Rukia remembers the first time she had coffee, in the world of the living. It was disgusting, dark and bitter and strong enough to make her choke. Only her shinigami training had kept her from spewing the vile liquid out, and she watched Ichigo warily, wondering why he was trying to poison her with this. He had taken one look at her eyes though, and realized something was off. Then instead of making fun of her, as she had expected, he patiently showed her how to add cream and sugar.
It was like a whole new world had opened up in her cup, and suddenly this coffee was not so terrible. He had smiled and watched her drain the coffee, meeting her eyes over the rim of the cup. Rukia's heart had started palpitating at that moment, confusing her.
"This gigai-" She had put the cup down, her brow furrowing. "It seems to be malfunctioning."
"What is happening?" Ichigo had asked, concern on his face.
Rukia took his palm and put it on her chest, eyes wide. "There is a pounding in my heart. Can you feel it? I have not done anything and it is pumping so fast as if I just ran a far distance."
Ichigo's cheeks had flushed a bright red and he snatched his hand back. "That's what coffee does, Rukia. This is why humans drink it." He explained. "That's the caffeine in the liquid."
She started to feel slightly dizzy, and a buzzing was ringing in her ears. Ichigo had taken her hand. "Come, you need to walk this off. You're not used to caffeine yet."
Rukia suddenly felt like she could see EVERYTHING. She pointed out the line of ants dragging a piece of bread, and the flowers blooming in the jasmine bushes, and the man across the street with his hair combed over, and three red cars in a row. Rukia could hear the jackhammer two streets down, the line of kindergarteners holding hands and crossing the streets, and the mad thump thump thump of her own heart as she skipped down the sidewalk. To her horror, she could not stop talking about anything and everything. It was like some other thing had taken control of her body and was making her say everything that crossed her mind.
But Rukia had also started to feel a strange euphoria, and she had looked down to find her fingers laced with Ichigo's. It was strange. All her senses were super magnified but she had not noticed that she had been holding Ichigo's hand for the past half-hour. Her feet had stopped.
"What is it?" Ichigo had asked. She stared at their intertwined hands for a moment, then looked up.
Rukia had underestimated their height differences and brushed her nose against his. She watched, fascinated, as Ichigo's whiskey coloured eyes had dropped down to her lips, and then slowly slid their way back up to hers. Heat had shot through her, swirling from the base of her stomach to spread through her system. She had pulled away, shaken, her heart pounding louder than ever. "Pervert." To mask her suddenly fluttering insides, she had punched him in the face - hard- and scampered away, feeling oddly exhilarated.
And yet the next day, she had another cup of coffee, and the next, and the next, learning to appreciate the rich dark flavour (which she also killed with four heaping teaspoons of sugar.) But she had never been able to duplicate the thrill of that first cup.
Right now, Rukia thinks, she would kill for a cup of coffee. Okay, maybe not kill, but horribly maim and disfigure. She lets out a disgusted sigh at her own weakness.
"So, want to tell me what's going on?" Renji crouches next to her on the snowy rooftop in Karakura Town. It is New Year's Eve, and they have been dispatched to the World of the Living to assist the shinigami assigned there. The large gatherings of people would be irresistible to Hollows. The angle of the roof has them standing on the peak, watching the big crowd gather in the town square.
"Humans like to celebrate the passing of the past year and the arrival of the next by counting down to midnight." Rukia says absently, her hands on her hips. "They also like to use fireworks. I think it's a superstition."
Renji stares at her for a moment. "No, idiot, I know what New Year's Eve is. I mean, what's going on with you?"
Rukia turns to him, eyes carefully blank. "What do you mean?"
Renji settles on his haunches, elbows on his knees. Rukia can't help but smile. Even as a child, Renji always sat this way. "Well, instead of freezing our butts up here, we could be down there in our gigai hanging out with the Kurosakis and Inoue and Ishida and the rest of the crew. Why are we up here? You know our Captains said it was okay."
Rukia faces the crowd again, arms crossed. A memory flashes across her mind, of warm hands cradling her face, and lips gently pressing into hers. She shakes her head to clear it, hoping Renji doesn't see her blushing.
"You are welcome to do just that," she says icily, scanning the horizon. "I just think we have a better viewpoint from up here. And I know you aren't cold. If you were in your gigai you would be freezing. Please excuse me for being responsible."
Renji mocks her, tilting his head back and forth. "Please excuse me for being responsible." He shoots her a smirk. When she doesn't respond, he sighs. "We can at least say hi, can't we? This is the first time we've been back since-"
She thinks of the box, unopened, sitting in the corner of her room.
He watches her bite her lower lip and set her jaw, a sure sign that Rukia is about to dig in her heels. "Okay. Okay, we'll stay up here then."
A minute passes before Renji tries again. "Are you avoiding anyone?"
Her head jerks to look away from him. "No." Her cheeks are a telltale pink, and as she said earlier, he knows it is not from the cold.
"Is it Ichigo?" Renji studies her intently.
Rukia is glad for her years in the Kuchiki household. The elders drilled into her the importance of an impassive face, no matter how violently the emotions boiled inside. She puts this to good use.
"No." Now the only sign of agitation is the mild furrow on her brow as she sweeps the area. "I think I see something over there. Let's go." She flash-steps to the next rooftop.
Renji is at her side in moments. He is trying to hide his smile. "Oh, you can run but you can't hide from me. So, why are you avoiding Ichigo? I would think you'd have missed him by now."
She clenches her fist around the hilt of Sode No Shirayuki. "Can we not talk about this now? We are working!" It starts to snow again, lightly.
Renji settles back into his crouching position, sulking. "Fine."
A long silence passes before Rukia snaps, "What do you want from me? What do you want me to say?"
Renji looks at her and very carefully, says, "I want you to be happy, you idiot. And you aren't happy."
Rukia rolls her eyes, scoffing.
Renji sighs. "What the heck, it's New Year's. Let me get this off my chest." He rises to his feet, and grabs both her wrists in his hands, forcing her to look him in the eye. "Rukia, I love you."
She goes still. "What."
Renji wrinkles his nose. "AS A FRIEND. I LOVE YOU AS A FRIEND," He clarifies, clearly uncomfortable.
"And in all that time growing up in the Rukongai, and later on at the Academy, I -" He swallows hard, "had feelings for you. And then you got adopted by the Kuchikis, and then you were gone."
Rukia's eyes are wide, and her face is quite literally frozen as the red-haired man pours out his heart. "And part of the reason I worked so hard to become fukutaichou was to become worthy of you."
He gives her a half-smile, still gripping her limp wrists. "But the day I was promoted, you were sent here. I thought I had time, time to tell you how I feel and oh my god I am so sappy."
She gives him a ghost of a smile at his self-disgust. "Anyway, that day, I had a three-hour window of time to find you before you left, and I decided to wait until you came back."
Renji gives her a bittersweet smile. "And if I hadn't waited, maybe our lives would be completely different right now. But I did. That night Byakuya Taichou and I retrieved you, when that strawberry fool tried to save you, I was happy to cut him down. But then you came with us to save him, knowing you would be facing execution," he shakes his head at her and continues. "I knew then, that I was too late.
"And you, fool that you are, you run away from things that scare you, even if they are good for you. You keep yourself locked away in here," Renji flicks her forehead with a finger, earning a scowl. "And you ignore your heart. Don't wait too long, Rukia-chan." He hugs her abruptly, planting a brotherly kiss at the top of her head. "Anyway. It's been a really long time since that night, and the point of the story is, I thank the gods for the close escape I had," Renji finishes. "And that I have since come to my senses and realized there are way way better-looking, taller, hotter women out there."
Rukia smiles weakly at his joke, punching him in the arm. "As if I would ever accept you."
He winks at her. "You don't know how persuasive I can be."
They stand in silence, both lost in their own thoughts as they observe the crowd below start to chant the countdown.
15... 14... 13... 12...
"Oh, there he is." Renji points out a familiar orange head, standing at the edge of the crowd, three storeys down.
Rukia looks at Renji, her hair blowing in the wind. He smiles angelically at her.
11... 10... 9...
"Happy new year, Rukia! I'll see you at the gate in two hours." Renji shoves her abruptly off the edge of the building, waving as she falls.
The wind whips her hair around her face as she plummets, and she sees Renji's outline waver against the full moon as he flash-steps away. Rukia sees the falling snowflakes suspended as she falls faster.
8... 7... 6... 5...
Gathering her reiatsu, Rukia regains her balance and lands on one foot, in the middle of the chaos. People have started to hold hands, kiss, and laugh, as the countdown approaches zero.
She knows, without looking, where Ichigo is. Renji's aim is true, and she lands right in front of him.
Ichigo stands under a street light, eyes closed, fists clenched, tension etched in every line of his body. Something is wrong.
Rukia stands in front of him, her brow furrowed.
Around them the noise is swelling to fever - pitch, and people are getting ready to pop noisemakers. He is too still, Rukia thinks. His breathing is tight.
She reaches a hand out to try to touch his face, when he opens his eyes suddenly. Startled, she pauses, her fingertips a few inches away. "Ichigo," Rukia murmurs, trying to soothe him.
The fear and anxiety she sees in his eyes breaks her heart. His eyes widen.
"Happy new year, Kurosaki-kun!" Orihime runs right past Rukia, barreling into Ichigo. She plants a kiss on his cheek, close to the corner of his mouth.
Rukia watches the look in Ichigo's eyes change, as he turns to look at Orihime. His hands slowly unclench, and his eyes soften. He raises one of his hands to Orihime's waist.
She hears Renji's words echo in her head. "I knew then, that I was too late."
There is a coldness in the pit of Rukia's stomach. She backs away into the ecstatic crowd, before Orihime can spot her.
Renji is talking to Zennosuke when Rukia appears at their meeting place much earlier than he expected. He looks hopefully at her face first, and sees the grimness in her eyes. He does not say anything.
Their communicator beeps. A group of hollows have appeared.
Rukia is off before they can even agree on a plan, and by the time he tracks her down, the hollows are shreds of black smoke, trailing upwards.
"Dammit, Rukia," Renji scowls, slightly out of breath. "You could have saved some for me."
But when he turns to look at her, he sees the grief on her face for one unguarded moment. Then her face is carefully blank again.
"I apologize, Abarai-kun," she says politely, sheathing her sword.
Zennosuke bows to both of them, and they bow back.
Rukia opens the gate and hops inside the sliding doors. Renji turns to Zennosuke. "Better not let them know that we were here."
Afro-san nods, waving them off.
The next morning, at Kuchiki house, Rukia requests the staff to stop serving her coffee for breakfast.