Rukia waits under a heavily-blooming tree, the shadows of the leaves and branches heavy on her face. The sun is bright, the sky too blue. She keeps her eyes on the grass, bending and waving in the breeze. The air in Soul Society is still heavy with a sense of waiting, of anticipation. Her fellow Shinigami and the captains and lieutenants stare when they see her outside of the mansion; she finds it easier to be alone.
The scar at her sternum still stretches. They say she will carry it for the rest of her life.
“Look who’s out and about.”
She looks up and Ichigo is there, smirking and bandaged and pale. His robes are loosely belted, fluttering in the breeze.
Her fingers shift and move to her throat, the beginnings of a scar there. “Ichigo.”
“You look surprised,” he drawls, joining her under the tree. “Didn’t you ask for me?”
She can feel the strange flush on her throat as he watches her. She leans back against the tree trunk, knotting her fingers in her kimono. Here, in the open air of the gardens, they are alone. Byakuya is still convalescing in the mansion; everyone else is busy repairing the damage left by Aizen, and their own battles.
They are alone. It feels almost as it was before.
Except, she can see the new scars marring his skin, his hands, and there is a sharp power humming from his skin, more than she expected. He’s grown past what any of them expected, and for what.
“Ask for you?” she repeats. “I just – I wanted to know how you were. Inoue-san, she –“
“Eh, yeah. She’s a meddler,” he murmurs, leaning his shoulder against the tree trunk. He is too close to her, not close enough. “She and Ishida all but shoved me out of my room.”
“You didn’t have to come, idiot,” she mutters, cheeks warm.
A broad hand settles over her wrist, warm and heavy. “Stop,” he says, shaking his head.
She looks up, meeting his gaze. The heavy of the amber there, the scars at his brow, it all mixes with the press of spring in her lungs and the warmth on her shoulders and she can feel it, the overwhelming sensation of him swallowing her. There has always been something different about him, about them together. If she believed in fate, she would almost think –
“How’s your brother?” Ichigo asks after a moment. His hand remains on her wrist.
“My brother?” she repeats.
A small grin cracks his mouth. “Yeah. He said thank you to me, you know.”
“You’re a moron,” she mutters.
His fingers sink against her skin, his thumb pressing against the pulse at her wrist. “No one would tell me anything,” he says quietly. “About him, or – or you. So, I’m asking.”
She swallows hard, the breeze lifting the weight of her hair off of the nape of her neck. Her free hand rests at the hip of her kimono, fingering the thread and stitched flowers there. “He’s fine.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?” she asks, sighing.
Ichigo leans in. The hand on her wrist slides down, his fingers twining into hers. “Done with your career as a fuckin’ martyr yet?” he drawls.
Flushing, she curls her fingers over his, the new calluses from training and battles and blood spilled in her name. “Yeah,” she says softly.
“Good. It’s not you,” he says bluntly. “You don’t just give up.”
She laughs a little, tipping her head back. “And you know me?”
“Yeah,” he says, suddenly very serious. “I think I do.”
The silence stretches between them, thick and tenuous. She looks at him carefully, tracing the line of his jaw, his mouth. She has snatches of memories of his room, his closet, the awkward stop-start of boys and girls and home. It feels like another lifetime, that far away and distant from them here and now.
Still, they do not change, not with each other.
“What the hell did he do to you?” he asks at last, as their fingers link and tighten together and he drags her closer.
Her kimono catches on the bark of the tree. She stumbles into him, her free hand falling to his chest. “I don’t – I don’t know,” she says haltingly. The scar itches at her sternum, stretches with every breath.
“You all should have a better screening process for captains, that’s all I’m saying. Half of them wanted to kill you,” he says dryly.
“And you could do it better?” she retorts.
His mouth grazes his brow, his hand flexing and shifting at her hip. Her fingers curl into the edges of his robes, rough and worn under her fingertips.
“Eh, authority isn’t my thing,” he murmurs.
“Obviously,” she says, tipping her head up.
Their mouths are very close now. Sunlight reflects in the dark of his eyes. It makes her think of a rainy day weeks ago, at the foot of his mother’s grave and his blood on her fingertips. The intensity is the same, the dedication. A lump rises in her throat, too hard to swallow past.
“Are you okay?” he asks at last, voice quiet.
Rukia wets her lips and nods. Their clasped hands press at their hips. “I’m always fine.”
“That’s not really what I was asking, moron,” he mutters.
“I’m fine,” she repeats, voice cool. There is nothing else to say, not even to Ichigo.
There is something lost to her in Aizen’s grasp that she’ll never understand, and here before her stands a man that wrecked an entire institution for her. There are pieces of her life story still enshrouded in a web of misdirection and lies, an uncertainty to the future just ahead. Days later everything is still a mess, and here Ichigo remains, watching her with the same hard gaze as when he stopped the Sokyoku with that wide swipe of a sword still in his possession.
She opens her mouth to speak again, but his hand tightens around her and he leans in, his lips grazing hers.
“I get it,” he murmurs before he kisses her, his mouth soft and clumsy on her.
Leaning up, she shuts her eyes and slides a hand over his throat. Her fingers sink into the nape of his neck, the short hairs there, as he presses her back against the tree. His teeth press into her bottom lip and she parts her lips, the heavy weight of him on her a relief. He is easier to carry than the weight of expectation, of the unknown stretching out ahead of them.
“You know what? We’re going to do this a lot,” he says against her mouth. He is warm and wet and soft over her. His hand slides up over her hip and waist to cup her cheek. Fingers slide into her hair, loose at her throat.
She can’t help but laugh, her palm cupping the nape of his neck. “Sure of yourself, aren’t you.”
“Only way I know how,” he teases, biting her lip.
Opening her eyes, she meets his dark gaze. The color is overwarm on her cheeks, and she can see the answering flush on his face. Instinctively, her fingers tighten in his. “Ichigo, what happens next –“
He shakes his head, kissing her again. It’s familiar and thick and him, the taste and the dark power she licks from his tongue. “Just – we won’t talk about it yet,” he murmurs, voice heavy with breaths. “Not yet.”
To delay is foolish; she knows what he may have guessed, that she cannot go back with him, not now. But with the spring breeze soft between them and his face shadowed by the sun and branches, she finds herself relaxed against the tree trunk, with his mouth lingering near hers. It’s selfish, but she can’t bring herself to care now.
This time, she leans in and kisses him first, her lips opening under his. At their sides, their clasped hands tighten and latch. His hand drags down her cheek and throat, fingertips playing at the edge of the bandage at her sternum. There is something of a promise in the curve of his mouth, the slide of his tongue over hers; it will be avenged, this loss.
This tree becomes theirs, for the time being.