A/N: I actually had this published in my livejournal last year, but my account went awry and was ultimately deleted. I wanted this up here because it seems that regardless of what happens in my life, this account will stay constant and stable. : )

To anyone reading this who hasn't read it before, I hope you enjoy it! This fic is incredibly dear to me for many reasons: it's the last thing I've written in years, it's basically a love letter from me to IchiRuki, and every time I see this document in my Stories folder, I'm reminded of why I will never let these two go, and why in my heart, they won't let each other go.

Won't You Smile for Me Tonight

Part 1

They fight together, they hurt together, they smile together.

It's a relationship that doesn't change once they start going out.

Rukia thinks about this as she and Ichigo walk down the street. His hands are stuffed in his jacket pockets, his lips curved into the barest of smiles as he watches her pop orange candies in her mouth. He has always watched her, whether it be with concern or exasperation, amusement or fondness.

It's a realization that causes her to grin. At this moment she's happy, genuinely and truly, happy. She thinks there might actually be a bounce on her step but no, that's ridiculous, Kuchiki Rukia doesn't do bouncing steps.

Except apparently she does because Ichigo quirks an eyebrow as their eyes meet and, in that completely flippant, patronizing, sarcastic way of his, says, "What's got you acting like we're going to see a zoo full of rabbits? You're skipping."

And just like that, Rukia's expression morphs into a scowl.

"Don't act like a smartass with me. I know all about your bullshit, passive-aggressive tendencies." She smirks. "Though, if this was a pathetic attempt at reverse psychology like that time with the hat, you only had to ask, Ichigo. I'd love to go to a petting zoo!"

Ichigo rolls his eyes.

"How do you even know about the hat?"

"Renji told me," says Rukia, grinning. "And Ichigo, if you failed at reverse psychology with Renji, you know what that means, right? It means you fail. At life."

Ichigo glares at her immediately responding with, "Yeah, well, out of the two of us, I'm not the one who's dead."

A moment of silence, and then Rukia bursts into laughter.

"That was unexpectedly awesome," she says, reaching up and putting a candy in his mouth as a reward for his brilliance. Ichigo's lips brush against the tips of her fingers and oh, Rukia thinks, a slow smile unravelling across her face. Her heart starts to beat just that much faster because this, this is a change. "The score's now, Ichigo: one, Rukia: three hundred and fifty-seven."

"You forgot the negative before your number," he says, deciding to show off how truly obnoxious he is by ruffling her hair, and laughing as she swats away his hand, "and about a million zeroes after mine."

Rukia gives him a flat look.

They somehow manage to keep bickering almost all the way to the movie theatre. Rukia honestly can't remember what they talked about: all she recollects is her inability to suppress her laughter, the look in Ichigo's eyes when he looks at her and smiles, and how shockingly easy it is to just be.

As they near the entrance, Rukia says something like, "Don't cheap out on me – I still want that biggest order of popcorn," and Ichigo reaches for her hand.

Rukia glances at the fingers around her wrist and stops.

"Ichigo?" she asks, raising her eyebrows.

Though it's unexpected when Ichigo puts the flat palm of his hand on top of her head to smooth down the mess her hair has become (partly his fault for ruffling it, but mostly it was the fierce summer wind), it's not unwelcome. It's not even an out of character gesture: because if there's one person who Rukia can say she knowsto the depths of their soul (and this she means both literally and not), it's Ichigo; and despite the calluses on his fingers, there's a gentleness to his actions that comes from the very core of him.

It's her awareness of him that makes Rukia feel the feathery brush of every strand of hair against her cheek that he pushes out of the way and tucks behind her ear. An action that is comfortable and intimate, all at once.

"There," says Ichigo, his hands going back inside his pockets. "Now you don't look like an escapee from the psychiatric ward of the hospital. Can't be seen in public with a lunatic, after all."

Rukia punches him for that, and he kicks her absently in return. But as they enter the dark room with the numerous seats and sticky floors, Rukia weaves their fingers together and drags him to the top row.

"You know what people do back there," she says, smirking at him. And if there's a spark of mischief in her voice, she can't really help it.

"You're pretty racy for a Soul Society aristocrat," says Ichigo, and Rukia hears the amusement in his voice.

"You know it," she says. "Not many others would give up perfectly awesome seats in the middle to have the best place to throw popcorn from."

Ichigo laughs.

They end up not throwing the popcorn because as fun as it is to say it, it's a pretty douchey thing to do. They watch the movie instead, and during the boring parts with the politicians, Ichigo runs his hand through her hair and Rukia places hers on his shoulder and they kiss and kiss and kiss. It's a little breathless and a little exciting and for the life of her, Rukia can't stop smiling.

People may not be able to tell from first glance – Rukia certainly hadn't – because he tends to naturally project the image of a delinquent, but Ichigo's a family man through and through. He's old-fashioned in these aspects, the way he puts his sisters and father before himself and how he physically stops himself when they're kissing and his hands start to drift under her shirt.

They get married a little sooner than what others would expect, but that's okay. Rukia has more than just a few years under her belt, Ichigo has the sense of responsibility greater than most forty year olds, and both of them know the other as well as – if not better than – their own zanpakutous. They decide to have the wedding in the living world, because though their lives are now in Soul Society – with both of them high in the ranks of the thirteen divisions – they have friends and family who won't be able to go there.

"Is this a big deal?" Ichigo asks her a few days before the ceremony. They're staring at the ceiling, lying flat on their backs on a bed, in one of the many wings of the Kuchiki Manor compound that they'll move into after the wedding.

(Because saving souls has always been Kurosaki Ichigo's destiny, and Rukia's home is here, in this spiritual land with her brother and Renji).

Rukia ponders Ichigo's question as she turns her head to look at him. His eyes focused on something nonexistent, eyebrows drawn together in thought. "What do you mean?"

"From the moment you jumped in through my window," he says, and then he pauses. "Okay, maybe not right then because I was pretty sure you were some crazy burglar chick–" Rukia rolls her eyes and Ichigo's mouth softens into a grin. "But I've known for a long time now that you were going to be a part of my life. For as long as we were both around, I knew that you'd be there."

Rukia reaches for his hands and twines their fingers together, shifting until she's close enough to rest her chin on his shoulder.

It's a shockingly blunt thing to say, but that's Ichigo. It's still a little overwhelming, sometimes, those moments when she realizes that he feels something great for her, something beyond love and friendship and he's never hesitant in showing it. Rukia hopes that she expresses herself half as eloquently as he does – because Ichigo may not have the most sophisticated words, but whatever it is that he says, the way he touches her cheeks and looks at her with fondness and affection and loyalty–

Every time he yells at her for being reckless, every time he rolls his eyes and buys her a stuffed rabbit, every time he absently reaches for her hands as they walk down the street – Rukia feels more than whatever can be portrayed by a hundred thousand sonnets.

"I'll always be here," she says, tone frank but voice quiet. "That is not an issue."

Ichigo laughs a little.

"No, it's really not, is it?"

Even after all this time, even with Ichigo, it's hard for Rukia to speak freely of her emotions. It's something that leaves her a little too vulnerable, and there is insecurity somewhere inside her that takes away the strength she has in all other situations.

But this is the man she wants to spend the rest of her days with. And, as Rukia knows all too well, the rest of her days is something close to forever. And she has enough faith in Ichigo to know that if there are some parts of her she isn't strong enough to defend, he'll be there to take care of it.

"I want you around for as long as I can," she says, and it's a little inelegant, but she thinks that Ichigo understands when he tilts his head and looks at her with those dark eyes. "Even if we didn't have this – I can't imagine a single reality where we didn't end up here at one point – I'd still want you, with me, in some way."

She pauses a bit, averts her eyes and focuses on a loose green thread on his sweater.

"I want everything," she says, and feels her confidence solidifying within her when he squeezes her hand. "I want everything with you, and if this wedding is part of this everything–"

She stops.

"I don't know if that's a big deal or not," she says. "It's what you want it to be."

Ichigo is silent for a moment.

"I think that this–" he finally says, gesturing the room, the house, their joined hands, "this is the big deal. And I guess that makes the wedding a big deal too, huh?"

Rukia laughs.

"If Renji finds out we talk like this," she tells him, "we'll never live it down."

And it's only because that she's looking straight into Ichigo's eyes that she notices the warm brown of his irises momentarily flash white, perhaps reflecting the light. But it is gone as quickly as it came and all she sees is Ichigo, looking back at her.

"Whatever." His grin is definitely cocky. "I can still kick his ass."

Rukia smiles a smile that's more of a smirk and gets off from the bed, stretching her arms above her head. "I know exactly where you're looking, Ichigo. And you better stop that before the wedding. Nii-sama will be there and I don't think he'll take to that very kindly."

Ichigo groans.

"Does he have to come?"

"Excuse me?" Rukia looks at him in disbelief. "He's my brother, you imbecile. He owns this house. You're lucky he thinks you're more than scum at the bottom of his shoe. One word against it and I'm guaranteeing you that the wedding wouldn't be happening."

"God, you have such a brother complex," says Ichigo, throwing her that infuriatingly superior smirk. "It's gotten beyond the point of being ridiculous."

Rukia takes this opportunity to slam her foot down on his toes, and barely manages to avoid the alarm clock that he throws at her head. It's amazing how quickly their conversation deteriorated to these juvenile actions, but the warm, full feeling inside her from Ichigo's words doesn't fade.

They walk out of the traditional, fully furnished house hand in hand, with Ichigo saying, "Are you kidding me, I would sooner mess a car up with a sledge hammer than let you drive it."

The ceremony is wonderful, small and unobtrusive, only fifty guests in attendance in a quiet park at the edge of town. It's beside a lake, and Rukia has a garland of flowers in her hair, placed like a crown.

"I knew this would happen years ago," Renji tells her, grinning as he engulfs her in his arms. Rukia can't suppress her delight, and with her head on her best friend's chest, she sees Ichigo look up at the sound of her laughter, his lips pulled into a trace of a smile.

Byakuya is there as well, sitting on a bench overlooking the lake, quietly conversing with Yoruichi. They must sense that she's coming because while Rukia's still a few feet away, Yoruichi gracefully leaves to join the rest of the party where the small dining tables have been set up.

"It is very beautiful here," says Byakuya when Rukia sits down beside him, careful to keep her kimono from touching the dirty ground. "There is life that is not often found in Soul Society."

"One of the reasons we chose this place," says Rukia, smiling. There are white flowers here – the same ones that decorate her hair – natural to this part of Japan. They sway with the summer breeze. "I am thankful you made this trip here, nii-sama."

"Of course," he says. "Should you have chosen to have this ceremony elsewhere, I would have been present as well."

With anyone else, Rukia would feel insurmountable joy. But around Byakuya, Rukia has always been calm and aware, somehow more articulate. "I am thankful for that, too."

"Do not be," he says, and tilts his head the slightest bit so that their eyes meet. His face is characteristically impassive, but the edges of his eyes are soft as they look at her. Rukia believes that inside his mind, Byakuya is smiling. "It is I that is grateful that you have chosen to include me in such a momentous day in your life. It is never a chore for me to see you."

There was once a time when these words would have meant the world to Rukia. Now, it perhaps means more, because she knows that she has Byakuya's approval, something she has been striving to achieve for so long. She knows that she always had it. But more importantly, she now knows that she has his love, which is infinitely more important.

They sit in companionable silence for a while, a silence that Rukia only periodically breaks to inquire about his health and news about the Kuchiki clan.

"Rukia," says Byakuya after some time, when they both feel Ichigo's spiritual energy approaching them. He looks a little distant, gaze drifting towards the bright white clouds in the sky as he continues, "I hope that you are aware that I am exceedingly happy for you both."

"I know," Rukia replies immediately. "You do not have to say such things, nii-sama–"

"I wish to say it," says Byakuya. He looks almost amused by her reaction, if the quirked eyebrow on the otherwise composed face is any indication. Rukia feels that the embarrassment coursing through her right now will only disappear the day she stops caring about Byakuya's opinion of her. Which is to say, never. "Kurosaki Ichigo is a good man. He is not someone who will do you wrong."

Rukia's smile is soft.

"I know."

"Do not let him know that I have said this."

She laughs. "It's a promise."

Ichigo walks over a few moments later, hands stuffed into the sleeves of his wedding kimono. The two of them don't often say things like, "You're beautiful" or "You're sexy" or "You're gorgeous," but at that moment, standing in the grass with such a peaceful look on his face, Rukia doesn't think she has ever seen someone so handsome.

"There you two are," he says, casually striding towards them. "Renji and the old man are trying to drink the other under the table. Not a pretty sight. So of course I have to bring Rukia to see it."

Rukia releases a long-suffering breath and stands up.

"Hey, Byakuya," says Ichigo easily. His default expression, as Rukia has come to know, is either a cocky smirk or a brooding scowl, and right now it's definitely the former. "Enjoying the party?"

"At the moment it is adequate," replies Byakuya, looking at Ichigo coolly. "Though I'm certain it'll be more enjoyable once you leave the vicinity."

Ichigo laughs.

"You heard him," says Rukia. It's amazing, she thinks, how relaxed Byakuya is right then. Making jokes, though his expression remains neutral. "Come, Ichigo. You being here is ruining nii-sama's experience."

"Come back to the main area after you're done thinking about whatever the hell it is you think about," Ichigo calls back as Rukia drags him back to the rest of the guests. Byakuya goes back to staring at the sky and the pond and the white flowers that surround it. "There's cake! We ordered chocolate cuz we know you love–"

"Stop acting like a delinquent," hisses Rukia, and Ichigo gives her a look that says, seriously, seriously, am I hearing this from you? "Now come, I hope you made sure that no one touched my plate."

"You mean you didn't eat yet?" Ichigo glares at her, but its more disappointment than anything else. "Rukia. If what I'm hearing from the others is true, you didn't eat all day."

"Which is why I wanted to eat now," she snaps before softening because she wouldn't love Ichigo half as much as she did if he wasn't like this. "Let's just go now, hmm? We can ditch this joint if you want, grab a burger. I think I saw a restaurant on the drive here."

Rukia grins and Ichigo rolls his eyes, the frown between his brows disappearing.

"Nah," he says, reaching forward to fix the flowers on her hair. Rukia's certain that it looks ridiculous, but she doesn't remove it. "This party'll blow if we leave."

They are now Kurosaki Ichigo and Rukia, and they are husband and wife.

There's something about the title that strikes a romantic bone in Rukia's body. Being married is such a bold statement to each other, a way of bringing all the unspoken trust and faith into an undeniable conclusion. It's like saying, "I think, no, I want this thing to last forever and damn if I don't do everything to make sure it does," without actually having the words spoken out loud.

Being husband and wife mean that they love each other unconditionally, that they make up for each other's faults. And though this is something that would probably be true even if they never stepped in this direction, they are now family and that's a bond that goes beyond romance.

They've always been so much more than just that: more than friends, more than lovers, more than a combination of the two. Rukia thinks that the best analogy would be the partner to her soul, but even she's aware of how stupid that sounds.

(But it doesn't stop her from thinking its true).

Everything is perfect at this moment, thinks Rukia as she watches Ichigo watch her, as she sees his eyes rake over her with the same single minded focus that he gives towards everything in his life.

Rukia takes step after step until she's standing right in front of him. He doesn't look away from her as one of his hands reaches for hers while the other pushes her hair away from her face. His thumb sweeps across her right cheekbone.

A shiver runs through Rukia's body as she looks at him – looks at Ichigo, looks at her husband– and they both reach towards each other. Their kiss starts off soft, slow, her hands in his hair and his at the back of her neck. But then she starts edging them towards the bed, and he lowers her onto it, and then her fingers are pulling at his shirt and his hand is sliding the thin strap of her nightgown past the slope of her shoulder.

It's the first time they sleep together, and though it's a fleeting romantic fancy, at one moment when Ichigo is pressing kisses on her stomach and pulling on their entangled fingers, Rukia thinks she'll remember every detail of this night for the rest of her life.

She wakes up the next day to the feel of sunlight on her face. Her body is relaxed, wrapped up in sheets and to her right is Ichigo, still sleeping with his head resting against a folded arm.

Rukia smiles a little in reminiscence, wondering how a Rukongai street child such as herself came to this place. It was a series of such impossibly specific steps: meeting Renji, going to the Academy, being adopted into Byakuya's care, slipping in through the window of Ichigo's room...

Ichigo is stirring into consciousness. "Hey," says Rukia, laying her hand on Ichigo's cheek. "Wake your ass up and say hello to Mrs. Kurosaki."

There's a sleepy groan before Ichigo blinks once, twice, eyes slowly opening. His gaze is unfocused until it lands on her, and a drowsy smile unfolds on his face.

"Hey," he says, hand reaching up to cover Rukia's. Ichigo's hand is hot to the touch, contrasting the coolness of the room and Rukia feels goose bumps erupting on her skin.

Rukia smiles at him, sees his eyes travel down to her mouth. For an instant, Ichigo's eyes catch in the light to make it flash white, but it's gone as quickly as it came. All that's left is Ichigo, who leans forward and kisses her lips.

"You'll fit right into the family," he jokes. He's smirking a little, but there's something fond about it. "It'll be like you've been living with us for years."

"Hilarious," replies Rukia, voice deadpan.

Ichigo smirks, unrepentant, and Rukia can see the sleep disappearing from his gaze. He's always been the type who is either awake or asleep, never in between for too long.

"So, when's the formal introduction thing to the rest of the Kuchikis?" he asks. "Do we have to have another ceremony there?"

"Yeah. Nii-sama's very forcefully advocating my place in the clan. And the elders might not like it – might not like me– even after all this time, but I am their family. Officially, at least, if not by blood. So they're being very serious about upholding their traditions."

She reaches for his left hand, which holds the smooth, unremarkable silver ring. "And now you're family too."

There's something quiet about the way Ichigo smiles at that, and it makes it all the more beautiful.

"So how long d'you think we have before we start killing each other?" he asks. "Y'know, being married and all, we've got to consider these things."

"If I haven't strangled you to death after all this time," says Rukia, "I don't think we have to worry about that."

"Huh," says Ichigo. "Can't say the same about myself."

Rukia scowls and kicks him to the floor.

"Jackass," she says, and barely manages to stifle a yelp as Ichigo pulls on the sheets and has her collapsing off the bed and on top of him.

"Spousal abuse," he informs her, "is not cool."

Rukia blinks at him in disbelief before breaking off into loud, full hearted laughter. They laugh and bicker and make love on the floor and almost end up being late to the Kuchiki clan ceremony.

They're so in tune to each other's presence that there is no difficulty at all settling into a life together. Ichigo is in a different division than her, adjusting to a life away from his family and friends in the living world surprisingly well. There's still a lot of yelling and a lot of making out, but that's only to be expected.

Days and months and perhaps even years pass like this; it's hard to discern time in the world of the dead. They have many disagreements, sometimes about small things such as who didn't do that particular chore, but often about more serious matters, such as their views on the traditions of Soul Society, where to raise their family in the future, whether they should even starta family in the future.

But they're both happy. Rukia feels this every day, when she wakes up to the streams of sunlight seeping through the window, sharing the same bed and blankets as Ichigo. She thinks it means something that no matter the words screamed and feelings harmed, they never go to sleep with anger in their hearts.

Which is why it's hard to accept when everything falls apart.

It's not a series of events that steadily deteriorate. It's just one day, Rukia comes into the kitchen in a sleeping yukata and her hair pushed up into a knot at the back of her head. Ichigo's already there, making tea while reading some report or another. She grins at him when he glances up from his papers to look at her, and it looks like he's about to smile back same when–

When Ichigo changes.

His eyes turn white.

"Ichigo?" asks Rukia uncertainly, mouth pulling into a frown. She takes an uncertain step forward.

"Hello, Kurosaki Rukia," says Ichigo, and Rukia feels her heart stop in her chest because this isn't Ichigo. There is not a trace of warmth or kindness on his face. Only insanity. "I don't think we've ever met."

Beyond all logic, Sode no Shiroyuki appears in her hands.

"Who are you?" she asks, voice hard.

Not-Ichigo laughs a cold laugh, and beyond the determination of getting whatever the hell it is out of Ichigo, Rukia unintentionally remembers Shiba Kaien.

But that's ridiculous, Rukia tells herself. Ichigo's far too powerful to let himself be possessed by a Hollow. Not that Kaien wasn't, but – but this is Ichigo.

"You don't know me?" Not-Ichigo is smirking.

Rukia realizes she does.

"You are Ichigo's Hollow."

The Hollow laughs again, and it's tinged with so much madness that Rukia's fingers shake.

"Yes, yes I am," he says, and it takes all of Rukia's willpower not to take a step back for every step he takes towards her. "I can't believe it took this long for me to officially meet my wife."

"You do not call me that," says Rukia sharply, eyes narrowing at the Hollow wearing Ichigo's body. "I am not your anything. You will relinquish your hold on Ichigo at this instant because I promise you that I will not hesitate in causing you harm."

"So demanding, so confident," smiles the Hollow. He takes another step forward and touches the tip of Rukia's sword with his finger. "The other me feels so much for you, Rukia, do you know that? You are his world."

Rukia feels sick.

She knows that she shouldn't be getting affected like this – they were trained for this in the Academy, how their greatest obstacle in the face of such events is emotional compromise – but God, she feels sick.

And the Hollow sees it. It makes his mad smile wider and he trails Ichigo's finger along the sharp edge of her sword.

"It makes me want to rip you apart just to see what it would do to him," he tells her. "It makes me wish that I could somehow take control of you, make you inflict all the suffering I want to cause him and – oh." The Hollow tilts his head a little questioningly. "He's coming back."

Rukia doesn't let relief and fear show on her face. She doesn't let anything show.

"But don't worry, Rukia," the Hollow says. He doesn't look at her as he nicks his finger on the sword and smears the blood on the flat surface of the blade. "You'll see me again."

"I will not," says Rukia, and there's a confidence in her voice that belies the turmoil inside her. "Ichigo will know exactly what has happened, and we will both make sure that you never come out again. Not unless you are under his control."

The Hollow laughs, a manic delight in his voice.

"You've got so much faith in him!" he says. "But there's much you don't know, Rukia."

"I know enough," says Rukia, but the Hollow isn't listening.

"Ichigo is indestructible when he's on his guard," he says, "but he lets everything fall when he's around you."

He chuckles.

"As long as you're here, I'll always be able to break through."

Rukia doesn't look away from the Hollow's white eyes, not even when she feels something crack inside of her. She keeps staring determinedly ahead even when, a blink later, dark brown irises appear and Ichigo's lips soften into a slight frown.

"Rukia?" he asks, looking at Sode no Shiroyuki and the blood flowing from his finger. He's confused, Rukia realizes, he doesn't know what happened. "Are you okay? What's going on?"

Rukia stays silent as she carefully lowers her sword on to the table beside her. She doesn't cry. She only takes a rag, soaks it in warm water, and cleans the blood off of his hands.

Rukia doesn't regret telling him what happened. She accompanies Ichigo to see Urahara, to see various Vizards. She sits with him as he starts meditating in the early hours of the morning: he sits with his legs folded and eyes closed, and she is beside him, knees drawn to her chest as she watches the sunrise through the window.

Ichigo doesn't reach for her hand anymore. When it is Rukia holding on to his, she can feel the stiffness of his fingers as they curl around hers. Sometimes he even pulls away.

He is still one of the best captains of the thirteen divisions, he is still good and kind and strong. But now there is a constant frown between Ichigo's eyebrows, the one that had existed back in his youth. His jaw is tense, his eyes fierce. When Rukia is around him, she no longer feels the calm, steady but considerable pulses that Ichigo has tamed his spiritual energy into. Instead she feels him unravelling, a nervous rhythm of power that's justbeing stopped from being unleashed.

Perhaps Rukia's feeling this because she's known him for so long. Perhaps their spiritual energies are more aware of the other because she can feel this change within Ichigo while others who are more powerful and aware cannot.

She, Ichigo, Renji, and Byakuya meet for tea at the main wing of the Kuchiki Manor a few weeks later. Byakuya and Renji exchange many looks throughout the visit, and Rukia thinks that they know, they must know that something is wrongwith Ichigo. But later, when she speaks with Byakuya alone, he only says, "You are unhappy."

This is not the observation she wished for him to make and she is quick to deny it.

"I'm not–" she starts to say, and Byakuya holds up a hand to stop her.

"Troubled, then," he says. "You both are."

"Nii-sama." It sounds helpless and Rukia doesn't know what to say after that, so she doesn't continue. It's still an adjustment, her relationship with Byakuya; it's difficult to talk about something so personal in nature with someone who she respects and admires so greatly.

But Byakuya simply gestures the gardens outside the manor. It's very beautiful, the perfect balance of wild vines and trimmed flowers and small, flowing streams. His expression remains pensive and distant, but he says, "You are welcome to come here, whenever you wish. This is your home as well."

Rukia is touched, and her answering smile is soft. "Thank you."

Because she's grateful for him, more than he'll ever know.

Byakuya does ikebana, the art of arranging flowers, and Rukia thinks it suits him. It's elegant and beautiful, and requires a natural talent that cannot easily be learned. Rukia joins him that afternoon, and finds herself soothed by this task.

Rukia leaves the manor with Ichigo and feels calmer than she has in weeks.

"Ichigo," she says once they step out of the compound, "let's go out for dinner."

Ichigo looks at her, surprised. She stares back at him, eyes unwavering as she challengingly quirks an eyebrow. She knows how he feels and she doesn't expect his response to be a "yes"; but all the same, she is Kurosaki Rukia, and she doesn't take no for an answer.


Ichigo laughs in a way that he hasn't in a long time. Rukia has missed this laugh, and she feels joy bubbling inside of her, tinged with only a small curl of sadness.

"Why the hell not," he says, lips settling into a smirk.

Going out for dinner turns out to mean settling down on the stools of a small ramen stand in the third district of Rukongai. They talk like they're fifteen again, Ichigo stealing strips of beef from Rukia's noodles as she talks about the various dramas going on in her division.

"The new ones," she says, "are the worst. They're brilliant but care more about who's going with who to the Autumn Festival than the fact that they can be a seated officer in less than two years."

"Aw, come on." Ichigo takes a deep gulp of his sake and grins. "I bet if I were recruited at the same time as you, you'd be more interested in that stuff too."

"You wish, you freak." But of course, she is smiling.

Rukia is giddy as they walk home. There's a strange fluttering excitement in her stomach, something she remembers from the first time she kissed Ichigo. It's not something that ever fully goes away, but the strength of it – she feels bold and nervous and confident and hesitant, all at the same time.

She shouldn't be like this. She and Ichigo have been together for – she doesn't even know. He's been in her life for so long, has made her feel for so long that it's a little strange to think about her life before him. She knows it existed, she remembers it, she understands that it's all a part of her history.

But that's exactly it – her life without Ichigo was then, and with Ichigo, her life is now and always.

The house is dark when they get in, and Rukia places her hands on Ichigo's shoulders and pulls him down for a kiss. His hands are rough when they reach up to cradle her face, but that's okay because she's pretty sure hers are rough as well and–

"No," says Ichigo. Rukia doesn't even have a moment to respond before Ichigo's not there anymore. He's halfway to the other side of the room. "No, no, no."

Rukia blinks. "Ichigo–"

"No," says Ichigo, and he doesn't look away from her, but he does flex his fingers and puts effort into keeping his hands by his side.

Rukia purses her lips.

"Don't do this, Ichigo."

Ichigo is nothing if not stubborn.

"I have to," he says as he glares at her. "Rukia, you know–"

"I know why you're doing this," she interrupts. "You pull up a futon in another room when you think I'm asleep; there hasn't been a day in the last month where we spent more than an hour in each other's company. I know why you're doing this right now, Ichigo, and that's why I'm telling you right now that you don't have to."

And she means it. Rukia knows that he's doing this to protect her, because he's Kurosaki Ichigo and he's fierce in his love for others, in his love for her. It's hurting him, and it's hurting her, yet somehow, inexplicably, she loves him all the more for it.

She understands Ichigo in a level that she doesn't even understand herself. She wishes she didn't, wishes she could be angry at him for being the way he has been for the last few months. But she can't, because she understands, and instead of anger, there's just an overwhelming grief.

Grief for Ichigo, who is standing there and looking at her with intense eyes and pursed lips. Looking at her like she's breaking his heart.

"Then what do you want me to do?" he asks, a voice tinged with anger that doesn't quite hide the weariness. "What should I do? Tell me, Rukia."

He closes his eyes. "You have to tell me because I have no fucking idea."

Rukia walks towards him, keeps walking until she is a foot away. She considers touching Ichigo's cheek, thinks about taking his hands.

She does neither.

Her voice is a little hoarse as she says, "In my life, I haven't made many bad decisions. If anything, I've helped people like you avoid bad decisions."

Ichigo's lips twitch, and despite herself, Rukia smirks.

"It's something about me that I believe in," she says. "It's something about me that you believe in. So believe me when I say that I trust you with my life–"

Humourless laughter escapes Ichigo's mouth.

"You shouldn't."

"I should," counters Rukia. Her eyes narrow. "You've saved me more than once. You – I know you, Ichigo. You would sooner die than stop anything from happening to me or anyone else in your life."

Her words do nothing ease the tension out of him.

"You're not safe with me." Ichigo's voice is steady, rational. He genuinely believes this, even when he laughs a little disbelievingly. "I guess I've always known this. No one is safe with–"

"Other than complete jackasses, there's not a single thing alive or dead that's not safe with you," says Rukia. "The Hollow–"

"That Hollow is a part of me, Rukia. How can you–"

And it's the way that Ichigo says it, as though it's a fate that he's long since accepted, that is the final straw for Rukia. Because there is absolutely no obstacle that Ichigo comes across that he can't overcome.

"It is not a part of you," says Rukia firmly. "The Hollow represents everything that you could have been if you had let grief and insecurities and bloodlust overwhelm your soul. But you have not. Who I see in front of me right now–"

And now, finally, Rukia reaches forward and puts her hand on his arm.

"This is who you are. This is Ichigo."


"No," interrupts Rukia sharply. "You will not speak. You will listen to me because I am right. You know this. You are living a life that should not be imposed on anyone – your soul contains the pinnacle of darkness but that is not you. It is a possibility that came to be but it should never have. Do you understand me? The fate of your soul was taken into another hand, one that changed its very nature. The existence of your Hollow is not your fault. If anything, it is mine."

Ichigo's eyes are fixed on her. He looks at her with rapt attention, a little bit of wonder, a little bit of awe.

Only Ichigo looks at her like this. Like she is–

Like she is his world.

Rukia's throat is dry, but she continues.

"You have made the ultimate sacrifice for me," she says. "For the sake of my life you transcended the barrier between the living and the dead. You took part of a ritual that had every chance of turning you into a monster. You did all this willingly, and you did it for me. You went on a path that could have turned you completely into a Hollow, for the wisp of a chance of saving me."

She stops. She closes her eyes, tries to not think about the heavy beats of her heart. Tries not to think about the extent this man would go for her.

She can't speak. It's all too much.

But, as it turns out, she doesn't have to.

"You," says Ichigo, voice hoarse, "you gave me purpose. All the good that I've done, how strong I've become, any peace that I have – none of that would have happened if you hadn't jumped in through my window that night."

The tips of his fingers touch her face. He looks at her as though there is nothing else in existence.

"Anything I did for you, it wasn't a sacrifice. It was your right."

Rukia kisses him right then, holds his head in between her hands. She kisses him and kisses him and kisses him. They are impossibly close and trying to move even closer still; Rukia's hands are in Ichigo's hair, pulling him towards her, and Ichigo's fingers are gripping her hips, her waist, pulling her towards him.

It's not Ichigo who lets go first. When Rukia eases her mouth away, she sees that his eyes are still closed. Her hands are small, and they don't quite manage to cup his face, but her right hand gently rests against his left cheek as she looks up at him.

"You will get through this," she says firmly. "This will not be what breaks you and this will not be what breaks us. You will not only overcome this but you will defeat it because you are Kurosaki Ichigo and you do not know how to lose."

Ichigo doesn't say anything in response, but his eyes harden in determination. He doesn't need to say anything for Rukia to know that he's thinking, no, this isn't going to be the thing that'll beat me.

That night, Ichigo touches her in a way he hasn't for weeks. Rukia wakes up the next morning and sees his bare arms and shoulders peeking out from under the dark blue blankets. He's already awake, watching her with those dark, dark eyes.

"Hey," she says quietly. "Still you?"

It's the small smile on Ichigo's face, soft and somehow happythat convinces Rukia.

"Yeah," he replies. "Still me."

Though this doesn't happen often, Rukia knows that when it does, it takes a surprising amount of effort to convince Ichigo of his goodness and self-worth. It's something that baffles her because though Rukia knows that Ichigo isn't the paragon of integrity and virtue, he is the closest that any soul has ever gotten to reaching it.

However, once someone – and this is usually Rukia – manages to beat some sense into his head, Ichigo is head-strong and assured, and nothing can shake the determination that he holds.

The weeks in which Ichigo had withdrawn from her are a distant memory. There is no self-blame or guilt in Ichigo's gaze, just warmth and resolve. He holds her hand and runs his fingers through her hair and draws her into long, deep kisses.

He is not afraid.

Rukia is thankful. She doesn't think she can live in a world where Ichigo fears being near her. Perhaps she would have been alright, once upon a time, but not now, not when she knows what she can have with him.

Ichigo starts to paint. For therapeutic purposes, he explains when she finds the polished wooden brushes, cheeks tinting pink with embarrassment even as he glares at her defiantly. "Having a hobby like this is supposed to make your mind stronger. Because it soothes your soul or something. I don't know. Stop laughing."

Rukia obliges his demand, though she doesn't smother the large grin that has taken residence on her face.

"It doesn't count when you're still laughing inside your head," he grumbles, but there's no heat in his words. "Not that you'rein any place to judge, you cartoon-character-ruiner."

Immediately, Rukia's expression turns affronted. "Excuse me?"

"I'm still scarred from looking at your last masterpiece. What was that, a mutant crossbreed between a rabbit and a monkey?"

"It was a cat, you jackass," says Rukia crossly, punching him on the arm. But then Ichigo takes her hand in his larger one and links their fingers together, and when he tugs, Rukia lets herself be pulled forward. "You better not suck at this painting thing."

Ichigo laughs.

"Rukia, who are you kidding? Of course I'm going to suck at it."

He's still chuckling as he reaches forward and tucks her bangs behind her ear. Something warm curls in Rukia's belly when she thinks that even now, months, years, decades of being together, Ichigo still pushes the locks of black away from her eyes. Her hair is longer now, reaching just past the middle of her back. It's a hassle to keep it loose so it's usually tied back into a bun, but the shorter strands constantly fall across her forehead.

She could grow them out, but she knows Ichigo loves it.

Right away it becomes clear that Ichigo doesn't succeed in painting portraits or landscapes. He simply doesn't have the patience to stay within the boundaries of reality. But he creates these beautiful pieces where the canvases are filled with blurs and streaks of colours. Somehow, though, they aren't messy. There is a certain theme to it.

Rukia's favourite one features various tones of purple, violet, blue, and black, with the occasional presence of white peeking from the edges. It reminds her of night, but it doesn't invoke an overwhelming sense of darkness in her. No, there's something soft about the painting, the way the different shades phase seamlessly into each other to leave something that makes her feel comforted. There's a certain mystery and wonder, but there's also warmth. Like being curled under a blanket with Ichigo's fingers stroking her arm.

"I thought you were supposed to draw happy things," says Rukia when she first sees him making it. He's sitting on the wooden floor, brushes and paints spread out in front of him. "You know, things like rainbows and sunshine and–" Rukia stops when she sees the look on Ichigo's face. "Oh, I'm sorry," she says with a grin, "I forgot who I was talking to. Kurosaki Ichigo doesn't dohappy."

Ichigo rolls his eyes.

Rukia walks up to him, kneels down to rest her arms on his shoulders.

"Keep at it, Kurosaki," she says, pressing a kiss on the warm spot behind his ear. "It's about time you got a tasteful hobby."

She skips away before he can respond, but when she looks back, Ichigo's smiling. It's the barest quirk of lips, hardly noticeable, but it's enough for Rukia; enough for her to know that they are okay, and they always will be.

They just have to keep trying.

They receive an invitation for dinner from Renji and his girlfriend.

Their story is a sweet one, something out of a romance novel: Renji was out on the thirty-sixth district of Rukongai with a squadron of new recruits to take care of a minor Hollow disturbance; Yamazaki Megumi was also in the thirty-sixth district, carrying a basket full of embroidered clothes from her home to the market. Their paths intersected, a Hollow was destroyed, Megumi's clothes were saved, and the shinigami were harassed into eating a meal at Megumi's small home as a thank you.

And that, as they say, was that.

"You guys have to come, okay?" Renji had said, looking at them in complete seriousness. "I really – like really – like her and she can't come to Seireitei 'cause she's not shinigami and she really wants to meet my friends and family and you will say yes, do you hear me, Rukia? Or some asses will be majorly kicked."

Rukia's not sure why Renji feels the need to threaten them into agreeing because Renji's her closest friend and of course she'll go, even if she does give him a hard time about it beforehand.

And it's this that has her and Ichigo in Rukongai. Its early summer, and the sun is out even though it's well into the evening. The thirty-sixth district isn't as extravagant as the first and second but neither is it consumed in poverty like the seventy-ninth and eightieth, like what Rukia remembers from her childhood.

They walk up the path to the small house, Rukia holding a package of steamed buns in her hands. They had picked up a gift on the way over at Rukia's insistence on propriety. Ichigo had rolled his eyes and muttered something like, "It's Renji," but Rukia thinks her glare was effective enough to stop him from elaborating further. Because true, it is just Renji, but it's still a formal invitation to his girlfriend's homeand she can't live with the shame of showing up empty handed.

"I miss jeans," says Ichigo. Rukia misses them too, sometimes, but she doesn't complain as she has always thought that Ichigo looks the best in rich, earthly colours – something that the faded denim of his jeans can't properly capture. And true enough, Ichigo looks so good at that moment, fidgeting with the sleeves of his deep green kimono that Rukia ignores him in favour of thinking about the body underneath the loose fabric. "I never thought I'd have to wear one of these outside of meeting your family."

"Renji is family," she says, reaching out and smoothing down the creases on his chest. "So your record is still intact."

Ichigo rolls his eyes and knocks on the door.

It's Renji who answers. Rukia throws the buns at him because she's Rukia and he's Renji, and she can't help but laugh as he fumbles with the package. Ichigo claps Renji on the shoulder as he steps inside, and grins when Renji grumbles, "Dunno how you put up with her. I'm already regretting this dinner and you have to livewith that thing."

Rukia glares.

Renji smirks.

"Come on," he says, heading further inside the house. "Megumi's been tearin' the kitchen apart all day. You'd think that I said the guys from the eleventh were comin' or something."

"Good thing this one can eat for all of them combined," grinned Ichigo, ruffling Rukia's neatly pinned hair. Rukia glares and kicks his shin in response, but since her shoes are off, it doesn't have as much of an impact.

Rukia is trying to flatten her bangs when Megumi walks in to the room. She looks older than what Rukia expected. Perhaps closer to Byakuya's age than Rukia's own.

But age has always been relative in Soul Society, and Megumi could easily be younger than Rukia. She's tall, easily as tall as Ichigo, with her long black hair twisted into a braid; she's in a kimono so simple that even though Rukia isn't wearing anything extravagant, she feels overdressed in comparison.

The smile on Megumi's face when she sees them is warm, slowly unravelling on her face like clouds drifting away to reveal the brightness of the morning sun.

"Kurosaki Rukia-san, Kurosaki Ichigo-san," she says, giving a shallow bow. "Welcome."

Ichigo responds with a small smile, "Thank you for having us."

Unsurprisingly, Rukia finds Megumi to be wonderful. She's not particularly talkative, nor does she have a noticeable sense of humour, but Rukia thinks that's fine because between herself, Ichigo, and Renji, there's enough bolster to occupy a single room. Instead, Megumi is an attentive listener – and a fantastic cook – and makes jokes in such a matter-of-fact tone that it has Rukia bursting into laughter and choking on her food.

"I normally live here with my sister and her kids," says Megumi deep into the meal, when Rukia has gotten comfortable enough to laugh raucously and play with Ichigo's fingers under the table. "But they let me have the house tonight. They all love Renji."

She gives Renji a fond look as she says this, and the blatant manner in which she does reminds Rukia achingly of Ichigo. She's not sure why it hits her so hard, but it does, and is only snapped out of it when Ichigo says, "You didn't have to do that because of us. I – well, I don't come from a big family, but, you know. Family's important. I get that."

"Maybe they'll be here the next time you come and visit," smiles Megumi.

Rukia learns a lot about Megumi, the girl who's had Renji in a daze for weeks after they met. All the tasteful decorations around the house were made by Megumi herself, Renji tells them, by sewing together the left over fabric from the clothes that she makes to sell in the market. Megumi tells Ichigo and Rukia know that she admires them for being shinigami, and that she wishes she could see the inside of Seireitei one day, because the pure white buildings and structures are bound to be breathtaking.

"But I don't think that's something I can do any time soon," she says ruefully.

Rukia opens her mouth to say something about her brother, and how he married Hisana, but then she stops, because Renji isn't a Kuchiki, and more importantly, he's not Kuchiki Byakuya.

She's saved from having to speak because Ichigo looks at Megumi reassuringly and says, "Hey, maybe you will, one day. I'm notorious for breaking rules down there, you know. In fact – I don't know if you know this, but I broke into Seireitei once. Before I became a proper shinigami. True story."

Megumi laughs and Ichigo and Renji launch into – a thoroughly edited version of – the story.

Later, Rukia has a moment to talk with Renji alone. There's a lot that she wants to say, and she feels a little hesitant about it: she wasn't going to bring anything up at all if she hadn't liked Megumi as much as she does, and Rukia has always been honest with her friends.

Renji especially.

"This isn't going to be easy for you, Renji."

"Yeah, I know," replies Renji with a shrug of his shoulders though his expression quickly smoothes into a sombre one. "We don't see each other a lot. Pretty big commute, comin' from the main building in the sixth division to her house here."

"She can never be a full part of your life." She says this simply because she doesn't want to be harsh. But she wants her best friend to know what's in store for him, because Rukia knows better than anybody that you tend to forget important things when you're dizzy with love.

Renji just gives her a small smile.

"Haven't thought that far ahead yet." Rukia moves to speak, but Renji continues, "Just. Rukia, I really like her. I might love her, even. But did ya know everything about everything when you got together with Ichigo?"

Rukia is surprised.

"Renji, my relationship with Ichigo can't be a measuring point for anyone else's. Our circumstances were – unique, at best–"

Renji laughs.

"I know, and what I mean is–" He pauses, searching for the right words. "I don't know how this will turn out, if we'll last forever, if she's going to die before me or I'll die before her. I don't know if we'll get married or if we'll just stay like this but – Rukia."

Here his face softens, and he looks at her with a deep wisdom that she has always known he had.

"Megumi looks at me the way Ichigo looks at you. And if there's nothin' else that I'm sure about, I'm sure that I don't want to let something like that go."

Though it wasn't harsh to begin with, Rukia's expression softens at his words.

She clears her throat.

"Invite nii-sama here when you get the chance," she says, giving a hard slap on Renji's back. He yelps and glares at her, but Rukia grins unrepentantly. "He'll be instantly charmed. Megumi's the type of girl he respects. He might even invite the two of you to the manor."

"Yeah, you and Ichigo were the preliminary round. Kinda like a test before she met the Capt – Ow!"

Renji rubs the spot on his arm where Rukia had punched him.

"Freak, I was only kidding."

"Don't be such a wimp." Rukia smiles, and means it when she says, "You'll be alright."

Rukia wakes up one morning to the sunlight falling on her eyes. She feels warm, content, and a drowsy smile spreads across her face when she feels Ichigo kissing the hard edges of her collarbones.

"You sure know how a girl likes to be woken up," she says, closing her eyes. His knees are on either side of her hips, and he's leaning down, nose touching the curves of her cheek. She threads her fingers through the short strands of Ichigo's hair and pulls him closer, feels a little shiver of pleasure when he drags his tongue along the juncture of her neck and shoulder.

"Yeah," she murmurs, "just like that."

"You like this?" asks Ichigo, voice rough from sleep. Rukia giggles a little as his breath touches her ears.

"You know it."

She feels his smirk against her skin.

"'Course I do," he says. "You can't resist me."

Rukia laughs at that, partly because it's true, but mostly because it sounds a terrible one-liner.

"Getting a bit cocky there, Ichigo," she says, tugging his head back so she can see his face, "Too much talking and–"

And Rukia stops, her eyes widening as she meets the white gaze of Ichigo's Hollow.

"Not enough action?" The Hollow smiles and sweeps his thumb over Rukia's lower lip. It would be sweet if it was Ichigo, if over the last two seconds her blood hadn't turned cold from terror. "Why, Rukia, I thought you'd never ask."