All we know
Nothing Ichigo ever decides on goes to plan.
A few weeks after deciding against pursuing anything further with Rukia, Tatsuki gets a hold of her number, and Ichigo finds himself with Rukia at the festival anyway on what is probably a date because none of his friends are around and his family is nowhere to be seen.
Ichigo does a great job of pretending it's not a big deal.
He buys her cotton candy the size of her head.
She wins him a necklace from a game stand, and he accepts the challenge and wins one for her in return.
Even though they both have necklaces they've essentially won themselves, they trade them for the other's because that's fair, she insists.
He loves her.
It's a realization that has no precursor – no notable triggering action – it's like stepping out into the sunshine and thinking about how nice of a day it is, how the clouds look fluffy, how the sky looks so blue.
It's like that.
Except its about her smile, and the cheeky glint in her eye, and the way her nose scrunches. How her hand fits wherever she holds him; how she tilts her head and raises her brows at Karin and Dad; how she so willingly falls into Yuzu's hugs; how she catches his eye from across the room; how she'd booped his nose after she'd made him put the necklace on, the feather pendant cool against his skin.
Ichigo tries not to think about it.
It's a topic to be avoided until Rukia looks at him one day and without prompting says, "I think I love you too."
He almost misses a step. Then does. Then scrambles to say, "What – what the – where did that even come from?"
She shrugs, faces forward and says, "Therapy."
Ah, he mentally sighs, and can't decide if he's disappointed or not.
He shouldn't be.
Ichigo had decided weeks ago that pursuing anything further with Rukia would be taking advantage of her situation, would be putting conditions on their friendship that wasn't meant but would always be implied no matter how much they pretended otherwise. Of course, it would be recoverable if he ever did say anything about his growing feelings, but they wouldn't be the same either, and as much as he (and his family) has been Rukia's sanctuary from her grief, she's been the same for Ichigo.
"Your therapist told you that I love you?" he finds himself asking, and he isn't surprised when Rukia nods her head yes.
Ever since she'd finally found a psychologist she liked, Rukia's taken to repeating things she's said during their sessions. Usually in the same nonchalant fashion. Apparently, her psychologist specializes in giving her patients' the tools to casually administer heart attacks.
"You wouldn't do the things you do if you did," she adds in a tone that suggests she's annoyed – though whether its at the reason for his actions or that she hadn't noticed it herself, Ichigo can't tell.
He tries not to take the former personally, even as he tries to argue in a defense that doesn't exist, "That's not -"
"It's why Byakuya-niisama does what he does too."
His body doesn't know whether to relax or stay tensed.
He wants to correct her.
How he loves her has nothing to do with the way her brother does (Ichigo has Karin and Yuzu, and Tatsuki, and he knows this is different. How he loves Rukia is different), but she's already talking again, "You're taking it a lot better than he did."
Ichigo hasn't met him, but Ichigo can't imagine any reaction Byakuya would have that didn't involve him looking twice more constipated than he always does. At least from Rukia's descriptions of him.
Hesitantly, he asks, "What did he say?"
Her lips lift at the corners and she divulges to the setting sun, "He seemed glad, that I knew, and that I felt the same."
There's that cheeky glint in her eye though as she adds, "I've never seen him so embarrassed."
"Good," he tells her in a chuckle.
Rukia doesn't talk about her brother directly – more about what he's done, what she's thankful for – Ichigo doesn't know him well enough to trust him with Rukia's feelings, has no evidence of what the man would do with them, but Ichigo's glad he doesn't have to get into a fight with Byakuya about it.
Ichigo's almost gotten into it with her a few times about her brother's emotionally neglectful behavior – the whole lot of them should be in therapy, quite frankly – but he'd rather they not spend either of their time sulking about it, and with the way Rukia bumps their shoulders together in a sign of quiet gratefulness that he's not going to bring it up, Ichigo isn't alone.
"I didn't realize I never told anyone how I felt," she continues almost wistfully, "I was always so caught up in making sure I wasn't in anyone's way that I never – I never told people how I felt about them. I never even got to tell Hisana that I…" She pauses, and she's blinking a little more, feeling the pinpricks of tears in her eyes, and Ichigo doesn't think twice about squeezing her hand.
Her breath is a little shaky, but she says without faltering, "I want to though."
So, that means a visit to the cemetery, he thinks, only pausing to think about where the closest flower shop is from here before he's asking, "Want me to come with you?"
With a smile at the sky, like she's talking to someone up in the clouds and among the stars that blink in the growing night, she says to herself, "How did I not know?"
"I thought I was being subtle," he deadpans.
There's a fine mist in the air in the early dawn. They'd taken the train and rode through the night.
This can't wait, Rukia had said, and he'd grumbled at her impulsiveness and tugged her towards a pair of empty seats. If we're doing this, we're not standing the whole ride, he'd informed, making sure the flowers they'd gotten from the festival are safe from being squished. Rukia had nodded and then said nothing the entire ride.
When she does speak, her voice crackles like thunder in the air as she tells Hisana's tombstone: "I hate you."
He's so surprised by the admission that he doesn't say anything besides her which is just as well because she pauses for a moment to gather herself – chin trembling and lip quivering.
"You should've left me at that orphanage. You should've let me go so you could have a life, maybe – maybe then you would've made enough of yourself to get treatment sooner instead of – worrying your whole life about me. Maybe then you'd be -" She whimpers at the very thought of it, and when he grips her hand in his, it isn't the first time he thinks he should've annoyed her more to bring a jacket. She's freezing.
"I hate you for loving me so much when you were alive because when you died, I never felt so abandoned, and it made me feel like even more shit because you died and here I am feeling sorry for myself for feeling lonely. You said – you said you wouldn't leave me, Hisana and you-you did," she chokes on it, determined to give this confessional even as it splits her open.
It's painful to watch, and Ichigo can't bear it enough to stay silently at her side.
He's gathering her in his arms, flowers falling in a puddle of wet petals at their feet before he can think too much about it, even as she continues into his chest, "I hated you for being sick," she continues into his chest with a muffled wail. "I hated you because for a little while – I thought it was my turn; I could finally take care of you the way you took care of me, and I – I couldn't. You died. You died and I love you and I'm so sorry, nee-chan."
Rukia's crying and gasping choking breaths, and he hides his own tears in her hair as he holds her, as if he can hold her together by the sheer physical strength of his arms around her.
For a moment, Ichigo thinks his comforting of her is selfish, like he can only love her when she's smiling – when she's put together – when she's the one inspiring him to keep going.
But really, he thinks – impossibly – he loves her more for it.
Ichigo had been so numb to everything that feeling just about anything other than that yawning empty inside of himself is a shock to the system, a reminder that he's alive. Until not just anything could rouse him – like emotions themselves became an arbitrary annoyance over time – a pinprick of static not strong enough to surprise him into consciousness.
For the longest time, his feelings had dulled to dilution, but seeing Rukia's self-administering jump-start is the most potent reminder of pain, of living, of being alive.
And they'd both felt too guilty to remember how to do it.
Because the facts are these: he's alive, and his mother is not. Rukia lives the life she does because her sister died, and he and Rukia are here because someone else wanted them to be, and then they thought they had to keep doing it because someone they loved died.
His mother deserved better. Hisana deserved better.
And it took a long time to realize and is still taking a while to accept that he and Rukia deserve better too.
They are more than the people that died for them, they are more than what others have done for them.
There will always be days when his mind goes quiet and he finds himself drifting in numbness and anger and sadness, and it's so easy to go where the tides pull him. The same way that the waves wash over Rukia, covering her cries in their roar until she just accepts that no one will ever hear or see her drowning.
But he'll know, and she will too, and their family will be there to pull them out the water, kicking and yelling and fighting, and it'll be okay.
It'll be okay until it gets better, and it will get better. It will.
Because they're learning to accept the life raft other people offer. Because they're learning how to swim.
Because they're trying.
They're not alone anymore.
And that's enough.
He presses a kiss to her hair as she catches her breath, and she looks up at him with eyes bluer than the sky. Her smile is watery, but her arm tightens around his waist and her fingers are still tangled in his shirt, and she doesn't let go.
A/n: So, this story did not go the way I wanted it (but whomst surprised?).
I intended it to be more a coming of age (with an unhappy-ish ending? Idk what it is about the genre where the couple doesn't end up together but anyway), however, while writing it and going to therapy, it became more about recovering with the ichiruki being open-ended because I'm an asshole.
I've got a playlist for some of the songs I felt suited the fic, and there's a bit of a write-up on the fic itself both on my tumblr which you can find under the username everything-withered.