Ichigo Kurosaki has woken up to that thought for a while now. They're dead, they're dead, they're dead; a broken record, a hellish replay-
(-it's been that way ever since his makeshift Seiritei family died a year ago (a crazy man, a loving brunette, and a tomboy);
Ever since he was taken into the Academy just a month after the incident;
Ever since he became the Lieutenant of the Fifth Division.)
Surely, the dates mark significant changes in his life (the day he left behind any emotion, any feeling, the day he cut off his connections to others, the day he began to feel as if he had never been human in any lifetime): being inaugurated a Lieutenant is no easy matter, not to mention acceptance into the Academy at such a young age. But he doesn't care- he's left that behind a long time ago.
As any in the afterworld might, he becomes jaded, bored (he's waiting, wondering if underneath this façade his soul is trying to claw its way back to sanity), and eventually asks to be assigned a town to ease the monotonous (it's a rhapsody from hell) cycle.
Ichigo is given a questioning glance that he ignores. He's not supposed to care. So he doesn't.
Then he is assigned Karakura.
He meets her a week into his work.
It was a good idea to request a town to patrol, Ichigo realizes, because being around humans almost makes him feel like he, too, was once human. He recognizes emotions that flicker across features on a whim (knows that he, too, once donned them). He almost feels content. Almost is the key word there, because he doesn't have emotions anymore, because he threw them away, and-
(-and at least the line between his world and reality is starting to blur. That's a good thing, right?)
It's a Wednesday, and he's collecting a soul. She's a rather busty redhead, and she is watching her own funeral. Ichigo is watching because it's odd. He knows that humans are easily overcome by emotion and tend to avoid things that cause negative feelings. So why isn't she? He doesn't realize that he has paused in his duty- is that curiosity prickling at the edge of his mind? -until the attention of all attending the funeral shifts to him, and what the hell?
Shock (can they actually see him?) registers briefly in his mind. His mouth opens to blurt an excuse, but then he realizes that he's not being stared at- he is merely standing in front of the podium. He follows their dull stares, curiosity pushing aside responsibility for the first time in a long time, and turns around to see a short girl step up.
And for some reason, he, too, is reduced to staring.
This girl is crying, and yet her voice is strong and confident- it refuses to waver as she begins the speech. Her pale skin is a smooth, porcelain contrast against onyx locks, and… violet. Her eyes are brimming with emotion, shimmering, and yet the color pierces through his very soul like no other has before, and it's… unsettling.
Behind him, Ichigo dimly hears the please of the redhead from before, pleading to someone in the audience (the fool, doesn't she know it's useless?). He acknowledges that he should be doing something about her, but the girl at the podium holds his attention. Her voice conveys emotion, deep and jagged from within, yet her face gives away nothing. Ichigo realizes, with a start, that her gaze is the very same as his. She's not flimsy and breakable like the other human- he can tell from the way she holds herself that she is not desultory. She's… the same as him.
Somehow, he finds himself wondering if this raven-haired girl has suffered a loss as well.
Her speech is finished; he still hasn't reaped the soul he came for. The short girl steps off and walks right past him, her hand brushing ever so slightly against his arm.
Ichigo hasn't felt such warmth in a long time.
The redheaded soul seems to realize that her attempts to communicate to the living are futile, and silently stands next to him, dejected. They watch in a stunned silence as the short girl who gave the speech politely bids farewell to those who attended the funeral. As she does, Ichigo's sudden stupor fades, and habit kicks in: she knows he's here. He has to settle things- who is she; what does she know?
"Hey, you," his mouth opens. The girl freezes, whirls (but all he sees is violet orbs, irradiant and vivid-
-And then she friggin' jump kicks his face.
Ichigo stumbles back in shock, clutching his head whilst cursing as loud as he can. In that same moment, the short, statuesque girl opens her mouth, and the power of her voice easily dwarfs his, and it's frankly stunning.
"Do you think this is funny?" She gestures wildly. "A Shinigami attending a funeral? Don't think I don't see the irony in the situation! How dare you offend Orihime?"
Ichigo spots the redhead give a start at the sound of the name (Orihime?) from the corner of his eye, but he is suddenly livid. "It's my job," he seethes. His blood is racing with some high that seems akin to adrenaline- he hasn't felt like this in ages. "And who the fuck are you, anyway? You can see me. How the hell-"
"I can see her, can't I?" The short girl sidesteps the question, stabbing a finger towards… Orihime, was it?
"Rukia," Orihime murmurs. Her voice is plaintive, it is diffident, it is- amused? "It's okay, really-"
"No, it's NOT!" Both the midget and Ichigo shout at the same time. A giggle escapes Orihime's lips while he and the black-haired girl turn and glare at each other. In her eyes, he sees something flickering, dissentious.
Oh, he is not doing this. "Don't you want your friend's damn soul to be at peace?"
"Of course I do," she says scathingly, "but you couldn't at least save us the appearance of your disgusting presence until after the funeral?"
When Ichigo finishes the ritual, he turns to look at her.
"You know, midget… (He's right to use the word- she twitches almost infinitesimally, and Ichigo smirks.) "I should be asking you how you know about Shinigami. How you see us." He pauses when she stiffens, and instinct prods him to change course: "But I'm more curious about how a freak of nature such as you could even be considered a 'friend' by that nice girl."
"And I," She replies hotly, "should be asking how a 'dignified reaper' can be such an inconsiderate jerk. But I'm more curious about the reason behind your idiocy." She offers a saccharine smile.
Ichigo gives an irritated start but he is grinning from ear to ear, and he doesn't know what to do with himself. When was the last time he actually smiled?
He is pondering this when she adds in a quiet aside, "And my name isn't midget. It's Rukia. Kuchiki Rukia."
"My name is Kurosaki Ichigo," he says, because it would be weird if he didn't.
Rukia scoffs lightly. "Like I wanted to know that, dumbass."
That night, Ichigo repeats her name to himself over and over again, a soothing beat, until he falls asleep.
Ichigo keeps an eye out for the mysterious girl, but he doesn't see Rukia until three days after their odd encounter. This time it's a Hollow attack, and when he arrives at the scene, he is shocked to see her there.
"Rukia!" The name slips much too easily from his tongue, and he tries not to focus on how natural the word seems to come. There are more important things to worry about. "You fucking idiot! What are you doing-?"
She's not paying attention, and Ichigo opens his mouth to shout, perhaps gibe, but he suddenly stops when her small, lithe frame narrowly dodges an attack and she counters with a flying roundhouse kick. The Hollow barely flinches, but Ichigo grudgingly admits that he's… impressed.
Suddenly, the small Hollow makes for another swipe. Rukia is moving too slow, and before he can even think, he's there, slicing the damn monster in half. His body is curved in front of hers protectively, and- and damn it, what is he doing?
"You know, I didn't need your help," she pants, but she is breathing much too hard for someone who 'didn't need his help', and he snorts in amusement.
"As if midgets like you could handle a Hollow. Pfft."
"It's Rukia!" Her voice calls after him, impertinent, but he is already leaping away with a grin across his face.
She makes him feel more alive than he has in a century; in his dreams, there is an ephemeral crescendo.
The next day, he skips duty and goes to look for her without even bothering to question why. He shouldn't be doing this. He swears he can already hear the roars of a Hollow- wait, no, that's just his imagination.
\He eventually finds her in a classroom, dully staring out a window. Ichigo slides through the open door and shouts her name. It's painfully obvious that she's the only one that can hear him- Rukia twitches. Her serious, violet gaze slides towards him; her eyes narrow as they settle upon his form.
Her pale hand goes up. Rukia smoothly fabricates an excuse and heads out of the classroom.
He opens his mouth, searching for something, anything that will justify his coming to see her against his will (but it isn't really against his will, is it?). It comes out rather smoothly, and he's rather impressed with himself-
"What did you say?" She intones dangerously and Ichigo barely avoids getting nailed in the balls.
"I'm sorry," He says, and he almost means it. "You're a human. There is a risk you could expose us and because of that, I'm going to have to erase your memory." He makes to lunge at her, but she sticks her foot out- oh, damn it all, she really did get his nuts.
"I propose a deal" she says casually- like she didn't possibly injure his fucking manhood- as he twitches on the floor. "You take me with you during work so I can observe the Hollows, and in return, I'll keep my mouth shut." She nods sagely,
"Fuck you," Ichigo manages painfully with a groan, but her foot is hovering over his crotch, damn it! "You- you bitch!"
"What's that you say? You agree? Wonderful." She mock-prances, putting a little bounce in her walk just to spite him as she leaves.
He can't tell whether the incident is invidious or promising.
It's kind-of-halfway-sort-of-but-not-really-against-his-will a week of time that they spend together, watching, learning, tasting the other's presence to get an idea of what they're like. Her idiosyncrasy is almost endearing- Ichigo finds that it's not as awkward as he thought it would be, having her around (although he's been even more irascible than he suspected). Ichigo learns that she has a bunny fetish, that she sucks at drawing, and that she likes strawberries.
More importantly, Ichigo learns why she watches the Hollows.
"One of them got my sister," she says softly, spreading disinfectant on a scratch she had gotten during a skirmish that day. Her skin is pink and puckered- for the first time, it hits Ichigo that Rukia is painfully, utterly mortal. Her skin has a myriad of scars. "Her name was Hisana. She… she died protecting me."
He thinks that Rukia might start crying when she says, "One got Orihime, too." He suppresses incipient panic, because he doesn't know how to deal with crying girls.
But Rukia's tone only hardens. "I'm going to find a way for a human to fight Hollows, Ichigo."
And Ichigo wants to laugh, but her determination awes him. He just sits in a dumb silence as she bids him good night and trudges to her bed.
The lights go out. His obduracy to emotion goes with it.
They may bicker, but there is something, a quickening harmony underlying their arguments that subjugates the turmoil within Ichigo.
"What is this… thing?" He asks one day, as he sits next to her during lunch. Today she is not sitting with anyone (aside from him, of course), and she hands him a small box. It smells sweet, and it's sticky. His large fingers wrap around it, comically large in comparison.
"It's juice," she explains, and demonstrates by poking a straw into the carton and sipping at the drink.
Somehow, Ichigo manages to poke a hole straight through the bottom of the carton, and the juice spills all over him. Rukia comments that he smells like strawberries for the rest of the day.
He doesn't mind too much- she's smiling the entire time, after all.
Two months later, his captain betrays Soul Society.
It is unsettling, and the entire order is in chaos. Ichigo is likely the most dumbstruck of them all. I wasn't strong enough to stop the captain from leaving. This thought echoes in his head, pushing and prodding through every corner until it becomes a constant itch at the back of his mind.
Ichigo decides against bringing Rukia with him that day when he goes to exterminate a Hollow. It is just a small fry, but just as Ichigo moves to deliver the final blow, it easily dodges and sends him sprawling.
Tired and irate, Ichigo tries again. This time, the Hollow gives him a clean blow to the stomach. He doubles over, numb- blood spurts from his mouth. The Hollow cackles delightedly, and stalks towards him, undoubtedly to devour him, or perhaps tear him to pieces-
The voice shocks him from his reverie, and he barely manages to escape snapping jaws. He looks towards the sound of her voice, and there it is, the silhouette of her figure. Relief wars with anger, but it is soon followed by shock: he hasn't felt anything all day.
"Get away," he says quietly through taut lips. "I can't protect you." Can't protect anyone. Can't stop anything from hurting anyone. A broken record.
Rukia shakes her head disbelievingly. "You're kidding me, right?" Ichigo barely manages to block a claw as she continues, "Is this about your Captain?"
He can't move- hell, he can't breathe. How did she even-?
The Hollow makes to snap at him again. Rukia kicks it- the blow isn't powerful, but the Hollow's head snaps slightly to the right. Ichigo can feel its musty breath slide past his face as it growls in frustration and scrambles back a bit, unsure.
"Are you going to let this set you back?" She shouts, throwing a hand to the side. "To sit back and do nothing while your world crumbles around you?"
It's just like the first day they met. He's frozen in time, even as the Hollow is advancing-
"Get off your sorry ass and fight! Become stronger! If you aren't strong enough to protect anyone, then become better!"
He swivels his head to meet her fiery, amethyst stare as she adds in that poignant tone of hers,
"That's the kind of man you are in my heart, Ichigo."
And for some reason, she is all it takes for the storm in his heart to disperse. With a loud battle cry, he finishes off the Hollow. He can feel her gaze boring into his back; pride mixed with something else, something electric.
"I didn't need your help," he mutters to the ground as the dust clears.
"I know," Rukia says with a smile.
And the hellish refrain that has been torturing him for over a century finally screeches to a stop.
Ichigo returns to Soul Society for a break, mostly encouraged by Rukia. There is an urge tightening his chest, almost like homesickness.
He reminds himself that he'll see that violet shade soon, but for some reason, there is a volatile imminence that he feels hanging over him like a dagger.
He ignores it.
She hits him over the head when he returns. It hurts.
But that's alright, because now his hand is sliding up her thigh, and her breath is quickening, and-
("You stopped the rain," he whispers heatedly into her ear.)
Rukia's school is on fire.
He wastes no time for thinking, only bursts into the building. The flames lick at him hungrily, but they have no effect on him.
He finds her with her legs buried underneath rubble, and the fire roaring near. She smiles- she fucking smiles- when she sees him, as if she doesn't know that she's going to die here because everyone else is too slow to save her and, and fuck! Her brow is creased with blood and sweat; there are multiple contusions marring her skin-
-inside of him, the broken record clicks anticipatorily.
"I'm sorry," he whispers. He could have stopped this, somehow. He could have- "I'm-"
"You don't have to be," Rukia waves him off with a strained, shaking movement. He wants to shout, to scream at her, but her eyes hold him in silence. It's permeating his soul and he wants to say something, damn it, but she beats him to it: "So, what's Soul Society like?" It pisses him off- it's so nonchalant it's as if she's discussing the weather.
"I thought you knew everything." Ichigo grins humorlessly. (Why is she acting so casual? Why can't she at least show something that will let him know he's not the only one breaking-?)
But Rukia doesn't. "I've never been dead before," she says as if admitting something, pressing her lips together before adding, "But I'll be able to be with you, right? In Soul Society…"
He doesn't have the guts to tell her that it's near impossible that they'll meet again. Ichigo is only able to stare as her screams pierce the hot air, and he is watching her burn to death.
He's not completely sure, but he swears that the flames turn ultraviolet.
He sits there for hours.
Ichigo does not want to see her soul, because then he'll know that she's dead, and the broken record will pick up from where it left off (they're dead, they're dead, they're dead), so he squeezes his eyes as tightly as he can.
He can feel something touch his lips. It is warm and wet, but it feels like a last goodbye, and it chills his soul despite the heat of the flames.
And for a long time, it rains in Karakura.
He doesn't return until a century later, and he's in a gigai. It's stupid because he's allowed himself to be weak and avoided Karakura for so long, and yet he knows he needs to face his fears. It's taken a century for him to muster up the courage to face the music.
(In more ways than one.)
It's the last thing on his mind when he walks into a bar, only partially to avoid the rain that is pouring outside. He's ashamed, but he can't bring himself to hate the feeling when his senses begin to dull as he downs his third shot.
He's lost count of how much he's had to drink when he sees that much-too-familiar flash of violet from the corner of his eyes. Despite the fact he hasn't seen that shade in years, he bursts out of the bar without a second thought.
And it's her.
"Rukia," he says, breathless. She turns around, and his world flashes purple.
(It was a nightmare, it never happened, it's not-)
For a moment, Ichigo isn't an old, weary man anymore. He becomes the young, stubborn boy he always was around her, and he's reaching out for her-
She breaks the moment. "Excuse me, what are you doing?"
What is he doing? He drops his hand. This girl does not hold herself in the same way Rukia did. She is her physical equal, but it is obvious that this girl is soft, breakable, and without the propriety Rukia always emanated.
It hurts him when her features shift, the same confident expression that has been engraved into his soul. Her mouth opens.
"My name's not Rukia."
He almost laughs. Of course.
(He should have known. He can still remember her broken screams.)
He's not crying. It's raining, and he's standing in it, so of course his face will be wet. But he's shaking, and his breaths are quickening, and this girl who is not Rukia is not stupid.
"Sir…?" She asks hesitantly. "Are you… alright?"
Her voice isn't a clear, ringing tone like he remembers. It's high, soft, and feminine. Ichigo knows right then that it can't be Rukia, because the broken record is wailing a chaotic symphony at the sound.
"I'm fine, Rukia." The name slips out before he can stop it. "I… I just need time."
"I told you, I'm not-" She abruptly stops mid-sentence, and her purple eyes haze over.
And then Ichigo feels foolish, because her eyes weren't ultraviolet at all, merely a dull comparison to what they are now. They beam brightly at him now, piercing.
"Took you long enough to realize it," says Rukia. (It's not her, it's not Rukia at all.)
"Better late than never, midget." Ichigo mutters.
And the words they exchange are not between awkward strangers standing outside a bar- they are from Kurosaki Ichigo to Kuchiki Rukia.
Not-Rukia shakes her head as if from a stupor, and runs off into the dark city. Eventually, he walks back into the bar.
Tomorrow, he will return to patrolling Karakura. For tonight, Ichigo ignores the alcohol's electric purple color.
…and the tempo quickens, the melody sharpens.
He finds that he's alright with it. The rain has stopped.