peep. The idea that someone as young as the woman standing in front of him, dressed in a Halloween getup that would have made her stand out anywhere even if she hadn't been calmly perched on his bed, could so effectively break into his house was almost just as baffling.
Then there were her eyes. That peculiar shade of indigo, the depth of the color; he had spent the last two hours looking at that exact same shade.
There was that feeling again: the same as when he had held the Yuki no Crystal for the first time. It was as if he simply knew.
"Holy shit…" That was all he was really capable of saying as he openly gawked.
"So you finally understand." The corner of her mouth lifted into a smirk. "Now it's time for your contract."
"Contract?" he repeated dumbly.
"Yes. You are the new master of the Yuki no Crystal now." she explained in a business-like manner. "You must seal a contract with me for one year."
"Alright, what?" Ichigo glared at her, feeling a headache coming on. "Let's say that you really are the Crystal, and I'm not actually insane for believing it. What does any of that have to do with me making any kind of contract with you?"
"It's the way it works." she answered, like it was perfectly logical. "When a person finds the Crystal, they become the master of its power."
"And what power is that, exactly?" He asked, despite himself.
"You will become a demon, like myself." She declared, leaving him speechless for a moment. "It will be temporary, effective only for the time-period in which the contract is upheld. The use of this power will be strictly for the purpose of slaying other, dangerous demons. Should the contract be broken, the penalty is death."
Ichigo stared at her wordlessly for a few moments, before turning away from her. "Not interested." He said casually as he bent to pick up the towel he'd discarded earlier. "Go find another idiot gullible enough to fall for that."
"Eh?" The woman blinked her large eyes then, disbelief written across her face. "This isn't optional!"
"It's not as if you can-" His statement was abruptly interrupted as he felt a cool metal edge pressed against his throat. He looked down and found a long katana held against him; he could feel the woman standing behind him. She had moved too fast for him to even react. The thought made him gulp, which in turn made the sharpness of the blade against his skin all the more noticeable as his Adam's apple bobbed. "-make me…" He finished his sentence stupidly.
He wanted to question how the hell she had even produced the sword, but it seemed like a manner of secondary importance at the moment. Instead, he let her speak.
"Do not misunderstand, human." She spoke from behind him, making the contempt in her voice clear as day. "The power and responsibility of the Yuki no Crystal is not to be taken lightly. And if you complete the tasks you are given successfully, you will be rewarded."
His interest peaked, if only slightly. "How so?" He asked tightly.
"One wish." The woman said. "You will have one wish granted, anything you could possibly desire."
He raised a skeptical eyebrow. "What are you, the genie from a magic lamp?"
"Hardly." The blade of her sword was pressed closer, lightly tearing the skin in a silent warning.
"I see." He said. "What if I refuse?"
"I kill you." She replied, just a split second too quick.
He stood still for a long moment, before reaching up with his left hand to grab the woman's wrist and pull away the hand that held the sword at his throat just long enough to turn and face her. She was staring up at him wide-eyed, having to crane her neck quite a bit to make up for what was at least a foot of difference between their heights, but otherwise showed no reaction even as he still held her arm near his neck.
"I don't think you will." He said bluntly, almost enjoying her momentary gaping expression; it was such a stark contrast from the threatening picture she had given off seconds before.
Then her eyes narrowed and a red tail that he hadn't noticed until then flicked angrily. "Do not underestimate me!" she barked. "I will not hesitate to do what I must." Something nameless flickered through her eyes then, but it was gone before he could even begin to make sense of what it was.
He exhaled gruffly, abruptly letting go of her wrist and barely paying attention to how her hand fell back to her side. "Look, I'm still not sure of how this whole thing works. Not to mention, I'm pretty sure I'll be waking up any moment now from this weird-ass dream." He bluffed easily; he was sure it wasn't a dream at that point. "But an offer to have anything I could want doesn't come along every day."
The woman nodded, evidently satisfied with the way his thinking was leading. Or, at least, what he was saying. In reality he wasn't sure what he was thinking, other than the fact that there could be the one opportunity to fix everything.
A single wish… A second chance. How could he say no, when he was being offered the opportunity to right the wrong from so many years ago that still haunted him every day?
His eyes set in determination. "Alright. I accept your deal, demon."
She smiled, pleased at his words. "It is not 'demon'." she said, raising her sword as she spoke. "My name is 'Rukia'."
"Ichigo Kurosaki." He replied in kind, eyes meeting hers without faltering even as she aimed the katana straight at his chest.
"Good luck then, Ichigo Kurosaki." Rukia's words came as nothing but a faint whisper as the sword was driven into his chest in one smooth, breathtaking motion.
He felt the pain for a second, then everything went black.
It is as Ichigo comes within sight of the street where his house stands that he thinks of the irony that everything has all led to this moment: right where it all began. His house is the place where he had made that deal exactly one year ago, the night when his life had changed more than he ever thought possible. And it is there that both his fate and that of the woman he'd met are to be decided.
At first, Rukia had been but a small part in the scheme of what his life became after that deal. After she stabbed him, he had woken up on his bed, morning light streaming through the open curtains and the haughty little devil nowhere in sight.
He'd gotten up, thinking that maybe it all really had been a dream after all and feeling no different than he had the day before. Other than the fact, he supposed, that he was twenty-seven years of age then. It was after he groggily made his way over to the bathroom and stood before the mirror over the sink that he received the figurative slap in the face telling him that it had all been real.
For one thing, there was no shock of bright orange in the reflection immediately filling his field of vision. All that he saw was black… Lots and lots of black. Black spikes sticking up unevenly, black bangs hanging over his forehead, black locks of hair that fell past his shoulders and- He blanched as he realized that he could feel a weight that had never been down his back before. He turned and looked over his shoulder at his reflection, confirming that sure-enough his newly dark hair fell all the way down to his waist.
He looked back up to stare into his reflection's eyes, only to be horrified further by the fact that their normal, brown color had been replaced by an unnatural crimson. And, was it his imagination of did his arms and chest look… bulkier?
It was too much. He was starting to freak out, which he considered a perfectly acceptable course of action when one wakes up to find their appearance so drastically changed overnight, when he thought back to the contract he had made.
He struggled for a few seconds, before remembering the name.
"Rukia!" He called into the bathroom in which he stood alone, eyes on the ceiling as if expecting a familiar slight figure to pop through it. "Oi, Rukia!"
His gut feeling had been right, though she did not come through the roof. She simply materialized out of thin air in front of him, hovering with her feet off the ground for about three seconds before he noticed the bat-like wings fluttering on her back. She eased onto the ground after a moment and looked up at him, her mouth but a thin line and her eyes gauging him.
"The power transfer was successful." she declared a moment later.
He scowled deeply. "What the hell? I don't feel any more powerful… And I look ridiculous!"
Rukia rolled her eyes, not at all shaken by his unsuppressed anger. "The change in your appearance is only the result of the demon blood that now courses through you. Think of it as an outward reflection of the power within."
His eyebrows sank further, if that was possible. "I didn't sign up for outward reflections of anything! How am I supposed to go to work like this?" He pointed to his flowing hair in dismay.
Rukia shrugged. "I doubt it is any more eye-catching than that carrot top of yours."
He bit back the urge to retort to her insult and said, "If I had wanted dark hair, I would have dyedit!"
"Well, nothing you can do about that now." she said unworriedly. "Even if you try bleaching or cutting it, it will only return to the way it is now as long as you possess the Yuki no Crystal's power."
Ichigo did not bother to cover up his groan at that information.
Rukia paid his agony no mind. "Your hair should be the least of your worries now, Ichigo." she told him. "You will have much more important things on your mind come tonight."
Her words were left to hang ominously as she proceeded to excuse herself, saying she had some business to attend to -but declining to specify what it was-. As soon as she was gone, Ichigo promptly set to the task of testing out her words on the durability of his hair.
It didn't take long to find out that any kind of scissors or razorblades were flat out useless on his demonic hairstyle. The sharp instruments did nothing to so much as graze his hair. He was left with having to find a temporary remedy -if only for his comfort-, searching the guest room for any hair bands that might have been left behind by one of his sisters' from the times they stayed over. He found quite an assortment of cutesy clips and barrettes that he would first jump off a bridge before even considering to wear, but eventually he picked up a plain old rubber band; most likely, courtesy of Karin.
Resigned to the knowledge that it was all he could do at the time being, Ichigo went on to get ready to head to the nearby campus. He had been supposed to go over to Urahara's before class to give him the Yuki no Crystal, but given the recent developments, he decided that was one visit that could be put off -preferably, one that could be resolved in one sheepish phonecall.
When he arrived at the university, he expected the remarks on his hair; the snark from certain faculty members, the odd looks thrown at him by the staff that had grown used to his bright locks, and the snickering from his students as soon as he walked into the classroom. What he had not expected were the constant giggling bouts, the sudden increase in mostly female students suddenly wanting to discuss pointless matters when they bumped into him in the hall, and the overall extra attention that he started to receive from his female colleagues. He could handle the sarcastic comments much better than he could the women's unwarranted -in his opinion- attention.
He wondered if maybe he shouldn't have just skipped the day until he could find a better solution to his… issue. Still, it was only a summer course and he had a meager one class to teach; he would just have to swallow his mortification for a couple of hours. To say the least, it would be a very long day, but he could bear it.
'Or maybe not, he thought grimly as he walked into class and noticed a new, familiar, raven-haired student happily seated among the rest in the amphitheater.
She was dressed in a casual summer dress, a beanie fitted snugly over her head and her wings and tail were nowhere to be seen, but there was no mistaking who she was. The real question was, what the hell was Rukia doing in his class?
Awkwardly clearing his throat, Ichigo moved around his desk and, after sliding his glasses out of his suit's pocket and putting them on, opened up the thick book he'd carried under his arm and begun class. His eyes kept flashing up to the intruding girl -who smiled innocently each time she caught his straying gaze-, but he managed to carry on with the class in a fairly normal fashion. Excluding, of course, the two questions that he was forced to answer regarding his hair and whether or not it was a wig, before he stopped taking questions altogether.
The moment class ended, he excused himself from the students ready to approach him and hurried to exit. He spotted the woman easily, seeing as how she was the shortest in the crowd, and caught up to her in a minute. Her back was to him, and he wasted no time grabbing her by the elbow and spinning her to face him while hissing the question that had been plaguing him for the past two hours.
"What the hell are you doing here?" He glared accusingly.
Rukia shrugged his grip off and folded her arms beneath her chest calmly. "I'm watching you." she said without batting an eye.
His jaw fell open. "Wha- you're stalking me?"
"Of course not, fool!" she shouted defensively, emphasizing her denial with a kick to his unguarded shin. As he doubled over to clutch the sensitive area, she looked at him through narrowed eyes. "It is my duty to watch you and make sure that you do not use your power negligently."
"WHAT-" He began to roar, his frustration heightened by the pain shooting up from his leg, when he noticed the looks he was receiving from the students filing out into the hall alongside him and Rukia.
Cussing under his breath, he once again grabbed her elbow and dragged her behind him, ignoring her protests and squirming. About five minutes later he stood across from her in his office, door effectively shut behind them for some privacy. He picked up the conversation right where they'd left off.
"What power?" He questioned. "The only change I've had is this stupid hair and weird eyes!"
"I already told you, that's just the physical reflection of your power." Rukia said, like an adult trying to explain things to a particularly slow child. It made him wish he really did have a surge of demonic power at his disposal. "Don't worry. Even if you have yet to feel it, you will be able to use your power tonight."
"Is it on a timer or something?" He asked, only half sarcastic.
"You will see." That was all she said.
But see he did. That very night, after he had returned to his house and had himself a home cooked meal, Rukia appeared to drag him outside. He grumbled and complained the whole way, and they ended up standing on the street doing absolutely nothing for quite a while.
Then, Ichigo heard it. An ear-splitting roar that was like no sound he had ever heard before, neither animal nor human. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end and a chill crawl down his spine.
"What the hell was that?" He croaked.
"A demon." she said, no trace of humor in her voice. "Follow me."
Rukia broke into a sprint and Ichigo was left to scramble after her. It was only the beginning of the evening, so they attracted their fair share of attention as they ran past the pedestrians still crowding the streets, but Ichigo was too busy keeping up with Rukia to really give them much notice. The woman ran incredibly fast considering her short legs.
They ended up at the park. It was generally a peaceful place, frequented by families during summer and spring weekends. However, at that hour it was empty when Ichigo and Rukia arrived; at least, empty of people.
The monster was huge. Not just big, but roughly-the-size-of-a-building huge. Its body was pitch black and there was a conspicuous hole right in the middle of its chest. Yellow eyes gleamed from behind a bone-white mask with a row of teeth bared menacingly.
Ichigo stood rooted to the spot, gaze frozen on the monster that so easily dwarfed him.
"How am I supposed to fight that?" He asked Rukia incredulously, not once tearing his eyes away from the creature.
It roared again, the ground practically shaking with the booming sound, then looked down and fixed its eyes on Ichigo.
"Use the power inside you, Ichigo!" Rukia commanded.
"That's no help at all!" He shouted, starting to take a step back before he realized that there was simply no way he could outrun that thing; five steps of his were probably half a step of the demon.
He grit his teeth and reared back. He had been in more than his fair share of scruffles throughout life, none of which included a several-stories tall demon, but he would be damned if he didn't at least go down with a fight.
The next moments seemed to blur together. The creature roared as it launched at him, tongue hanging out of its mouth as it revealed a second row of teeth aimed straight at him. He didn't know how it happened, but he didn't stop to question it: a sword materialized in his hand. He didn't so much as pause to marvel at the occurrence, instead tightening his grip around the handle that fit so easily in his hand and swung.
The demon's arm, having been extended towards him in anticipation, went flying with a splatter of blood. It wailed in pain, but did not halt its attack. It swung its other arm but Ichigo saw it coming. He jumped to avoid its contact, surprising himself when the leap took him a few feet into the air -higher than he had ever expected.
In the seconds that he was airborne, he swung his sword again, putting all his force behind the blow before gravity took its hold over his body again. He landed nimbly on his feet as the demon's mask shattered from his attack.
The sound of its last cries was all that echoed in the park as the demon dissolved into particles that slowly vanished into thin air. Ichigo stared for a moment before directing his gaze at the weapon that he held.
It was a katana, but unlike any he had ever seen before. The handle, hilt, blade… even the broken off chain that hung from the end of the handle: it was all pitch black. Furthermore, he was baffled at how comfortable -almost familiar- it felt in his grasp; like he had always been meant to hold it.
"Not bad, for your first time."
He looked up to see Rukia smiling approvingly at him.
"I… It was nothing." He mumbled, confused as to what had happened.
"Don't worry." she said upon noticing his expression. "It will become easier as you get used it. We'll have plenty of chances for that."
She wasn't wrong about the second part: he had a vast array of chances to use his new powers, familiarize himself with them, and even polish them in the nights to come. As for it becoming easier? He wasn't so sure.
Killing demons was in fact something he got better at each time, taking them down in smooth, short amounts of time on most instances with little to no injury to himself or those around him. What wasn't so easy was the bothersome feeling that he got with each kill. It wasn't that he had any sort of moral qualms against killing demons; it was more the fact that it all came so naturally to him. Like he really had been doing it all his life.
Rukia never mentioned it to him, and she would quickly dismiss him if he ever brought up the matter, but he knew that she had noticed it too. Even so, it became a sort of silent agreement that they simply would not address that topic.
Ichigo's life fell into a pattern in the following months. During the days, he would arrive at the university and teach his classes the same way he always had. The evenings were spent chasing after demons to hunt with Rukia.
The woman became a constant in what seemed like the blink of an eye. She would attend his classes in the guise of another student; as summer ended and the full time semester began, she was there not only for one, but for most of his sessions -aside from the ones that she deemed too severely boring for anyone to sit through (to his disappointment, the class in that category was the one course he taught on classic English literature; though he'd never say that her absence caused such a thing as disappointment for him in the first place). Afterwards they would walk to his house together, where Rukia had made herself a seemingly permanent houseguest -something he had found out the hard way when one morning he opened the door to his closet and found the devilish woman sound asleep inside-. It became a habit to make meals for two instead of one, and he even got used to settling designated bathroom hours, upon Rukia's insistence that he spent far too much time 'grooming himself like a doll'. She refused to acknowledge that the extra time was necessary for him to get a handle on his recently acquired black mane.
It was exhausting, seeing as he spent all night awake and hunting, then most of the day up and teaching. But even when he resorted to using his office hours and lunch breaks for sneaking in nap hours, it never got to feel like too much. In fact, the routine had a certain rhythm to it that he fell easily into. Of course, it wasn't without his fair share of complaints.
A habit that Ichigo picked up rather quickly was that of making it a point to complain at least once each night about the arrangement that the contract with Rukia had put him into. It was more for show than anything, but for some reason he did not bother to understand, he had to do it.
"Ugh, don't these bastards ever take a night off?" He groaned after feeling the already familiar rise in pressure in the air that signaled the arrival of a nearby demon, holding his jet-black sword casually over his shoulder. "I can't remember the last time I got some decent sleep."
"I seem to recall you getting plenty of sleep this morning." Rukia said dryly. "If I hadn't woken you up, you never would have made it to a single class."
"Oh, is that what it was?" Ichigo asked with mock curiosity in his voice. "Do you always wake people up that way? You know, kicking someone out of bed is just supposed to be an expression, Rukia."
"Shut up!" Her cheeks reddened. "It was the only way you'd even move! I thought you might have been in a coma."
"So that's your treatment for comatose people?" He lifted a black eyebrow. "That's better."
"Just shut up and be grateful, idiot." she retorted. "Now stop complaining and go after that demon." She pointed in the general direction from which they sensed the demonic aura in a clearly commanding gesture.
He snorted, though he started in the way she pointed. "Is killing demons all you ever think about?"
"No, sometimes I also think about killing you." she shot back, joining him as they went. "You're lucky it's against the contract."
Okay, so maybe he did know why he couldn't stop voicing halfhearted complaints each time he got a chance. Was it so bad that he enjoyed riling the woman up on occasion (or frequently)? Odd, maybe, but not bad.
Besides, he didn't think she minded it either. Their banter accompanied their demon hunts as surely as his sword, and it had never hindered him. In fact, it always seemed to lighten his mood when normally he would have been brimming with annoyance after restless hours of slaying the masked beasts. Even when Rukia was simply yelling at him not to be so reckless and what not, or he was just calling her noisy and annoying, he felt hap-
Well, not happy, per se. That was ridiculous; there was no way he'd feel happy bickering with someone. Maybe not that, but he did have to admit that those days, Ichigo was feeling content.
Ichigo should have known that such a thing would not last forever.
The comfortable dynamic first shifted on the night that Ichigo fought his first "Arrancar". It was a demon unlike the others he had encountered before: it inhabited a human body and wore a broken mask. Compared to their howling, gigantic relatives, the "Arrancar" barely looked like a threat. Ichigo found that it was quite the opposite, the hard way.
"Ichigo!" Rukia shouted his name as she ran towards him.
He was sitting up, barely supporting himself on his sword as he coughed up blood. The "Arrancar" had already dissolved into oblivion, but it had not been without great effort and pain on his part. He didn't look up, but he could hear Rukia arrive at his side well enough.
"Go ahead." He said hoarsely, wincing at the pain that flared from his wounds with every word. "Yell at me for being stupid all you want."
He felt a hand small hand settle on his shoulder, and his gaze flickered to it in surprise before he looked up and met the eyes of its owner. He had expected them to be blazing with anger, annoyance, irritation, and the hint of a gleam that he'd never figured out the meaning of but that she could never quite hide. Instead, he felt as though he was socked in the gut by the entirely different range of emotions there.
Urgency, anxiety, distress… It may not have struck him so hard if he hadn't gotten so used to Rukia always being the calm one, the one to keep a cool head no matter what the dangerous situation; so long as it did not involve modern day technology and entertainment, which no matter how many times he explained to her, still managed to baffle and get the better of her.
"Ichigo, you idiot!" she all but snarled, no hint of playfulness behind her words then.
He was taken aback. "Are you okay?" His eyes quickly roamed over her form, searching for any sign of a wound. He had done his best to ensure that the demon never had a chance to get close to her, but if it had managed to get a strike in while he was down-
"Of course I'm okay, you fool!" Rukia snapped, familiar anger finally resurfacing. Then her gaze softened, into something he'd never really seen there before. "It's you who is all cut up!"
There was nothing but pure concern.
Rukia proceeded to help him move until he was leaning against a flickering lamppost, then began to heal the worst of his injuries. He had always known she had healing abilities, seeing as how she always took care of the multiple scratches he accumulated over the months, but that was the first time she had to treat something so extensive. Once the more severe of his wounds were closed up enough not to be fatal, they headed back to his house in order to treat the rest. Ichigo had fervently assured that he was fine enough to walk the whole way, but after he staggered within the first five minutes, Rukia ended up supporting him the rest of the walk.
With his arm draped over her shoulders and hers around his waist, it was the first time they shared such physical closeness -or any, really. In all their time together, even whilst sharing a room (granted, she did sleep in the closet), they had always had some very strict, unspoken boundaries when it came to physical contact. At that moment, when Ichigo felt her pressed against him, he couldn't help but think that -unlike with most women-, he didn't feel uncomfortable or awkward with her; he didn't mind it at all.
Sadly, he could not enjoy that knowledge because it was also the first time that they were engulfed in such awful silence. After her initial insults and yelling, Rukia had not said a word to him as she healed him. He'd tried to make a remark or two, trying to spark a conversation or their usual banter, but she did not utter a single peep. The walk to his house was just as quiet, and he couldn't help but frown deeply.
Something was obviously wrong. He'd already seen for himself that she hadn't been injured; but from the set of her eyebrows, the tension that he could feel in her whole frame, and most of all, her silence… He knew something was deeply troubling her. He decided against asking her outright until they reached his house, hoping that she would cool off somewhat by then and open up.
He had no such luck. Rukia forcefully instructed him to get in his bed as soon as they arrived, her words harsh but her actions betrayed by a gentleness as she helped him.
He failed to hide a flinch of pain as he settled in, and immediately saw the crease in her brow tighten in response.
"Stay here." Rukia ordered curtly, as if he could really go anywhere. "I'll bring you some water."
"I don't want water." he matched her unrelenting tone from where he lay, though the effect was somewhat ruined by his labored breathing. Not that he'd ever admit it, but the walk had really taken it out of him. Still, he wouldn't let that hinder him then.
"I want to know what's the matter." He cut her off. Her eyes met his in surprise at his bold interruption; he looked back at her challengingly. "You've been acting all weird since I finished the fight."
"I have not." she retorted weakly, the way she averted her eyes as she did even more telling.
"You're a terrible liar, anyone ever tell you that?" He let a slight note of bemusement coat his words, hoping it would maybe lighten the mood a bit.
It seemed to have the opposite effect. Rukia clicked her tongue as her slim eyebrows slanted as close together as they could possibly be, then she crossed one hand over her torso to hold her other arm. Her hands clenched and her jaw tightened, and she looked like she was trying to hold herself together more than anything.
"Rukia…?" He asked uncertainly, grimacing as he forced himself to sit up.
"Don't-!" Before he knew it, he was being pushed back down by a pair of dainty hands while deep blue-violet eyes glared at him. "Are you trying to make things worse for yourself?"
The feigned anger did nothing to conceal the worry in her eyes. He felt his expression soften as he searched those eyes. "Rukia, what's wrong?" He asked in a low, steady voice that held a certain degree of authority that only years of standing before a classroom could award him.
Her hands, which were still on his chest from having pushed him down, slowly lessened their pressure and then were gone. She looked away from him once more, and he saw her move to walk off.
His hand shot out almost automatically. Rukia looked down in evident shock to find his hand wrapped securely around her wrist.
"This isn't like you." He finally said once their gazes crossed again.
"It's nothing to concern yourself over…" She muttered, but her voice rang with defeat.
"It is if you're going to be giving me the silent treatment now." he retorted. "Besides, you live under my roof. So I guess any trouble you have does concern me. Especially considering you're a freeloader."
There, at last, he thought he saw the shadow of a smile. It was gone as quickly as it appeared.
Rukia sighed, eyes downcast and hair falling forward to shadow her expression. She started to turn, and he thought she was about to pull away and leave. Instead, she sank into the mattress beside him, sitting by his legs and staring down at her lap. He loosened his hold on her wrist, but did not relinquish it.
Seconds turned into minutes of silence, but eventually, Rukia spoke.
"You're a stubborn fool." she declared.
"I've heard worse." he smirked.
Rukia shook her head with her lips quirking up before her face fell. "The contract does not have rules only for you, you know."
He blinked, thrown off by her sudden statement. "Uh… It doesn't?"
She shook her head again. "I'm just as binded to it as you are."
"How come you never said anything?" He asked, genuinely curious. It was only then that he realized how little about herself she had ever talked about.
"It didn't matter." she shrugged.
"And now it does?"
"No." she said immediately, her fists tightening again for a moment before she exhaled and relaxed them. "Whether it matters or not is insignificant. It doesn't change anything."
He didn't like the way she looked as she said that. She looked weak, resigned, sad… She looked decidedly un-Rukia. He was surprised by how much he hated it.
"That's bullshit." He said, biting back the pain as he sat up before she could stop him. Rukia turned to him with wide eyes. "As long as you're alive, there's always something you can do."
She only stared at him for a few seconds, before her surprise dissolved into a smile. "You would say that."
He smirked in response. "Damn right."
Rukia returned to healing him then, only after he removed his hand from her wrist with his eyes averted bashfully. She seemed to have gone back to normal, though she was quieter than usual, but he did not push her any further. However, as she held her hand over his chest, a pale green glow coolly soothing the throbbing wound beneath his tattered shirt, she spoke again.
"I'm not allowed to interfere." she said, eyes narrowed in apparent concentration as she healed him. He was startled by her words, but waited patiently for her to explain. "If I aid the person who holds my power, no matter how strong the opponent, the contract will have been violated."
He was surprised to hear that, but understanding set in quickly. It made sense, now that he knew the reason why Rukia had always stood on the sidelines, even when every bit of her body language indicated that she was on the verge of jumping into any one of his battles.
"What happens if the contract is violated?" He asked, though he already suspected the answer.
"You die." she confirmed without skipping a beat.
He nodded, showing no more reaction to the news. "It's pretty simple then." Rukia looked at him in disbelief, the healing light around her hand fading at the same time. "I just keep fighting. I've done pretty well so far." He allowed for a smidge of cockiness to lace his words… Maybe just a tad more than a 'smidge'.
Her hand fell to her side limply, her eyes narrowing. "For how long?" She glanced away, eyebrows deeply furrowed. "There have been many who have done 'pretty well'. I've watched all of them die."
The information felt like a blow, the thickness in Rukia's voice making something within him constrict.
"Each one, no matter how strong…" Her voice was quieter then. "Gone."
Ichigo swallowed with some difficulty. There was a hollowness in her voice, and he was glad, for once, that he could not see her eyes; he feared they would be just as vacant.
He couldn't begin to imagine what it had been like for her, to have lived for centuries, watching all the people she met and probably came to care for be killed while she was forced to stand by. The thought of it felt like imagining a nightmare; one that Rukia could not wake from. He felt the urge to pull the slight woman against him and hold her close, find some way to heal the years of scars that no one could see.
But he knew it wasn't that easy. Better than anyone, he knew.
He reached out and put his hand over hers where it lay on the mattress between them, completely covering it. "Rukia," He spoke firmly, demanding that she look at him. She did. "It won't happen again."
"I'm saying this now: I won't die, Rukia." As he spoke, his voice deadly serious, he looked straight into her eyes with nothing but determination. "That's a promise."
Rukia's mouth had fallen open and her eyes were glassy, before she furiously blinked away the extra moisture and clenched her jaw shut. "You're really a fool." she said at last. Then, "I will be holding you to that promise."
The way she said that was business-like in words and tone, but her eyes told a different story. Ichigo grinned, more than anything glad to see her get back to her usual self, and allowed her to finish healing him. They fell back into silence, but for the first time, it was an undeniably comfortable one.
After that night, things between them were different, even if subtly so. They still bantered, Ichigo still called her a freeloader and insulted her horrible drawings (which he had the misfortune of seeing after inquiring what it was that she wrote all day in the notebook she carried to his classes), Rukia still called him a reckless idiot and complained that he was a bathroom hogger, and in class they still always addressed each other with last names only so as to prevent any more rumors from flying around (which were already aplenty, thanks to the people who had more than once caught them leaving campus together); but there was a new layer to their relationship.
They would take more breaks from throwing jabs at one another and simply shared an easy silence. On their way to and from his house, they would walk a little closer. Ichigo found himself spending less of his little free time reading and grading students' papers and more of it doing simple things like watching television with Rukia, or trying to familiarize her with the works of William Shakespeare instead of the silly manga she had taken to reading. He began to look forward to arguing with her in the morning for the bathroom, and to feel disappointed when she disappeared into his closet for the few hours of sleep they had.
Ichigo began to feel more than content. He actually felt…
Not that he'd ever say that.
"What are you smiling at?" Rukia's question snapped him out of his thoughts, and only then did he realize that a smile really had crawled its way unto his face. He made quick work of replacing it with his customary scowl.
"Nothing." He covered smoothly… Or not.
Rukia quirked an eyebrow over the bowl of ramen that she was currently wolfing down across from him. "Weirdo."
Ichigo finished his own and set the empty bowl on the table, leaning back in his chair and staring out the window. The sky was already painted in hues of orange and red, signaling that the day was dying away. In less than an hour, he and Rukia would be out of the house and beginning the usual rounds around town.
Rukia noticed him staring.
"It's almost June." she said, making him look at her strangely. She gave a slight shake of the head as she set down her own bowl. "Haven't you realized it yet? Idiot." Even as she insulted him, her lips were slightly curled. "In less than two months, the contract will expire."
He blinked at that. In all honesty, he had been so wrapped up in everything that not once had he stopped to actually count how much time had passed. It felt as if he had been hunting demons and living with Rukia for only a short time.
"That went by pretty fast." He said, standing to gather their dishes and make his way over to the kitchen.
Rukia followed closely. "You will have the Yuki no Crystal's power to use as you please." she spoke behind him, her voice somewhat cautious.
Ichigo dumped the dishes in the sink and turned to face her. "But I only get one wish, right?"
She nodded. "Anything you want." There was a pause, and her eyes never left his as she asked, "Have you thought about it? What you'll get?"
Ichigo didn't answer for a long time. Taking a deep breath, he eventually spoke the two single words that had prompted him to accept Rukia's deal in the first place. "My mother."
Rukia was visibly taken by surprise by that. "Is she…?"
"She died when I was nine." Ichigo said curtly.
A wave of remorse covered Rukia's face. "I shouldn't have asked. I'm-"
"Don't." He cut her off, unable to look her in the eyes anymore. "It was… a long time ago." The statement had been meant to reassure himself as much as Rukia, but it was clear that neither was convinced.
Ichigo suddenly felt the light touch of fingertips under his chin, and before he could react, Rukia had tilted his face back towards her. Her eyes seemed to be searching his; for what, he did not know.
When she spoke, it wasn't anything near what he had expected. "We should get ready to leave."
With that, her fingers fell away and he was surprised by how much their absence stung. He didn't mention that though, simply nodded and the two continued on without another word on the subject.
Things continued normally between them until the eve of Ichigo's twenty-eight birthday. Which, coincidentally enough, would also mark one year since Ichigo and Rukia's first meeting, and the sealing of their contract.
They had just gotten back from their latest demon hunt, at which time both would usually fall into unconsciousness. Rukia had changed into her pajamas -an old pair that Yuzu had left behind in his house ages before-, and Ichigo donned his own sleepwear; but neither of them seemed willing to part ways for the night (or, more accurately said: the morning) just yet.
He was sitting up on his bed, leaning against the wooden headboard with his arm resting on a bent knee. Rukia sat cross-legged on the floor, tiny yellow horns and crimson tail both freely visible when it was just the two of them. She was resting her back on the side of the bed.
"Tomorrow is the day." she said after a long period of silence, voicing what was on both their minds. "Are you excited?"
He shrugged, though she was facing away from him and couldn't see. "I guess." he said unconvincingly. "I thought I would be." That was honest. "I just can't really believe it, ya' know?"
"You're doubting me after all this time?" she questioned, looking at him over her shoulder. Despite the words, she didn't sound truly offended.
"No, I mean…" He scratched the back of his head and sighed. "It's strange to think it'll all be over soon."
Rukia turned a little more towards him. "It won't be completely over. My soul will merely return to the Crystal, as it always does. Even if you can't see me, I can still see you."
His brow creased at that and he shot her a light glare. "That doesn't make me happy at all." The words slipped out before he had a chance to think them over. He didn't really have time to regret them because, after a brief flash of some unspeakable emotion flashed across her face, Rukia got to her feet.
"Get some rest, Ichigo." she said, her back facing him. Without further ado, she walked to the closet that she had made her own.
Ichigo's call stopped her just as her hands started to slide the door open. "Rukia, wait."
Before he knew it, he was on his feet too. He hurried to shorten the distance between them, grabbing her shoulder as soon as she was within reach. He tugged on it, not harshly, and she complied to his silent request to face him. Her eyes were unfathomable as they focused on him; it made his breath hitch. His hand tightened on her shoulder almost sunconsciously.
The rest of her question was muffled by his mouth covering hers.
Ichigo had never been one to typically initiate such intimate contact, and before that day he had never so much as considered doing it with Rukia. But in that one moment, when her eyes had been staring at him that way and he could feel the imminence of her departure hanging over their heads, when his chest had ached with a longing for nothing more than to be close to her and never have to say goodbye… It was as if his body had acted of its own accord.
When his mind caught up to his actions, he was frozen in place. He was about to pull back, horror settling into the pit of his stomach while he mentally prepared an apology, when he suddenly felt Rukia kiss him back.
It was a subtle gesture; a simple tilt of her head to get a better angle, and a gentle pressure as she pushed her lips against his. That was all he needed. The horror and shock dissolved and all that was left was the desire to feel her. The hand on her shoulder rose to carefully cup her face, while his other hand settled on her waist and pulled her just a little closer.
Rukia corresponded by fisting her hands on the front of his shirt and pulling him towards her. The kiss deepened as they opened themselves to each other, both of them saying everything they dare not voice out loud in what little time they had.
Ichigo disconnected his alarm clock before going to bed that morning.
He and Rukia accommodated themselves on one side of the mattress, his arm wrapped around her as she lied with her back pressed against him. She kept her hand over his own, fingers intertwining before they succumbed to sleep.
They shared that one moment together, regardless of whatever the next day would bring.
When Ichigo finally feels the presence that he has spent all evening searching for close by, he thinks he's on the verge of crying -though he does not know if it is out of relief or frustration-.
The reason he has spent the last hours of his birthday, plus a few extra before the clock struck midnight, in a mad dash around Karakura is because after the day he had spent sleeping with Rukia, he woke up to find a rather disconcerting note.
He had woken up, instantly noticing the lack of warmth, only to see a single sheet of paper neatly folded up on the space that she had occupied. The sheets still carried a trace of her heat.
Because he was so surprised by her absence, it took Ichigo a bit longer than usual to notice that no light was streaming through the curtains in his room. Looking at the clock on the nightstand, he was shocked to see that he had actually slept through the day. He shot up into a sitting position and practically tore Rukia's letter open.
After around ten minutes of trying to decipher the code she had used for the message -using the only hint she'd left, which were some crappily drawn snakes-, he was able to read what she said to him.
I'm sorry to leave on such short notice, something came up. Do not worry or look for me, I will be back in time to fulfill the terms of the contract. Try not to do anything foolish, I know it will be hard.
He had gaped at the words for a good few minutes, before snapping into motion and rushing out of the house in search for her.
It had taken him hours, never having quite mastered the ability to sense a demon's presence before, but just managing thanks to a mixture of his familiarity with Rukia's and sheer stubborn will. He would think he caught her, but just as he got close, she was gone again. It was like an exhausting, infuriating game of hide and seek.
His heartbeat is erratic as he rounds the corner to the street of his own house. He has no time to heed the irony that hours of running madly under the rain have led him right back to the starting line because the first thing he sees chills him to the bone and shuts off his thoughts altogether for a second.
Rukia is there, on the ground leaning up against a lamppost while another figure hovers over her, a sword in hand. The color red stands out like a flare in Ichigo's vision as he sees it spreading in various places over her light blue dress, down the pale skin of her arms and legs and smeared over her face, mixing with the rainwater.
The figure in front of her, Ichigo can tell its an Arrancar from the bone-crushing pressure in the air alone, wears an expression of boredom.
"Is that all you got, woman?" The blue-haired demon is asking, when he takes a pause. "Huh?"
"Rukia!" Ichigo's scream tears out of his throat with a ferocity he did not know he possessed. Her large eyes snap up to his and in them, he sees surprise followed by what he can only describe as abject horror.
"Idiot!" She shouts, and instantly winces. "I told you not to come." she grits out.
Ichigo wants to hit her, yell at her because she is the idiot, but he can do nothing as his attention is grabbed by the Arrancar's abrupt laughter.
"Oh, I see." He cackles, looking from Rukia to Ichigo and back. "Come to rescue the girl? How noble of ya'."
Ichigo's hands curl into tight fists and his jaw clenches, eyes zeroing in on the one responsible for the state Rukia is in.
"Alright, I'll humor you." The Arrancar says, turning away from Rukia and stepping towards Ichigo. "You look like you'll be a bit more fun anyway." He bares his teeth in a wide grin before he launches himself at Ichigo with blinding speed.
Ichigo has already had a year of experience though. When the Arrancar comes, his ink black sword is already raised before him to block the other katana with the resounding clash of metal against metal.
The Arrancar calls himself Grimmjow, and he boasts and jeers through the entire first half of their prolonged fight. They are almost evenly matched, but Ichigo is not ready to be defeated at that moment. In the end, he proves the stronger one as he cuts down the powerful demon.
He is tired and bloodied by the end of the fight, but feels barely aware of any ailments as he makes his way over to Rukia's weak form. Her breathing is labored, and there is an alarming amount of blood pooled around her, but she still has the strength to shoot him a glare when he kneels beside her.
"What part of-" she pauses to suck in a shallow breath. "don't follow me was too hard for you to understand?"
He only frowns at her, his anger battling his fear at her condition. "What the hell was that about, Rukia?" he finally asks. "I thought you said you couldn't interfere in my fights!"
"It's not interfering…" she looks at him with the smallest hint of mischief. "If you never start the fight."
He is enraged by her nonchalance regarding the situation, but that feeling is overridden by his anger at himself for not having been there to prevent this in the first place.
"Why?" He can barely ask through the surge of emotion.
"I felt them." Rukia says, her voice losing its vitality further by the second. "The Arrancars. Almost ten of them."
"I could have taken them!" he bursts, his voice nearly cracking.
"Maybe." she concedes. "Didn't want… To risk it." She then smiles at him. It's an unguarded, genuine smile that strips him of his defenses, and he can no longer hold on to the anger that had been keeping him firm until then. "Couldn't have you break your promise."
He shakes his head and has to shut his eyes for a moment. He wants to tell her that he never would have broken his promise to her, that she was stupid for worrying, that…
That he cares about her so much it frightens him a little.
All of that and more, he wants to say, but the only word that he is able to form is her name.
"Don't worry." she says in reply, almost airily. "I won't die. I will simply return to the form you originally knew me as."
His heart twists in spite of her assurances. He doesn't say anything else as he gingerly slips one arm beneath her knees and another across her back, then picks her up.
He brings her back inside the house, each of her shaky breaths like a vice squeezing his own lungs as he carries her to his room. He puts her on his bed carefully and looks at her, illuminated by the soft moonlight that poured in through his window. His eyes trace every line and curve of her face, hoping to commit it to memory before realizing that he already had done so long ago, without ever meaning to.
"Ichigo," she looks at him through half lidded eyes. "Can I have something to drink?"
He is caught off guard by the unexpected request. But she looks at him almost pleadingly, and he knows that he cannot refuse her even if he had wanted to. He leaves to get her one of the juice packs that she had become so fond of, poking the straw in that he knew always gave her trouble.
When he returns, Rukia is no longer there. Even the blood that should be staining his white sheets has vanished.
All that is left is a single, blue-violet jewel that gleams in the moonlight.
When Rukia opens her eyes, she feels strangely off balance.
It takes her a moment to take in her surroundings; the well lit room, soft mattress beneath her and warm sheets draped over her. She is tempted to snuggle further into the comfort and return to sleep, but the out-of-place feeling lingers and she slowly sits up.
Her eyes adjust to the light and she fully recognizes the room she's in. At this point, she pushes the bed sheets aside and cautiously sets her bare feet on the carpeted floor. When she stands, it takes her longer than it should to get her balance.
She knows where she is now, but something is conspicuously missing -or rather, someone.
She thinks back to the previous night; the moment when one year officially lapsed for their contract. Most clearly of all, she remembers that Ichigo had survived.
But then, where is he?
Rukia leaves the bedroom and heads over to the bathroom, partly on pure custom, partly thinking that would be where she could find him. When she gets there, she doesn't see the man she's looking for, but she is stopped by the sight that greets her in the mirror.
It's herself, except she's missing something. Two little yellow somethings. She quickly twists to look at her own back, awkwardly running her hands over it and confirming that beneath the pajamas she wore there was only an uninterrupted surface. No wings, no tail; no horns either.
She can only gape at herself as she runs her hands over head, brushing her fingers through the dark strands of hair, uninterrupted. Absorbed as she became in inspecting herself, she fails to notice the figure that comes to stand at the doorway.
"Don't you get tired of staring at yourself?"
The voice makes her jump, turning wide-eyed to face the… orange-haired… man under the door frame.
"Ichigo?" she asks in disbelief, eyes lingering on the bright hair, short and disheveled as the first time she had seen him. When her gaze moves back to his face, he is smiling, eyes -brown eyes- meeting her own. She opens and closes her mouth, words failing her until she finally asks, "How?"
"One wish." Ichigo replies with a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders. "Anything I wanted."
She can only gawk at him. Her vision blurs a bit and she has to blink away the traitorous moisture at the swell of emotion. "You could have had…" she trails off, knowing she doesn't need to finish that sentence. "Why would you…?"
He looks down at his feet, rubbing the back of his neck. "I just…" He sighed. "There are some things I wish I could have changed in my life. But it's the past for a reason. I realized I had to make my peace with it. Took me a while to figure it out, but… Err," He looks up at her, the corner of his mouth tilted up. "I had some help."
His eyes are so sincere as he says that, his smile so genuine, that it's all she can do to keep her composure as she folds her arms over her chest and turns her gaze away. "Idiot." she mutters. "You could have had whatever you wanted."
He scoffs and she hears him step past the threshold. Calloused yet warm, even gentle fingers cup her chin and make her look up at the person who has just chosen her out of every possibility in the world; the one who has made her, finally, human.
"Ya' know, Rukia," Ichigo says. "You talk too much."
Her reply never comes as his lips connect to hers.
As Rukia turns to adjust to him, she catches a glimpse of their entwined figures on the mirror and all doubts and questions flee from her mind as her eyes close. Because as impossible, as unbelievable as it is, there is no confusion or hesitation coming from Ichigo; his confidence flows into her and she smiles against his mouth.
When they pull back, they keep their arms around each other and Ichigo touches his forehead to hers. Rukia meets his eyes as she tells him, "Happy birthday, Ichigo."
"Yeah," His chest rumbles as he chuckles. "Thanks."
When they kiss again, it's slow and measured. Neither of them is in a hurry now, because they know they have plenty of time.