A/N: Chapter 2 is here. This story will probably only be 4 or 5 chapters. I'll try to update as quick as I can!
Kurosaki Ichigo sucks at a lot of things.
Remembering to feed and water herself at least twice daily, talking at a pace that isn't too fast or too slow with broken, half finished thoughts, going to bed before two in the morning on a school night, and finishing one book before starting another just to name a few. But if there's one thing that she definitely cannot do, one thing that Ichigo is just not designed for, is being alone.
She can't do alone. Ichigo is terrible at being alone.
For some reason that Shinji could never figure out, everyone has decided that Ichigo is this aloof and independent being who needs space and desires minimal social interaction. A lone predator, best left to her own devices. Clearly, he is surrounded by idiots.
Who in their right mind would leave that child on her own?
Sure sometimes she enjoys a little solitude, like when she spends a night cooped up in her room, strumming on her guitar and writing lyrics. Or if she's completely exhausted after a crazy day in the utter shitshow that is her life. But what most people don't seem to understand is that Ichigo is most at ease when surrounded by the people she cares about. For someone who is classified as so "aloof and independent", she craves human contact like nothing else.
Whether it's going out and doing something, or just curling up on the couch next to someone in comfortable silence, she'll take any type of interaction she can get. Which, when Shinji stops to think about it, makes his blood boil at just how affection-starved the kid is.
The point is, Ichigo should not be left to her own devices.
Which is why they shamelessly tail her wherever she goes once her friends and family abandon her without warning. Ichigo never goes anywhere without one of them close by.
They don't always make contact with her, or try to speak to her. Ichigo brushes them off more often than not, not in the mood to talk. Not really trusting them after being betrayed by everyone else. But they're always there, just in case. Trying to gently remind her that she's not alone as she may feel. That they're still here and aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
So whether or not she wants them there, they stay by her side.
Lurking outside of her school or, in some cases, in the back of her classroom on the days she seems particularly anxious about being there, just in case she needs a quick exit. Sitting at a nearby table in her favorite little cafe whenever she can manage being around so many strangers in such a small place, which isn't many days. The crowds and the noise seem to agitate her lately. When she stays late at the library to avoid going home to her father and sisters, one of them casually roams up and down the many shelves, and occasionally slip healthy snacks and small meals onto the table next to her. She hasn't been eating enough lately.
The only place they don't go is the Kurosaki house. They follow her there to make sure she arrives safely, sometimes wait outside a few to make sure nothing happens, but they don't go inside. That would just end in a fight with Isshin, and while they all would like to knock his teeth in, they don't want to stress Ichigo out more than she already is.
Even if it pained them to let her keep walking into that house instead of taking her home with them where she belonged.
Shinji finds her at the river one day, after an hour of searching. For someone with such high reiatsu, she'd gotten scarily good at hiding her presence from others.
If it had been anyone else, they probably wouldn't have been able to find her. But Shinji, thankfully, knew the little strawberry well enough to track her down. He checked the school first, just in case, but she had skipped again. He should have expected this. Her attendance left much to be desired lately. He checked the library, her favorite cafe, the wooded area that she sometimes like to walk in, and the cemetery. When she had been at none of these places, he knew that there was only one other place in Karakura the girl could have gone to.
That damn river.
And he was right.
She's pacing back and forth when he gets there. Arms wrapped tightly around herself like she's trying to hold herself together, a miserable expression on her face.
It's a throwback to nine-year old Ichigo. A lost little girl who didn't know what to do with herself after seeing her mother brutally murdered. When she wasn't looking after her sisters, she had been here. Just pacing and pacing, sitting down when she got tired, then getting up and pacing again. It had been sad to watch then. It tugs at his heart just as much now. It's hard to watch someone suffer and not know what to do to help.
Shinji's not sure if he should interrupt or let her wear herself out like they did when she was small and then take her home.
He eventually decides to let her get some of the nervous energy out of her system and then interrupt her. So he waits, watches her pace and pace. Occasionally pausing to stare into the spot where Grand Fischer's lure once deceived her, or at the spot where her mother's body had lain, then going back to pacing. It's a good twenty minutes before Ichigo plops down in the grass with a barely audible sigh.
He gives it another minute and when he's sure Ichigo isn't going to start moving again, he slowly makes his way to stand next to the teen, making his approach as noticeable as possible in an effort not to startle her.
Ichigo tenses and turns to look at him.
"Shinji-nii? You're here?" She blinks.
"Yup. And so are you. Aren't ya supposed ta be in school, young lady?" he asks in a mock scolding tone, plopping down in the grass next to her.
She blinks slowly at him, her expression that of surprise and a little confusion.
"I...yeah. I guess."
"So why ya out here then? I mean, far be it from me ta comment on your studyin' habits. I certainly didn' attend all of my classes when I was young, but ya've kinda been pushin' it lately, haven' ya?"
And really, she is. She's been out of school for almost a solid two weeks. Her grades had dropped significantly according to Lisa who regularly checked her online reports. How the woman got the password he doesn't know, but she's always been particularly invested in Ichigo's schoolwork.
Another slow blink. "Maybe."
Shinji gives her a flat look. "I'm not gettin' anywhere, am I?"
He sighs, of course he's not. Why should he expect her to keep up with coursework when she can barely keep up with daily life? School isn't the main concern right now. That problem could be fixed later.
"I can't," she says softly after a moment, that miserable expression overtaking her face again. She's staring at the river again, refusing to meet his eyes. "I can't stand going into that place and seeing everyone and knowing they don't want me there."
Shinji sighs, once again fighting down the urge to draw Sakanade and kick some ass. This town has been increasing his homicidal tendencies exponentially these past few months.
"Yeah, I thought as much. I'm sorry, kid."
Sorry that she's going through such a hard time? Sorry that the people she chose as friends are complete trash? Sorry that she had been born into a family that included a father that didn't give a shit and two ungrateful little sisters? Sorry that he left her seven years ago and allowed a situation like this to happen? He has a lot of things to be sorry for.
Ichigo's head jerks in his direction. "Sorry?" She frowns. "What are you sorry for?"
"Sorry that ya got suck with a bunch o' good for nothin' idiots as your friends."
Her frown deepens at that. She looks almost offended and for a moment, Shinji expects her to fire off on him like she normally does when he says something she doesn't particularly agree with. But as quick as it comes, the little spark of the old Ichigo is gone and she fades back into the shell she's become.
"They're not that bad. I probably-" she begins, only to fall silent when she catches sight of the look on Shinji's face. The steely eyes and barely contained rage making her flinch back. "S-Shinji-nii?"
"Don't," he starts, trying to keep calm. "Don't keep defendin' those morons. Don't keep blamin' yerself for them bein' fuckin' stupid. Here ya are, sittin' here, day after day, wonderin' what ya did wrong. What ya did to make your friends hate ya. But the truth is, ya didn't do anythin'. It's them. Ya didn't make them stop talking to ya. Ya didn't make them avoid ya like the damn plague. Ya didn't make them decide ta cut ya off from everythin' ya know. They did that. Your so called friends made the decision ta leave ya behind. To treat ya like shit. And you're lettin' them get ta ya. You just keep waitin' 'round for the day they finally come 'round and say sorry for bein' shitty people. And I bet ya'd forgive them in a damn heartbeat and go crawlin' right back ta them. Even though they clearly don't give much of a damn about ya if they can do this ta ya and not care."
Ichigo is frozen in place, staring at him with wide eyes and something so shaken and hurt in her expression it almost makes Shinji feel bad. Her lower lip quivers and he can see her eyes starting to water.
He softens a little at this, letting some of the anger and aggression fade away. This isn't what she needs right now.
"Ichigo. Your friends- this ain't how friendship works. D'ya understand? Ichigo, friends don't do this. They don't only give ya the time of day when they need somethin' from ya. They don't leave ya behind when ya need them. It ain't right. It ain't fair to ya. And ya shouldn' be puttin' up with it. Friendship ain't supposed ta hurt."
There is a tense silence between them and he can feel Ichigo's reiatsu fluctuating wildly.
Shinji regards the girl next to him, but doesn't say anything else, giving her a chance to think about what he just said. He looks at the river, and at the spot where they found Ichigo next to Masaki's body that day. Then he looks up at the sky and notices the clouds. A few sprinkles begin to fall. The storm is getting closer.
"I know-," Ichigo begins to say, then pauses, dragging a hand through her hair unbrushed hair. "I know they're being kind of awful right now and I don't know why. I mean, I've tried so hard. I've done everything-" her voice cracks and she rubs at her eyes harshly. "But they're the only friends I've ever had."
Shinji winces at this. It's true. Ichigo has never been good at connecting with the kids from her neighborhood or at school. When she had mentioned her friend Chad during training all those months ago, they had all nearly fallen over in shock.
"Why does everyone always leave, nii-chan?"
And there it is. The root of about a third of Ichigo's problems. Her voice is nearly inaudible at this point, but Shinji heard it. And if he wasn't feeling homicidal before...
"Well I wouldn' say everyone left ya. I'm still here. The others are still here. Or did ya think we'd up and disappear too?"
Ichigo blinks. "Yoruichi said the old man wanted you to come home. I thought-" she trails off, looking at him like she thinks disappearing is exactly what he's going to do. "I thought you'd go. Soul Society is your home. You belong there."
"Don't go tellin' me where I belong. If I wanna roam around this shithole in a gigai workin' some stupid human job then that's what I'm gonna do n' ya can't say anythin' about it. It's my choice. 'Sides, they didn' offer ya a place."
She tilts her head to the side, giving him a strange look. "Why does that matter?"
Shinji heaves a long sigh. "Ya really don get it, d'ya? Ya can be so dense sometimes, Strawberry. We're stayin' here for you. We ain't goin' no where if ya can't come with us, kid. Not again. Understand?"
"Really?" Her tone is unsure, still not quite believing him.
"Really. Hiyori n' Lisa really laid inta 'em. Shoulda seen it. Told 'em exactly where ta stick it. The looks on their faces were priceless."
Ichigo looks at him for another long moment, searching, before nodding.
"So...you'll be here then?" The childish hope in her voice making his heart clench.
"As long as ya want us here." And even if she didn't. "We even have a real house now. No more drafty warehouse for us."
Ichigo's face scrunches up at this. "What, really?"
"Yes, really. It's kinda old, but big enough for all of us," he says, watching her reaction.
"Hm. That's nice."
Sometimes he forgets Ichigo is a little slow on the uptake.
"All of us, Ichi. Including you, if that's somethin' ya want ta think about. We left a room empty n' everythin'." He pauses to let that sink in before speaking again. "We'd be happy ta have ya."
"What? Ya don't want ta live with us?"
"No, no. That's not it. It's just...why would you want me to move in? I don't want to be a bother."
The unspoken 'I don't want to get attached in case you decide to abandon me too' is heard loud and clear.
Shinji sighs again. "Well, like I said. It's your decision. Ya don't have ta, just throwin' out the option." He stands up, stretching out his limbs after sitting for so long and looks up at the sky. "Alright, let's get goin'."
Ichigo blinks. "Huh? Go where?"
"The house. It's about ta downpour out here. Unless ya wanna stay out in the rain?" He begins walking and motions for Ichigo to follow him. "'Sides. School's almost over n' done with anyways. No point in draggin' your truant ass back there, right? Might as well go do somethin'."
Ichigo doesn't say anything to this, and for a moment Shinji isn't sure if she's actually going to come with him or not. But then he hears the soft footsteps come up beside him and feels a smaller hand slip into his own. The last time she held his hand had been the first day of second grade, right before she got to the school and declared she was a big girl, Shinji-nii, and didn't need to hold anyone's hand anymore!
He gives her hand a gentle squeeze and doesn't comment on it.
Getting Ichigo to move in is like trying to befriend a skittish little stray animal whose been through too much and doesn't quite know how to react to being offered affection and love. It's a long process that requires patience and effort, and seems a little hopeless at times. But they're up to the challenge.
She comes and goes she pleases, slinking in and out of the house at all hours of the day and night.
They don't always notice her at first. She always appears when they least expect it, hovering in doorways or curled up on the couch when she hadn't been there before or suddenly appearing behind them and scaring the shit out of them (not that they'll admit it). One morning they find her asleep in the hammock out back. They have no idea how long she has been there, but they just throw a blanket over her and let her be. At least she's sleeping comfortably.
She'll accept food if it's offered, but never goes in the kitchen to get it herself. They make it a point to keep her favorites on hand.
Occasionally she'll sleep in her allotted room if she stays too late they can convince her to spend the night instead of walking home. By the time they wake up she's already slipped out the door again. But honestly, they're okay with this. They're not going to force her to stay. Ichigo's already had too many choices taken away from her. They simply give her space (after she flips the fuck out about their constant hovering and stalking), feed her occasionally, and make sure she's warm and okay whenever she stops by.
They give Ichigo her own key to the house for the rare cases when at least one of them isn't there, just so she knows she's always welcome.
After about two months of this, their patience pays off. Once Ichigo realizes that all they're going to do is feed her, talk to her, and give her a warm place to stay whenever she needs or wants it, she starts to relax around them.
Her bedroom gains a lived in feel. Her things from her room at the Kurosaki house slowly migrating to her new room. A jacket left on the back of the couch and school books at the table where she had been studying the night before. She no longer waits to be fed and raids the kitchen, often stealing Hiyori's favorite yogurt and running out the door with it before the shorter girl can catch her.
Ichigo even starts to demand attention from them instead of waiting for them to notice her.
And then one day she comes over, and simply doesn't leave.
Truthfully, getting the kid to move in came with less of a fight than they expected.
If anyone outside of their home notices her sudden absence, no one bothers to come looking.
1. of or relating to a personality style characterized by perfectionism, indecision, conscientiousness, concern with detail, rigidity, and inhibition.
2. Psychiatry. of or relating to a neurosis characterized by persistent intrusion of unwanted thoughts (obsessions) or the performance of actions, as repeated hand-washing, that one is unable to stop (compulsions).
The first thing that tips them off that something has gone horribly wrong in the time they spent away from Ichigo is her obsession with the lock on her bedroom door.
The house didn't have locks on the bedroom doors when they moved in and none of them thought anything of it. Years of living together had gotten rid of any awkwardness between them. None of them were really bothered by the possibly of having someone walk in on them. But Ichigo threw a fit.
When she first started sleeping over she would shove anything she could in front of the door so it would be hard to open. Once she started living there on a regular basis, she insisted on a lock.
"What the hell do you need a lock for? It's not like we're gonna go in and mess with your stuff kid," Kensei says gruffly from his place at the table, eyebrows raised.
"Because I want a lock," she mumbles, moving the food around on her plate but not making a move to eat.
"Do you have something to hide?" Lisa asks, peering at the girl from over the top of her manga.
Ichigo sinks down in her seat, shoulders hunched. "I would just rather have a door that locks."
"Oh come on, squirt! What's the big deal? It's just us-" Hiyori begins, only to be cut off by a sudden burst of anger from the orangette. Her first slams into the table, causing the dishes on it to shake and startling everyone.
"Because I want a fucking lock! What's so damn hard to understand about that!" Her voice is loud with a slight hysterical edge to it.
"Oi! Calm down, there's no need ta-"
"Just forget it!" Ichigo stomps out of the room and then the house before anyone can stop her.
"Berry-tan is really upset about the lock," Mashiro says quietly, staring at the place Ichigo had just been sitting, a thoughtful look on her face. "I wonder why."
Love sighs. "Maybe we should just give the kid the lock? If it's that important to her." Hachi hums in agreement.
When Ichigo finally returns later that night, a shiny new lock has been installed on her door. No one brings up the lock or her outburst from earlier. They pretend it never happened. Even when they can hear her lock, jiggle, unlock, and repeat at the door about fifteen times every night before bed.
The second thing that makes them raise a brow is her obsession with cleanliness.
They regularly return home to all the rooms in the house- sans their bedrooms which Ichigo never enters without express permission- freshly cleaned and sanitized. Household surfaces damn near sparkle in the light she cleans them so thoroughly. It's slightly disconcerting since teenagers are notoriously messy creatures who often need to be bribed to do things. But not Ichigo. The girl simply cannot handle things she feels to be "unclean", spending hours obsessing and scrubbing over everything to get ride of the perceived filth. Including the dirt she seems to believe is on her person.
When she comes out of the shower, her skin is scrubbed red and raw, bleeding in some places. They're all rightly horrified by this behavior.
"What were you thinking, Ichigo?" Hachi scolds gently, healing the damage to her burned and bleeding skin.
Ichigo shrugs, not meeting his eyes. "I want to feel clean."
"You don't need to scrub this hard to be clean. You're tearing your skin open."
"If you scrub hard enough, for a little while, you can't feel them," she replies, and then winces like she hadn't meant for that to come out.
Hachi's mouth opens and closes as he stares at her in horror, his healing kido fading as he loses concentration. The chatter behind him ceases immediately as everyone gleans the possible meanings behind those words. There is a thick, tense silence in the room before the pink haired takes a deep breath, schools his features, and goes back to healing her damaged skin.
"Okay," he says, calmly. "Okay."
Things are definitely not okay.
It is decided that Lisa should be the one to gently pose the question they all want the answer to.
Sitting in the yard one afternoon, two cups of untouched hot chocolate between them, the bespectacled woman tries to think of the right way to say this, without making the orangette completely shut down and bolt.
"You remember those talks we had when you were younger, correct?"
Big brown eyes stare at the woman in confusion. Her response comes out as more of a question than an answer. "Yeah?"
"And you know that if anyone does anything you're not comfortable with, you can always tell us?"
And as soon as those words leave her mouth, Lisa knows that this is not going to go well. She watches as Ichigo quickly clams up, any emotions she might be feeling hidden behind her usual moody teenager mask.
"I'm fine," she practically hisses. "Nothing happened. Why can't you guys just drop it already!?"
"I don't have anything to tell you!"
But what the kid doesn't notice is that her reaction told them everything they needed to know. Well, almost everything.
Just as he's finally dozing off, a knock on Shinji's door startles him into full alertness.
"Shinji-nii? Are you awake?"
He groans, sitting up in bed, stifling a yawn. "Yeah, Ichi. I'm awake," he calls, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
His door creaks open and Ichigo carefully steps into the room, stopping near the door. Her head is bowed and she's fidgeting nervously, tugging at the arms of her long sleeved sleep shirt.
"Whattaya still doin' up? It's-" he glances at the clock, "3 in the mornin'." Jesus Christ, three in the morning. Fuck him.
"Can I stay with you?" she blurts out quickly.
Shinji blinks, not sure he heard her correctly. "Huh?"
"I-" she pauses, taking a shaky breath, and Shinji can feel the anxiety and fear leaking off her in her reiatsu. "I had a nightmare."
His eyes soften and any agitation he felt at being woken up instantly fades as he regards her trembling form. He expected this. They all did. He had been prepared for the nightmares, the screaming, the tears. But up until this point, there hadn't been anything. Just complete silence from Ichigo's room every night. It seems that, like most problems, Ichigo is good at hiding them from other people.
"C'mere, kid," he says, lifting the blanket.
Ichigo hesitates for only a minute before scurrying to the bed and diving onto it, scooting over until she's as close to him as humanly possible. Chuckling lightly, he carefully pulls the blanket up and tucks it around her, then eases himself back down, throwing an arm over her and holding her close.
"Better?" he asks.
"Mhmm," she hums, trying to snuggle even closer, if that's even possible.
They lay there in silence until Ichigo's shaking finally subsides and she begins to relax, seemingly beginning to fall asleep. Shinji waits a few more moments, just to see if she's going to stir, before allowing himself to start drifting off again as well. And just as his eyes close, he hears it.
"Shinji-nii?" Her voice is barely above a whisper.
Suppressing a groan, he opens his eyes again. "Hm?"
"Am I bad person?"
Well, now he's really awake.
"Why would ya think somethin' like that, Ichi?"
Ichigo doesn't answer at first, staring at nothing and tugging at a lose string in the blanket. But when she does, Shinji finds his vision suddenly clouded by red.
"If I'm not a bad person, why does my dad hurt me?"
One calming breath, and then another. He can barely hear anything over Sakanade roaring in his mind. "I don't know, kiddo. I don't know..."
But what he does know, is that Isshin is a dead man in the morning.