It's a long walk to the train station.
Ichigo shifts the bag on his shoulders uncomfortably and wonders what Rukia packed in her duffle. Bricks, maybe? Or rocks. He wouldn't put it past her to have done such a thing to punish him for insisting on carrying her stuff.
Well, normally he wouldn't put it past her. Normally she'd kick up a fuss and demand to know if he was implying she was weak. Today, though, she seems to know that this is all he can do for her anymore. So she let him do it.
"I'll make sure to call." She breaks the silence in a hushed tone. "Your father set up the bill for my cell phone to come to your house, so it won't matter where I go. Thank him again for me."
Ichigo nods. She's already thanked his father more than once. "You know where you're going yet?"
Rukia glances at the paper ticket in her hand. "Kanagawa prefecture, to start with," she says. "Urahara's made arrangements with someone he knows there. After that..." She shrugs. "We'll see. I'll let you know."
"Yeah. And I'll have to come set you straight after you end up fifty kilometers in the opposite direction from where you meant to go." The jibe comes out of habit, but it's weak. He doesn't say anything for another moment, until what he really wants to say swells up inside him until he's almost bursting. "It'd be a lot easier if you'd just stay in one place, you know."
Rukia stops walking and turns to him, looking a little sad. He winces. "I have to learn how to exist in this world, Ichigo," she says, twisting the ticket lightly between her fingers. "It's the only one I have now. And I never will learn if I'm hiding in your closet forever."
"Yeah, but you don't have to leave!" he bursts out. "I don't understand, Rukia. You get exiled from Soul Society for helping me and the Vaizards during the war and your answer is to run away from everyone else you know?"
"Is that what you think I'm doing?" She sounds honestly surprised. "I'm not leaving forever, Ichigo. I don't know if I'll find a place to settle down for my exile the way Urahara has, but I'll make my way back here in time. I'll be back to visit you, Inoue, Sado, everyone. It's not goodbye."
"Feels close enough." The words come from low in his throat, but he knows she hears them.
"Ichigo." She reaches up to touch his shoulder, and even though they're still in public, it feels like they're completely alone. "This is something I have to do."
He squeezes her hand in a fierce grip before he knows what he's going to do. "Don't."
Their eyes lock, and for once he's not trying to put on a front of grumpiness or whatever else. He tries to let her see everything he's feeling inside, and tries to figure out what she's thinking as well, but as ever, she is inscrutable.
The moment passes. Rukia gently pulls her hand from his. "I have to."
The main train station of Karakura-cho is only medium busy when they arrive. Ichigo goes over the instructions for boarding, transferring and everything else she needs to know to reach her destination, praying she really does make it without getting spectacularly lost. Even if he knows he'd go find her in a heartbeat.
They make their way to the track her train is on. Boarding has begun.
She reached up to touch him again, his face this time. "Thank you," she says quietly. "For everything, Ichigo."
He nods, the lump in his throat that he would've sworn didn't exist a second ago almost too painful to speak. "You're welcome."
Rukia purses her lips as if considering something, then stretches up on tiptoes, her face coming toward his. Ichigo's eyes widen in surprise, but leans forward to meet her. She's, she's really going to--
Her lips settle on his cheek in a brief kiss. They're warm.
The train honks its horn. It's time. "I have to go now." Rukia holds out her hands and belatedly, he realizes he still has her bag. He slides it off his shoulders and hands it to her. She hoists it up. "I'll call." She takes a step away. "Be well, Ichigo."
"Yeah," he says. It's all he can do.
He watches her board and doesn't turn away until the train slowly pulls out from the station and is gone. Even then, he waits for another five minutes, as if Rukia will jump out of thin air, scold him for really thinking she'd go, and smack him before dragging him off to hunt some hollows.
Eventually, he goes. Rukia's not coming back--not now, anyway. He hopes it isn't too many days before she does. Until then, he'll just--carry on. That's all he knows to do.
It's a long walk back from the station.