Ichigo did not love Rukia.
The mere notion of it was ridiculous. Where would anyone even get such an idea?
"It's obvious, isn't it?" Mizuiro responded upon hearing Ichigo voice the question.
"No." he said tightly. "Please, explain."
The dark-haired boy, standing at least a head shorter than Ichigo but somehow acting with a calm that would suggest he was years older, took a sip of his tea and looked pensive. "Well, I've only heard the stories second hand, but I know you went to rescue her in that Soul Society place after only knowing her for two months. And that sandal-wearing guy even mentioned that you only trained for ten days and went up again some of the strongest warriors in that place in order to save her."
"That's simply because I owed her a debt." Ichigo explained logically. "I would have been a total scumbag if I just let her die because she helped me."
Of course he didn't go save her because he loved her. If anything, he had been pissed at her. She was an idiot for barging into his life, knowing the consequences it would bring. She was an even bigger idiot for letting herself get caught.
And then telling him that she wouldn't forgive him if he went after her? Really, she was lucky he didn't strangle her the moment he found her for spouting such idiocy.
Just because he'd felt like the world should have stopped rotating the moment she was ripped from it didn't mean anything. Or because the mere memory of her tearful face before she walked away made his heart twist so painfully in his chest that it made him want to do anything to erase that pain from her face, it wasn't a sign that he thought of her specially. Just because finally seeing her smile again made the unrelenting rain in his soul stop at last didn't mean he loved her.
"Okay," Mizuiro took another sip, not looking at Ichigo before going on. "But what about how protective you are of her? I mean, it really can give people the idea that…"
"I want to protect everyone." Ichigo retorted bluntly. "If she happens to get herself in danger more often than most people logically should, that's not my fault."
Seriously. She should have know better than anyone that he lives to protect people, but for some reason, she insisted on making it hell for him.
It was almost like she did it on purpose. It seemed to him that every time he turned around, she was about to either get munched on by some hollow twenty times her size, or burned to death by a giant flaming bird, or impaled by some sadistic mastermind. He knew that danger was part of the job description for a shinigami, but he didn't see Renji being in near death situations every five minutes.
And the worst part was that she actually told him off for trying to help! It was never a nice and polite "thank you" like normal people, no. With her it was "I'll never forgive you!" this, "I don't need you to protect me!" that… The least she could do was have some consideration with him.
No, protecting her wasn't anything special.
Just because he could feel his heart stop every time he saw a hollow's claw swing just a little too close to her seemingly delicate frame, or because his mind would entirely shut down for an endless moment when he heard the sound of a blade ripping through her porcelain skin -no matter how shallow the cut-… Just because the time he had felt her spiritual pressure drop so far away from him in the cold darkness of Hueco Mundo had been the moment when he'd felt the most piercing surge of terror in his life; or because in the fraction of a second when he'd seen her step in front of him in order to take Tsukishima's blow he had felt time come to a stop and all sound and sight disappear from his senses, leaving only her and the sheer panic that came with the certainty that she would be hurt before his eyes…
None of that meant that he cared for her specially. It certainly didn't mean that he loved her.
"Mm…" Mizuiro was thoughtful, as if he wasn't ready to give up yet. "But you can't deny the way she affects your mood. I mean, you're so mopey all the time when she's not around. And the moment she comes back, it's like you come alive for the first time."
Ichigo scoffed at that one. "You've got to be kidding me! The only reason I could "come alive" when Rukia shows up is because she's immediately on my ass about something! All she does is nag, nag, nag."
It was incredible, really.
Sure, Ichigo wasn't the most cheerful in the bunch, but that was normal for him. The moment that woman stepped into his life -be it through the wall in his room, a window in his classroom, a sand dune in the dessert of Hueco Mundo, or on a rainy rooftop while piercing his chest with a sword-, it only meant violence and screaming; which he was usually at the receiving end of. Really, no matter how much time apart they spent, she had no issue with flying straight back with a kick to his face, a mouthful about his pathetic self, and a long-ass speech telling him what to do. Who did she think she was, his mother?
The fact that every kick and punch she gave him never failed to erase that clouded feeling in his heart didn't mean anything. Neither did the effect of her strong words that would remind him of who he was and always bring back the side of him that could take on anything and everything like he was born to do it. Just because he always found himself smiling every time after she charged back into his life didn't mean it was because he loved her.
"How about trust then?" Mizuiro, seemingly determined, challenged. "I've never seen you give your trust to anyone so fast and so completely as you did to her."
"She didn't exactly give me much of a choice." Ichigo countered. "The night we met, the alternative to trusting her was getting killed. Literally."
He remembered that night clearly. It was the night he'd taken a leap of faith with a total stranger dressed in weird clothes that had shown up in his room. It had been his need to protect his family that made him trust the so-called shinigami that night. The fact that she had jumped in front of him and taken a bite from a huge monster for his sake moments before didn't hurt either.
Mizuiro kind of had a point. But Ichigo supposed that it was only natural to give your trust to someone who saved you the night they met you.
Actually, he would say that she took advantage of him. She would always be pulling those sorts of stunts: saving him and his family by sacrificing herself, teaching and guiding him through the use of his newfound power, giving him the space and understanding he needed when he revealed the most painful bits of his past, willingly walking to a death sentence in order to protect him…
It was practically cheating. Ichigo hated opening up to people, but it seemed like every deed she did was designed to force him to trust her.
Just because he knew that she trusted him as completely as he did her, and he found an unparalleled comfort in knowing that there would never be any secrets between them, that those violet eyes would never hide anything from him, that her lips would never shape a lie for his ears… Just because even when she held the sword that pierced his heart, he knew that there was no one else that he would trust with the organ as much as her…
It did not mean that he loved her.
"You seem pretty sure of yourself." Mizuiro sighed, apparently finally sensing a losing battle. "Even so, it's only logical that you would eventually fall for Kuchiki-san. She pretty much changed your world, after all. Didn't she?"
Ichigo was silent for a heartbeat, before shrugging. "She brought monsters and a world full of crazy people and evil plots to conquer the universe into my life."
She gave him the power that he desired most, the power to protect.
She gave him the strength to crush a destiny that he had no control over.
She gave him the will to stand on his own two feet and fight for what he believed in.
She gave him the confidence to never falter on his way.
She gave him the light that guided him in his darkest days.
She returned to him the smile that the endless rain had taken from him.
Yes, she had changed his world. When she was gone, he somehow felt like he could not keep up with the speed of the world. But when she was with him, he felt that everything was utterly right.
But that didn't mean… Not remotely…
"I guess you're sure then." Mizuiro at last relented. "I'm really surprised though. We were so sure too."
"We?" Ichigo's eyes narrowed. "Who's 'we'?"
"Um," the other boy smiled sheepishly. "Everyone."
"Keigo, Arisawa, Ishida, Sado, Inoue, that sandal-hat guy, the red-haired guy with the tattoos, the elementary student with the white hair, the gorgeous blonde with the big-"
"Okay I get it!" Ichigo stopped him before he could go on, his face already an interesting shade of red. "I wasn't aware that my relationship with Rukia was such a hot topic between everybody. Sorry to let you all down."
Mizuiro shrugged now. "Oh well. As long as you're sure."
"Trust me… I don't love Rukia."
"Good to know." a new voice spoke up from behind them, where they sat on the front steps of Urahara Shop after a long night of explanations.
"Oh! Hi there, Kuchiki-san."
"Good to see you, Kojima-kun." Rukia responded in a sugary voice that just seemed to have stuck with her despite no longer needing to hide her identity in front of Ichigo's friends.
"Rukia!" Ichigo's voice worked last, after his mouth having gone dry the moment he heard her speak, with the question of how much of the conversation she could have heard burning in his mind. For what reason, however, he didn't know. He hadn't said anything wrong…
"Ichigo." she looked at him dryly, making him shrink back further.
Mizuiro looked between the two for a moment before announcing that he had to go back inside. "Keigo will probably start wailing if I don't get back soon." he explained. Rukia nodded without turning to him, and Ichigo merely grunted his acknowledgment.
Then they were alone.
"Rukia…" Ichigo looked up at her casually, not sure if he should stand or if it was safer to remain seated where he was. "Wh… How much did you hear?"
"I heard enough." she answered simply, her arms folded over her chest and her face stoic.
"Oh. Listen, I…"
"Relax, idiot." Finally, her tone returned to normal, scolding Rukia. A second later she appeared beside him and sat by his side, so close that her arm brushed his.
Ichigo took a moment to drink in her appearance. Her elegant gloves, the vice captain badge she proudly wore, and the dark hair that shown in the moonlight and now reached only down to her chin, framing her delicate face perfectly… She looked so different from that first time she crashed into his room. And yet, she was still the same Rukia.
And he most certainly did not love her.
She laughed, surprising him. "I had a similar conversation with Renji, you know."
"Wha-? About me… that…" Ichigo spluttered.
Her violet eyes glinted up at him with amusement. "Yes. It seems a lot of people really do believe that."
He found himself laughing nervously, while inwardly cursing at himself for acting like a such a schoolboy. "Idiots."
"My thoughts exactly." she said.
For some reason, her agreement sort of… hurt. He dismissed the thought as fast as it came, but the sudden ache in his chest wouldn't go away.
Then without warning, the ache was replaced with a flutter and an unexpected surge of warmth as he felt a small hand come over his. He looked down to see Rukia had placed taken the hand that had rested on the floor step where they sat, casually between them. Her soft skin was cool to the touch, but the contact elicited only a warmth that reached far beyond his hand. His eyes snapped back up to meet her gaze, and he found that she was smiling.
"I don't love you, Ichigo." she said, her eyes twinkling like violet stars.
And as he often did when she was with him, he felt like an invisible weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He smiled back openly at her, turning his hand underneath hers so that he could intertwine his large fingers with her smaller ones. Somewhere in the back of his mind he marveled at the fact that her hand fit so perfectly in his... But if he was honest with himself, he wasn't surprised about it at all.
"I don't love you either, Rukia."
And he knew at once he wasn't lying. Because whatever he felt for her could not possibly be described by such a mundane word as love.