* OTA DOKAN
Had I not known
that I was dead
I would have mourned
my loss of life.
** IZUMI SHIKIBU
Soon I shall cease to be.
When I am beyond this world,
can I have the memory
of just one more meeting?
Rukia stomps into the classroom, her hair dripping from the morning's unexpected downpour.
Ichigo smiles inwardly, absurdly pleased to see her in his classroom, in her usual place. A few months ago he would have given anything for this day.
He watches how the sudden chill brings out the roses in her cheeks, and her thin school-issue blouse is soaked through, showing the lace and cotton underneath. The wet white blouse clings to her like icing on a particularly delectable cake.
Rukia pulls the front of her blouse away from her body, scowling. Keigo is ecstatic, leering at the petite girl from behind his manga.
Face blank, Ichigo whacks him on the back of his head as he crosses the aisle to Rukia's seat.
She looks up at him just as he whips off his sweater and drapes it over her, protecting her modesty. The thick wool sweater could be a blanket on her; Ichigo has gone up a few sizes since he started getting muscular. And she looks adorable in his sweater.
The two of them stare at each other for a moment, a silent battle of wills. Then, just as wordlessly, Ichigo heads back to his seat. Rukia turns back to the front of the classroom, cheeks pink as she pulls out a textbook.
Wide-eyed, Keigo turns to Mizuiro. "What was that?" he asks, looking interestedly between Ichigo, who is now napping on his desk, and Rukia, who is studying, while gripping Ichigo's sweater tighter around her.
"Hmm?" Mizuiro looks up from his phone.
Chad also watches the two of them, a small smile playing at the corner of his lips.
It is now the end of the day, and Ichigo is amused by how Rukia has managed to avoid being alone with him at any point. He joins the rest of the class in bowing to the teacher, and then gets up with everyone else, packing up his bag.
Rukia turns to him, opening her mouth to say something, then closing it to focus on her own bag. He pretends he didn't see it, digging through his own backpack. "Hey, Rukia."
She jumps. "Y-yes, Ichigo?"
"I have an umbrella, do you need it?" he tosses the words carelessly over his shoulder, not even looking in her direction.
"Oh, you can walk with us!" Orihime chirps, interrupting them both. She, Tatsuki and Chizuru wave gaily from the front of the classroom.
"Yes, Kuchiki-chan!" Tatsuki agrees. "We haven't seen you in a while, we should catch up!"
Rukia turns to face them, smiling in relief. "Alright." But hesitantly, she turns back to Ichigo, who is stretching. She watches the play of his back muscles under his uniform, completely distracted.
He notices her staring and quirks an eyebrow at her innocently. Rukia hastily takes a step back, and crashes into her chair, knocking it over. She loses her balance, too, but Ichigo grabs her wrist before she can fall backwards.
"Hey, you ok?" Ichigo murmurs, pulling her into his arms.
Rukia's ear is pressed into his chest, and he strokes her hair gently. The three girls watch with wide eyes as Ichigo presses a light kiss to the top of her head.
Then he lets go, leaving her strangely bereft. "You are so scary, Rukia." He chides. "Are you going to destroy the classroom?" He watches the heat climb into her cheeks at his teasing. Ichigo rights the chair behind her, careful not to touch her.
"Have fun, all of you. See you tomorrow." He waves at all of them, and exits the classroom, whistling. The look in her eyes is one of confusion, but the other girls rush to her. They all watch him leave, and then whirl on her.
She shows up at his window at midnight, with a paper bag.
"A present? For me?" Ichigo exclaims playfully, looking up from his homework.
"It's your sweater," Rukia mutters, placing the bag on his bed. "Thank you for lending it to me. And are you almost done? We need to go patrolling."
"Let me finish this essay for Japanese Literature. Are you done with yours?" Ichigo smiles at her. She looks so restless and anxious being alone with him, so she starts pacing the room behind him.
"Yes," Rukia says, settling on the farthest wall away from him, sitting down. "I did mine on Ota Dokan's death poem*."
"That's pretty depressing. Why don't you sit on the bed?" Ichigo sends her an innocent glance. "That can't be comfortable."
"No. I'm fine." Rukia sits cross-legged, fiddling with her phone. After a few minutes, she asks, "What is your essay on?"
"Izumi Shikibu's poem**," he replies absently, scratching away with his pen.
"Which one?" Rukia asks curiously.
Ichigo turns his head to meet her gaze.
"Soon I shall cease to be.
When I am beyond this world,
Can I have the memory
Of just one more meeting?"
His voice echoes in the stillness of the room, and he hears Rukia's breath catch. He holds her eyes for a moment, and then smiles. "Beautiful, isn't it? I read it and it gripped me by the throat."
The spell is broken. Rukia's eyes slide away. "Yes," she whispers, her fingers gripping the cloth of her shihakusho. They lapse into silence again, and Ichigo can almost hear the gears in her head turning. He finishes his essay and puts it into his school book.
Arranging his body on the bed, Ichigo reaches for his badge. Leaving his physical body is always strange. He pops out, lurching to his feet, Zangetsu slung across his body.
Rukia gets to her feet, a faraway look in her eyes. He can tell she is still thinking about his poem. "Hey." He tugs her sleeve lightly. "Are you ready?"
Ichigo watches her shake off her distraction. "Yes, sorry."
He crosses the room to flip off the light, and turns. In the moonlight, he can see Rukia standing by the bed, looking down at his body. She reaches out as if to touch his face, and then pulls her hand back rapidly.
"I wonder," Ichigo's murmur in her ear has her jumping up in surprise, "if you touched me at all when I could not see you."
"Yes," Rukia answers honestly, looking down at his unconscious face. She turns to look him in the eye. "I did. But you could not feel me."
He cocks his head, looking down at her. "I think I could, though. There were moments when I felt your presence."
Rukia shakes her head. "That's not possible." She steps on the bed, and out the window. He watches her slim figure outlined in the moonlight, then follows her outside.
They stand on a rooftop in town. Ichigo has always known that Rukia likes high places. He takes in the look on her face and carefully files it away; purple eyes glowing in the moonlight, hair slightly windblown. She is in her element here, with Sode No Shirayuki's ribbon dancing in the breeze behind her.
"So," Ichigo begins conversationally. "What did you do to me while I could not see you?"
Her head snaps to his direction. "What?"
Ichigo stands next to her, knowing she is slowly bristling. "Did you touch me inappropriately?"
"No." Her voice drips ice.
Ichigo stares at the moon, knowing that her defenses are up. "But you touched me?"
"Well- Yes." Rukia frowns, lowering her gaze to the empty street. He risks a glance at her and resists the urge to kiss her adorable pout.
"Well-" He mocks gently, clasping his hands behind his back. "I already know you kissed me. What else did you do to me?"
"I-" Ichigo hears the guilt in Rukia's voice. "I watched you sleep."
"You cuddled me too," he points out smugly.
"How did you-" Rukia looks back at him, and narrows her eyes, caught in his trap. She shuts her mouth abruptly, and gives him a slight nod. "But that was an accident. I was sitting on the other end of the bed, waiting for morning so I could get back to the senkaimon of the Kasumioji. I had fallen asleep."
Ichigo keeps his eyes on the moon. "Anything else? I don't think shinigami are allowed to molest unsuspecting mortals. And Rurichiyo helped you?" He shakes his head in mock disapproval. "Rukia Kuchiki, I'm surprised at you. Definitely scarier than I thought. Did you watch me when I was naked? Or showering?"
He hears her suck in a lungful of balmy summer air, presumably so she doesn't kill him. "I never molested you. I am not a voyeur," she says finally in calm measured tones, though he can feel the aggravation underneath.
They stand in silence for a moment.
"Did you know, Rukia, that there is a superstition in some cultures? That two people who see the first snow of the year together are meant to be together," Ichigo says quietly. His hand reaches across the space between them, finding hers. She looks down at their joined hands, echoes of that day long ago.
"But that doesn't make any sense," Rukia points out, flustered. "What if a lot of people see the first snow of the year together? Or what if the other person is related to you? What if -" Then her eyes widen. "You knew?"
Ichigo squeezes her cold fingers lightly. "Of course I knew you were beside me on that bench." He laces their fingers together, pulling her closer to his side. "And I'm trying to be romantic here."
"Oh." Rukia is quiet. "Did Karin tell you?"
"Oh, for the- you aggravating woman, no, Karin didn't tell me." He sighs in exasperation. "She didn't tell me anything."
"Then how-" Rukia is silenced by his finger on her lips.
"Did you think I wouldn't know?" His eyes are amber pools in the moonlight, a heartbeat away from hers. "I don't need to see you, Rukia, to know you are here." He takes her other palm and holds it to his heart. "I know. I will always know."
"And I want to take the next step with you." He watches her eyes fill with tears. "This heart, this is yours. And everything I am. I am yours. You know this." He gently wipes a tear away. "And the universe keeps throwing us together. Maybe it's time we listened." Ichigo traces her trembling lower lip with his thumb. "Heck, I'll even talk to Byakuya."
She rewards him with a watery smile. "Seriously, Kurosaki, you really need to pay more respect to my brother. He is a noble."
"Ichigo," he corrects her tenderly.
"Idiot," she retorts, sniffling.
"Scary woman," he shoots back, still cradling her face, "who stabbed me repeatedly, broke me and put me back together and stole my heart. Love of my life." He plants a kiss on her lips. "I'd storm the Seiritei for you."
She rolls her eyes at that, laughing slightly. "And we'll figure everything out eventually," he promises. "So."
"So," Rukia echoes.
"So, I told you we would talk later." He smirks at her. "Let's make this official. Rukia Kuchiki, will you be my girlfriend?"
Two days later -
"My lord," The butler intones, interrupting Byakuya's morning calligraphy hour.
The noble raises his head from the parchment. "Yes?"
"The ryoka, Kurosaki here to see you." The butler looks discomfited.
"Hmm." Byakuya's graceful brows knit together. "Did he tell you what the purpose was?"
"No, my lord." The butler says, eyebrows furrowed. "But he came bearing gifts."
Byakuya drops the brush he is holding. It lands with a wet splat on the expensive carpet, marring the weave with black ink. The butler, in all his years at the Kuchiki Manor, has never seen the Master lose his composure.
"It has happened, then." Byakuya rises to his feet. "Make him wait in the sitting room, and send for my valet to attend to me. Also, summon the elders."
The butler nods, watching the inkstain spread on the carpet with some dismay.
After a few hours, Ichigo is ushered into the main court of Kuchiki Manor. He takes one look at Byakuya and is rendered speechless.
The head of the Kuchiki family is decked out what looks like a more elaborate version of the shihakusho, with the family crest embroidered on- is that platinum thread?- the lapel of a black haori. In fact, even if all his clothes are black, they were covered in intricate embroideries of sakura blossoms, all in black thread. His "worth-ten-mansions-scarf"has also made an appearance, wrapped snugly around his neck even as it is high summer.
Byakuya is sitting on a raised throne, carved with cranes and cherry blossoms. Three older people flank him, sitting on lower seats.
"Kurosaki," Byakuya says, boredom dripping from his voice. "Why are you here?"
Ichigo smiles weakly and drops to his knees, sitting in the seiza position, before moving to the formal deep bowing position, his forehead touching the tatami mat.
He does not hear Byakuya's intake of breath nor his muttered, "Seriously?"
The elders do, though, and they look with concern at the head of the family.
"Kuchiki-dono," Ichigi forces the words out past the lump on his throat. "Please accept my-" he glances furtively at the words written on his hands, "humble offerings as a token of my esteem for your fair sister. May they be pleasing to you."
A servant carrying a basket of bananas walks in, and places it in front of Byakuya. The noble raises an eyebrow.
"Perhaps… Are you calling me a monkey?" he asks silkily, his grey eyes blasting Ichigo.
"N-no… Rukia told me they are your favourite...," Ichigo stammers. The elders turn their heads and glare at him.
"Leave." Two burly servants grab Ichigo's arms and drag him out the courtyard.
The scene is repeated four days later at sunset. Ichigo rushes into the senkaimon after school, armed with a bunch of cherry blossom branches from a local flower shop.
"I heard you like cherry blossoms," Ichigo tells Byakuya. "These were grown in a greenhouse so that they bloomed year-round."
"You mutilated cherry trees because you thought I would be pleased?" Byakuya raises an eyebrow, shooting a glance at the doormen. "You may leave."
They pick Ichigo up and throw him out again.
"It is called sriracha sauce," Ichigo announces, two days later. "It is to make food spicy. I understand that you prefer spicy foods."
"Is it made with real cocks?" Byakuya gestures to the brand's chicken mascot.
"N-no, it is made with peppers," Ichigo replies, wondering where this is going.
"Then it is a lie?" Byakuya says coolly. "You dare to present the head of the Kuchiki family with a falsely presented object? And you think I am foolish enough to eat anything given to me randomly? You must think I am gullible, Kurosaki-san. Leave."
A tilt of his head has the guards approaching. Ichigo sighs and gets to his feet, heading towards the door, before they even touch him. Then he turns. "Hey, Byakuya, I will be back. See you in a few days."
The room collectively gasps at Ichigo's informal address. All except Byakuya, who narrows his eyes.
Byakuya looks up, the next morning, to find Rukia peeking at him from outside the sliding panels. He sighs and puts his brush down.
"Sister. Come in," he calls.
Rukia enters, bowing at a perfect ninety-degree angle. He studies his sister, whom he has not seen in a few days.
"Oni-sama," she greets, eyes downcast in the proper manner.
"How are you, my sister?" There is something in her face. Byakuya is reminded, with a dull ache, of the second time he saw Hisana. She was beautiful the first time he saw her, but the second time- she had told him later on that by the second time she saw him, she had been in love.
There is an effervescent glow about Rukia, one that has not been there before. He notes it grimly, knowing that it is most likely that Ichigo is the cause. No, he corrects himself. This light in her eyes was there since she came back the first time, so long ago. Even in her incarceration, it was there. But now- it is a full blaze and it lights up her entire being.
"Oni-sama…," Rukia grins at him. "Thank you for the wonderful apartment." She has never smiled so unguardedly at him before, his little sister from the slums.
"It is only a place of lodging befitting a member of the Kuchiki head family," Byakuya replies absently, "which you are."
She bows her head. "Oni-sama, Ichigo wants to speak with you."
"I am aware," Byakuya says dryly.
"Please," Rukia bows again, her face scarlet. "hear him out."
"You are a Kuchiki," Byakuya states. "Why are you bowing for this ryoka, this commoner?"
"Oni-sama," Rukia looks up at him, meeting his eyes. "I love him. And it would mean a lot more to me if we had your blessing."
Byakuya stares at her for a long moment, his eyes inscrutable. "Do you believe you will be happy with this boy?"
Rukia lowers her eyes. "Yes, oni-sama," She answers without hesitation.
He nods, briefly. "Have him come tomorrow. I shall have the documents drawn for a proper betrothal." He doesn't see Rukia's eyes widen. "He must, of course, take the Kuchiki name, as you outrank him. And we are to discuss dowries, alliances, and such. And the wedding."
"Wait, Oni-sama -" she stammers, interrupting him.
Rukia has never interrupted Byakuya, in her entire life, and he turns the full blast of his stare on her. "What is it?"
Rukia shrinks. "Oni-sama, we are only dating. Not betrothed."
Byakuya feels a tic start in his jaw. "What? He does not intend to wed you?"
"No, no, it's not like that." Rukia raises her hands to calm him down. "Dating is a concept in the world of the living where people agree to mutually spend time together, to see if they get along."
Byakuya stands to his full height, eyebrows drawn together in a fearsome scowl. "So he is using you for a trial run? To see if you are compatible? And if not, then shall he discard you like trash? You are a Kuchiki. He shall die for this insult." He reaches for Senbonzakura.
Rukia grabs his arm as he storms past her. Given her size, she only manages to get dragged along. "No, Oni-sama," she pleads. "It is not like that."
He freezes. Rukia has never touched him like this before, physically accosting him.
He looks down at his sister's large eyes, and flushed cheeks. "Please. I just want your blessing for me to date him. I know later on we can talk about betrothals and such, but, please, I have not seen him in eighteen months and -"
At his raised eyebrow, she hastily amends her words. "We have not communicated for eighteen months and now we are thrown together again. And now we have a chance to see where these feelings will lead. Please, oni-sama, I would like your blessing to explore where this is going."
Sighing inwardly, Byakuya nods. "I will see him tomorrow."
The next day, Ichigo waits in the garden of the Kuchiki mansion, a far cry from the stiff receiving room he is always being rejected from. Sighing, he grabs his gift.
"What is that?" Byakuya's voice carries from across the pond, where he is painting waterlilies.
Ichigo trudges over to him, wondering where the guards are. Byakuya accepts the box and opens one end. The felt-tip markers fall out, making an untidy pile at Byakuya's feet. He stares at Ichigo imperiously. With a sigh, Ichigo gets on his knees to pick them up.
"These are used for calligraphy and art," Ichigo explains, uncapping the red.
"Kurosaki, what are your intentions towards my sister?" Byakuya asks instead, while he is on his knees.
"Oh," Ichigo clears his throat. "I want to spend the rest of my life making her happy. Which is why I'm here."
Byakuya turns back to his painting. "My sister is not a commoner like you."
"I understand that," Ichigo says, getting to his feet and dusting off his school pants.
"And I have never seen her this happy," Byakuya states, his steely gaze skewering Ichigo's. "Make sure that this- dating- of yours does not take too long. She is a noble and as such, will be betrothed to someone of a similar status, if she reaches the appropriate age. Do you take my meaning?"
Ichigo nods impassively.
"And, ryoka boy, if you ever harm her in any way-" Byakuya stands, facing the younger man. "They would never find pieces of you large enough to bury."
"If I ever harm her in any way, Byakuya, your sister will skewer me and freeze me into a block of ice, and shatter me into a million pieces." Ichigo grins. "Then you can have your turn."
"We are done here," Byakuya says silkily. "Leave."
Almost instantly the two guards materialize beside Ichigo.
Ichigo flash steps to the gate, avoiding them. As soon as he clears the massive wooden doors, he punches his fist up in victory.