The latest party has wound down by the time Rukia decides that she should go home ("You could fit in the closet," Ichigo had argued, and she'd rightfully given him the deadliest stare in her arsenal. Though, its effects left much to be desired when he only sighed like it was a great injustice.). Unfortunately, just like the anomaly of hiding out in Ichigo's room instead of out by the common area of his floor, there were still people loitering around – sober enough to make some absurd connection about the activities she and Ichigo were engaged in while inside.
Ichigo grunts at them, rolling his eyes and scowling mulishly. Most back off. Though the ones who've gotten used to this particular temperament of his only continue to tease as they continue on their way out.
Rukia doesn't know which she prefers if she prefers either at all.
Still, with his arm around her shoulders, Ichigo easily shields her from their leers and takes their jabs and hollers with a practiced blank expression. If Rukia hadn't spent the last twenty minutes negotiating with him and his sisters over sleeping arrangements, she'd think Ichigo was exactly what he appeared: angry and stoic, a stereotype in tattoos and black leather.
Despite his insistence on taking her to a nearby carnival the next day ("Your sister said you'd like it. Besides, I owe you for that thing with Inoue."), he wears the exact same expression.
"Seriously, Grumpy," Rukia pokes with an extravagant eye roll, "just because you're out in the sun doesn't mean you get to hiss at everything."
"I go out in the sun," he sniffs.
"Tell that to your pissy face."
In retaliation, he puts her in a loose headlock, and she squirms just enough to escape, accusing him loudly of his ungentlemanly-like behavior which only earns her bemused looks from strangers and outright belly laughs from the walking traffic cone she's claimed as her boyfriend.
Fake-boyfriend, she mentally reminds herself, a mantra she's realized, has to be repeated daily before she forgets what this is – just two people mutually benefiting off each other's company.
He seems to notice, though, when the reminders hit.
Apparently, she has a noticeable shift in expression that is decidedly Not Good, by Ichigo's estimation, and he's working double time to make her life difficult.
First, it had been the cotton candy. Then the old-fashioned photo booth. Then the Fun House with its absurd mirrors and the Haunted House counterpart that has Ichigo's scowl on full display after one of the mascots inside got a little handsy. And now one of those rigged carnival games with a giant Chappy prize.
It's obvious that Ichigo's never been faced with one of these before when he goes into the game swinging – unaware of his odds and losing spectacularly.
In the end, Rukia wins the Chappy and rewards it to him with a smirk. "Because I know you were actually trying to win it for yourself."
He snickers, not denying it, before tucking the stuffed bunny under his arm and then being diverted by a food stand – "The pretzels are the size of your head. I want two."
It's ridiculously easy to forget what this is and what they are to each other, easy for Rukia to forget the mantra entirely when they're perched in the rickety metal basket of a Ferris Wheel; looking up at the clouds as they shift and change and drift by from cotton candy pink to swirls of apricot orange.
As the basket descends, their view changes from the clouds to the cars in the distance lighting up in the growing twilight, racing like streams of stars along the highway.
By the time they've touched the ground again, the sky has made its progression from bruised to puce to dusk, and the street lights flicker on with the gentle illumination of a firefly.
"It's pretty," Ichigo notes absently.
"Looking for another tattoo?"
"Only if it's yours."
She snorts, knocking the back of their palms together until he's woven her fingers through the spaces of his before they're both too exhausted to speak anymore.
Rukia has even made the executive decision to use Ichigo as her physical support stand which doesn't work so well when he's made the same executive decision as her.
"Unoriginal," she spits without the bite.
"Lazy," he retorts, and she can only manage a vaguely annoyed noise in reply.
"We should go home."
Neither of them get up from the bench they've commandeered, content enough to just lean against each other with Chappy taking up the seat on Ichigo's other side.
The carnival's both quieter and louder at once; the mixed crowd of friends, students, and families from the afternoon slowly become replaced by couples, though no one she immediately recognizes until she remembers that showing Inoue or Kaien up hadn't been on the agenda today at all. There hadn't been a reason to do this besides wanting to.
"You know," Rukia begins tentatively, "we didn't have to do this." He hums in question, and she lifts her head on his shoulder a little so she can see his face. "You don't owe me for Inoue."
Beneath the glow of the street light, his hair is haloed gold. He tilts his head. "It wasn't entirely for Inoue."
She furrows her brows. "Like, eighty percent?"
"I'd make an argument for at least fifteen, maybe eleven." Ichigo's lip curls at the corner in a slight smile. "Can't I just do something nice for you?"
Rukia untangles her arm from his, blatantly aware of his hand cupping her knee, she takes a breath. "Don't get the wrong idea here, you could be the poster boy for 'How to be a good boyfriend'. Hell, you could write the book."
"But…" She licks her lips anxiously. "We're playing at being in a relationship, remember? You really don't…the only reason we're here right now is that we agreed to fake date."
To that Ichigo is quiet, considering, before, "I don't know about you, but this feels like a real date to me." Her mouth opens and closes wordlessly, and he peers over. "Do you want it to be?"
Her hands twist, a panic ringing in her ears.
It would be easy to say no – to keep things the way they are. But what if what they are is exactly what it's like to actually be with someone? What if it's been real the whole time? It could be just as easy to say yes – and risk so much more than she ever had with Kaien, with anyone else, really.
The possibilities and the counterarguments are loud in her head, drowning out anything else until his hand is in hers and she squeezes – once, twice – I'm sorry.
Ichigo lets out a quiet breath and with a hesitant smile, he nods.
Despite his gracious acceptance, he has to clear his throat before he speaks and even then, his voice is rough and low as he tries to go for casual, "Alright, well, I'm gonna grab something for the road. I'll…"
"Yeah," she murmurs back, smiling apologetically and wishing she could just be a normal person for five goddamn minutes.
Rukia sighs to herself, feeling clammy and cold, and thinks back to her dinner with Hisana the day after the Inoue Incident, as Hisana had taken to calling it.
Just as she expected, talking about her panic attacks led to another. Fortunately, Hisana had put her reading material to the test and knew exactly what to do to keep her grounded. On the couch they ended up cuddling up on, her sister had run through the usual treatment options – the therapy and maybe medication – both of which she was stubborn against because I've been living with it forever, I don't need – Hisana looked incredibly sad at that before she'd said in return living with it doesn't mean you have to endure it.
Rukia still had the number of a therapist in her area – Byakuya said she's highly recommended, and Yoruichi uses art therapy so if nothing else…Hisana had trailed –
From the corner of her eye, she watched Ichigo step to the front of the line at a nearby food stand. While he easily towered over everyone, Rukia didn't miss the way he was hunched over slightly, mouth hard and gaze blank.
Rejection, she mentally supplies, and she sighs against an ache in her chest.
Rukia didn't want to say no.
But she couldn't say yes either.
I'm a mess.
She's startled when she looks up and sees Kaien in front of her, no Yui Mei in sight.
Though her body feels just as exhausted and sluggish as her mind to reply beyond a perfectly passable unimpressed brow.
"I'm not following you or anything, I promise. I just – I saw you here and since you've done a fantastic job of pretending I don't exist ever since I started dating Yui Mei, I just wanted to -"
Ichigo's growled out, "What the hell do you want?" startles them both, and Ichigo looks just as foreboding as he's always imitated. With his scowl and the hint of teeth, his eyes glinted amber, Kaien puts his hands up in defense.
"I just wanted to talk to her which I can do, you don't own her."
"I never said I did." His gaze flickers to hers, and she shakes her head no, I don't want to talk to him, and gets up, reaching automatically for Ichigo's arm to tug him away.
Kaien takes that for what it is, and sighs like this all gives him the greatest pain, following after them with, "I know you're still angry at me."
Inwardly, Rukia snorts. "I think you're overestimating how much I liked you in the first place."
"But I just want you to understand where you went wrong -"
"Me?" she repeats, turning to stop and face him, baffled and furious. "I'm sorry, did I tell you to cheat on me?"
"Well you didn't give me much of a choice," he says, frowning. "And I mean, you seem happier with Kurosaki anyway, wouldn't want you to make the same mistake again. There's no way you've ever kissed him let alone do anything else."
She wants to tell him – God, what? That even if he did, she welcomed it? But that she's too much of a coward to commit to letting him in and tearing everything down? But Ichigo's holding her back, murmuring for only her to hear, "It's not worth it, he's not worth it."
"Don't hold your breath waiting for it, Kurosaki," Kaien continues with an almost disappointed head shake, "I'm just looking out for you. She's as frigid as she looks."
Only then does Ichigo let her go, but only so he can knock Kaien out with a fist to the face over Yui Mei's indignant shout before she's upon them too, yelling about Ichigo being a barbarian and a brute and –
Rukia pulls him away and they get as far as Rukongai without saying a word beyond the furious exhales they intermittently exchange.
She doesn't know why she does it, and she'll tell Hisana so.
But she can't deny that it was, at least a little, a calculated move.
With her mind a mess and Kaien's words spreading like poison, Rukia had decided this was it – this was going to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Ichigo wanted to be with her, and he's heard what happens when you are.
This – this is the end.
Almost two and a half weeks, a new record, she thinks sardonically.
Rukia's always been terrible at good-byes, but for once, she'll be selfish, for once she'll do something just for herself.
It's an awful kiss, really. There's no romanticizing it.
Rukia is still all snarl and teeth as if she could growl out Kaien's words that are no doubt repeating in Ichigo's mind, echoed by the part of him he's been careful to keep from her with musings of why is she like this; is she really as frigid as she seems; do those Ice Queen rumours actually hold water after all the time we've spent together seeing otherwise?
She can taste her own frustration, the unfairness tinged in salt water as it trails down her cheeks – touches her lips – slides down her chin.
Drip, drip, goodbye. Drip, drip, the end.
At first, he's just as furious, just as angry. But once he tastes her tears, without pause, he chases after it, licking into her mouth until she trembles and tingles, and she doesn't realize she's whimpering until he's quietly shushing her.
Despite their obvious difference in height and build, it doesn't seem to cross his mind to simply push her away.
Even if 'no' is always on the table. And it is, it always is. Especially, and more importantly in this.
So, what if their deal entailed Rukia winning at the Ex-Games, she'd never been willingly competing in the first place – and Kaien – Kaien didn't mean this much to her.
Ichigo doesn't owe her this kind of intimacy. He doesn't owe her anything at all.
Not even closure.
Not even goodbye.
It's a miracle in and of itself that they've gotten along as they have grown closer and gotten to know each other the way they did. Her long-awakened crush over him regardless, the degree of his reciprocity isn't guaranteed, and if nothing else, they could've been friends once this was all over.
Friends, she thinks, what a joke.
Friends don't push one another against the wall and press bittersweet fury against their mouths; friends don't run nails, vicious and grounding down their back; friends don't look at each other the way they do – like they're always, almost, about to –
Over her turmoil, Ichigo coaxes her gently until she's no longer pressing him into the wall with the force of her aggression. Between the pass of lips and tongues, he murmurs breathlessly warm against her heated skin, softer, softer.
Whether it's to placate the sting of her embarrassment-of-a-kiss or in response to her overall rigidity, Rukia doesn't know, but her body understands him better in an ancient sort of way that bodies do when pressed together the way they are, and yields to his direction.
That's easier to think about – Ichigo simply teaching her, showing her – proving to anyone that catches them – that Kuchiki Rukia, Ice Queen, can melt too.
And she does –
Whatever walls she's erected seem to thaw with every touch of him, liquifying what remains within until it feels like it's pooling between her thighs, leaving her pliant and unbalanced; forgiving and sweet in his arms until he's leaning his weight against hers.
The wall behind her doesn't seem like this hard, angry, violent thing it was mere minutes ago. It's as firm as he is, unwavering in its support as he cradles her cheek and slides his tongue against hers in an exchange she can't comprehend but knows all the words to.
All Ichigo replies with is her name, over and over, reverent and caressing; as playful as a breeze, as devastating as the rising wind of a hurricane.
He punctuates each declaration with a return of her lips against his like he intends to leave a permanent mark through contact and will alone. Eventually, he's satisfied, his speech written, the storm of him wrangled until there's nothing to say it was even there – except for perhaps their labored exhales, loud in the quiet of the hallway.
Faintly, Rukia can hear the sounds of another party in full swing just beyond them, but all she can think about is that his eyes are so dark she can just barely make out the gold ring of his irises, that his mouth is obscenely red.
She did this.
Not Yui Mei.
She'll get to remember Ichigo like this. That's more than she could ask for.
Turning against the palm cradling her cheek, she presses another kiss, gentler and softer against the heart of it, the brand of something wicked this way comes bids her farewell before she pulls away and flees.
Ichigo doesn't follow.