Disclaimer: If it's got anything to do with bleach, I don't own it.
Author's Note: This story is dedicated to all those warrior women (and men) out there that are never issued a literal sword, but seem to carry one with them their whole lives nonetheless. Here is the much anticipated epilogue, to take the sting of the last five chapters away.
Epilogue: Catch the Wind
When rain has hung the leaves with tears
I want you near, to kill my fears
To help me to leave all my blues behind
Standing in your heart
Is where I want to be, and long to be
Ah, but I may as well try and catch the wind
-Catch the Wind
Cosmically speaking, somehow it figured that the week her friends were to come back from Hueco Mundo, she was dreadfully sick with the flu. Having been out of school all week, she was stuck in her bed, blowing her nose and heaving into a nearby trash can when she felt Orihime's presence return to this world late the night before. And, as an added bonus, she realized that in a smaller, but similar way, she could also sense Ichigo's return as well.
Even in all her stuffed-up misery, she could feel tension that had been locked in her jaw and shoulders ease. They've returned, her mind chanted, and they're safe. Despite all of the conflicting feelings that had been twisting her in knots, she had never been so grateful for something in her entire life.
In the back of her mind somewhere, she wondered if it wasn't more than just a weird coincidence. Not just that she happened to be sick when they returned, but the dreams that had characterized her illness during what must have been the last week of their fight.
For the last five days, she had had the strangest fever dreams she could ever remember having as she phased in and out of fitful sleep. They were each extremely different in setting and plot—remembering the one involving Keigo made her uncomfortably flush in a way the fevers never could—but they all hinged on her feelings of anger and betrayal that had exploded when she confronted Ichigo, just before he left.
Between all the odd dreamscapes, it was no wonder she wasn't quite sure to make of the scene at her window when she turned to the scraping sound she heard there. Through bleary, runny eyes, she saw Ichigo crouched on the ledge, black kimono billowing in the breeze. This, despite it being approximately four in the afternoon and her window facing the street. Another dream? With the sickness—and the craziness of real life—she swore it was getting hard to tell.
No, not a dream. There was no way she could have imagined the contrite look on his face. He was trying to hide it, but she did not think she had seen him look so anxious since they were four and bowing before a spar.
She had been so mad at him. So hurt. In the moment he had walked away without looking back, she had been so white-hot angry that she didn't think she would ever get over it—that things would ever be right between them. How could she sit in a classroom with him, be in a group of friends with him after something like that? How could she look at his face and not see the contempt she thought she had seen in his eyes when he told her to but out? Even following him to the strange shop and getting the run-down of the game and its players from that Urahara guy hadn't done much to alleviate her feelings. If anything it made her feel worse. Something THIS huge, involving no less than three realms of existence—with Ichigo somehow at the center of all—and he didn't even confide the smallest shred of the situation to her. How could she help but feel monumentally slighted? Mistrusted?
Unbelievably, it was the flu that gave her a better perspective after two weeks of misery, anger, and loneliness. Being stuck in a bed gives you nothing but troubled sleep, extra mucous, and time to think, and think she did—particularly on the dreams. Like an endless parade of the ways things could have gone, the wretched phantasmagoria of regretful dreams all ended the same way: her feeling even more miserable than when she started, only to be honestly and utterly relieved when she realized none of them had actually happened.
Reflecting on a week's worth of fortunate reprieves, her acidic anger had burned away as her antibodies courageously mounted their defense. She was still hurt, and sad, and confused, but those feelings too had mellowed into something less caustic. She would by no means let Ichigo slide for his outrageous oversights, and she would certainly hammer a satisfactory explanation out of him one way or the other, but it simply wasn't in her anymore to want to hurt him back.
Had I really felt that? she had asked herself, ashamed. Had I really wanted him to suffer as I felt he made me suffer? She hadn't thought so at first, but she could not deny that the feeling had tempted her heart in a terrible manner. After all, didn't the dreams reflect that? Leaving him so that he could be tormented with his guilt. Forcing him to die with it. Forcing him to kill her. Weren't they all just avenues to torture him for his slight?
Once recognized, she abandoned such feelings in her heart. They weren't her. They weren't worthy of her. She would face this like she faced all the thousands of challenges that had ever been before her—directly.
Which brought her to the situation now, and a situation she hardly approved of—for her case, anyway. Yes, she wasn't livid anymore, but was it too much to ask to not be congested and nauseous for this moment?
For a long time, neither of them said anything, but simply stared and one another. Tatsuki was waiting for whatever he had prepared—I mean, he couldn't have just jumped into my window without a plan, right?—and Ichigo stayed still, waiting for her to land the first blow, as she deserved.
After a while, when the pressure in her sinuses wouldn't let her raise her head to stare any longer, she tiredly flopped her head back down on the pillow. Just like the dojo that first time, she thought. I'll have to make the first move.
"I had a dream," she said on a sigh. "Lots of dreams. And there was a dumbass in every one of them."
She couldn't see it, but some of the worry slid from his face. He truly hadn't known if she would ever speak to him again, and it had frightened him. "And did that dumbass tell you he was sorry?"
"No," she said, her arm covering her feverish face. "He never got the chance."
Taking her tone as a good sign, he unfolded himself from the window sill to stand inside her room, "Then I'm glad they were just dreams."
Lacking the energy to keep picking her head up, she motioned him to her bedside and scooted over. Instead of sitting down, he cautiously stood next to the side of her mattress. "I went to school this morning and they told me you had been absent all week," he said, as if he felt the urge to explain. "I didn't want to gamble on you being there tomorrow, so I just came here after school."
She nodded her head, and refrained from mentioning his lack of a body. She didn't want to explain how she knew she was looking at his soul—she didn't know if Urahara had told him about their little visit, and she didn't want to explain.
When she didn't say anything, he tried to press forward. "Look, Tatsuki…" he trailed off after the beginning, as if he didn't know how to continue. A rush to get over here after school, and he has nothing. He really is a dumbass. "I just…" The second start was no good either.
She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Ugh. You're making my head hurt worse with all the false starts, carrot top. And it's hard for me to keep looking up at your scowly face when I'm so stuffed up. Will you sit down already?" She thumped the bed next to her with an open palm.
For a few moments he just stood as still as a tree, looking at her as if weighing a decision. Then finally, he carefully placed his sword on the floor and moved towards the mattress. Instead of sitting down, he slid along side her and pressed his temple against hers, like how they used to sleep when they were five and Tatsuki's parents left her at Ichigo's when they traveled on business.
Her heart stuttered over the memory. Even in his own house, Ichigo had the tendency to be afraid of the dark. He had once told her it was because he could see people in it, wandering around, but at the time she had thought he just wanted an excuse for his fear.
I won't hold your hand, she had told him, because that's sissy stuff. Her parents loved her, but were often away. They didn't hold her hand much. As a result, she associated holding hands with Ichigo and his mother, and that made her think of his tendency to cry at the dojo. She didn't want to encourage his being a cry-baby…but at the same time, she could tell he was really afraid, too.
I won't hold your hand, but if you want, you can scoot over close to me and I'll protect you. I'm not afraid of anything in the dark. I'll kick its butt if it tries to get us! Even when small, Tatsuki had always been fearless. Grateful for her confidence and reassurance, every time she stayed over Ichigo slid as close to her as he could, and even inclined his head towards her, away from the figures that sometimes stood at the edge of his bed.
Reflecting on it now, Tatsuki realized that they had really been there. He had really seen things in the night. She wasn't sure how to feel about it now. If she had known, would she have held his hand?
"I know that you're pissed at me for not telling you about…well…about everything," he was saying in the present day, staring up at the ceiling. "But it wasn't because I think you, or Keigo, or Mizuiro are weak or anything like that. It wasn't because I thought you didn't deserve to know."
There was a pause, like he was trying to get his words together, and she couldn't resist proding, "Then what was it, Ichigo?" Her voice was tired. "What could have possibly been worth the burden of keeping up those kind of appearances?"
He shifted a little at her side. His shoulders were considerably wider than when they were five, and the position, while nostalgic, was difficult to maintain. "For most of this time, I thought it was because I wanted to protect you. I thought that if you didn't have to get involved in this mess with the rest of us, then it would be safer for you not to." Here, Tatsuki snorted loudly, and it was not lost on Ichigo. "But," he said in a if-you-would-just-let-me-finish tone, "it became clear to me the day that the Espada almost killed you outside the dojo that that was a stupid dream. Obviously you were still in danger, and I couldn't even…" he paused in an angry silence, directed at himself, she was sure. "Between Chad, Orihime, and I, we still could defeat the two Espada, and the three of you almost lost your lives because of it."
She could tell it was a hard admission, so Tatsuki resisted the urge to point out that he had had quite some time after this event to tell her the truth, and hadn't. She had a feeling he would bring this story around in due time, anyway.
"You don't understand—nobody understands the burden I'm carrying around on my back right now. It's not the training. It's not the fighting. It's not that I'm putting my life on the line," in his voice, she could detect a slight waver starting to creep into the edges, "it's knowing that if I'm not strong enough, someone will die. Someone I care about will die. I can't stop thinking about it. I can't stop turning it over in my mind. There are some nights I can't even sleep for the fear of it."
He let the silence stretch, but Tatsuki said nothing. She could tell instinctively that what he needed was not assurance, or kind, empty words, but space to sort it all out.
Because he hadn't continued his thoughts out loud, his next statement was a non-sequiter. "I just wanted it to be normal with you."
Tatsuki's eyes drew together, and let out a laugh that, with her stuffed up sinuses, sounded like a bark. "Ichigo, think hard about that statement. When have I ever been normal?"
She could feel him smile. "Alright, true, but that's not what I meant."
"Then what did you mean?"
His voice got instantly serious, and she almost regretted it. "Those fears I have, about myself. They have them too. About me, I mean. I can see it in their eyes. When Orihime, or Rukia, or even Chad look at me, I can feel them wondering. Thinking, 'Can he do it?' They are so happy and relieved every time the fight is won, but underneath that is always the question of next time. When the opponent is even stonger, the fight even tougher, will he be able to do it? Will this be the time that he fails? And even worse, I can see they think that if I do fail, all will be lost.
"It's so heavy," he said. "Their fear for me, their expectations, they're all so heavy." He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "I didn't want to look at you and see the same stare. I thought, if you didn't know, then I wouldn't have to look at you and see you doubting me. To you, I would just be the same old dumbass Ichigo. And if you thought of me as that person, then maybe I could still be that person, at least while I'm around you, and not…whatever it is I've become."
His words had all flowed out, a gushing torrent, and she could feel his relief at the loss of their pressure in his chest. She, in turn, had taken them all in, and was ready to turn the tide. She was not strong enough to fight hollows, but this was within her power. He wasn't broken, not yet. But even without looking at his face, she could feel the cracks in his soul that needed to be smoothed over with glue.
She began by fixing their positions, which had begun to give her a crick in her neck. Leaning forward, she grabbed his arm nearest her and slid it under her neck, laying her head on his shoulder. Instantly, she could feel the twists in her body relax. Childhood memories are great, but we're not three feet tall anymore.
"We've both grown up a lot in these last ten years, Ichigo. And it's not just that you're wearing kimonos and swinging a sword around. We've both grown and changed. But that isn't anything to be afraid of. Just look at this," she said, indicating their new positions by thumping her head on his shoulder. "I've changed the gesture, but not the meaning of it. I'm still here to kick the ass of anything that scares you."
"The things I've been seeing have gotten a whole lot more formidable than ghosts at the foot of the bed, Tats."
She dramatically rolled her eyes. "I didn't say I would take on hollows," yet, she amended in her mind, "I said I would beat up what scares you. You're not scared of hollows, or arrancar, or Espada, you're scared of yourself." She rolled her head to the side so that she could look at him while she said what came next. "You have always been your own biggest enemy, Ichigo, with your stubbornness, your self-recriminations, your unwillingness to let anyone help you because you think they'll get hurt. Your self-doubt has always been your own greatest fear. Has been since you were nine. Some things about us have changed, but the essentials haven't. I might not know the specifics of what you're thinking all the time, but I can recognize how you're thinking on that scowly face of yours a mile away.
"I can't currently win against an Espada," she said, and refused to feel shame at the admittance, "but I can still kick you in the ass when you get all caught up in your stupid self-defeating thoughts. After all, wailing on you is one of the things I've always done best."
The quietness stretched after her diatribe, and she let her words sink in. Tatsuki knew how to use silence as a tool when talking; she did not need to fill the pause in conversation with unnecessary words to convince him of her strength as a friend and ally. His internal dialogue didn't need her chatter—give a person enough silence, and they will convince themselves what's real. Give Ichigo enough reflection time, and he would see how he had not only been an idiot to try and push her away, he was weaker for it as well.
Her cleverness was overruled by her illness. A dreadful tickle in her sinus built until she simply couldn't hold it back any longer and sneezed into her hand. Ugh. Grossest way to ruin a moment ever, she thought, holding a handful of mucous.
Just as she was about to grasp for a tissue, she felt Ichigo's chest start to rumble with laughter. He tried to contain it, but to no avail, and soon he was laughing louder and harder than it seemed he had in years. With her gunk-free hand, she slapped him in the torso, "Shut up, strawberry, unless you want me to wipe it on you." Even with the threat, she couldn't keep the humor out of her voice, and his amusement resonated in the air of the room.
They were just two teenagers, laughing at snot. In the moment, they both felt utterly…normal. It was a euphoric sensation.
With the hand not attached to the arm currently under Tatsuki, he wiped away moisture from the corner of his eyes. "My sides hurt," he said as the laughter died down. "That was excellent, Tats. Way to sneeze." He then promptly rolled towards her and leaned over her chest to grab a tissue.
The proximity of his face above hers and he reached for the Kleenex suddenly jolted her memory of other components in her dream. If she had not been feverish already, her cheeks would have flushed crimson.
I loved you! the dream-Ichigo had shouted as he pushed the sword through her back. I know how you feel about Ichigo, Keigo had said. There had been an element of it in every dream. She hadn't just wanted to get back at him, he wanted him to return her feelings—feelings that she hadn't been to keen on admitting to herself, much less anyone else.
For a split moment, she thought she was going to panic over all the what-if's that came with the realization—What if he found out and it ruined their friendship? What if Orihime found out and it ruined their friendship? What if he was already in love with someone else?—But just as the feeling was beginning to surge in her throat, she could sense a hot-cold coil of ribbon unfurl in her chest, and her turbulent worry subsided in its wake. She could not say how, but she understood its message: You could not run away from your anger towards him; you cannot run from your love for him either. She let the inevitability of it wash over her like a calming sea.
I am in love with Ichigo, she conceded to herself, and for once there was no guilt or embarrassment. And hiding it, denying it, and agonizing over it in secret are not going to change it. The admission was liberating.
She did not know, in the end, if her feelings would ever come to anything. She did not know if he felt the same. She did not know how to resolve her feelings for Ichigo with the feelings she knew Orihime had for him, which is why she would not chase. But, she thought as she looked at his dumb face waving a tissue in front of her nose, I'm not going to run, either.
"Thanks," she said, taking the proffered tissue and wiping her hands. "I'd call you a gentleman, but I know you just didn't want me to smear it all over your pretty dress."
"Hey!" he said in mock outrage. "This is the official attire of a Shinigami, and it isn't a dress!"
"It's got a skirt, doesn't it? You're wearing a dress. Never thought you'd be the little-black-number type," she said and smiled into his shoulder.
"It's not a skirt—it's split down the center into legs!"
"So it's a coolot?" She couldn't be sure, but she thought he was getting actually starting to get irritated. I don't think he ever considered that it may look like a dress before, and now he's worried. All the scowling in the world won't save his image if he's wearing a dress.
"Tatsuki…" he said in a warning voice.
"Cool it, Strawberry. I'm just playing. After all, one of us has to wear the skirt in this friendship, and we know my track record with skirts isn't all that great."
"Yeah, like that one time you slipped on the escalator at the mall and everyone behind you got to see your—"
"Shut up about that!" she yelled, punching him in the stomach.
"Ooff!—pink panties," he finished. She looked at him for a second and briefly pondered why he didn't blush at the mention of girls' underwear. In the past, such sensitive topics had caused him to stammer like and idiot. Just as quickly, she brushed it off. She didn't know what he had been doing while gallivanting around in soul society, but if someone somewhere had managed to shock him out of such squeamishness, good for them.
In the middle of eating massive amounts of food at Urahara's shop, Yoruichi sneezed.
"Hmph. See if I ever wear those again," she grumbled to herself as he chuckled.
Through the windows, the rays of the setting sun were turning from orange to red, and Tatsuki was finding herself regretting the inevitable moment when the pause in the conversation would stretch too long and he would decide it was time for him to leave. Or…
"So. Only a spiritual aware person can see you in your Shinigami form, right?"
"Which is why I shouldn't worry that my neighbors saw you climbing in my bedroom window in broad daylight."
"Phffft. Since when have you been worried about what people think?" He seemed to miss the true implications of her words, but she was unsurprised. Ichigo might well be the most oblivious person she had ever met.
"So, if my parents walked into this room right now, what would they see?"
"They would see you talking to yourself." He smiled, "They would not see me, laughing my ass off. But I'd be here laughing all the same."
"Alright then," she said, "here's what we're going to do. I'm sick as hell, and you just came back from a war. I think we've both earned a rest. So we're going take it."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean we're going to get some sleep," she said as she rolled slightly towards him, and slapping his shoulder a number of times—hard—before resting her head back down.
"I—you mean here?" she could feel his body tense up. "You want me to sleep with y.. uh… you want me to sleep—sleep here?" Tatsuki had the remedy for his sudden awkwardness—a hard punch to the kidney. It was easy when his hips were so close. "Oww! What was that for?"
"Don't get all weirded out over sleep, dumbass," she said as she continued to arrange herself into a comfortable position. "It'll keep me awake."
It took ten minutes for him to release the awkward tension in the arm underneath her, and fifteen minutes more for him to relax into her side. She smirked to herself. A billion questions could have been plagued her, from what this arrangement was supposed to mean, to what he thought this arrangement was supposed to mean, but she purged such worries from her mind. It didn't matter what it meant, it was enough that the moment was. She let her consciousness share the serenity in the atmosphere in the room, like the perfect, mirrored surface of a calm lake. The sense of peace was so deep that it was not even broken when he turned to rest his chin on the top of her head and her heart skipped a beat.
She would not be having nightmares tonight.
She was just drifting to sleep when his voice again rose to her ears. "Peaceful moments like this," he said into her hair, "they've been so hard to come by. Like trying to catch the wind."
She had not missed the weariness in his voice. Or the hope. "Dumbass. Didn't you just see me catch that sneeze?" She smiled into his neck, her eyelashes brushing against the line of his jaw. "You've come to the right place, Ichigo," she said.
Author Note #2: This story is now complete! I hope you've all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you have(n't), now's the time to shoot me a review and tell me what I did right/wrong. Constructive criticism is always welcomed, encouraged, and very much appreciated. Even if you find this story years after I completed it, I still check my messages and *squee* over every review I get, and I would love to hear from you.
THANK YOU to Akatsuki Leader 13, xSTALKERx, Marie Darkholme, Veggiemite, GoodDevil 1989, Xx Trinity xX, Mandachan77 for their reviews of chapter five. You guys rock!
Thank you for reading all of my rambling words. You're all aces!