Well, sorry, but this chapter contains MAJOR SPOILERS for anyone who hasn't made it past the final battle with Aizen.
Lyrics are from the Postal Service song Be Still my Heart. One of my favs!
You have been warned!
But I could not recall
A more perfect fall
'Cause when I looked up
Into your eyes
It didn't hurt at all.
Contrary to popular belief, Ichigo knew the exact moment he fell in love with her, and it was not at first sight.
He always laughs (inwardly) at those who try to pinpoint it. Rangiku happened to be the first to suggest it the 'first sight' idea, and Ichigo pointed out nonchalantly that, at first sight, Rukia was a black-clad stranger with a blade who sliced open a huge beast intent on eating his soul. The encounter didn't leave much room for romantic fantasies.
"But you barged in so heroically to save her from Soul Society!" She pointed out brightly. "That wasn't love?"
To which he cordially reminded her he followed through the same hair-brained schemes to rescue Orihime, as well as many others. That made them friends. Not much else. Besides, he owed her an incredibly steep debt, even if she didn't want him to repay it.
"Come on then, when?" Rangiku demanded. Renji was interested too, if only because it would provide means for torture later on. Ichigo merely scowled, no intention to actually tell them when. It's personal, and he may be slow at times, but no amount of stupid could possess him to tell those two gossips something like that.
He recants the conversation to Rukia much later. She chuckles softly, burying her head in his shoulder. "At first sight?" She snorts. "You were arrogant, rude, and obsessed with your reputation. Who could love that?" Then she pauses for a moment, contemplating. "Actually, you're still like that."
He rolls his eyes, but temporarily ignores her jibe. "Yeah, but you were bossy and egotistical. And I was not obsessed with my reputation!"
She doesn't have to respond to that. The deadpanned look she sends his way is enough to convey her non-verbal disbelief.
Verbal attacks aside, she had a point. She may have been a friend, but she also commandeered his closet, forcibly dragged him into life-threatening situations, and sent his whole life spiraling into a shit-storm to God-knows-where. It's a wonder he didn't strangle her in her sleep.
But despite her (their) difficulties, he never knew someone able to understand him so well. Of his friends and family, only a few grasped the intense desire to protect which gripped him. Of everyone he knew, only Rukia could give him that power while striking him backwards when he overreached his boundaries. She understood the pain of his mother's death, the one that would never really go away. And, in her own pain in the ass way, she provided support in a way others couldn't. For that, he trusted her.
Then she went and decided she'd be okay to die for his sake, and he had to waltz into Soul Society to beat some sense back into her brain. They fought a lot, but the shock he felt when she told him she would stay with her brother still lingered sometimes. Yet, as unexpected as it was, he found afterwards that he respected her much more than he had. They both had a similar sense of duty to those around them. He couldn't blame her for that.
And although he expected a somewhat ordinary life when he returned, he didn't stay too annoyed when she came back. Suddenly he could talk to her about anything. Not just the hard stuff, but about their friends and her brother and his father.
Bit by bit, he told her more about his mother. Her keenness to his emotions, her smile and gentle eyes. The way she could light up a room just by being in it. How her brightness kept them all by her, like moths drawn to a flame.
In turn, she told him about Kaien, although only short pieces of information at first. Even though Ichigo blamed himself for his mother's death, he had to admit he hadn't run a sword through her chest. The choice Rukia made was unfair, but it still tore at her. It was Kaien who taught her to smile and laugh again, when the Kuchiki house stagnated her. He showed her how to be warm in the face of her brother's coldness. She loved him, and she loved his wife, too. That only made it more painful.
She cried when she told him that part. He remembers the storm which barricaded them indoors. She rested her head against his shoulder and cried, because she hadn't told anyone that before, and it was as painful as it was relieving.
He knows he didn't love her then, because he could still be rational enough to wish Kaien lived, just for her. Now, he doesn't think he'd be able to truthfully express such sentiments, even if it would make her happy. Not that he believes she would ditch him for her former mentor if the opportunity presented itself. Just that he can be a bit… jealous. He would never admit it, but it took awhile for him to come to terms with the fact Renji loved her. Still does, actually. But as Renji explains it, he knowingly gave her up a long time ago.
Suffice to say, Renji's a braver man than he. Ichigo can't imagine ever letting her go. His grip's far too tight to disentangle.
No, the first time he realized her loved her was after her botched execution, after the battle in Hueco Mundo, and after his defeat of Aizen. He maybe had an inkling when he lost his powers and could no longer see her, but he hadn't admitted it. Not until after the Fullbringers gave his powers back. Not until he fought Kugo, and the captains of Soul Society lent their powers in order to bring his back.
Not until they lay together, back on his bed, like old times. Not touching, not snuggling under the covers. Just laying there, staring at the ceiling, thinking his (their) noisy thoughts.
They spent time like that a lot. When they were too tired from battles to venture out to the river or the park, they would lie on his bed to think. She could go someplace else, but at this point, they took open comfort in the other's presence. This way, he could think more clearly.
She didn't move herself into a gigai. She sensed that he wanted her to stay that way, to solidify in his mind that she was real, she was here, and he could see her. The barrier which temporarily divided them disappeared.
"Your hair's shorter." He commented. She snorted, mumbling something along the lines of, 'no, really?' She's still a smartass, he thought to himself. He didn't even really listen to her answer.
Then her hands wandered to tap the skin of his cheek. "You've been scowling a lot." She sighed. "I can always tell. You get those lines under your eyes."
"Heh, only because you cause most of them." He sniped back. He always told her exactly what he thought, but he didn't say that he liked the feel of her hands against his skin. And he especially didn't mention the fact he missed her.
He missed her, and he loved her.
The thought popped into his head before he had time to see it coming. It bubbled through his veins so intensely, he felt automatic heat rising to his face. Luckily, the darkness obscured the color in his cheeks. Lack of light kept their vision gray.
However, having someone know you that well could be a setback. She immediately sensed something change in him. Although he kept his eyes focused determinedly on the ceiling, she turned to face him.
The liquid light made her lovely. He yearned suddenly to look at her, but resilient pride fumed in his chest. Before she could ask him what was wrong, he sat up with a huff. "I need to use the bathroom." He grumbled, leaving her alone.
It took a little while to compose himself. He spent minutes staring at the wall, wondering what the hell had come into his head. If he loved Rukia, he might as well be confessing his heart to a supposedly tame crocodile which would later bite his fingers off. He valued her friendship, almost as much as he valued his own life.
But then again, when he thought about it, he would willingly give his life for her. Even if he would end up in Soul Society anyways, seeing her die would kill him. If he could admit nothing else, then he could say that much.
When he finally summoned the courage to go back to his room, he found her asleep on his bed. She looked tiny, drowning in the heavy, loose robes that garnished her petite body. She had curled onto her side. Her slight figure gave him plenty of room to lay down beside her.
This wasn't the first time she fell asleep in his bed. However, she had never fallen asleep in her soul form.
And they never woke up in each other's arms before.
In the rays of that morning light, he found all his pride and resistance dissipated like morning dew. She blinked those huge eyes at him and smiled sleepily, black hair mussed.
She radiated, and he found himself smiling back. Somewhere in the night, they both had gotten under the covers, and despite the heat which pulsated from their bodies and made him sweat, he didn't dare move. Instead, his mouth betrayed his mind, and said, "I love you."
This time, when he turned beet red, she saw it clearly. He expected her to react with shock, or yell at him, or do any of her Rukia things.
She didn't disappoint. While smiling mischievously, he punched him lightly in the shoulder. "I know it, you idiot," she murmured in return. "What took you so long?"
And I thought, be still my heart.
This could be a brand new start
And it will be clear
If I wake up and you're still here
Well, sort of short. But there's your fluffiness for you!
Oh, boo, next chapter's the last. Excited?
Until next time!