Ichigo stared out over the onsen, at the white mist hovering low over the water, betraying the warmth of a bath so beckoning to the skin. It was remarkable that all he felt was coldness.
A bottle of sake stood on the stone table, the only company to a broken man. His hands were fisted next to it, his body almost draped across the table itself. It was laughable. The great admirable young general reduced to such a pathetic state. The powerful strong knight of the country, wallowing like a weak-spined idiot.
The bleary brown eyes stared out over the beautiful outdoor spring, the water lapping peacefully and somewhat mockingly at him. Those eyes took in the rough ornamental stones that lined the spring, up to the walls of the garden. Where it all started…
Kurosaki Ichigo laughed bitterly as he closed his eyes, sinking into a flurry of nightmares, and of the acquaintance right here at this spot four months ago which changed his everything…
Four months ago…
Ichigo let himself into his house, before dropping his bag onto the floor. He had just been training off in the barracks with his men for the upcoming escort task, and his limbs were painfully taut and stretched. The house was very quiet, it had been very late in the night that he had got home. Otousan, Yuzu and Karin must be sleeping by now. Ichigo grabbed his towel and headed off to the outdoor spring in the garden. He was going to be needing a long, warm bath to soothe his worn-out body.
As Ichigo walked through the house to the garden, he let his thoughts drift. Otousan had been a prominent General in the army in his prime years, before he had retired and opened a small shop selling herbs in town. The income that little business managed to crop up was not enough to live by, and so Ichigo had joined the military force when he was of age, to provide for his father and two sisters. His mother had died in a bandit attack when Ichigo was a small boy, and they had never managed to apprehend the murderer.
Ichigo quickly rose through the ranks of officers, armed with a natural combat talent and the integrity to protect the people. He was still a low General at the current post, but many were confident that it was only a matter of time before he surpassed his father in the field. Ichigo did not really care, all he wanted was a peaceful life and doing the things he loved best, and also fighting to protect his loved ones. He worked hard everyday and did not have much time for leisure or love, an issue the neighbours loved to point out to his old man. Ichigo did not really care about this as well, he had not met any woman who gave him any special feeling and he was fine with that.
Ichigo stepped out into the garden. A slight breeze was blowing in the air and he could already hear the water lapping at the edge of the onsen. Ichigo padded down to the stone table overlooking the outdoor spring.
His brown eyes widened.
Her arms were long and gentle as they smoothed out over her skin. Her back was dotted with shining droplets of water, and he could see her shoulder blades from where he was standing. The gentle swell of her small breasts dipped away into a smooth waist, before curving out into modest hips visible just above the water.
Ichigo did not realize his mouth had fallen open and was a little dry until he had gotten his bearings. For a moment, he thought he had walked into the wrong house. But no, that was the old garden wall, and there was the stone table he had sat at so many times while polishing his sword.
And a naked woman bathing in his spring.
Ichigo cleared his throat. "Um, excuse me?"
He heard the woman yelp in shock, before turning around to face him. Okay, he had just seen her breasts full-on. Small breasts. Ichigo did not know what to do, how to react. The woman yelped again as she realized her mistake and hurriedly turned back around.
"I-I am sorry!" Ichigo turned back to the table, away from the spring. "I'm not looking now." Not looking... now? Way to sound like a pervert, Kurosaki.
He heard the water splash about as the woman apparently got over to the end of the spring to retrieve her clothes. Ichigo's thoughts were running in circls. Why was she bathing here, in his house? Was she an intruder? Maybe a guest his Otousan had invited over? How come he had never seen her before in the village?
Ichigo waited for a bit, as he heard the ruffling of cloth. "Er, are you done?" When no one replied, Ichigo spoke again. "I'm turning around, okay?" Had she run off?
Ichigo turned back to the spring and it was now peaceful and empty. His eyes travelled to the opposite side of the onsen and he saw her then. She was a rather petite woman, standing with her hands on her hips, now dressed in simple white commoner robes.
"How dare you!" Ichigo was surprised when the woman spoke. Her voice was not soft, it was firm and strong and betrayed a usual tinge of authority to it. She jabbed a finger in the air at him. "I will have the guards upon you in the blink of an eye!" He focused on the woman who was now glaring at him. Her short hair hung in wet strands around her oval face and she had very big, violet eyes.
"You just about took my line, lady." Ichigo leaned against the stone table. He gave her a lengthy stare down the body and saw the woman take a defensive step back. "You are in my house, using my bath place, and you speak like you actually have some rights."
"Y-Your house?" The woman spluttered. As Ichigo watched, her eyes darted about the place, taking in the tiled roofs, the main house from which Ichigo had just stepped out of, the garden walls. It seemed as if she was just registering her environment for the very first time.
Was this girl really stupid? Or drugged perhaps?
"Yes, my house. And you are in my bath. If we were to call the guards as you said before, I'm afraid they will be upon you."
Ichigo watched as the bewildered expression on the woman's face smoothed out into a smile. "You think so? That's how much you know, boy." She looked up at the night sky and cursed softly under her breath, before looking up at Ichigo. "Fortunately for you, I'm running late already." She picked up a drawstring bag at her feet. "I'd have to say your onsen is decent enough, but not so the hospitality. Catch." She flung something across the water and Ichigo caught the maroon bag. It was tied up with a red string and felt heavy. "Wha-
"I'd hate to admit it but I was indeed trespassing. I thought this was a bathhouse that had closed down for the day." She ignored the disbelieving look on the man's face and gestured at the bag in his hands. "That might help blow off some of your steam."
Ichigo untied the bag and caught sight of the amount of coins inside. What the hell. He looked up quickly. "I don't-
The raven-haired intruder was already gone.
"Pssttt, stand up straight, Kurosaki-san!"
Ichigo stifled a yawn and looked to his right. "Ishida." His black-haired assistant threw him a dirty look. "If you nod off right now, you could be beheaded for disrespecting the royalty!"
"You know rules never did sit well with me."
Both men looked up when they heard the royal drums start up. "I don't like stuck-up royalty either," Ichigo whispered to Ishida and earned a patronizing look from his work colleague.
"Well, we have to protect the royalty as we escort them, whether you like it or not," Ishida whispered back. "This time, it's the princess."
"Not another whiny, high-pitched woman." Ishida smothered his laughter with much effort.
Ichigo smiled silently before his head turned up as the royal family walked out in front of the officers. The General-in-Command opened up the official scroll and began the proceedings. Ichigo lost himself in a daydream while standing upright.
"... And to give our hearts and lives for the safety and well-being of Princess Rukia."
Ichigo snapped out momentarily to note the name. Princess Rukia? Cute name, but not so much royalty.
"Thank you for all your oaths."
Ichigo's eyes widened at the quiet voice. That firm, determined voice, with just the tiniest hint of practiced gentleness and authority. His head swept up and he saw her then. She looked different this time. Her hair wasn't wet or hanging on her face, this time it was held up with golden pins and a single flower at the back. Red, expensive silk robes adorned with sakura patterns covered her body, not white cotton robes.
The violet eyes stayed the same.
As Ichigo looked up, her eyes locked onto his. And as he watched, the violet orbs widened as his brown ones did when he had heard her voice just now. Then they narrowed, and Ichigo did not like that look in her eyes. It was one he had seen in predators, in cats when they caught a mouse.
The military unit watched as the Princess walked down to the body of guards to greet each of them individually. Then she stopped before their gifted young General.
"Oh… so you are the… guard." The princess smiled an almost evil smile. "What is your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Ichigo. My name is Rukia. I look forward to working with you."
And that hell of a princess worked him off alright. Ichigo remembered all the horrible things he was forced to do. He was ordered to get tea for her almost twenty times a day, earning surprised looks and giggles on every trip. One time, she sent him out alone to get a stuffed rabbit in the village, on other times, a local snack or drink. On one horrible occasion, he had to actually mop the floor in the seventh gathering hall in the palace. She knew how to pull all the bad strings on him, and she did all of them. Ichigo got into arguments with her all the time, though not in front of a living being. When they weren't arguing, they were giving each other death glares.
But in spite of their conflicts, Ichigo grew to see the Princess as a masked entity. The image she projected in front of everyone else was not the real Princess Rukia, and Ichigo realized that he alone had been interacting with the real Rukia when she wasn't being formal and cold. It was surprising that a noble like her actually enjoyed the cheap rice cakes from the village, instead of the royal culinary dishes. It was surprising that she opted for a simple sugarcane drink that she ordered Ichigo to get for her secretly, when she had other more expensive options to choose from. It was amazing that she wanted the dusty stuffed rabbit from the village toymaker when she could easily order the royal counterpart to make her one. That, and the fact that she actually loved toys.
It went on like that for weeks.
Until something unexpected happened.
He remembered when he had tasted her lips for the very first time, for a very unexpected reason. He had been appointed to guard Princess Rukia across the state for a day trip. Halfway through, they had been ambushed by bandits and the men left heavily injured. Ichigo had dragged Rukia out of her sedan chair despite her protests to stay and protect her maids, before making an escape on foot, the robbers in pursuit. They took a trail into the forest but accidentally plunged into a pit hole designed to trap wild boars.
As they stood quietly in the dark pit and awaited the arrival of the enemies, Rukia told Ichigo she had wanted to do so many things before dying.
She told him sadly then that there were so many things she had not done in her life that she wanted to. Ichigo remembered every single one of them. She said she wanted to catch a lionhead rabbit with her own hands because she felt they were the cutest. She wanted to dance in a snowy field during winter, she wanted to eat pickled cucumbers without her handmaidens watching and burp when she was done. She wanted to steal her Nii-sama's art piece which she said he kept heavily guarded in his bedchambers, she wanted to ride a horse without someone telling her to be careful. And she said she wanted to kiss a man senseless, and finally get married to the one she loved.
Ichigo had laughed at her dreams and told her they were trivial, and then they had started arguing all over again in the pit. Then Ichigo's sharp ears had caught sounds from many meters away and knew their time was almost up. He had acted on impulse.
He had never told her to this day, but he found all her dreams fascinating. And so, he pinned her against the wall of the pit and lowered his head down to hers before brushing her lips softly with his.
At least, she would feel what it was to kiss someone… and he wasn't exactly inexperienced either.
But he had not counted on her lips being so soft… or warm. He had not counted on them being the sweetest he had ever tasted, had not counted on his heart beginning to pound fast as he kissed her right there in the pit. He had not counted on his eyes slowly sliding close as he savoured the feel of his lips on her soft, soft ones.
When he drew back, her cheeks were pink and she looked flustered. Ichigo had grinned at her mischievously before seeing stars as she smacked him hard across his left cheek. Ichigo pulled himself together when he noticed that the sounds were almost at the mouth of the pit now. He swiftly pulled the princess towards him and locked her in his arms, sheltering her. At least if they threw spears in, he would minimize the wounds on her body, maybe even saving her life if they did not come to check for the dead.
She did not cry or tremble. She stayed still in his arms and when he heard her whisper his name, Ichigo felt something move within him that he did not want to identify.
When the voices finally drew nearer, Ichigo looked up and the combined feelings of happiness and embarrassment rushed through him. He could see the familiar faces of his men and guards of the palace. They were saved, but the embarrassment of what they went through in the pit stayed.
The following day, Ichigo was ordered to escort princess Rukia out to a formal ceremony. But halfway through the journey, he led her away into the hills leaving a panicked trio of handmaidens behind to be soothed by Ishida. And in the hills, he assisted Rukia to catch her very first pair of lionhead rabbits. They placed them into a woven basket Ichigo had brought along and Rukia spent the next two hours playing happily with the rabbits before surprisingly letting them go in the end. They walked back together in the late evening sun and she told him she had had the best outing she had ever had in her life.
Three days later, she came to his barrack office and dragged him off to the woods where she had prepared pickled cucumbers. Both of them then spent the evening finishing up the savoury food and burping to their hearts' content.
The next week, Prince Byakuya's art statute went missing from his sleeping chambers, sending the entire palace into chaos. Ichigo was caught and briefly whipped for his crime, before the statute was returned to the cold, handsome Prince. Before then, Rukia had already gazed starry-eyed at the supposed 'masterpiece', a statute Ichigo secretly thought belonged in the farthest rubbish dumps out of town. When Rukia found out about Ichigo's punishment, the young princess sneaked out to visit him that night, armed with a patronizing speech and a bottle of massage oil. It was the first time Ichigo was so uncomfortable to take off his clothes in the presence of a woman. And when his heart leapt as she laid her gentle hands on his back, he knew he was a lost cause.
He, Kurosaki Ichigo, the able and skillful warrior had fallen in love with the princess Rukia. In the middle of everything, he had fallen in love with her, the one woman he could not fall in love with.
He knew he had fallen in love with her a long time ago. He had probably started to love her from the moment he saw her, so beautiful as she stood in the deep water of his onsen. He had loved her when she had bashfully scolded him in her embarrassment, even though it had not been her place to even do so. He had loved her as she told him with brave eyes all the things she had wanted to do in her life, when they thought Death was approaching. He had loved her with each second of time he spent with her.
Ichigo had promised to train Rukia in physical combat and swordsmanship on earlier occasions. He made good on the promise and both princess and young general was soon training in the woods three times a week. Here, Rukia impressed him as well, displaying an agility and strength one would not associate with a princess who spent most of her time in the palace grounds. The training hours were set in the evening, after Ichigo had completed his duties for the day and when Rukia could sneak out when her maids were having their rest and dinner. But soon enough, both of them found themselves coming earlier and earlier to the woods and leaving much later afterward. Sometimes, they even took a trip up to the mountains after training to watch the sun set together.
Ichigo smiled slightly as he looked at the thing on his carved wooden office desk. He slowly picked it up and placed it safely into his robes. It was nearing evening and he was about to go see Rukia for training. Ichigo could feel a smile starting to curve his lips as he finished cleaning up his desk. He started to head out when the door opened and Ishida walked in.
"Ishida." Ichigo smiled slightly. "I will see you tomorrow."
"Er, Ichigo? I just received a message, a private message for you… from one of the palace handmaidens."
Ichigo's brown eyes widened slightly.
"The princess says she won't be able to make it today. And she sends her apologies."
Ichigo immediately felt the warm, happy feeling in his chest start to deflate. It shouldn't be any problem, things pop up once in a while. But the young General couldn't help feeling upset. It was almost evening, the message had came in so late. And today wasn't any normal training, today was…
'It's fine, Kurosaki. Get a grip on yourself.' Ichigo scolded himself.
"You alright?" Ishida was staring at Ichigo with a curious expression on his face. "I think I know why she might not be free. There is a huge royal dinner in the palace today. Haven't you heard?" Ishida nodded to himself. "It's the Lover's Day today." Ishida' face's suddenly took on an inappropriate dreamy expression. "And when two lovers exchange tokens on this day, they acknowledge the bond and love they harbour for each other, and the desire for it never to end. I heard the palace sent out invitations to premieres and princes from neighbouring states. And I think- Hey, Ichigo, where are you going?"
The General had already walked to the door. He did not turn back at his assistant. "I'm going home. See you tomorrow, Ishida."
But Ichigo did not head home. His mind wanted so much to go back home and sleep it off but his feet walked him to the familiar clearing in the woods, a road he had taken one too many times, and a road his heart would begin to lift happily with each step.
So she had a dinner to attend to today, a dinner where she would be socializing with males of a higher class and nobility. Ichigo suspected Prince Byakuya was behind this, he had long thought Rukia's cold brother was starting to detect the close relationship between the both of them.
Today was the Lover's day.
Ichigo could not help hoping that Rukia had skipped the dinner and came to the woods anyway to train with him. He placed his bag on the dusty ground and took out his sword. Soon, the swift swish of the blade could be heard among the trees as the talented warrior took out his frustration in expertly-executed moves. This continued until the sun set and the moon and stars came out in the velvet sky. When it was very late at night, Ichigo finally stopped his training and went home with a heavy body and heart.
Ichigo unlocked the door to his house and closed it. A storm was brewing in the skies, thunder was rumbling in the distance and he could almost smell the rain already. The weather matched his mood perfectly. The house was very quiet, he knew his father had taken his younger sisters back to the hometown for a week. He walked down the path to the gardens, wanting to take a moment to cool down before heading off for a bath and then sleep.
When he got to the gardens, Ichigo's alert brown eyes caught sight of a dark figure standing at the stone table overlooking the garden. An intruder! Ichigo's hand immediately flew to his sword, but his heart immediately registered the familiar back of the person.
Rukia yelped slightly in surprise as she turned, her violet eyes wide.
'She must have sneaked in through the hole again.'
"I, uh… Good evening." Rukia smiled awkwardly. "I'm trespassing again."
Ichigo said nothing and just watched her. All his anger and disappointment at not seeing her for the day in the woods had diminished completely, only to be replaced by the slight flicker of hope, and curiosity. Why had she come here? Did she wanted to have a bath?
"I... had a dinner event in the palace, Nii-sama threw a banquet. There were many princes and premieres present, so I had to make an appearance. I…"
Ichigo felt his anger start to brew again. He wanted to tell her to shut up, that he didn't want to listen to her socializing happily with those rich, marvelous men. It was the Lover's Day, wasn't it? The dinner had obviously been a match-making event.
"Why are you telling me this?" His voice came out a little harsh.
Rukia looked up in surprise. "I…"
"And why are you here?"
Rukia blinked. "I… came to see you."
"We can train another day. Today's almost over."
"I didn't come to see you to train!" This time, Rukia's voice was loud and slightly angry.
"Well then?" Ichigo challenged.
Rukia looked at him, her expression furious but confused. She opened her mouth but closed it back. "I can't remember what it was for. Probably some stupid reason. I won't be bothering you." She turned away from the table and stalked off. As Ichigo watched, she took a running leap onto the side of the boulder near the wall and onto the low roof, before jumping down to the other side. Ichigo watched her disappear, his heart sinking. She had actually come here and they had fought.
Ichigo let out the breath he had been holding and turned to put his sword on the table. His eyes widened when he caught sight of the white paper lying on it. He picked up the papyrus.
Surprise! (you will probably read this with messy hair and bad breath in the morning)! I thought you would like this. Your sword is ugly, it needs a little more jazz at the handle. And… happy Lover's day.
Dinner last night was horrible, those stuck-up people.'
It was then that Ichigo noticed the black-and-red sword tassel sitting next to the note. He picked it up. It was apparently made of very good silk, woven together at the center before letting out at the end into two individual strands of black and red. It would have been very expensive.
Suddenly, Ichigo caught the sound of hurried footsteps running in the distance. And as if by magic, Rukia appeared on the roof once again before she jumped down into the garden. She ran up to the table and stopped when she saw Ichigo standing there, the tassel and note in his hand.
A pink tint immediately appeared in her cheeks.
"Give it back!" Rukia shouted and she walked forward furiously. She made a grab at the tassel and note but Ichigo moved out of her way.
"But you gave it to me!" Ichigo held the tassel over his head, where Rukia could not reach for it.
"No, I didn't!"
"Who's Strawberry then?"
"It's none of your business!" Rukia jumped up angrily, frustrated that she could not reach higher. Furious, she started hitting Ichigo, hoping to cause him enough pain to drop the note. "I said give it back!"
"Stop hitting me, will you?"
"Give it back to me! You have no right!"
Rukia's eyes widened as Ichigo suddenly brought both his arms to her shoulders and held her firmly in place. The surprising gesture was enough to silence her. "Would you please listen to me this one time?" This time, Ichigo's voice was soft.
"I was… angry." Rukia's eyes widened at Ichigo's voice. "I waited in the woods until nightfall. I kept waiting and hoping you would turn up. But how could I? You are… the princess."
Rukia looked up at Ichigo. He was not looking at her, just a point past her shoulder. It was the first time he had ever spoken of their differences in rank. That had always remained an unspoken ghost floating along with them, out of sight but never out of their thoughts.
"You have royal friends and you ought to spend time with them. They are beautiful people, rich, well-mannered. They are never rough, sweaty, or speak to you in raised voices. They are… not like me."
Rukia's eyes widened.
"I…" Ichigo released her and placed the tassel back on the table. He reached into the front of his robes and took out something silver. "I got this for you a few days ago, and I wanted to give it to you today. But I lost my temper." He took Rukia's hand and placed the silver bracelet with the bunny trinket into her hand, before closing it. He smiled softly at her. "It's nothing to those glorious presents you get at banquets but…" Ichigo shrugged. "You can throw it awa-
"Can you put it on for me?"
Ichigo's head shot up, his eyes meeting Rukia's. Her big violet eyes were bright as she held out her right hand, and the bracelet.
"Oh... okay." Ichigo reached out and took the bracelet. He strung it across her fair skin and fastened the clasp easily over her wrist. When he was done, he took a step back.
"It… looks beautiful," Ichigo remarked awkwardly.
"Arigatou." This time, Rukia's voice was soft.
"Um, happy Lover's day."
"Happy Lover's day."
And when two lovers exchange tokens on this day, they acknowledge the bond and love they harbour for each other, and the desire for it never to end.
Ichigo should laugh, and point out how awkward this all was. He was standing right in front of Rukia, but it was so hard to look her in the face all of a sudden. He could feel tiny drops of rain water hit him sparingly.
Rukia spoke up. "I wanted to escape and go see you in the woods, but the maids said they would tell on me if I missed out on the banquet because it was important for Nii-sama. So I went to the dinner. But I really…" Rukia looked up, and her eyes betrayed fear but they remained firm. "… want to be with you."
Rain drops were increasingly dotting the ground but Ichigo and Rukia did not move away to find shelter, they stood there and looked at each other. Because this was the only time, this was probably the only time either could say these things, speak of the feelings they had been struggling with, the feelings that kept them awake at night, the confusion, the hope that perhaps they had something more than friendship. It was alright, they could say it now and if the other party did not reciprocate those feelings, they could just laugh it off as the after-effects of too much lovey-dovey feelings in the air.
"I was very angry that you could not come. It shouldn't have mattered if it was just a normal dinner. Because this time, I was jealous." Rukia's eyes widened when Ichigo spoke. "For once, I wanted to own a palace, own a country, have some status." A rough, calloused hand touched Rukia's cheek tentatively and she felt the warmth erupt in her body at the touch. "And then maybe I could… love you."
Rukia felt tears begin to mar her vision but she saw Ichigo step forward, closer to her. She could feel the steady raindrops on her head now, her hair was already wet. But she wasn't going anywhere. She wanted Ichigo to come closer so she could touch him, touch him like she had always yearned to. Touched him like she had always did in her dreams. She felt his finger move under her chin and tipped her face up, before finally feeling those warm lips on hers for the second time in her life.
Ichigo kissed Rukia softly. It was just the both of them standing in the heavy rain, on the night of the Lover's Day. There were no bandits, nor deep pits to be trapped in. There was no impending threat of death, nothing. No excuses this time. He had no reason to kiss her.
No viable reason at all except… a desperate desire of simply wanting to kiss her.
Ichigo pressed his lips harder against hers, desperate to show her how long he had waited, how much he had wanted her, how he had suffered. His hand stayed at her cheek, the other pulled her close at the waist. Ichigo felt her small hands move up his chest, before the heavenly feel of her fingers tangling in his hair. He speeded up the kiss then, tangling his tongue with hers, pulling her wet body against his, hear her moan as his own escaped into her mouth.
He took her first time that very night on the Lover's Day. Drenched to their skins, they finally retreated into the house where they tried to dry themselves off. Ichigo never could remember how it began, but how all the unbelievable things that followed were forever etched into his mind.
He just remembered looking at her pink lips as they pouted beautifully, watched her chest heave up and down as she panted slightly from their intense kiss. Ichigo himself had been breathing heavily but suddenly, it wasn't due to the lack of air from the kiss. He watched the bare patch of skin on her shoulder, where her wet robes had partially slid down a little to reveal a glimpse of tantalizing porcelain, the whitest of white he had ever seen.
And suddenly she was no princess. She was a woman, the woman he wanted to make his. He wasn't a strong warrior now, or a man of integrity and principles. He was just a man, riddled down with rushes of desire and passion, and the need to possess… to mate. And he had finally found her.
He remembered looking into her face, and the seductive glimmer of those violet orbs were all that snapped the restraints of him. He remembered pulling the wet knots away from her robes, as she undid his own. He pressed her against the wall, they hadn't even made it to the bed. Her legs straddled him easily and she moaned as he took her lips again in a ferocious kiss. Their robes fell away soon enough and his hands and mouth began their erotic exploration of the treasures she offered.
He remembered how her wet skin slid so pleasurably against his, slick and smooth. His lips moved down her fair neck to her chest, suckling harshly at her modest breasts as her nipples grew taut with her arousal. Her back arched in pleasure, her legs tightening around him. And the way she moaned in his ears, her voice filled with longing and erotic desire calling out syllables of his name, drove his desire to greater heights.
When he entered her for the first time, he took care to be gentle and not hurt her as much. When she cried out softly in pain, he stilled himself to allow her to adjust to him, before starting with slow, gentle thrusts. He was big but soon enough, she molded to his shape. Her slender legs wrapped against his waist, pushing him closer to her.
From that moment on, Ichigo lost control of his senses and desire. His thrusts became harder and rougher, and Rukia kept up with him, rocking her hips and moving rhythmically against the wall. He growled and drove her deeper into the wall each time an unbelievable bolt of pleasure shot through his body from their sexes rubbing together. She bit him hard on the shoulder, the scraping of her teeth on his skin only fuelling his desire to pummel harder into her.
When they reached climax, Ichigo's body trembled in a haze of ecstasy as he released into Rukia. His mouth covered hers, smothering her orgasmic screams as her body shuddered against his.
He was rough with her that first time, only to be matched by her own passionate ferocity. It only made him fall ever more deeply in love with her. They stumbled into the bedroom and then through the night, Ichigo made sweet love to his Rukia.
Rukia ran out of the palace on a daily basis now and Ichigo walked around his day duties with a warm glow in his heart, thinking about seeing his woman later in the evening. They spent their time training, running around in the fields, and Rukia even ate dinner with the Kurosaki family and laughed at Kurosaki Isshin's jokes.
"What's this?" Rukia looked at Ichigo and then down at the orange and green jade pendant he had just placed in her palm. They had been riding horses in the fields and were now resting against a shady tree.
"A present." Ichigo smiled. "Do you like it?"
Rukia nodded and smiled. "It's very beautiful."
"It belonged to my mother."
Rukia's eyes widened. "You have to take it back, it's very important." She shook her head and tried to give it back to Ichigo but he clasped her hand around the pendant.
"My mother told me to give it to the woman I would love when I grew up."
Rukia's eyes widened.
"And now... I have finally found her."
"Arigato, Ichigo." Rukia's eyes were soft and beautiful.
Ichigo smiled but Rukia looked down at his hand. Then she looked up and swiftly punched him in the stomach.
As Ichigo reeled from the pain, Rukia untied the hand band he had always wore on his wrist.
"What was that for?"
"I'm taking this hand band too."
"You could have just asked nicely! I'd have given it to you!"
"I'm taking it to repair it. It's looking very battered." Rukia smiled. "You wouldn't give it to me, you'd say it looks fine."
"Well, it looks fine!"
Rukia chuckled but Ichigo had already tackled her down onto the grass. "But true enough, if there's one place I would never look, it would be my hand band." Then he looked at Rukia, his eyes slightly hooded. "You can take everything of mine anytime you want though." Ichigo's voice was husky as he bent towards Rukia for a kiss.
Ichigo remembered when he was struck down by a spear in the chest when he took up the duty of guarding the premier of a state. This premier was an old, respected man who cared sincerely for the welfare of the people and as a result, was heavily targeted for assassination by money-hungry politicians. Nobody dared took up the job but Ichigo did.
He safeguarded the premier to his mansion, but suffered a serious chest wound in the process. Rukia had stayed by his bedside and when he awoke, she greeted him with an angry smack on his chest, but he knew she was trying not to let her tears run over. The night after, when she came to visit again, he pulled her onto his bed and made love to her. And when he was certain she was fast asleep in his arms, he whispered into her ear that he would never ever make her worry about him again.
A few months passed quickly for Ichigo and Rukia in blissful happiness. Until Ichigo's worst fear came true.
Following a tip-off from the guards in the palace, Prince Byakuya realized the true nature of Ichigo and Rukia's relationship. The next day, he arranged for Rukia to be wedded off to a fine prince in a neighbouring state. Rukia struggled against this wish and was secretly locked up for three days before Byakuya went to visit her with a cruel proposition. In exchange for sparing Ichigo's life, she would get married.
Rukia could only say yes.
Ichigo waited in their meeting place in the woods every night. But ever since the marriage announcement, she never came.
He understood easily, understood it as easily as he had understood every secret look they shared, every word they had not spoken out loud.
It was best for the both of them, that she did not come.
And yet, Ichigo waited in the woods everyday. He cursed himself for every step he took to the little clearing, cursed himself for still harbouring hope that she might come to see him. He cursed himself when his head would jerk up at the slightest of sounds, only to find that it was a wild squirrel.
He cursed himself for twenty-three days.
Then on the eve of the twenty-third day, when the commoners were busy lighting up the fireworks in preparation for Princess Rukia's big day tomorrow, a timid knock jolted Ichigo from his reverie. He got up from the table where he had been staring absentmindedly into space and opened the door.
Ichigo stared into the pair of violet orbs now, beautiful violet eyes so designed to trick and seduce the most unwilling of men.
He wanted to say so much to her, wanted to let out all his pent-up anger and frustration. Why hadn't she come to train at all? She was still an unmarried woman, was she not? Did she not think he would wait for her?
But all of a sudden, Ichigo didn't know what to say. Didn't know what to say at all.
It was the eve of her wedding. What was she doing here?
"Hisashiburi, Ichigo." Her voice was so soft, and his heart skipped a beat at the address.
"I… came to r-return your hand band."
"Ah." She had never stuttered before when she spoke to him. And Ichigo knew, soon enough he wouldn't even have stutters to wonder about. He watched as she extended her hand and in her palm was his old, battered brown band.
"Thank you," he said simply and accepted the hand band, taking care not to touch her hand.
"And I…" Rukia reached into her pouch before extracting something from it. Ichigo saw the flash of orange and green and immediately knew what it was. His heart felt as if a dozen ice shards had penetrated them. After twenty-three days of waiting, his heart should have shriveled up, accepted the reality. But he wasn't prepared for this.
"I thought… you should keep this," Rukia spoke softly as she held the jade heirloom out to him. His mother's jade heirloom. The jade his mother had told him to give to the woman he loved when he grew up, and which he did. The jade which was now… returned to him.
"Thank you." A strong hand clasped around the pendant and Rukia let go off the red string.
She deliberated awkwardly in front of him, her eyes set down, almost shy. Ichigo opened his mouth but his throat felt parched and dry. What was wrong with him?
"So… your wedding, tomorrow."
Rukia looked up immediately, her eyes wide. Then something passed through those violet eyes before she nodded. "Yes." She suddenly laughed softly. "I guess I won't be bothering you much anymore." She reached forward and slapped Ichigo somewhat softly on his arm. Even the gesture was awkward. Her hand limply fell back to her side.
"You will be happy." Ichigo wanted to phrase it as a question. He wanted to question her, was this what she really wanted? Things like saving her, taking an arrow in his chest just to keep her strong heart beating, he could do all those. But things like ensuring she could always have the best silk to wear, that she could have hot water for baths at her disposal… no, he wasn't well-equipped there at all.
He knew Rukia would prefer the harsh cotton fabric of the commoners' kimono when given a chance. He just didn't know if he would allow that, allow a life of living the harsh way for the woman he loved when she wasn't borne into this life in the first place. They had shared so much, and yet so much remained unspoken between them. And yet it was the best thing between them like that.
He wanted the best for her. And if he wasn't the best, then he would not be selfish. Because he… loved her.
Rukia looked up. Ichigo wondered when she had started taking after her Nii-sama. He couldn't quite read her expression this time.
"I will." Her usual rough voice was soft. "Take care, Ichigo." Her body moved away from his, a gesture to signal that she was leaving.
He wanted to pull her roughly into his arms and rip her clothes off. Then he would make love to her, make her feel like she had never felt before. Then maybe she wouldn't leave, maybe then she would consider.
But he didn't.
"Goodbye, Ichigo." Her voice was a whisper. Then she turned and walked away from him.
Rukia cursed herself for being the pathetic lovelorn girl she was. She was so different from what she was mere moths ago. It was amazing how everything could turn around in that period of time, how meeting one man could change all of it. It was amazing how she… fell in love.
She had walked as slowly as she could out of Ichigo's house, praying so hard that he would call out to her, tell her not to go. He had not even sent her out on her way.
What are we, Ichigo?
She could not expect him to want to take her in, could she? She knew Ichigo was a very carefree man, he would not liked to be tied down with rules and formality, much alike to herself. It was why she had loved him, because he treated her the way she had always dreamt of being treated and because he brought out the best in her. It was why she had loved him, because he fearlessly called her a midget and carried her on his back despite her protests and threats. It was why she had loved him, because ranks and rules mattered little to him. It was why she had loved him, because he would never ever marry a princess. But then she fell in love with him and unfortunately for her, Rukia was a princess.
Rukia cursed her identity once again for the thousandth time. If she had just been a village girl he had met, would things have been different? Would Ichigo have accepted her readily?
She knew for sure he wanted her. Those moments of passion they had shared together were mindblowing, evident of the desire he harboured for her. Rukia took heart in knowing that her first time, her treasured symbol of purity, will always belong to the man she loved.
She was going to get married to that prince she didn't know. And then one day, she was going to receive news of Ichigo marrying a worthy and very lucky woman from the village, or maybe even a princess from a faraway state, granted to him as a reward for his services to the country.
Rukia felt her heart twist horribly at the possibility. She briefly contemplated the idea of running back to his house and demanding that he marry her instead. Then she would push him backwards into his own house, strip their clothes off and show him how much of a woman she could really be. She really could do it, blackmail him into marrying her, fake a pregnancy, whatever.
Whatever it takes so she could have him by her side for always.
But no, she would not hold him back like that. He was kind enough to spend so much of his time with her already, and not tell her to go play with her maids in the first place.
And all those nights?
She remembered the time she went to visit Ichigo when he had regained his consciousness after almost being speared on a stick. He had pulled her gently into his arms without another word. Then one thing followed the other and he was undressing her slowly, his lips moving tenderly across her neck.
She became his woman again that night. And he thought she had fallen asleep but she heard the apology he whispered into her ears, and the promise never to make her worry about him ever again. Rukia had stayed still in Ichigo's arms, holding back her tears and wishing she could stay there forever.
Rukia closed her eyes as she swallowed something bitter that had risen in her throat. It was going to be a long night.
"Rukia!" Ichigo jerked and woke up with a start. He winced slightly as he felt his stiff back and neck muscles, realizing that he had fallen asleep on the cold stone marble table overlooking the onsen. The empty sake bottle was overturned.
His eyes widened as he took in the bright morning sunlight now playing into the garden, and onto the sparkling glimmer of the bath water.
It was morning.
Rukia was getting married today.
Ichigo felt that painful stab in his heart again and his hand clenched into a fist. That was when he realized he was holding onto his old hand band, the band that Rukia had returned to him last night.
Ichigo closed his eyes again. As unmanly as it seemed, all he wanted to do right now was to curl into a ball and disappear. Maybe then he could forget about all of this. Maybe then he could forget the pain, forget her. He wasn't going to be able to live through this.
Ichigo opened his eyes again and stared at his hands in exasperation.
The brown eyes widened as he stared at the impossible words.
The maids all giggled and smiled as they looked at Rukia. "You look most beautiful today, Princess Rukia!"
Rukia could only force a stiff smile for their benefit. Her lips felt heavy, her dress felt heavy, her heart felt heavy, everything felt heavy. Her steps were mechanical and stiff as she stepped out of her residential palace into the awaiting sedan chair to the designated temple of ceremony.
As she sat in the sedan chair, Rukia allowed her mind to wander again. She hadn't slept at all last night after she had came back from Ichigo's house. The tears refused to stop and when she finally closed her eyes, she could only see Ichigo's back as he turned away from her. The maids had put down her black eyes to pre-wedding jitters and covered them up expertly with thick white powder.
Now Rukia looked at her pale hands clasped at her lap, nestled amongst the luxurious white silk cloth. If Ichigo saw her now, would he think that she looked beautiful? Rukia's mind wandered to an impossible moment in future, where she walked up to her future husband clad in robes of darkest blue. She would untie his obi neatly while his strong muscled arms tightened around her. And when she looked up, she would see those warm brown eyes and hear him call her 'his little midget' before receiving a hit on the head as an answer. And in the middle of it all, they would seal their wedding night with a kiss, before he whisked her off easily to bed. One more flash and she saw herself running in the wild fields hand-in-hand with him, barefooted in her wornout kimono and he would be piggybacking a small child of five with spiky black hair and soft brown eyes.
It was all impossible now, a bittersweet ending she would never, ever experience in this life.
Rukia felt the bitter tickle start in her throat again but she chuckled.
'Baka. You are the worst idiot I have ever had the misfortune to meet.'
It was alright, she would continue living. Yes, it would be a bitter life of longing and wanting, of always wondering what-ifs, of the love that never came to pass.
She reached into her white long sleeves and took it out.
She was pathetic. She turned the jade over in her hand, the orange and green intermixing together perfectly.
She had returned the jade to Ichigo a few nights ago… but it was a fake. She had taken the jade to an expensive jewelry imitator and requested an identical copy to be made.
The best thing to do would be to let it all go. To destroy every little piece of artifact they had shared, and to forget those moments altogether. But at the last moment, her pathetic little heart refused to let go off the only memory she would have of this man, the man who had came into her life and conquered everything of it. Her hand tightened onto the jade.
As selfish as it may be, she was going to take the jade with her. It was going to be the only memory she had of that orange-haired idiot. That orange-haired idiot she fell in love with.
She reached up and touched her powdered cheeks. She didn't know when the tears had started falling from her eyes again.
You know, there's a lot of things I want to do in my life before I die. I don't want to die with you, a pervert.
Well, Princess, you were the one who got naked in my bath in the first place.
I want to do a lot of things. I want to catch a lionhead rabbit in my own hands, I think they are really cute.
I want to dance bare-footed in a field during winter, I want to feel the cold snow on my feet.
I want to eat pickled cucumbers and burp as much as I want!
And you know? I think Nii-sama is a really great artist. I want to kidnap this top-secret art masterpiece he keeps in his chambers, see what it's like though it's probably really good.
I want to kiss a man senseless.
And I finally want to get married… to the person I love.
You know… if there's one place I would never look… it would be my hand band. You could hide a lot of things there.
Ichigo's eyes were wide as he reached for the band in his palm, which he had turned over in his sleep. The words were written in dark ink, in neat handwriting on the inside of the band.
In the next life, please…
… marry me.
Rukia laughed softly as she wiped her tears from her face. She returned the jade safely to her dress sleeve.
I love you, Ichigo.
She closed her eyes, and surrendered herself to fate.
Ichigo ignored the puzzled questions from his younger sisters as he packed up their belongings and told them to follow Otousan away into the countryside. He was going to have to ask for their forgiveness when this was all over, but he had to keep them out of danger. Otousan probably knew, because he had given Ichigo a knowing look before wishing him luck and asking him if a princess knew how to cook. Ichigo had then dashed through the residence and into the stables. He mounted his faithful horse and took up the reins.
Ichigo placed the jade heirloom safely into his pocket. He could not lose it now, not when he was going to bring home the one woman it belonged to. He didn't care anymore. Even if he was going to have to crawl through glass and walk through fire. Even if he was going to have to beat Prince Byakuya down. Even if he might lose his life trying to get her back.
I'm coming, Rukia…
The brown eyes filled with firm resolution.
Let's make it in this lifetime.
"Protect the Princess!"
Rukia was thrown from her reverie as she felt the sedan chair tilt. She threw out her hands to stop herself from falling to the side. What had just happened?
Rukia had never appreciate how far the temple was from the palace, until this day. An hour's trip felt more like years. She wasn't complaining though. The longer the trip lasted, the longer she would not be someone else's woman. Maybe it could even go on forever. Her tears had dried up and she had resigned herself to bitterness. Rukia had even been repeating her future husband's name over and over again, like a mantra, trying to force her brain to believe that she was soon going to be his wife. Prince Renji... Prince Renji... Prince Renji... She was like a crazy woman, and she had even begun rocking in her seat. Halfway through, the words changed and she was repeating a three-syllable word instead. Ichigo... Ichigo... She couldn't even cry anymore, she had no more tears left. She couldn't even feel, she was numb...
Rukia's head jerked up as she heard the sound of swords clanging against each other. What was happening out there? Were there bandits? In spite of her weakened mental state, Rukia swiftly whipped out her blade from the hidden sheath at the side of the sedan chair. She had brought her sword with her, even if she was going to be wedded today.
Rukia got ready to get out of her sedan chair when the protective screen was whipped aside. She blinked momentarily as the bright sunlight blazed in. Was the sun still shining? How could it still shine like that? Had it not died with her?
Then Rukia's eyes adjusted to the light and she saw... him.
Ichigo stared at Rukia. She was looking slightly dazed, her sword in her hand. Her face was pale and her robes of a royal white with sakura patterns. Her headdress was a mixture of gold and white, with ornamental flowers and pins holding her hair up. She was beautiful. She was never looking like this for another man... ever.
He noticed the dried streaks on her cheeks. She had been crying. Ichigo felt his heart twist slightly, before an unshakeable determination replaced it. He turned around and fought three advancing guards for a bit, before turning urgently back to Rukia.
Then he allowed the soft smile to curve his lips, for just one precious second between the both of them.
"You look beautiful... my Princess."