A/N: This is a companion piece to my first IchiRuki fic, In Absentia, with this one told from Rukia's perspective. Angst. Spoilers for the current manga arc and everything prior. I guess I might be getting addicted to these two; I have a sweeter, less angsty one-shot in mind, next.
Bleach and all its characters belong to Kubo; I just take them out for writing funtimes.
Hope you enjoy!
She fights to remember.
Sode no Shirayuki chills the surrounding air, slicks the ground and encases the surrounding trees with glittering, impenetrable ice. All around, frozen columns stretch skyward; delicate spring leaves wither, blasted by frost.
She fights to remember him.
Hands clasped firmly around the hilt of her zanpakuto, Rukia stands and sees herself mirrored over and over in the glassy, reflective surface of the ice: a small and solitary figure, chest heaving with every panted breath, violet gaze inscrutable.
I exist in the center of a frozen world.
"Oi, Rukia." Renji intrudes heedlessly into her sanctuary, his feet crunching against frostbitten grass as he walks. He looms above her, brawny and broad-shouldered, as he slows to a stop and folds his arms. Concern shadows his fierce gaze. "You okay?"
Her panted breaths emerge in small clouds of steam that immediately evaporate into the frigid air of the training grounds; her hands, clasped tightly around Sode no Shirayuki's hilt, ache dully from the strain of effort. "Yeah," she tells him. "I'm okay."
They both know she isn't. Nonetheless, Renji sets his jaw and gives a grim nod of understanding. He knows that any comfort he can offer will be hollow at best, but trusts the war scars and tattoos peeking out from beneath his shihakusho to promise his empathy.
Renji understands war and hurt.
Rukia resumes her one-woman war on the training ground when he leaves. A lock of hair falls into her eyes and she ignores it, resolute. First dance. She does not slow. Second dance. Columns of ice shoot skyward and a cresting wave of ice creates a blessed barrier between Rukia and the rest of the world.
She feels closest to Ichigo when she fights.
With Sode no Shirayuki in her hands and imagined hollow looming before her she can almost feel him there at her shoulder, by her side: tall and lean, his brow furrowed in a determined scowl and his dark eyes full of challenge, jaw clenched while dirt streaks his cheeks and his disheveled, brilliantly-orange hair gleams under the sun. Ichigo always looked alive when he fought, and Rukia remembers now with perfect clarity the strength in the slope of his shoulders and the comfortable ease with which he wielded Zangetsu.
She charges forward and slices at air.
Sode no Shirayuki, do you remember him, too? The zanpakuto pierced Ichigo through and through, after all, found home inside the flesh and muscle and bone of a boy who, despite his humanity, was anything but frail. Is that why I can hear you crying?
She fights until her entire body aches dully, until her hands on Sode no Shirayuki start to slip and her sweat-damp hair sticks to her cheeks. When she stops, she knows, she won't be able to pretend that he's there, will feel only the utter absence of his presence. When she stops, Kurosaki Ichigo will no longer exist in this world.
Rukia fights to remember because forgetting is the final death.
She pours tea for her brother.
They speak, quietly and in muted tones, of acceptable matters. Rukia prefers this to the chill and sterile silence that once marked nearly all of their communication; she sips her tea and navigates with learned ease the rigid hierarchy of rules that determine her interactions with the heir of the Kuchiki clan.
Outside, a plum tree bursts into bloom.
Her brother's heavy-lidded gaze turns to the blossoms. He is thinking, she knows, of Hisana-sama; sorrow haunts his gray eyes before the veil of propriety descends to hide it.
Rukia wonders how many times a shinigami's heart can break.
After Byakuya falls silent the pervasive quiet of the Kuchiki manor haunts them both. Rukia can hear his heartache clearly in the silence, understands with new empathy the nuances of a pain that years have dulled but will never extinguish. She wishes, suddenly and desperately, for a voice—
And she's frightened that she almost can't remember it, that in this time he's been gone she can only recall an echo of the boyish warmth and easy familiarity with which he spoke her name. She closes her eyes and concentrates carefully, hands cradling her cup of tea, and tries to bring to mind the soft and serious tones that meant he was thinking out loud to himself, the muzzy, sleep-slurred confusion that always accompanied waking, the grouchy good humor with which he approached his critiques of her drawings.
She almost smiles.
But then the moment slips and the memory vanishes and she opens her eyes to plum blossoms, to the steam rising from her brimming cup of tea, to her brother's arched eyebrow that speaks volumes. Startled, she realizes she missed his question, whatever it was. A flush of shame stains her cheeks as she bows her head. "I apologize, nii-sama."
To her surprise, he does not chastise her. Those gray eyes soften fractionally; he returns his attention to his tea. Grateful for the unspoken understanding between them, Rukia renews her efforts and slowly, haltingly, begins the conversation again.
Her brother teaches her, wordlessly, how to endure suffering.
She can't stop the rain.
On Mt. Koifushi, a spring storm drenches the earth and veils Seireitei from view. Here, surrounded by the scent of the damp earth and comforted by the warm wet breeze that threads through her rain-damp hair and makes the leaves tremble, Rukia seeks a measure of peace.
Ichigo isn't really gone, she reassures herself. Not like Kaien-dono.
Somewhere in Karakura, at this very moment, Kurosaki Ichigo lives and breathes. And though she cannot sense his warm and familiar presence no matter how hard she tries, even when she aches from the effort, he has not passed fully beyond reach. As raindrops catch in her eyelashes and streak her cheeks, she imagines him going to school, scowling over homework, arguing with his sisters and his father.
This isn't like the first time we said goodbye.
She still shudders quietly at the memory of that horrible night: Ichigo sprawled broken and dying on the pavement, his brown eyes dark with desperation and sadness as blood puddled beneath his broken body. His gaze never left hers, not once, even though he couldn't move, even when she made herself utter the words meant to save his life: if you follow me, I'll never forgive you.
Now, he can't follow no matter how hard he tries.
Rukia's feet squelch against the muddy earth as she walks aimlessly, as the rain plasters her drenched shihakusho to her skin. He's alive, she reminds herself mercilessly. This isn't like the last time. He is alive and breathing and well. He's alive in another world.
Somehow, that only makes it worse.
Rukia stiffens when she glimpses movement at the edges of her vision; the tension dissipates when she turns her head to glimpse ivory hair, sodden from the rain, and the familiar haori of the Thirteenth Division captain. Ukitake-taichou, she realizes, and instinctively adjusts her posture, lifting her head and straightening her shoulders.
In the many long days and nights after Kaien-dono died, Ukitake-taichou watched her spar with soft, sad dark eyes that mirrored all the hurt she felt and could not speak. His gaze is the same now, gentled with regret and the understanding begotten by long years of experience. Quietly, sympathetically, he walks up to stand beside her and places a warm hand on her head; the gesture is gentle, fatherly.
Rukia thinks she has the best captain in all of Seireitei.
And because she admires Ukitake-taichou, because she's so grateful that someone understands, she bites her lip on the one question she still wants to ask: why? She knows if she ever speaks the word it will emerge ragged with pain and anger, a low cry of hurt. Ichigo gave up everything to protect everyone. Why did it all end this way?
But she says nothing.
With the self-discipline and iron control learned from her brother, she holds her tongue and does not allow herself to speculate aloud. She does not ask why Urahara cannot help the situation. (Urahara can do almost anything, after all.) She does not ask if Ichigo is well. (Is he taller? Is he sad? Does he still have the manga she used to read in his closet?)She does not ask why she cannot go to him. (Even just for a day—even without speaking—even without touching—just to see, just to be close).
It isn't my place to know.
Ukitake remains until his wheezing cough breaks the soft roar of the storm, until blood trickles from the corner of his mouth. And then, after he leaves with an apologetic glance, Rukia leans against the rough, comforting bark of a thick tree and sifts through fragments of memory: Ichigo's scowl, the confidence in his eyes and the strong arm that drew her close when he saved her on Sougyoku Hill, the days spent arguing over trivial things like manga and television shows and how she kept him from concentrating on his homework, the moment that clarity and confidence overcame the doubt and fear in his dark brown eyes and she knew, really knew, he'd become a shinigami.
She remembers the goodbye.
And it hurts that this is what she recalls mostly clearly, the haunted look of calm acceptance on Ichigo's face at the very end, the way he couldn't look at her and how his jaw tensed in a way that made her want to touch the side of his face with her hand. How his hands balled into fists in his pockets and how she knew he was thinking of Zangetsu, too, as his shoulders slumped from so much loss. How she wanted to cry for him, for both of them.
Will you remember me, Ichigo?
Humans adapt and evolve easily, after all. Humans forget. But Rukia hopes, wistfully, that he remembers her in the same way she remembers him, carefully and with intent that mocks forgetting. Because she cherishes her recollections, all of them: his rare boyish smile, the determined set of his jaw, the fierce determination in those dark eyes that always softened when he looked at her, the heart noble enough to shame all of Seireitei.
Rukia stirs, sighs imperceptibly, and pushes herself away from the tree.
Duty beckons. There will be more training, some squad exercises, and then a meeting of the Shinigami Women's Association. But the rain continues to fall and her heart aches with missing him so much that she has to close her eyes tightly against the hurt before she can start walking again. She revises her earlier wish.
If remembering me will cause him pain, then it's okay if he forgets me.
Kurosaki Ichigo has borne too much suffering on her behalf, and Rukia decides that if she cannot make that pain right with her words, with her encouragement, with the touch of a hand to the side of his face or a promise made with the warmth in her eyes, then she will give him this, instead.
She will hurt for both of them.
Kaien-dono taught her many lessons, after all. Rukia takes pride in the fact that she has never forgotten one of them, not one, and she is grateful for the one she now remembers:
Every time you and I connect with each other, a little bit of heart is born between us. Heart isn't something inside you. But whenever you think, whenever you remember someone, that's when heart is born.
She walks back to Seireitei, alone.
Ichigo. As long as I remember you, your heart is here with me.