The mountains were beautiful. The sky was clear and blue, the harvest was ripe in the fields and the whole landscape rippled gently in a soft breeze. The journey was so much easier than Rukia remembered. Every stop softened the memories a little, overlaying them with new ones. She had wanted to walk this path ever since the day when Kaien pointed it out to her. She had wanted to walk it, with him at her side, showing her all the things he remembered from his childhood. Since that would never be, she would have to try and remember for him. And it was in such a frame of mind that she arrived, alone, at the house in the mountains.
Just as on that fateful night, she was met by the ragged child with the wild eyes. Save that Ganju was a man now. He rose slowly as she approached. His body was swathed in bandages attesting to his recent injuries, but that wasn't why he moved slowly. She was probably the last person he expected to see. His face was wary:
"Ne-san!" he called towards the house.
Rukia stood waiting in the light of a setting sun. She had dawdled and it had taken her most of the day to get here. She suddenly realised that she wouldn't get back until long after nightfall. And she had told Ichigo she wouldn't be late.
Shiba Kukaku emerged from the house: an imposing woman. Rukia recalled, from conversations with Kaien, that his sister worked with fireworks and it was for this reason that she wore close-fitting, even revealing clothes and bandages on her hand and forearm. She had lost her right arm long before Rukia was even born. She appraised her visitor with centuries' old eyes:
"What do you want?"
Just as they had on that night so many years ago, all the thousand and one things Rukia had wanted to say evaporated in the clear air. She stared at the woman in whose features she saw the echoes of a man she had loved:
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
There was a terrible silence. Kukaku sighed deeply. Then:
"Thank you. I forgive you. Ukitake came here shortly after it happened and explained everything. I always swore to myself that I would forgive you on the very day that you apologised."
Rukia stared. Years of shame, dismissed just like that. She thought she might burst into tears or fall to her knees, but she didn't; she just stared, and suddenly cried:
"I'm so sorry! I should have come"
Kukaku struck her hard across the face:
"Enough! You only needed to apologise once."
"I'm sorry." For her troubles, she received another smart cuff across the face. She put her sleeve to her nose, checking Kukaku's blows had not drawn blood.
"I told you to stop apologising."
"Sor" This time, she flinched away before the older woman could raise her hand. Kukaku laughed out loud and put her hands on her hips.
Kaien had warned her: this woman had grown tough, dealing with two rapacious brothers. Well, that might be the case, but Rukia wasn't so easily intimidated herself and she was fairly sure those blows had been delivered, not because she had apologised, but because of the long years in which she hadn't. For that reason, she was willing to take whatever punishment Kukaku saw fit to mete out.
It was at that moment that someone called her name and Rukia turned to see Ichigo striding out of the trees:
"I looked everywhere for you!" he cried and she smiled as he stopped several paces away and frowned, trying to understand the scene before him. He gave up and shook his head: "Are you coming back, Rukia? We leave early tomorrow. I thought you'd want to take at least some of your things."
"Yes," she said and looked away. A luminous sunset had painted the sky orange and the moon was rising in the east, and the peaks of the Rukon were as beautiful as they had been when she was a child. Yes, it was strange how the world revolved. She had been trying to think of the best way to tell him, but, in truth, she wasn't very good at these things and it might take her the rest of her life to find the right words: "The thing is, Ichigo, I've decided to stay here."
All the certainty drained from his face. She saw it leave and she saw the truth for an instant: the effort it took him to nod and remake his smile. When he looked up at her again though, his brown eyes were clear and she realised, with wonder, that, for all that it cost them both, he understood.
She could tell him that his life was precious, that their worlds were too different, that she would remain while he grew old, and where would they be in a thousand years time? But he knew all of that already. No-one got to choose who they fell in love with, however inconvenient it might be. And none of those things had influenced her choice, after all. It had been made for purely selfish reasons. Because she had been searching for a very long time. True, she had found some of her answers in those brown eyes, but the others, the most important onces, had been waiting for her here. She understood now where she was meant to be.
It was not because she was happy. It was not because she loved a man who would cross worlds to find her, she thought sadly. But because, if she were to go, she would leave an absence. It had been a surprise to discover that she had always belonged here. Right here. And Kaien had been right.
"Good." Ichigo was smiling now. It was a beautiful smile.
"Yeah. You see, I just remembered why it was I wanted to save you."
He would go and she would stay. Perhaps, she thought, her teachers had been on to something when they talked about a balance of souls between worlds. Right now, the balance felt almost exactly right. But maybe that was the way he was looking at her. Or maybe just the precise shade of the sky at that moment. She let her eyes meet his and remain so, drinking in his colours in the setting sun. It was a pleasure she had never allowed herself before, and he just stared back, that small smile still lingering on his lips.
"So," Rukia murmured, after the moment had stretched to an almost exquisite intensity: "That's it."
Behind her, Kukaku cleared her throat, making them both start:
"It's too late to return to the sereitei. Why don't you stay tonight as our guests? You would be most welcome."
Quite a gathering attended a farewell party in the Shiba household that night. Ichigo seemed elated by his recent successes. He was more animated than Rukia had ever seen him, teasing Yoruichi Shihoin, the woman who had trained him while he was in Soul Society. She was more than capable of giving back what she got. Plum wine and sake flowed freely and tray after tray of food was brought out and laid on the mats between them.
At one point in the evening, Rukia left them all drinking and took some sweet meats up to a balcony above the main hall. She liked to step back sometimes, to watch them without being a part of the noise.
It was Ichigo who found her:
"What are you doing up here?"
"Oh. It's quieter."
"I know, but everyone else is down there. Won't your friends mind?"
She shook her head and hurriedly swallowed a mouthful of food:
"They're not my friends. That is, they're his friends."
"I told you I came here to say good-bye." She pointed to Kukaku: "Her brother, Kaien, was a friend of mine."
"I haven't seen him."
"He died. A long time ago. A very long time ago." He had come to kneel beside her and, suddenly self-aware, Rukia glanced away.
They sat silent for a time, watching drinks being passed out amongst the guests below, seeing Ganju's face becoming more and more flushed, Yoruichi becoming more animated.
"Are you okay?" asked Ichigo at length. She turned towards him:
"I really am."
"What will you do?"
"Live," she said without hesitation. He glanced at her, then chuckled softly. She smiled: "What about you? What will you do?"
"Uh. Senior year, I guess."
"Thanks, by the way."
He didn't answer. She looked up and saw that he was staring at the hall, his face suddenly serious. That expression was new. It was as if he had aged many years over these past few months: in his eyes; in the crook of his brow. "Ichigo?"
"It doesn't matter."
She had squeezed a little closer to him in the hopes of eliciting an answer and, as he turned towards her, their faces were suddenly only inches apart. Probably nothing would have happened were it not that, as his eyes met hers, she drew a sharp breath; he stared just a little too long. And then, because there was clearly nothing else he could do, he kissed her.
It was clumsy. He tasted sweet. And it was far, far too short.
She sat back. Her heart was thumping; her hands were balled into fists on her knees. After all that they had been through, how had it come down to something that felt so accidental?
She looked up and, in exactly the same moment, they said:
"What the hell did you do that for?"
"Me?" he cried: "I didn't do anything!"
"How could you"
"You kissed me!" he said.
"Why would I do that?"
"I don't know! You tell me!"
"You're the one who kissed me!"
"Even if that were true, if you didn't want to get kissed, why did you do that thing?"
She narrowed her eyes:
"You looked at me like like Ah!" He dismissed her with a hiss of breath through gritted teeth.
"And exactly how am I meant to look at you then?" she asked, rising on her knees so that he wasn't talking down to her.
"To avoid being kissed?" His eyes flashed anger: "You're doing a damn good job right now! Just stop it! Don't look at me!"
"You mean you have to kiss every girl who looks at you?" she demanded and his eyes widened at her infallible logic: "Anyway, you call that a kiss?"
"That's rich. How many times have you been kissed?"
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Shut up." They were inches apart again, and she had no idea now if it was anger she was feeling or something else. Only that she stiffened when his hands closed suddenly over her shoulders, preventing her from backing out. This time, when he kissed her, she tried very hard not to like it. When he pulled her towards him, she crooked her leg and kicked him hard in the side.
Months of training weren't for nothing. He reacted instinctively to something that, from anyone else, could have been an attack. Reflexes honed from combat. Countering her. She landed hard on her back, his hands still on her shoulders. His face was inches above hers. She couldn't help but remember a boy still learning to control his powers. Clumsy. Strong but unfocussed. Nothing like this.
She saw his anger drain away in the same instant that his cheeks coloured. There was no question that the situation was suddenly far more compromising. "You kicked me," he muttered, looking her up and down in an effort not to meet her eye. Somehow, that made it far worse. She had become acutely aware of every angle of her body under his. And now he seemed to be looking for an excuse to let go that would make it look as if he had intended this. The moment had drawn on a little too long not to be awkward though. Her mind went blank; her mouth dry. He frowned at her: "You're a really hard girl to kiss."
"Oh," she murmured: "You were surprisingly easy."
And then someone cleared their throat in the doorway. Their heads switched towards the sound: the silhouette of a woman. Yoruichi stepped forward into the light, her eyes twinkling. She offered them both a knowing grin:
"I thought I heard you arguing."
"I yeah, we were," said Ichigo.
"Really. Interesting. Remind me to argue with you more often."
Ichigo's cheeks somehow flushed a deeper crimson and he scrambled back from Rukia. Yoruichi was still smiling sweetly: "Don't let me interrupt you. We were just discussing preparations for the senkaimon. Since you'll be returning in shinigami form, the practicalities are slightly different for you. But it can wait."
"No. It's fine." As he brushed down his uniform, he shot a glance at Rukia, who hadn't moved. His face was closed; completely unreadable. And, as Yoruichi turned away, he stalked after her.
Rukia let her hands fall against her chest and belly. She could feel the rise and fall of her breathing and she sighed:
"Enough," she whispered: "That is quite enough."