A/N: My first ever IchiRuki, although this is one in a long list of Bleach fics for me. Usually I write slash, but I'm a fan of this pairing and I wanted to write a fic(let) for them. Maybe the first of many?
Spoilers for the current arc; set after the events of the Winter War. Warnings for Ichigo's angst.
Bleach and all its characters belong to Kubo; I just take them out for writing funtimes.
Hope you enjoy!
He never thinks about her.
Ever. Not at all. Not any more.
He's gotten good at it, this not-thinking. He's practiced it. First he stopped thinking of her by name—because that hurt, felt like an ache inside his chest—and then he cleaned his closet of her random manga and half-crumpled Chappy drawings, stacked them all into a box that he shoved violently to the back of Yuzu's closet.
Just in case.
"Oi, Ichigo." Keigo—quieter these days, and more thoughtful, which in itself disturbs Ichigo as much as anything else the war has wrought—watches him with cautious eyes and nervously adjusts the cuffs of his school uniform. "You okay?"
Ichigo chews absently on the straw poking out of his juice box. "Yeah," he replies easily.
He occasionally allows himself a moment of wistful reflection, something minor like I wonder if Shuuhei made captain or I wonder if everyone in Soul Society is okay. But he does not think of her. To be extra safe,he does not think of the Thirteenth Division. He does not think of Byakuya or Renji or Ukitake, either. With the same stubborn determination with which he once wielded Zangetsu, he gouges out once-precious memories from his past and throws them away.
"You sure?" Keigo looks skeptical, which is a new look for Keigo and is almost as foreign to Ichigo—almost—as the thought of Keigo with a zanpakuto in hand, sweat trickling down his temples while his hands tremble.
Ichigo shrugs. "Why wouldn't I be?" The box gurgles unpleasantly when he takes one final drink; he crumples it easily in a hand, tosses it with premeditated carelessness into the garbage bin.
He does not think about her when he looks at juice boxes.
"Right," Keigo answers awkwardly, and falls silent as they leave the roof and the warmth of outside air to slump again in their school desks. Inside the classroom and in the presence of others, Keigo immediately dons the clownish persona that has become a marker of normalcy; his face brightens as he pounces on Mizuiro. Mizuiro—still noncommittal, still himself, as comfortable in his own skin here as he was lobbing makeshift Molotov cocktails at a demi-god—barely responds, and Keigo complains loudly about the slight to anyone who will listen before he finally turns to Ichigo and announces: "We're all going out tonight. Do you want to—"
"Nah," Ichigo answers. "I have homework to do."
He doesn't. Keigo knows this, and Ichigo knows he knows this, but Keigo remains silent and Ichigo returns to his brooding, his brow half-furrowed in his characteristic scowl as class resumes again.
Ichigo is grateful that everyone leaves him alone.
He tries to construct a world around her absence.
When Ishida suddenly excuses himself not long after lunch, all flashing blue eyes and determined jaw, the furrow in Ichigo's brow deepens. He concentrates intently on his schoolwork, his pencil biting into the paper so deeply it leaves grooves.
If hollow are present, he cannot feel them. If he was thinking of her—which he isn't, because he never does—then watching Ishida dash from the classroom would remind him again, with sickening certainty, that he will never feel her presence either if she visits.
Nearby, Inoue Orihime scribbles a note to Tatsuki. She looks different without her hairpins. Her tongue sticks out of her mouth a little, evidence of her concentration as she works; she folds the paper quickly and tries, cleverly, to drop it in by her best friend's feet. The slick paper slides from her grasp too soon and the note instead falls to the floor between them, a vulnerable and crippled bird. When the teacher searches with narrowed eyes for signs of disruption, Tatsuki places her foot over the note to hide it from view. Orihime beams in response.
Ichigo thinks to himself that that his friends must be liars—if not to him, then to themselves.
Ishida, Orihime, Chad …they all traffic in the language of ordinary life—smiles and school and jobs and family—as though they had never gone to Soul Society or Hueco Mundo together, as though Aizen had not existed, as though they had not met and made friends with shinigami and hollow. Keigo and Tatsuki and Mizuiro caper and do homework and share lunch as though they had never seen shinigami with their own two eyes, had not seen the Karakura streets almost decimated by a near-god.
He wonders: do they act like they do to protect me from hurt? Or to protect themselves?
The teacher calls on him; he stirs, still quietly brooding as he gazes out the window, and replies with the correct answer. He hears Keigo whine about how it's not fair that Ichigo almost always has the right answer even though he never pays attention, and then Ishida slips back inside, none the worse for wear, apologizing about his sudden stomachache as he returns to his note-taking.
Ichigo thinks that Old Man Zangetsu is lucky to be spared the ravages of the inner world the two of them once shared.
The school day concludes with a set of circumstances that in an ordinary life might seem remarkable but are, to Ichigo, strangely mundane: alongside Ishida he beats up a set of three bullies, sending bodies and cheap jewelry flying everywhere, while a crowd of classmates watches in awe.
He doesn't feel like a hero.
After the fight—a fight he wins easily and almost without trying—underclassmen gossip about his strength and speed. Ichigo ignores it and says goodbye to his friends, giving himself permission to ignore the note of false cheer in Orihime's voice and Ishida's cool, searching stare. He knows they worry. He thinks, maybe, that they're waiting for him to break.
But Ichigo's good at surviving.
He's survived since he was very small, since Grand Fisher claimed his mother, and he's been surviving ever since, sometimes with Zangetsu, sometimes with allies, sometimes by the sheer force of his own stubbornness. Still…
How do you survive when a part of your soul is missing?
At home, Yuzu frets over the stove. Ichigo listens to her talk about schoolwork and classmates while his idiot father traps him in a headlock; he dropkicks the elder Kurosaki through the front door and huffs a fond, exasperated sigh. Karin rolls her eyes, but she stays at the table, and they all eat dinner together. This happens tonight and almost every other night, and in the warm glow of the kitchen with a full stomach and the sound of Karin's grumbling and his father's melodramatic pronouncements, it isn't so hard to pretend that everything's okay.
Ichigo makes himself live for them.
Nighttime is the worst.
Not-thinking doesn't work in dreams, and so Ichigo avoids sleep as long as he can; he stares at the ceiling, watches the curtains flutter in the breeze from his half-open window, and works math problems in his head to dull the ache of memory.
It's very, very late when he finally succumbs. He can feel the tension uncurling in his body, loses count of his calculations, sleepily tugs the blanket up to cover one bare shoulder when the cool breeze makes him shiver. Tired, he thinks groggily. So tired. And even though he wore himself out today hoping that he wouldn't…
And this is the very best of all the dreams he has, which also makes it the worst: a vague and undefined dream in which he is a shinigami again and feels, beautifully, whole. Zangetsu is a comfortable weight at his side and a quiet, pervasive presence in his heart of hearts, and the soft cloth of his shihakusho feels warm and soft against his skin. He walks on soft green grass, feels a breeze on his upturned face, and in the distance he hears Renji's husky laughter, glimpses sleek raven hair and the ivory kenseikan as Byakuya turns his face away in aristocratic disregard. Ahead of him, Seireitei beckons.
This is purpose; Zangetsu at his side promises his ability to protect. This is home.
Best of all, she is there, too, right by his side: short, slim, gazing up at him with depthless violet eyes. Animated, she describes with earnest excitement a recent foray into the Living World, and punctuates her narrative with the scrawled doodles she thrusts forward for his perusal. She holds up the last drawing, proudly: "Ichigo, what do you think?"
Snared by the honesty in her eyes and the way the wind plays with her raven hair, he takes too long to answer. She jabs a finger into his side. "Pay attention!"
He manages, somehow, to keep a straight face. "Sorry, I guess your drawing's so awful it blinded me for a minute—"
Rukia kicks him in the shin, indignant, smacks him on the back of the head with the drawing pad, and then kicks him again in the other shin for good measure. "You have no taste, Ichigo" she announces with a haughtiness learned from her brother, but he can see the smile playing around the corners of her mouth. "None."
Ichigo ruffles her hair in response, disrupts the sleek lines of it with his sword-calloused palm, and as she flushes and tries to fix the damage he reaches out, impulsive, and traces the shape of her cheekbone with his thumb.
Rukia's eyes widen. "Ichigo," she says wonderingly, and then—
—he wakes. Wakes suddenly, sweat-soaked and tangled in blankets, from his dream of warm fields and violet eyes. Seeking comfort, he reaches absently for Zangetsu; his hand curls, frustrated, into the sheets.
Kurosaki Ichigo does not cry.
He does not cry, and so instead he opens his eyes and stares at the ceiling until they burn, until his vision blurs.
He thinks of her.
He thinks of all the questions unanswered, all his stillborn hopes, of the last time he saw her—when he stood, hands thrust into his pockets and his jaw tense, and looked away because he didn't want to see her disappear and didn't want to make it harder for her than it had to be. He tries to remember the color of her eyes exactly, her almost-melancholy smile, and he thinks of what he'd say if he ever saw her again, if he could feel her there, thinks about how he would touch her with his hands, the way he'd do it and how she'd maybe smile, or punch him, how he'd find the courage to wrap his arms around her if they ever shared a world again.
But she's not here. And he won't let himself hope that he'll see her again.
Ichigo swallows hard, jaw tense, and turns his gaze to his bedroom window and the crescent moon that gleams, sharp white, against a dark and endless sky. He wonders, not for the first time, if she's close by, somehow watching.
Rukia, I hope you're not-thinking of me, too.