This is it.
This is where all the little threads from previous chapters link up and become one. Actually, a lot of little questions have already been answered along the way if you've read each chapter properly (which a lot of people have, judging by the reviews *tearsniff*) but this is where it all comes together. No more flashbacks. No more 'in the past this happened'. Real time.
He's Just Not That Into You If He: Doesn't Love You
It's near midnight when Rukia steps out of the senkaimon.
As usual, she's instantly hit with his huge reiatsu, but immediately upon contact knows something is very wrong. Instead of the gentle pulsing of deep sleep, it's flaring and spiking haphazardly in all directions, causing streetlights to flicker and windows to shake and, were it not for the barriers they'd erected, would have been a Hollow's dream feast. For a split second, she's rooted to the spot before she recognises the crazed pattern: it's fear, and what Ichigo fears... anxiety rises like bile in her throat and all thoughts of a potential Significant Other fly from her mind; the petite shinigami can't get to Ichigo's apartment fast enough. Covering the last few kilometres in seconds, she lunges, reaching for his windowsill with scrabbling, shaking fingers. Skids through.
What she sees makes her heart constrict in her chest.
His sheets are kicked off as sweat beads down quivering muscles pulled taut, sticking damp orange strands to his forehead. A quick once-over confirms he isn't bleeding, which means only one thing...
Her insides twist sharply, and she's by his side in an instant. Rukia may be immune to his reiatsu, but now even she feels the strain of approaching him, waves of pure power unhindered, uncontrolled. Blood is pumping in her ears and her mind is racing. His nightmares had faded out years ago, why now...?
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry…" he chokes out, and kami if he doesn't sound so broken, so tormented, locked inside a personal torture chamber she knows all too well and suddenly the years seem to melt away and he is before her at fifteen, plagued with guilt and everything self-loathing. He'd had bad ones at least once a week (and particularly violent ones at least once every three) but back then, in the earliest stages, the grip on her emotions was still too tight for her to step out of the closet and offer him any comfort; she made herself especially scarce the morning after because his haggard, drawn face would warp before her eyes into that of another.
It's something Rukia has never forgiven herself for.
"Ichigo." He turns his face toward her, but doesn't wake. His reiatsu is still spilling without check, and each erratic wave is now beginning to feel like a punch in the stomach. Considering he'd finally learned to keep it under control before facing off against Aizen gives her a glimpse as to the extent of his dreaming.
He must have been like this for hours...
"No, I…" suddenly his features darken in anger, but panic is creased into his forehead. "Aizen."
"Ichigo!" She needs to snap him out of it. She needs to do something, anything, to break him out of this.
"Leave her alone. Leave her alone." His right hand clenches, as if he is gripping Zangetsu white-knuckle-tight and as her own panic spikes and reaches fever-pitch she acts automatically.
Her fist collides with the side of his face.
He bolts upright with a scream clawing its way up his throat (not from his jaw, but pain somewhere much deeper) and it breaks her heart to see him like this – breath ragged gasps, skin cold with sweat, eyes fearful and desperate and guilty all at once. She watches, frozen in place, as he stills to focus and take in familiar surroundings before allowing herself to gently lay a hand on his shoulder. Ichigo starts from the touch, but relaxes on seeking out her eyes in the dark.
"Don't midget me, Ichigo." She feels sick. Why didn't he tell her? She can barely choke out her next words. "All this time, you…?"
He gently takes her hand off his shoulder but doesn't let it go. Rukia is only vaguely aware he's massaging it, rubbing soothing circles over clammy skin and jumping pulse.
"Didn't want you to worry."
"This is not making me worry?" She hisses, enraged in her fear. His eyes flinch. He lowers his gaze, and she instantly feels remorse. "Ichigo… you know I didn't mean it like that. It's just…" She runs a shaky hand through her hair, and when she lets it fall he captures that one, too. "When I was here… you never had…"
"It's been six months."
She frowns, confused. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He doesn't reply, instead focusing on keeping her hands enveloped in his.
"Ichigo?" She asks again, impatient.
He still doesn't answer, and she grows tired of whatever game he's playing. "Ichigo. What is th—" But then he gives her a look from under sweaty bangs that instantly silences her.
"You should know."
She inhales sharply (the utter gravity with which he spoke those words scares her) and the walls seem to rush in on them and she's suddenly very aware he's massaging her hands and tries to take them back.
He doesn't let go.
This is not happening. This is not happening. Just because I thought it doesn't mean I'm ready for it to happen. Too fast too fast too soon too soon—
"Rukia…" Her heart slams into her chest (wild horses ramming against cave walls). He's never, never, spoken her name like that before. Her breath quickens as all the mental alarms in her head are sounding off Dangerous Territory. She tugs harder, but he simply grips tighter.
"Let go." For once, she thanks her Kuchiki training.
"I said no."
He's too calm, and suddenly she just knows (somehow, please let it be wishful thinking what are you talking about this is what you want no I'm not ready I don't deserve) what's coming next, and frantically tries to extract her hands though she knows it's all in vain and she's too late because his mouth has already begun to form the words she's both yearned and dreaded to hear.
"I love you."
Rukia's world grinds to a halt.
She doesn't dare meet his eyes, but staring at the sheets only draws her gaze to their hands. The seconds tick by.
"You know, a reply would be nice," he says sarcastically, but she knows he's nervous about revealing his final card.
It's as if the entire universe is holding its breath, waiting for her reply. Waiting for her to throw caution to the wind, to finally achieve what fate seems to have planned all along.
But, "I-I…" is all that comes out. She tries to swallow, but her throat remains dry.
"Listen, Rukia," his voice is soft in a bid to make her see reason, "I've waited long enough to tell you. Maybe too long, but I can't just stand by anymore and pretend to be happy as your best friend. I need you, Rukia. As more than that. As what we're supposed to be."
Her mouth opens and closes a few times before she finds the words in her scattered mind. "You," she furiously shakes her head, as if the physical movement will somehow jumble her thoughts into some sort of coherent order. She wants to scream, be sick, run away, anything but this. "The nightmare got to you. You don't… you don't know what you're saying." Yes he does you know it he knows you know it Rukia you stupid selfish girl.
It's clearly not the reply he's expecting; his exasperation and frustration are clear. "This isn't brought on by that! I've probably known since I first saw you kill that Hollow and you just went and ignored me and the Plus girl. I freaking couldn't stop thinking about you, and then you, you just appear in my window."
Arguing. She scrambles to find her footing on familiar ground. "Maybe because, I don't know, it was your first time seeing something like that? Of course you're going to think about it!"
"But I wasn't even thinking about the Hollow. I was thinking about you. Who you were. There was just this... this urge to know you better. You must have felt it."
"No. I didn't."
"Then what about saving you from execution? That not count?"
"You saved Inoue too, Ichigo! Does that not count?" In her quick replies, it is becoming painfully obvious to the petite shinigami that she has spent far too much of her spare time rationalising and justifying reasons for everything he has ever done for her.
"I was willing to turn back. For you. And I let you stay here. You always stay here. It's practically a given. Never Inoue's, never Urahara's, never Dad's. Mine."
A tired sigh. She chooses to ignore the double meaning of his last word, because that would bring on a fight about you don't own me, which is the last thing she wants. "Because we're partners."
He scoffs. "So you don't think I'm strong enough to take on Hollows myself?"
"Ichigo, you know the answer to that."
"Well, why do you need to be here, then?"
"Ukitake-taicho sends me. It's my job." Her tone is stoic enough to make Byakuya proud.
"That's bullshit, Rukia!" He yells. "That's a load of crap and you know it!"
"Orders aren't bullshit, Ichigo, unless you're calling being a shinigami bullshit! And I know what Aizen said abo—"
"I don't give a fuck what Aizen said, but since you're so keen on shooting down every argument I have, he also said that we had to have the will to meet first, but we'd never met before then. Which brings me to my next point." He's tugged her onto the mattress with him before she can protest. "Do you know what that means, Rukia?" His voice is low and serious. Damn the way he says her name. "It means we've met before. In another life. Maybe many times before."
"You're crazy…" she whispers.
"Dammit, Rukia!" He's right in her face now, searching her eyes with his. "I just know, and I know you know it too, so I may not have any idea what's keeping you from coming out and saying you want this but as soon as I find out I'm shredding it with my bare hands."
"Are you really that arrogant to think that whoever you pick is going to magically fall in love with you, Ichigo? And you have no proof that we knew each other in previous lives if we had any!"
His eyes narrow. "I do have proof. Most humans don't believe in the next life. Pretty much all humans have no solid proof. So unless my family and I are actually insane your world shouldn't exist. You shouldn't exist. Yet here you are. What's to say there isn't a few more?"
"Like you said, I'm dead. You're living. I'm decades older than you. Don't you see anything wrong with that?"
He cocks an eyebrow and says bluntly: "Didn't stop my parents."
She's running out of points to make, and she knows he knows it. Frantically searching through all her mental points, she then remembers - shamefully - part of the reason she was here in the first place.
"What about the girl?"
That stops him. His next words are wary.
"You know, Ichigo, a normal human girl? A living one? One that studies math and not Hollows and has probably killed nothing but a fly in her entire life?"
"There are a lot of those. You're going to have to be more specific."
"You know which one I'm talking about!"
"No, I don't! I don't play dumb and you know it, so do us both a favour and spit it out already!"
"They say you've been coming home with a girl lately." She mutters finally. "One with long brown hair or something."
There's a silence, and then comprehension dawns on his face. "Rukia," he gives a short, disbelieving laugh, "you're being completely irrational."
"I'm being irrational?" She cries, "I just don't see how you can suddenly decide to love me after you've had her around until late, and, and-"
"And what, Rukia?" He looks amused now, which naturally makes her angrier. "And that means that I like her? Or that she likes me?"
Her eyes narrow as her thought processes begin to sum up just how much ground she's lost. "If you're implying that I'm jealous," she says slowly, "I'm not. I feel sorry for the girl, if she likes you. That's all."
"But nothing's going on, you paranoid hobbit!"
"She must. If she stays late and everything."
"So staying at my house, letting me feed her dinner and helping her out means that she loves me?" There's a giant smirk on his face, and only then does the petite shinigami realise the hole she's dug.
"I. Do not. Love you." The words leave a strange taste in her mouth (bitterness) but she keeps her expression aloof.
"Ouch, that hurt." His tone is caustic enough, but she wishes she imagined the pain that momentarily dulls his eyes.
"So," she mumbles, "who is this girl, anyway?"
He doesn't say anything until she finally looks up, looks him straight in the face.
"Just that, Rukia. A girl." When she doesn't look convinced, he sighs. "I tutor her in some of my units. If it makes you feel better," a flash of a grin, "she has a boyfriend. He's already lectured me enough without you on my ass as well."
She also really wishes that relief didn't just flood her entire body. To cover it and try and lighten the mood (and hopefully get off this accursed, awkward topic), she sniffs haughtily. "Public menace."
But Ichigo's not having any of it.
"Don't try and avoid the conversation, Rukia. It's been a long time coming, and we need to have it. We probably had it in all our other lives. Our previous lives."
She hates that he's looking at her out of the corner of his eye, hates his provoking look, hates his matter-of-fact tone, hates that he's being so stubborn (hates that she wishes it were true). She's frustrated and exasperated by this whole thing; all it's doing is showing that her logic is wrong. If anything, Rukia hates being wrong. "Well, you can't prove that we were involved in any way in those lives!"
"I don't need to!" He's back to yelling now. "The fact that I've just rejected all your opinions should be enough!" She knows instantly what memory he's trying to provoke, and though she tries not to let it get to her the pattern is out of her mouth before she can stop it.
"Reject my opinions! What sort of a bigoted, arrogant…"
Their argument escalates as their stubborn personalities clash over and over again. He has the unyielding stance of one who can't understand why his soulmate is denying the inevitable. She is arguing with the desperation of one who can't bear to see him be paired for life with someone so undeserving as her. The thought of eternity, she didn't even dare to comprehend.
"..and besides all that, we know each other. When we… not say things, I get you. I get what you mean, but sometimes I need to hear it, you know? Just in case what I'm thinking you're... not saying... is all in my head and what I want to hear and—and not... not what you meant." Inwardly she's screaming me too me too kami me too. He gives her a crooked (and devastatingly disarming) half-smile. "You can't deny that."
"You don't understand, Ichigo—"
"No, you don't understand! When are you gonna get it through your thick skull that I do love you, dammit? Hear I am, telling you to your face because obviously communicating it with actions for years isn't clear enough, and you still doubt me?"
It's not you I doubt. "You just can't be so sure!"
The last of his patience snaps.
"You are doubting me! Fine!"
He lets go of her hands and for one horrible moment she feels her traitorous heart drop six feet under. But then one is at her hip and the other carding through her hair as he roughly slams her into him before bringing her upwards, bending to meet her halfway to all but smash his mouth into hers.
Rukia's everything is suddenly upside-down and inside-out; the butterflies in her stomach are doing aerial stunts and she feels gloriously, wonderfully light-headed, completely unable to concentrate on anything but what he's doing to her. He's brutal and it's almost an assault, but the way that he gently presses her into the mattress reassures it's not another (yellow eyes too pale skin too pale hair too harsh voice) and damn it all she can't help but respond. Respond by closing her eyes and surrendering because she's fought down her emotions for too long and she's tired of it, tired of quickly stamping out any feelings more than friendship for this young man who would do – could do – anything and everything for her because this is too much too fast and she can't deny herself this when he's making all logical thought melt into nothing but moremoremore. He groans his approval as she tentatively kisses him back, redoubling his efforts hard and fast as her arms loop tight around his neck. His mouth leaves swollen lips to nuzzle open enough of her shihakusho to expose her right shoulder, kissing his way down her pale neck and along her collarbone as she gasps in oxygen and exhales "Ichigo!" He merely chuckles against her skin as his large hands run up and down her sides, fingers almost meeting at her tiny waist as he archs her off the sheets to meld her into him. It's as if he's aware of how much her internal battle has fueled her actions so far and is desperate to permanently attach her to him before she changes her mind back and is out of his grasp forever.
But right now, he needn't worry. Her world is now revolving around how to get more of this, doing a complete one-eighty on its axis as he works his way back up to cup her face and before she can think that orange is her new favourite colour he comes in for more, and she responds with equal fervour because she just can't get enough she's hooked she's addicted every nerve fibre is alive and crackling aching begging for his touch everywhere and at once.
Finally, after what seems like hours (days? months? years?), he slowly starts to tone down the tempo, each becoming sensuous then playful then chaste until he's pressing feather-light kisses over her jaw, lips, nose, cheek, eyebrow, forehead and back again (each conveys the same message: I love you I love you I love you I love you I love you). When he finally stops she's never felt more liberated more exuberant more loved and smiling down Ichigo takes her in for one last deep, languorous kiss that has her toes curling and firecrackers going off behind closed lids before slowly, torturously, pulling back.
Save for heavy breathing, it's quiet in the bedroom for a very long time.
His warm breath fans over her face as he momentarily rests his forehead on hers. "I've wanted to do that for so long…" He tenderly strokes her hair, admiring the deep sheen in the moonlight with loving brown eyes. She's shaking, and he gives a short laugh. "Hey, you alright?" The words bring her back to reality. She just… with Ichigo… after what she had promised herself… but it was just so g—no. Rukia steels herself, opens her eyes and forces her voice to be even.
"That can't convince me, Ichigo."
He stills, and a long moment of terrible silence goes by. "Then what will, Rukia?" His voice is calm and quiet, but he knows only she can pick out the frustration, the pleading, the raw desperation underneath. "Tell me. Tell me what I have to do. Tell me now and I'll do it over and over until you wholeheartedly believe that you deserve this. That you want this and need this as much as I do, because judging by your reaction just then this isn't one-sided. I'm not dreaming this all up in my head."
The petite shinigami pushes against his chest and, defeated, he allows her to sit up. She quickly scoots away and fixes her robes, reddening as she's aware he hasn't taken his eyes off her.
"I'm sorry, I can't do this. It's for the best," she adds lamely.
More silence, then:
Shocked, she looks up in time to see him turn away.
His eyes are hidden by orange bangs as he speaks. "Okay," he repeats, "I get it. It's... it's nothing I can help with, is it? It's nothing material I can kick the ass of to make you free. And even if I can, it's not my battle. You need to figure this out by yourself, don't you? It's..." he draws in a deep, shuddering breath. "It's not me... right?" He looks straight at her then, direct and honest and vulnerable, and she understands.
"Right." It's not you. No, it was never you. It's me.
Ichigo smiles; a small, tired, innocent smile that breaks her heart all over again knowing he's covering hurt and she's the cause.
"Go back to Soul Society, Rukia." His voice is gentle. "Take all the time you want. Come to terms with what you need to. No matter how long you take, I'll be waiting, and whatever your final decision is, if you're at peace with it then I'll be too."
The petite shinigami stares. Is this the same rash idiot boy that rejected her opinions all those years ago?
("I've… decided to stay in Soul Society."
"I see. That's good. Since you decided that yourself, that's a good thing, ne?")
Tears well in her eyes.
And because she can't bear it anymore, she is out of the window and blindly making for Anywhere before he says something else that will make her feel more guilt than she's already feeling. The familiar route through Kanagawa swims and blurs in her water vision until she forces herself to stop in a small park and just breaks down. Cries as if her heart is broken, because it is. To choose her world, all she has ever known, for him. What would that mean? To stay with him, what would she have to do? All the tiny, unimportant details and not the bigger picture cloud her mind because she's looking for an answer as to why somewhere deep inside, she knows it's her fault but for the life of her can't figure out how. She's confused and tired and just wants all this to be a bad dream, but she's been in the front line too often to truly believe it.
Looking up at the night sky and the blissfully ignorant apartments, she smiles sadly. How do their occupants keep sleeping, keep hoping, keep breathing when something like this happens right under their noses to someone they know? Someone they wave to in the morning, exchange news and banter with? How do they do it when hearts are shattering like mirrors and dreams tearing into shreds? How do they not feel the anguish, the burn? But she knows hers is just another and the world has no time for broken souls. Especially those who do not even attempt to fix themselves.
"No matter how long you take, I'll be waiting, and whatever your final decision is, if you're at peace with it then I'll be too."
He was right. He was so right. She needs to figure this out, not just to give herself some closure, but for him too. Rukia may not know what she felt, but at least she knows that she won't keep Ichigo hanging for any longer than he needs to. At the very least he deserves that. Her resolve strengthens. She wipes her eyes, stands up straight.
No more running away.
"Go back to Soul Society. Take all the time you want."
Sode no Shirayuki slides cleanly from her sheath.
(Ichigo feels the departure. He doesn't sleep that night.)
Yeah, not the ending you were after, I know, but Rukia being so bogged down in her complex I think if everything happily ever aftered here there would be a lot of people going "hold on..."
Again with the threads all linking together: I hate when things happen for no apparent reason, so I really tried to give an explanation and proper follow-up for things I felt would be too random without it. Ichigo already mentioned a girl he tutored, which led into the next chapter which led into this one, and he also mentioned his nightmares getting worse. Considering he was thinking that at four and a half months, I'm pitching that whatever torture I've subjected him to in this chapter at six months is fair enough to set the scene, but you guys be the judge.
But yeah, hope that was alright.
Also, I was completely blown away by the amount of reviews for the last chapter (which is, ironically, the shortest), so thankyou very very much. You have no idea how much your words mean to me.
One more chapter to go!