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Liar, Liar

Chapter Text

 

 

Rukia doesn't know what possesses her to say the words, doesn't even know why she does.

Maybe she's just finally cracked under the pressure of relentless societal romance peddling. Maybe she's just tired of people seeing her as frigid.

Either way, the words come out, "Actually, I'm meeting someone here."

The look on Yui Mei Li's face almost makes it worth it. Almost. The narrowed eyed stare of Rukia's ex (and Yui Mei's latest acquisition), however, seals the deal right then and there.

There's no taking it back now.

Rukia may be a liar, but she is not a quitter.

Yui Mei's lip curls unflatteringly as she probes with grit teeth, "Oh?"

Even Rukia can tell her own smile is shit-eating, a perfect contradiction to the part of her brain already panicking in a frenzied chant of whatdidyoudowhatdidyoudowhatdidyoudo??? 

Fortunately, what comes out her mouth instead is a coolly polite, "Yes, if you excuse me," before she brushes past, and, without missing a beat, walks right into Rukongai territory.

The windows facing the street glow faint and golden, almost hazy in the curls of smoke escaping in random puffs from the shadows that crowd around the square frames. The building itself practically trembles with the force of life within it as music pours out of every orifice, punctuated by laughter and shouted words lost to the encroaching night.

The set of dorm room buildings at the furthest corner of Sereitei Institute looks like every other set of dorms surrounding the campus in an impenetrable wall of close-quarters shared housing. But it's common knowledge that these particular set of buildings, Rukongai, is the epicenter of student depravity and debauchery. It's the hottest spot on campus to get high, wasted, or both on any day ending in "Y" and any time ending in a number less than sixty on a clock.

Running into Yui Mei and the personification of a human skid-mark in tow only reminds Rukia why she's there in the first place.

It had been a solid week where she'd holed herself up in her apartment after the breakup out of humiliation, and enough was enough.

Rukia may have also messaged Rangiku, an acquaintance from around the teaching assistant water cooler, at two in the afternoon looking for something other than day drinking by herself to take her mind off it.

Rangiku had replied enthusiastically an hour later, citing just sobering up from an earlier bender for her late reply, and promising Rukia a round of shots to get the fun started (again).

Rukia is under no illusions that Rangiku remembered offering at all, but she makes an attempt to find the blonde anyway. With the air thick with the smell of alcohol and an unidentifiable cocktail of faded cologne, perfume, and sweat; the bodies filling the space is almost crushing. Rukia isn't sure what to do with herself, but she's grateful for the crowd.

At least this way her ex and Yui Mei won't be able to confirm whether Rukia actually met someone or not, but it certainly won't stop them from being pissed about it. She mentally pats herself on the back for a lie well told.

"Rukia-chan!"

She startles at the shout, and though the crowd jostles her, miraculously, she doesn't spill a drop from her stereotypically red solo cup.

"Yuzu?"

The young woman giggles before throwing an arm around her in greeting. Her drink sloshes but again, doesn't spill. "I didn't know you were coming to this, Rukia-chan!"

"I didn't realize you even knew what this place was," Rukia says, giving her a delayed squeeze in return, wincing as she does so at the shout Yuzu treats her with, "Ne, Rukia-chan, we all gotta cut loose sometimes! Don't worry though, I finished my essay already, so you won't have to mark poop!"

The people around them don't seem bothered by Yuzu's declaration, and even they yell out nonsensical agreements.

Laughing awkwardly, Rukia genuinely thanks her for her thoughtfulness, though she doubts Yuzu will remember having told her, and if she does, Rukia has reservations that the younger woman will even mention it. Yuzu still stutters whenever she talks to Rukia, or their professor, Ukitake, during office hours.

Still, Tipsy Yuzu has no problem babbling, and shouting aside, Rukia's grateful for the company. She almost forgets everything but Yuzu's presence until she interrupts herself to exclaim, "Oh! Oh! Ichigo's waiting for you!"

It takes Rukia a second, maybe two to actually process what Yuzu says, and even then, the only thing her mind comprehends is Kurosaki Ichigo.

The Kurosaki Ichigo that looks like some gang member with his Shakespeare inspired tattoos and his weathered leather jacket and his boots. The Kurosaki Ichigo who's ranked in the Top 3 of Sereitei Institute's hottest. The Kurosaki Ichigo Rukia may or may not have pined over in freshman year four years ago when he'd personally carried her out of her burning apartment like some bodice-ripping hero in a trite romance novel.

And then, the realization sets in as Yuzu begins to tow her away that Yuzu's going to take Rukia to him.

"E-eh?!"

Rukia can't even properly flip out on the younger woman – can't even barrage her with variations on the question of How did you know about that? Because of course, Yui Mei picks that moment to appear once more like she scents blood in the water:

"Oh," she fake giggles, "when you said you were meeting someone, I didn't think you meant you were babysitting them, Rukia-chan."

Rukia's still too wide-eyed to care that her lie has swiftly turned on her, but Yuzu is annoyed enough for both of them at the dig, "I'm twenty!"

Yui Mei chooses to ignore her, focusing her condescending smile on Rukia instead, fake sympathy practically dripping from her words, "Oh, does that mean you're the designated sober person too, Rukia-chan? That blows, your first party ever and you don't even have a drink."

From the corner of her eye, in a bid to look for some kind of escape from this situation, she locks eyes with Ichigo instead, and it's so much worse than anything Rukia could have conjured up.

That is the complete opposite of an escape!

She almost turns away entirely, but it's too late.

The startled surprise on Yui Mei's face probably matches the one on Rukia's, if she wasn't completely frozen by the constant ohshitohshitohshit commentary going on unhelpfully in her brain.

His shoulder against hers is a strangely reassuring presence, though the cold rings wrapped around his fingers brush against the back of her hand and for a fleeting second, Rukia thinks he'll thread their fingers together. He doesn't. Instead, he passes her a solo cup.

In the dim light of the Rukongai, branded across his thumb is the promise, "something wicked this way comes".

"It's Sprite," he says against her ear, hot breath sending a flush up her neck and across her cheeks.

She manages a smile, hopes she doesn't look as horrified as she feels and murmurs her thanks back, taking a gulp for fortitude.

"Oh, Kurosaki-kun," Yui Mei eyes slides between them suspiciously before fluttering her lashes at Ichigo. "I didn't even know you knew Rukia-chan, let alone were dating her."

Rukia almost upends her entire drink down her throat, lack of alcohol be damned, as she wonders only vaguely if it's possible to drown yourself on dry land.

From the corner of her eye, Ichigo meets her gaze almost consideringly before he turns his attention back to Yui Mei and deadpans, "Who are you?"

Rukia chokes on her drink.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Rukia was sure there was nothing more satisfying than the look of frozen shock on Yui Mei's face, though it was definitely rivaled by the constipated look on Kaien's. Unfortunately, Rukia couldn't even bask in it because she was too busy freaking the fuck out over Ichigo's arm around her shoulders as he gently directed her away.

Almost mechanically she looked down at her solo cup, the thought crossing her mind that he might've put something in it. There's no way this is actually happening. Is she hallucinating? Was she just offered drugs? Is the day of declaring the anti-drug slogans from high school finally come to pass? She'd always wanted to tell someone that she was cool without having to take them, even if it was a blatant lie.

"Who're they?" he interrupts her thoughts gruffly, his strides long and purposeful as the crowd around them practically part a path for him out of self-preservation.

She huffs out a breath as the crowd step almost automatically back into place, bumping her and Yuzu as they close back in. "Would you slow down? This isn't a sprint."

His gaze flickers back to hers then slides to his sister on Rukia's other side. "Oi, Yuzu, how much did you have to drink?"

Arm still looped through Rukia's from earlier, the younger woman hiccups a giggle. "Enough, I think! Can I sleep in you room? My roommate ditched me for her girlfriend."

It's his turn to huff, though that seems to be a positive thing as Yuzu chirps, "Thanks Ichi-nii!"

They move to a quieter part of the communal floor, heading for the designated sober table with a terrifying number of sealed water bottles, an almost monstrous stack of unopened cans of fizzy drinks and bowls of salty chips; chairs nearby are occupied by people already nursing early signs of hangovers while a line coming from around the corner leads to the bathroom.

Yuzu detaches herself from Rukia's arm and hangs like a limpet on Karin, nursing a coke and an unimpressed expression. "Your roommate said she lost you," she accuses her twin.

"Ne, ne, Jinta-kun wanted to do a keg stand and I got bored," she pouts up at her before pawing at her sister's arm. "Gimme your drink, I'm thirsty."

Rukia doesn't find out if Karin obliges her because Ichigo's pulling her away, leather-clad arm still a warm weight across her shoulders as he leads her out into the nearby terrace.

The wide-open space and the crisp cool air shocks any protest she thinks to give him.

It's mostly empty out here save a few; the sky and dim skyline sprawled out before them like a painting; the people that loiter, like admirers in a gallery.

There's a smoking circle in the corner near the fire-escape, random bursts of conversation flitting in the air between slow exhales; a trio of girls laugh near the wall, hands gesticulating to punctate their stories while another group, mixed in gender, sit side by side near the railing, and though they're barely even talking, their shoulders brush together carelessly.

Rukia feels a familiar cool rush of loneliness go down her spine and looks away abruptly.

The night has settled comfortably in the sky, the few clouds overhead drift lazily passed a waxing moon. Stars blink down at them sleepily as twilight nestles between unlit buildings and darkened corners, brightening up the softly glowing streetlights and shedding small puddles of gold along the roads. It's practically picturesque, and despite her earlier discomfort, she feels an odd sense of peace settle in its place.

"Better?"

Blinking, she realizes with a flush that she'd forgotten how she'd even ended up out here, and Ichigo's lip curls at the corner, a quiet sort of smirk. Like he knows and finds it funny.

Rukia ducks her head to take another sip, muttering an agreement into the rim.

His smirk doesn't leave, but he doesn't say anything else, only slips his arm off gently, almost reluctantly as it brushes against her arm as he takes a step to lean against the railing.

Between the silver band of his forefinger and the dark grey one on his ring finger, the black skull and the upside-down crown for a jaw moves like it's alive as he flexes his hands, cackling at her.

After a moment, he glances at her from the corner of his eye as if to check she's still there before nudging his chin slightly, a silent invitation to join him.

Caught by the bright amber of his gaze, Rukia follows its movement and steps forward. Balancing her drink on the concrete beside it, she winces against the coolness of the metal railing beneath her arms and folds them closer to herself instead.

Again, they say nothing, but there's an itch beneath her skin like she wants to move like she wants to run, and she tamps down on it with a sharp inhale. I'm not scared. I'm not.

"So," Rukia begins, flashing an attempt at a smile that she hopes isn't as awkward as she feels, "thanks for…you know, back there."

He bobs his head a little in acknowledgment before he probes, "And what exactly was that 'back there'?"

She winces, lips twitching in a way that Hisana teases is her Shit-Do-I-Have-To? face, and says, "A rescue?"

Ichigo cocks a brow at her, and she feels so judged that she huffs. "That was a high school nemesis, though saying nemesis would be a stretch, she just doesn't like me."

His exhale of breath almost sounds like a laugh, and his humor seems to extend to his words as he asks, "And the guy with a shitty haircut and a stick up his ass?"

At that, she rolls her eyes. "An ex. Again, that would be charitably applied considering we were only together a month. Barely." A beat passes before Rukia tacks on, "She's the girl he cheated on me with," as an afterthought even though it's anything but. She might have only thought Kaien was cute and liked how nice he seemed, but damn, that was still a blow to her ego.

"Why?"

And for a second the question confuses Rukia until she sees his expression looking just as baffled.

"I…don't know?"

He looks almost annoyed now as he shakes his head, muttering under his breath what she thinks is, "Idiot", and she doesn't know whether to be offended or amused so she settles for neither.

"Why did you help me?" she eventually asks instead.

In the near dreamlike haze of the moonlight, she thinks he blushes, but she dismisses it as he rubs the back of his neck, tanned digits digging into the tufts of orange hair at the nape. "Looked like you needed it," he gruffly replies, and despite his sudden agitation, she believes him, though raises her brow anyway.

The following silence unsurprisingly does the trick as he exhales an annoyed breath. "I was avoiding someone and helping out seemed like a good distraction."

She hums, "Mmm, my hero."

He's definitely blushing now. "Shuddup."

She snorts, shooting him another look. "Who was it?"

It takes him a beat or two to answer, "Inoue Orihime." He shrugs. "We went to high school together and according to everyone, she had a giant thing for me and that's why she decided to go to school here instead of taking her scholarship overseas."

Rukia raises a brow. "And?"

"And nothing," he says, "we don't exactly run in the same circles, she doesn't know anything about me, and she's never come around to ask. Doesn't stop her from 'covertly' following me around when we're in the same places though."

"That sounds…creepy."

"Now you see why I decided to get involved with you."

Momentarily, Rukia's disappointed even though she knows she has no right to be. That's usually what happens when people interact with her – there's always an agenda. "Right."

"Why'd what's-her-face think we were dating, by the way?"

Her cheeks redden so fast she almost losses feeling in her feet. "Uh…well, she may have been under the impression that I was meeting someone here…"

"And were you?" Ichigo asks, almost cautiously.

"Not if you count being invited for shots by Rangiku," she says, wincing. With everything that's happened, she'd forgotten that she was initially looking for the blonde at all. Rukia shakes her head. She probably forgot anyway. "When Yui Mei saw me with Yuzu she figured out I was lying, and then you came up and I guess she was hoping to rub it in my face, even more, when you'd deny it."

He huffs again, brows furrowing as he glares at nothing. "Sounds like a shitty thing to do."

"No kidding." She shakes her head. "Thanks for playing along though."

"Yeah, well I used you, it's only fair you use me too."

"Yeah," she echoes, "right…"

The vibration of a phone nearby startles her out of any unreasonable melancholy, and she watches Ichigo dig it out of the pocket of his jeans, the sleeve of his jacket lifting just barely for the suggestion of a rose to curl around the tip of an inked knife.

Rukia doesn't catch the name flashing on the screen of his phone, but from the speaker, she hears Rangiku, "Ichigo! Did you find her?"

That startles a surprised breath that he, thankfully, doesn't notice as he replies, "Yeah, she's with me."

"Well," Rangiku says, impatience evident, "don't keep her to yourself, I'm the one that invited her! You don't get to steal her away!"

He grumbles, and Rangiku's response is more muffled as he shifts the phone to his other ear, revealing how the tips are edged pink. Their conversation though is short, and soon after he slips his device back into his pocket. "Up to heading back inside?"

"I guess?" she says, feeling oddly warm at the thought that Rangiku hadn't forgotten at all and had been waiting for her. "But uh, okay, this is awkward, but I doubt Yui Mei left…"

Ichigo considers her. "Well, I know Inoue hasn't."

"So," Rukia trails.

"So, you'll use me," he proposes, "and I'll use you?"

"That…" sounds like a terrible idea "sounds fair."

And he nods slowly before he offers his hand. At first, Rukia thinks it's to shake on their deal until he's turning,  hands still clasped, and walking back inside.

She tells herself it's only for tonight, only for this party. That she shouldn't get used to it, shouldn't get comfortable, shouldn't expect anything at all.

Of course, that's not what actually happens.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Rukia doesn't so much as wake up as realize she was somehow not awake in the first place. The vibration of her phone is what coaxes her, but she startles to complete consciousness at the snort close by, the unfamiliar warmth pressed to her side and a wordless snuffle.

She freezes entirely until she gathers the courage to peek over her shoulder and is faced with orange hair and – Nonononono – before a hand comes around, pale and absent of ink, and starts to pat her face. Uncaring whether they're touching cheek or eye or nose, Yuzu whines, "Your phone's so loud, Rukia-nee."

Exhaling a relieved breath, Rukia mumbles back an apology, easing herself out of the bed in the unfamiliar room and wincing against the prominent throb already tattooing a staccato in her skull. A glance over her shoulder reveals the Kurosaki twins passed out on the queen bed beside her, fully clothed minus shoes, and arranged in a seemingly familiar pile of limbs albeit more squished together with Rukia having been in the earlier fray.

A chill goes up Rukia's spine when her loose musing of why leads her gaze to fall on a framed photo of the girls, with Ichigo, displayed on the nightstand.

Her phone, in turn, continues to rumble ominously.

Oh my god.

"Rukiaa," it's Karin's turn to whine, batting at Yuzu like a blind, newborn puppy; getting the young woman to scramble to comply, almost knocking her phone off the nightstand as a result.

Wincing against the crack on the back cover that wasn't there earlier in the night, Rukia flips her phone over, the screen flashing impatiently with the caller ID of Toshirou's half confused, half angry face. Fuck.

The photo Hisana had taken of their younger brother for the sole purpose of embarrassing him and making Rukia laugh doesn't even rouse a chuckle from her now. An impulse that isn't for nothing when he doesn't bother to greet her, and only says flatly, "Where are you."

"Uh," she scrambles, croaking out, "Rukongai?"

His silence is officially the most judgemental thing Rukia's ever experienced, and his follow-up question after doesn't help either, "Why."

"Wanted to go out," she mumbles, his voice sounding too loud, and she feeling too paranoid that it is, and it'll wake the girls up until Rukia remembers that she's the older one between them, Shiro's meteoric ascension through the professional academic track regardless, and asks almost snippily, "Am I late for curfew?"

"No," he huffs, and then puts down the phone right after.

Genius-level IQ or not, Shiro's got the emotional range of a spoon.

She'll feel bad later that he was calling because he was worried, but that's for a more charitable Rukia; a Rukia who is much more sober and far less hungover.

How much did she even drink? She thinks, before deciding it doesn't matter.

She's never drinking again anyway.

In the middle of trying to figure out what to do – Should she leave now that she was awake? How did she even get here? Where are her shoes? How did she get here with Karin and Yuzu? Why were Karin and Yuzu okay sharing a bed with her at all? Where was Ichigo? The door opens with a quiet creek, and it's the devil himself, backlit by the hallway.

He doesn't seem to realize she's awake until he's shut the door quietly with the heel of his boot, and then his eyes widen at the sight of her. Rukia thinks for a fraction of a second that he'll drop the sealed six-pack of water bottles he's got cradled in his hands out of pure shock.

The horrific thought that she'd just…wandered in here and made herself at home is almost enough for her to consider hiding under the blanket, twins lying on top of it be damned, or jumping out the window, but any panic that would threaten either highly ill-advised choices is put to a halt immediately when he murmurs, "Hi."

He's shy? She absurdly thinks and almost recoils in surprise, instead, however, she chuckles and returns, "Hi yourself."

Rukia almost dismisses her initial observation when he closes the distance between them, clears his throat and adds, "I didn't know you were awake." Though his stride is confident, he fiddles with his load, sets it down near the nightstand and crouches down to dislodge one of the bottles from the plastic packaging.

He's near enough to her, practically kneeling at her feet, that she can read the printed words lying on the tendon of his neck advising trust no kings.

"Just woke up," she replies when he offers the sealed water bottle to her. "My brother called."

"Do you need to go home?" he surprises her to ask, and though his task is clearly done, he doesn't get up from his position, seemingly content to look up at her with honey golden eyes and a hint of black flowers sprouting from beneath the dip in his shirt, just below the divot of his clavicle.

She fiddles with the bottle, chews her lower lip in thought. "I'm not…sure…Probably," she decides, flushing in memory and hastening to apologize, "I'm so sorry I fell asleep."

The corner of his lip lifts in a hint of a smile, eyes still unbearably soft in the breaking dawn. "You're a sleepy drunk, it's cute."

Her cheeks are still warm as she recalls snatches of the night: of how Rangiku had cheered at their arrival, how she'd scolded Ichigo with, "I didn't tell you I invited her so you could steal her away, you weren't even going to bring her back up here were you? I should have known, you're wearing your good leather!" before stealing Rukia away to offer her a Welcome shot, or five.

The core group Rangiku assembled were people Rukia didn't know, but they didn't seem to mind her presence which was probably helped in some way with Ichigo silently endorsing her, always a constant at her side even when the twins came up to join them.

Only after ensuring they were comfortable did Ichigo reach for a new beer, and at Rangiku's goading, was pressed to open some bubbly because, "We're alive, that's a celebration!"

And Rukia, already more confident and comfortable with the vodka in her system, slipped in to offer in his place. Suitably impressing them when she opened the bottle with a satisfying pop and spray of bubbles; an old party trick she learned purely for Byakuya's wedding in a bid to terrify Hisana's creeping cousins (and the one uncle) with the threat that she knew how to wield a knife and wouldn't be afraid to use it.

Inoue Orihime, Ichigo pointed her out against her ear as he closed the already minuscule space between them, was an orange haired woman almost as buxom as Rangiku, who loitered and lingered and glared just outside the group, was promptly ignored out of apparent habit.

The group of them hadn't bothered with drinking games for a good time (to Rukia's relief, she knew none of the rules and she didn't want to make it obvious how lame she was). They were seemingly content to pile on the couch watching terrible made-for-tv horror movies and cheering as each actor was killed in increasingly baffling ways.

It was – despite the consequences – exactly what Rukia needed and had always wanted out of going to university at all: a bunch of people she could spend time with, with no expectations. And, though she'd already decided she wouldn't drink again, maybe Rangiku wouldn't mind her hanging out with them again?

That is, if she didn't embarrass herself entirely out of that invite.

Rukia clears her throat, "How did I…?"

"Get here?" Ichigo supplies, and the smile curves more comfortably around his mouth, "You wanted to say goodnight to the twins, and for some reason, everyone decided they wanted to say goodnight too and before I know it the whole place is clearing out. Somehow you got them to peacefully shut down the party without anyone getting alcohol poisoning first."

She groans. Yup. There it is. Definitely not getting invited back. "Jesus, I didn't realize I was that much of a killjoy."

"You aren't. Half of them were already passed out," he informs with a smirk. "Rangiku's asleep on the table."

"So, what were you doing?"

Rukia's bafflement is apparently amusing to Ichigo because he snorts. "I had to turn some of the guys on their sides, and force some water on the others. There was a round of Kings you missed and there were casualties."

"Well, where were you going to sleep if I hadn't woken up?" she demands.

"The girls stay here sometimes, there's a futon in the closet." He shrugs like it doesn't matter, adding, "If you don't mind sleeping in the closet, you can use it. I'll steal a sleeping bag from Chad."

"You should drink that," he continues, tapping at the bottle as he stands from his crouch. "You need to stay hydrated."

"I should probably go home," she says in return, and though Ichigo pauses like he'd forgotten that Rukia didn't have to stay, he gives an aborted nod. "Alright, well, I'm kind of too fucked to take you on the bike, you don't mind walking?"

Rukia figured she'd have to. Shiro would give her too much shit if she called him to pick her up, not to mention Byakuya-niisama's reaction and Hisana-nee's completely opposite response. No, she was more than fine with walking.

As she put on her shoes, Ichigo set aside two bottles of water on the nightstand before digging around the jacket Karin was wearing, thrown carelessly on Ichigo's desk. He fishes out her phone and fiddles with it. When Rukia gets caught staring, he shrugs. "They've got classes at ten."

"Oh…"

He grabs another leather jacket out of the closet and carries it out, apparently willing to walk her to the door which she can already see him regretting as Keigo, one of Ichigo's friends, slurs, "Oh my god, did you do the deed? The deed was done?"

Keigo drapes himself all over Ichigo who stands stock still against the questions, a terrible dark scowl at his mouth. Rukia flushes in a mixture of embarrassment and anger at the implication before Keigo attempts to throw himself at her and ask, with the stink of beer on his tongue, "Can I have a turn?"

For all of Ichigo's momentarily status as a furious breathing-David statue, he's quick to grab Keigo by the collar of his shirt and throw him against the wall, a growl rumbling through his throat in warning.

"Stop, stop," Rukia says, pulling him off and though for a sluggish second, Keigo thinks he's off the hook, Rukia's quick to turn around and clock him.

Ichigo's expression is pleasantly surprised, though that hint of anger still darkens his brow, and any remark he has is interrupted by Hinamori, one of the few people Rukia does know at Rukongai. The usually quiet TA for the university's resident douchebag professor, Aizen Sosuke, looks a little worse for wear, make-up slightly smeared and clothes runpled, but she's definitely in charge of her full facilities when she gasps, points at Rukia and declares, "You're even cooler outside of work!"

To that, Rukia doesn't say anything, too surprised that anything of note has even happened in the scant few seconds since they've left Ichigo's room.

Ichigo, thankfully, makes a decision for her and leads her away by the hand, dismissing Hinamori entirely.

When Ichigo doesn't stop at the front door and instead hands Rukia the extra jacket he'd taken out of the closet, Rukia decides that she's too hungover to question anything that's happened tonight.

That'll be sober Rukia's problem.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Rukia resolves to never leave her room again.

Apparently, there are downsides to barely drinking and never going out in public. The most prominent in her mind being the regret of going out at all.

And it’s not even because of the looks Shiro was brutally sending her way when he threw open her bedroom door a few hours after Ichigo walked her home. Her brother noisily dropped off a glass of water and a box of pain medication on her bedside before leaving in a huff.

No, that she’d been prepared for, mainly because Rukia’s convinced Shiro’s going through late-onset puberty. But it was nothing she couldn’t handle.

No, what actually sends her into hiding for two days is the notifications that blew up on her barely used Instagram account: There were pictures, and videos, and Instagram stories and – she didn’t even realize she had anyone on social media. In fact, she barely did outside of her family and some of her acquaintances at the TA office until Rangiku tagged her in the posts from Rukongai.

Now, kuroichigo is requesting to follow you.

“Are you going to say actual words any time soon.”

“Are you ever going to use inflections in your speech?”

A potato chip crunched, and around it, Shiro answers flatly, “No.”

Throwing her pillow in his direction, she demands, “Why are you still here?”

“Bored.”

“Don’t you have some brain matter to poke at?”

Another crunch. “Not until three.”

“I hate you.”

“That hurts, really, it does,” he informs dryly. “But Hisana-nee told me to make sure you weren’t going to do something dumb, so that’s what I’m doing.”

She groans. Great. Of course, their big sister knew.

Hisana was being nice by not filling her message inbox with questions, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t planning a personal visit for the inquisition.

 “You know, tertiary education is supposed to make you smarter, not incapable of forming actual words,” Shiro points out.

“Well not everyone is a workaholic child prodigy who’s never been out to a party before,” she retorts, not that she’s all that different, minus the prodigy part. At least Shiro’s never felt like he’s missing out by not being part of the university social calendar. Rukia’s always admired how consistent he was as a person. “And what do you mean do something dumb, I’ve never in my life!”

His stare could freeze rain in mid-air. “Explain how we got a dog with an amputated leg then.”

“That was not something dumb,” she defends, “He’s a good boy and you’re just jealous we all love him more than you.”

“We only got him because you have a heart like a marshmallow,” he retorts.

“So, you admit you’re just jealous of our dog?”

He huffs out a breath and doesn’t respond, and Rukia counts that as a win. Until her phone keeps pinging with notifications from a private account, and Rukia considers for all of two seconds if it’s a good idea until she’s following the private account just to see how bad the consequences of her actions are.

Apparently, pretty bad.

Her eyes bulge as she takes in her quick appearance in the video that shows her sitting on Ichigo’s lap, one arm around her waist with his hand on her thigh to keep her steady while the other holds a beer as he listens to her rant about something that’s got her motioning with her hands. Neither of them seem all that concerned about the lack of personal space, but –

Rangiku’s tagged them both in a comment to say, “New couple alert!” and it all goes downhill from there.

The other TAs Rukia knows follow up the comments with congratulations and “didn’t expect that”s and telling Rukia she knew how to upgrade and –  

Yuzu’s in the comment threads too, tagged by someone Rukia doesn’t know, “Does that mean you get extensions or extra credit because your brother’s boning our TA?”

Under the video, recently liked and passive-aggressively at that, is who Rukia confirms is both Yui Mei and Inoue.

Fucking fantastic.

She sends a screenshot of the video to Ichigo, accepting his follow request as she does so and writes, “Why am I on your lap??? How much did I drink??? What else did I do???”

“Just that,” he sends back. “And I put you on my lap because you were sitting on the armrest and almost fell so I figured it was safer.”

“Thank you?”

“I suggested we move to the couch.”

“And?”

“You didn’t see whats-her-face and dumb-haircut in the video?”

Rukia clicks back and – yupp, there they are – and in the corner, Inoue is just out of the frame looking quite convincingly like she wants to take Rukia’s head off her shoulders. She shudders.

“Question: should I be concerned that Inoue will murder me?”

“No.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because she saw you knock Keigo out.”

“She saw that?”

“And nearly shit herself,” Ichigo sends, “It was awesome.”

She huffs out a surprised laugh before she tells him, “Well, I do have two brothers.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” she sends, “they’re both nerds, someone had to make sure they didn’t get beat up.” Especially during Byakuya-niisama’s Akira Afukube phase when he’d just started high school, niisama was obsessed with Godzilla for like a year. And Shiro, judgemental asshole that he was, and genius intellect or not, could still fit in her pocket at sixteen. Rukia figured that when Byakuya-niisama was able to trick Hisana into marrying him, that made Shiro her brother too, and she’d just have to learn how to take everyone down just in case.

“Why can I tell you’re making fun of me?” Shiro demands.

“Just assume I always am,” she retorts, getting him to roll his eyes, get up and throw the pillow back at her.

“I’m going to not be here. I better not come back to a one-eyed cat,” he warns as he departs, leaving her bedroom door wide open.

“Jackass,” she mutters darkly before her phone pings with another notification.

“Think it’s something you could still do?”

“Beat people up?” She hadn’t since Shiro went through his growth spurt last year and grew significantly taller than her (punk). She probably still could do it though.

“Maybe. But I’m talking about the fake-dating thing.” Something in her gut tightens and she licks her lip anxiously.

“Why?”

“Figured you’d want to,” before following it up with, “I kind of need you to.” and he accompanies the message with a screenshot of another conversation. The top of the chat indicates someone named Tatsuki, and the messages being sent to her declares, “It won’t be forever. He’ll get bored. He’ll dump her soon. I still have a chance. It’s my last year Tatsuki-chan, he has to see me this year, right?”

”Yikes,” is the conclusion Rukia comes up with, that and, “that’s a lot to unpack, so I’m just going to throw out the whole thing…Where’d you even find this girl??”

“Does it matter?”

“Why don’t you tell her you’re not interested?”

“I tried, I think her brain oozed out of her ears and she didn’t hear anything I actually said.”

“Awesome…”

“So…what do you say? I mean, I think I did a pretty good job of helping you win the ex-competition with bad-haircut and what’s-her-face.”

Rukia chewed at her lip. She wasn’t all that concerned about what Yui Mei or Kaien thought. She’d been shaking off Yui Mei’s childish games of one-upmanship since high school, and she hadn’t been all that invested in Kaien anyway. But…

The screenshot of her on Ichigo’s lap stares back at her, and it doesn’t escape her notice how relaxed they both are, at ease. Ichigo genuinely looks like he’s listening to her, and there’s that amused pull at his mouth, something between a smirk and a smile. And Rukia can’t help but think it suits him, and…she likes that somehow, she’d been the one to put it there.

God, I thought I was over this, she thinks with an exhale. This is an incredibly no-good-very-bad idea, she internally scolds, even as she answers an affirmative, “We should talk about how this is going to work though,” tacking on wryly, “you wouldn’t want me to end up like Inoue.”

To that, he replies, “Come to the library, we can discuss it there.”

“The library?”

“I’m at the desk today, can’t leave.”

She freezes in the midst of saying she didn’t realize he worked at the library, but she supposes that she doesn’t know Ichigo all that well at all.

Rukia had only ever seen him around campus over the years, and the last time she’d had any substantial contact with him before Rukongai had been the fire he pulled her out from, and even then, she’d been hacking up smoke.

Well, if they’re going to be convincing, they’d just have to get to know each other, Rukia tells herself firmly that it’s just about being prudent and getting Inoue off his back.

Besides, despite being a TA, she’s never actually been to the library herself, finding her studies and study groups better done in her apartment – something that would likely change with Ichigo.

It’s a good thing, Rukia tells herself as she agrees to his idea, and gets up to get ready.

Already, she’s trying new things and going to new places, and she’s going to get to know Ichigo, and hopefully other people too, and that’s more than the risks she’s taken in the past.

This is her chance to not be lonely.

She may not need Ichigo to get any kind of revenge, but she wasn’t getting nothing out of this.

Rukia opens the library door, shakily breathing in the smell of paper, ink and dust, and finds Ichigo at the desk as he said.

The sleeves of his Henley are rolled up to show off both forearm tattoos, multiple leather bands circle his one wrist as if to make up for his missing jacket while his fingers remain wrapped in rings of metal and ink. His expression is severe as he listens to a pair of nervously shifting freshmen before something softens in features and he nods, slight upturn at the corner of his mouth.

Rukia just has to remind herself that this isn’t her living some kind of fantasy-relationship with her crush, this isn’t real, this was a mutually beneficial exchange of company. That’s all.

He notices her standing a few feet behind the pair of freshmen, shots her a wider sort of grin, eyes looking softer before he returns to his conversation, expression once again serious.

She exhales.

It doesn’t have to mean anything, no one’s going to get hurt. It’s something she’s just going to have to keep telling herself.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"Is that her...?"

"Yeah, can you imagine Kurosako-kun settling like that?"

Someone scoffs, and Rukia doesn't know whether she wants to turn around and glare at them or roll her eyes over anyone ever caring enough about who a person is allegedly dating. Nonetheless, Rukia's starting to think coming to see Ichigo at the library is a bad idea.

Contrary to popular belief, Rukia hates libraries.

The enforced silence feels like a loud ringing in her ears, softened only by an occasional cough, the whisper of paper and the (usually) indistinct murmur of faceless strangers. For no reason at all, Rukia feels the weight of the quiet pressing against her, digging incessant fingers into her skin, and every awkward wiggle in her chair in an attempt to get comfortable grates on her nerves even more until eventually she gives up altogether and wanders the stacks.

Rukia never thought she'd prefer the loud pulsating rush of Rukongai to this.

In theory, the library would be her kind of paradise.

Instead, she's acutely aware of how she doesn't belong here.

Every corner she walks through there are whispered discussions going on and people glancing at her from the corners of their eyes if only just to acknowledge her, and despite the sheer stupidity of thinking that these random people are wasting their time judging her for no reason, Rukia feels their perceived verdicts anyway.

Now she remembers why she doesn't go out in public when she can avoid it, social anxiety is a pain in the ass. She'd thought working as a TA would help her to be more confident out in public, but apparently not public-public.

Huffing out an annoyed breath at herself, she startles when she turns a corner and bumps right into Ichigo.

He's got his hands branded around her forearms to keep her steady, an annoyed tick between his brows. "There you are."

"Shh," she hisses automatically, getting him to roll his eyes. Though he doesn't object further, only nudges his head to follow before physically tugging her along instead.

He leads her further back in the library where the tables set up for studying are fewer and further between. And when he leads her down the steps, his hand slips from her elbow to her hand like it's a natural state of progression. The tattooed skulls-with-crowns-for-jaws on his fingers laughs as he flexes his hand in hers.

For all she knows, maybe he's laughing to himself about the outright ridiculousness of this situation.

Ichigo could have anyone, instead –

Exhaling a calming breath, Rukia tells herself that this is exactly what they need to iron out – there should be no mistaking anything that's going to happen between them if she knows what's good for her.

The backdoor of the library leads to a garden that overlooks one of the sports grounds below it, the spectators' stands cutting through the sea of green in sharp white lines like a seemingly endless ladder.

The gardens are empty, though a fountain gurgles cheerfully in the middle.

She hasn't the time to admire the neat rows of flowers someone planted or how there aren't any weeds trying to escape through the cracks in the stone flooring before Ichigo's leading her through a small hedge-maze and down a set of curving stairs that dips into a sunken garden.

The water around it gives it the impression at least as a Sakura-tree stands proudly at its heart, dark stones contrasting against the pale pink flowers below it while a lone bench waits patiently for company beneath the branches.

"Pretty," she murmurs to herself, and she thinks for a second that she catches Ichigo's smile before he turns his head, hiding his expression from her and ushering her to sit.

"Alright, no one'll hear us out here."

"No kidding," she can't help but say. This whole trip had taken ten minutes tops, "I thought you said you couldn't leave the desk?"

"Lunch break," he informs with a shrug, arm thrown across the back of their shared seat casually.

When Rukia cocks a look at him, unsure if she's meaning to convey her displeasure that he'd taken his lunch to have this conversation or her displeasure that he was skipping lunch at all, Ichigo exhales a sigh before pulling out an apple from his pocket. Rukia's look doesn't waver and he rolls his eyes before taking a bite.

With his mouth full, he can only cut a look her way, and when he says nothing at all after the first bite and then another, his jaw working on the apple he'd bitten into rather vindictively, Rukia says, "So! How is this going to work? How long do we need to pretend to be a thing?"

"A couple of months," he finally says, "ideally the rest of the year."

"That's…awhile."

"You saw the message." He shrugs. "Even if we do break up during the year, it's highly doubtful she'll give me a grace period to get over you," he declares flatly.

The thought of Ichigo, of anyone, needing time to get over her is laughable, but she focuses on the matter at hand, "I guess…it's just…what if you actually find someone you're interested in?"

Ichigo pauses. "Are you asking for me or for you?"

"God no, for you," she says, rolling her eyes and knocking their knees together. "I haven't found anyone to be interested in almost the entire time I've been here." Except for you, but we're not touching that.

He's making a considering face, and Rukia worries for a fraction of a second that he caught her 'almost' when he asks instead, "So bad-haircut was…?"

"Peer pressure?" She offers in a wince. "I don't know, the girls at the TA office were always saying how I should give him a chance: he's cute, he's nice, he's smart, he likes me, why not?" Granted, Kaien was all those things, but he was also boring as hell and a cheater on top of that.

Seriously, Rukia was more annoyed that that was the only thing interesting about him.

"Anyway, it was an anomaly. I've always been more interested in my course work which isn't going to change by the way, just because I'm agreeing to do this," which is actually a deal breaker for Rukia. The lure of experiencing life was not bait she was willing to take it if it meant she was putting her hard work in danger. Nor was she in the mood to deal with Ichigo complaining about her studious work ethic, Rukia got enough of that from the other TAs, thank you very much.

Instead of crinkling his nose, he shrugs. "If I wanted someone to attach themselves to me like a barnacle, I would've just asked Inoue."

"Well good," she sniffs. "So, I assume we won't need to pretend every second of every day?"

"Just when we're out," he says, exhaling another breath, "Otherwise, you have your life and I'll have mine."

"Right…well, then, about when we're out then," Rukia says. "How does that work? I assume I'm going out with you? And…being a couple?"

"You can tell me 'no', no matter what," he says firmly, "Whether it's a party, or a couple-related thing. 'No' is always on the table, but going out, being seen together, being a couple would be the best way to do this. Especially since we don't have any classes together, I don't think."

"Yeah," Rukia trails off before clearing her throat, trying not to sound awkward as she asks, "What is it you study anyway?"

"Library sciences," he says, nodding towards the building. Apparently not surprised that she doesn't know, and not taking any offense to the blatant surprise on her face. Bad boy Kurosaki Ichigo wants to be a librarian? He huffs out what sounds like a laugh, like he knows exactly what she's thinking before he explains, "Was a pretty hyperactive kid growing up, mind going a million directions; finding ways to create order in the chaos became something I got good at."

"Makes sense," before she adds, "I'm a history major."

"Thought you did art."

"What?"

He nods at the A4 ring-sketchbook she'd taken automatically with her when she'd left the apartment, and she laughs a bit, embarrassed. "Kind of? Art history, but most of my classes are everything history related – architecture, lore, literature. I wanted to do just art originally, the creating, not the history, but my parents weren't fans, so we compromised. I ended up liking it though."

"Huh," he murmurs, and Rukia can feel her face heat at the overshare.

She clears her throat. "Anyway, uh, how…convincing is this going to need to be?"

Ichigo gives her a face, and she elaborates with a bit of a sigh, "Like how much of a couple are we pretending to be here?" His expression is now blank, and Rukia pokes, "You have been in a relationship before, right?"

"No," he answers, though he looks uncertain and there's a flush of color at his neck. "You?"

"I don't think a thirty-day trial counts," she replies, uncertain. She hadn't felt like she was dating Kaien, and it didn't look anything like what she'd seen in those romantic she watched with Hisana. So, if it didn't look it, and it didn't feel like it, it didn't really count then, right?

"Don't look at me."

"Oh, come off it, you have Shakespeare inked all over you," she reminds, and the blush at his neck goes up to his cheeks, though he chooses silence instead. 

"Alright, fine, " Rukia decided, "how about this? Taking from my experience with my very married older brother and the wife whose feet he worships at…" She opens her sketchbook to a blank page, pencil between her fingers as she begins the list –

"Hand holding."

"Okay…wait, bad-haircut never held your hand?" She shot him a look, and he actually grimaces, the prick. "Fine, I'm holding your hand. Anything else?"

She cocks an unimpressed look his way, unwilling to do all the work herself, and he reads the message as intended, rolls his eyes and says, "Alright, add this to the list: Dates, people see us, they're convinced, boom."

"Coffee."

"I'm bringing you coffee?"

"Yup," she pops her 'P' cheerfully. "I'm not about to wake up earlier than I need to, and since we don't have classes together, we meet up for coffee." Only later, Rukia will realize that she's basically instituting a daily morning date for them, but at present, she doesn't, and Ichigo doesn't object, only nods in agreement.

"Fine, when are your morning classes?"

Then, she winces. "Every day? Usually I TA Professor Ukitake's 9ams." Ichigo doesn't seem to mind, sliding his phone out of his pocket to make a note before he asks suddenly, "You still have my jacket?" 

"From the party? Yes?"

"Good," he nods again, "wear it."

"Wait." The jacket he'd offered her at Rukongai before taking her home was older than the jackets he usually wore, likely for a younger, smaller Ichigo, and while she was grateful it fit her well, the black leather and shiny metal accents didn't exactly blend in with her look: "I don't know if you've noticed, but it doesn't exactly fit my aesthetic…"

"If I can get up before 9am every day to drink coffee with you, you can wear the jacket," Ichigo decides, and because relationships, as Hisana always says, comes with compromises, Rukia sighs dramatically and writes it on the list.

"Flowers."

"You want flowers?"

"Un," she nods. Not even caring if she's asking too much. "Not every day or anything, just…sometimes, whenever. If we're going to be doing this the rest of the year, I want flowers."

To his credit, Ichigo just looks bemused. "Alright, what kind?"

"Sunflowers," she answers immediately.

He furrows his brow. "Why sunflowers?"

"I…the reason is dumb," she admits after a pause wherein Ichigo stared at her, unyielding and unbothered by the awkward silence that settled in. "I was having a bad few weeks and someone sent me sunflowers once, and they just made my day better so..."

"I'm not competing with someone else, am I?" Ichigo asks, though his tease makes her scowl. As if.

"No, I never found out who sent them, but I like them, so. Sunflowers."

He hums his assent. "Alright, that sounds like a start." And with Rukia's nod of agreement, she signs off on their newly dubbed Relationship Agreement and passes it to Ichigo to sign as well. "I'll make you a copy if you want." 

"Good for reference," he says, and its not a refusal so Rukia just nods. 

"So," he begins, throwing aside his apple core, "it's official then, we're doing this."

"I guess so," Rukia says, taking her sketchbook back. "We can always revisit it, add stuff or take it away, but I guess we'll play it by ear and see how it goes."

"Great," he exhales and before Rukia can say anything, Ichigo's lips press softly against hers, warm and wet, before Ichigo's pulling away and getting on his feet, and throwing over his shoulder, "I'll see you for coffee tomorrow."

When Rukia absently licks her lips, she tastes apples and knows for certain that she's screwed.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Expresso Patronus is filled with the sound of coffee machines gurgling, oven doors slamming closed, baristas calling out names and the chatter of customers as they lounge around. It's loud and busy, the smell of ground coffee and freshly baked pastries linger in every inhale while the light fixtures that double as constellations, wink as a flock of golden snitches flap their wings from where they seem, impossibly, like they're hovering mid-air.

A muted version of a train horn announces the rounding of an hour, and the signage on the wall where a clock is situated over a cart that's half in the wall, declaring platform 9¾, grins gold. The wall opposite it lights up in kind between the smorgasbord of bricks laid out; like the train to Hogwarts preparing to leave the station, Diagon Alley was opening up to let the world in.

It's an assault to the senses, but its comforting – familiar.

Ever since Shiro graciously agreed to share the apartment with her after leaving the student block where the fire took place in her freshman year, Expresso became Rukia's favorite haunt and the only reason she'd ever picked up the Harry Potter books at all. She dragged Shiro, Byakuya-niisama, and Hisana there at least once every other week, and she usually did study sessions upstairs in the "Astronomy Tower" which was more of a deck overlooking the first floor, on one side, with giant windows to offer the best-unobstructed view of the Seireitei skyline, on the other.

The baristas know her by name regardless of who was on shift, and with Karin behind the counter, she flashes her a grin and preps her usual with nothing more than a morning greeting; Rukia's presence at the coffee shop is practically a guarantee.

She figures it would be a good place to meet up with Ichigo for their self-imposed coffee-date.

If he doesn't show up, it was no skin off her nose, and her routine for the rest of the day would be intact.

(Even if she did spend twenty minutes more than usual getting ready this morning, she just wanted to look nice, okay? And the leather jacket was hard to work into her outfit, alright?)

It was a win-win, really.

Of course, while her routine offered her comfort, it also left her open to the presence of people who knew entirely too much about others they clearly dislike, which is why Rukia shouldn't have been surprised to find Yui Mei standing over her table. Likely after scoping the place and finding Rukia alone for the ten minutes since she'd arrived.

"You know for someone dating Kurosaki-kun, you look terribly lonely, Rukia-chan," she says with the fakest look of concern on her face as she asks, "Or, did that end already?"

Rukia sighs. "Can I help you?"

Yui Mei makes a sound of sympathy, "Oh, it's okay, Rukia-chan. I mean, after Kaien, and now Ichigo? You must be so embarrassed. But honestly, what did you expect, have you seen his tattoos?"

Crinkling her nose in confusion, Rukia sets aside her cappuccino. "What about his tattoos?"

Then, she laughs like that's the most absurd response she's ever heard, until a voice repeats flatly, "Yeah, what about them?"

Though he doesn't quite scowl, there's a hard glint in his golden brown eyes that promises some kind of violence, not helped at all by the strap of his bag he's gripping, skulls on his digits sneering. It's a contradiction Rukia isn't prepared for when his expression only belies how severely unimpressed he is, even with his orange hair rucked up like he'd been running his hand through it, softening the sharpness of his cheekbones and the cut of his jaw like he's just naturally windswept and ruffled and all the better looking for it.

Rukia can't even blame Yui Mei for swallowing her tongue all of a sudden, bravado escaping like a deflating balloon as she stutters, "Ah, Kurosaki-kun, I…"

"Sorry, I'm late," he cuts her off, sliding into the chair on Rukia's right and leaning over to kiss her cheek and that's – uh – "The line was too long," he adds before he's grabbing her cup and taking a sip.

"Oi," Rukia declares, forgetting entirely about Yui Mei as he turns away slightly so he can finish drinking without her waving her hand at him. "Get your own!"

"What is this?" he says instead, still ignoring her, but putting her cup back on its saucer with an expression of distaste.

She scowls at him. "It's their butterbeer cappuccino."

"It's so sweet," and the look on his face says that the prospect is incorrigible.

"What do you drink?"

"Black."

"You're such a cliché," Rukia declares with a roll of her eyes. He opens his mouth to retort, probably with something lame like "No, I'm not" except then, Kaien's walking over, two takeaway coffees in hand that he almost drops when Yui Mei smothers him in kisses, loudly praising his ability to fetch their coffee from a counter. Rukia feels so validated when Ichigo rolls his eyes beside her.

"Is she always like this?" Ichigo asks, still clearly unimpressed.

"Yes, yes she is," Rukia confirms, though can't help but add, "Believe it or not, she's actually gotten a lot better than when we were in high school."

"That's horrifying."

Rukia toasts him with her cup. "Welcome to my world."

"Don't drink all of it," Ichigo adds. "The line really was long, and I haven't had any caffeine yet."

She keeps sipping though and tries not to laugh at the honest to God, pout, Ichigo throws her way. "Come on, Karin'll give me shit if I go there now."

Lifting her lips off the rim to ask, "Why would she do that?" Ichigo takes his chance and leans over, tilting the cup so that he can take a sip, their knees jostling under the table as he shifts closer.

"You're so annoying," Rukia accuses him, though doesn't try and take the cup away lest she make a mess by trying to reclaim it, and from over the rim, he wiggles his brows at her, and she doesn't think its endearing. She doesn't. Sniffing, "I thought you didn't like it."

"I didn't say that," he defends, returning the cup with a quiet clink against the saucer, their fingers on other sides of the porcelain. 

"You said it was too sweet, like I killed puppies," Rukia points out.

Ichigo shrugs. "I've got default angry face, everything I say sounds like I'm aware you kill puppies."

It's her turn to deadpan, "You're actually the worst," though it seems to have no effect beyond amusing him.

"Am I still the worst if I got you something?"

She narrows her eyes. "Isn't it a bit too early in the day for bribery?"

"It's never too early," Ichigo disputes as he reaches into his backpack and offers up a Mandrake cupcake, the orange wrapping at the bottom looking like a convincing enough pot plant while it hides safely in a takeaway container made to look like it's made of glass, corners a solid black, like a flower box. 

"I thought you couldn't get to the front of the line?" Rukia asks, never mind that she's already making grabby-hands for it.

"I couldn't," he confirms, "Karin made me leave the kitchen, but couldn't stop me from taking a cupcake so…"

Still, with an expression of great distrust, Rukia asks, "What flavor is it?"

"Brownie brittle smores," he replies, a look of premeditated triumph on his face, even as he pretends that he has no idea that it's her favorite. Before she can call him out on his spies, Karin is getting yelled at to "Stop trying to eavesdrop on your brother's date, god", and Rukia rests her forehead on his shoulder to hide her laugh when Ichigo groans under his breath.

"Well," Yui Mei says pointedly, loud enough to be heard over the noise of the coffee shop and the clearly diverted attention of her prey, "we should get going, shouldn't we?"

"Okay, bye," Ichigo deadpans, and Rukia has to smother her laugh into his neck, even as she becomes aware of the fact that there's basically no personal space between them, with her leg between both of his beneath the table and his arm around her waist. She stiffens the minute she realizes, and he seems to notice, squeezing her hip comforting, apparently much more conscious of the way Kaien's staring bullets at her from where he stands, speechless.

"Oh, I just mean, Rukia-chan has a class to TA -"

"Right, I'll walk you?" he interjects to ask, nudging her gently.

"You don't have class?" Rukia asks as they stand, and he shrugs, grabbing the leather jacket he loaned her, draped behind her chair, and offering to help her put it on.

Conscious that Yui Mei is looking at them with a sour expression, and Kaien's constipated face, and startled to find that Inoue's been watching them in the corner too, Rukia accepts. Grabbing her Mandrake cupcake with one hand while her other is commandeered by Ichigo, he tells her, "Not until two."

"You should've told me, we could've done this in the afternoon instead," she protests as he leads her out, waving at Karin behind the counter as they go.

"You wanted coffee this morning, you got it," he says.

Rukia snorts. "You're right, I did get it."

He snickers, "I'll get it tomorrow."

"Do you have class tomorrow morning?"

"No," Ichigo replies slowly, thankfully pulling away so Rukia doesn't outright combust through continued close-contact, though their hands are still clasped. "But I do have the graveyard shift at the station, hence the bag."

She blinks. "The…station?"

"Fire department," he confirms, "I volunteer." Rukia stops in her tracks and Ichigo has to stop and face her. "What?"

"Alright, I give up," she declares, "what's wrong with you?"

He raises a brow. "I don't…know?"

Rukia opens and closes her mouth unable to articulate the right words to express the pure fuckery that is her life and the utter nonsense that is Kurosaki fucking Ichigo"You're a librarian with tattoos who volunteers at the fire department and steals me my favorite cupcakes."

"In my defense, I did help make it."

Good God, Rukia exhales slowly, I'm in so much trouble.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It takes less than a minute to regret coming through the door.

Rukia isn't used to being teased which goes without saying, beyond her older brother and siblings-in-law, she doesn't have much experience in it.

Something her colleagues at the TA office care little for as she's greeted with smirks, knowing glances and the occasional wiggle of eyebrows. Somehow, only Rangiku succeeds in making it appear entirely friendly, though Rukia hasn't enough time to be thankful for that when the buxom blonde slides over to sing, "So…"

Her brows raise warily. "So…?"

"How's it going?" Rangiku prods, eyebrows still dancing. "You know…with Ichigo."

From the desk nearby, Nanao, Professor Kyoraku's TA, exhales loudly, like she's been hearing all about Ichigo all morning which, from the looks of the other TAs, Rukia could bet is what actually happened. Nonetheless, some try to wander closer discretely, and Rukia can feel her hackles raise.

"Fine, great," she grits.

Forgetting the fact that falling for Ichigo could literally be the easiest and worse thing to ever happen to her.

He volunteers at the fire department? He loves the hell out of his sisters? He bakes her favorite cupcakes? Christ, how is any of this fair?

"So," Rangiku repeats, eyes glittering, "it's official?"

"Yes." We signed a contract and everything, I'm thinking of getting it notarized, she doesn't add out loud and starts removing the class materials from her bag in a bid to organize the rest of her day. She'd shadowed Professor Ukitake's classes all morning and while he was looking a lot better than yesterday, who knows how long he'll last –

Her train of thought is cut off by Rangiku's squeal and the finger she's pointing around the room as she declares, "You see, I told you!"

Someone groans and Rukia doesn't look up to see who, but hears them say, "Well how were we supposed to know? Maybe Ichigo just wanted a bit of fun."

Rukia's ears burn at the same time that Rangiku scoffs. "Oh please, Ichigo wouldn't know how to have fun if it bit him in the ass. Besides, if I hadn't called him to give her back, I know for a fact he wouldn't have."

There's a snort from somewhere in the room, followed by the declaration of, "That was before. He's had her now, he'll probably move on like Kaien did. Not that anyone blames them." There are a few snickers around the room, encouraging the person to continue, "Did you see her on his lap at the last party? God, Kaien had to work his ass off to even get a kiss and Kurosaki didn't even need a day. But you know what, the chase is done." He meets Rukia's eyes with an almost friendly leer. "Kuchiki-san's too serious."

"If I were you, I'd learn to follow Kuchiki-san's example," Nanao interjects, tone flat and expression unimpressed. "You're already on the verge of getting kicked off the programme, Hashi-san. Idle gossip does not the academic track make."

"That isn't -"

"Kuchiki-san is a year below you, and you're concerned about her private life? Please," she scoffs. "You should be concerned about your grading, if I have to correct another batch of papers you screwed up, I'll throw you to Kyoraku's first-year students myself."

Rukia and everyone else in the room stare at her as silence descends the office.

"Just so we're clear," Rangiku finally says, "that was awesome, right?"

Nanao huffs, though there's a ghost of a smile on her lips and she sends a discrete nod Rukia's way. Rukia's never felt closer to anyone in this office until then. She's so overwhelmed she could actually cry.

The office door opens before anything further can be said, however, and Professor Ukitake is shuffling in.

Everything is mentally pushed to the wayside and Rukia's on her feet in an instant. "Sir?"

He flashes a smile at her, though his eyes are drawn and tired. "Ah, Rukia, just who I wanted to see. I'm starting to feel a little ill…I think it best if I take off early. Will the afternoon be covered, or will cancellations be necessary?"

It only takes a glance to confirm the first before she's listing off who'll take each class and what's meant to be covered as well as the batches of papers to grade and how they'll be distributed amongst his TAs. In the same breath, Rukia informs her professor that thanks to Kiyone and Sentoro competing to complete their assigned modules on the days he was unavailable, those classes can be declared complete, and that she's already working on schedules for revision to be emailed to the students in those classes with priority flags for those in need of them the most.

Around the room, the slow blinks her colleagues treat her with don't bother her nearly as much now that Nanao is the one smirking like she knew she made the right choice to stick up for Rukia. And even Rangiku blinks past the glassy gaze and grins at her, throwing her a thumbs-up from over Professor Ukitake's shoulder.

Speaking of, the man, most importantly, looks relieved. "Thank you, Rukia, I appreciate it."

The room parts to let him through, and the silence this time is broken by Hinamori who whispers in awe, "She's amazing."

"Oh, that's it," Rangiku exclaims, "you're definitely coming to Rukongai tonight!"

Rukia disagrees, but Ichigo doesn't.

While it's on the table to refuse, no explanation necessary as per their agreement, Rukia can't find it in herself to cow from the scrutiny. She knows she's being watched now, and not just by Inoue or Yui Mei and Kaien, but just about everyone she's ever forged a connection to, however, tenuous. It…honestly infuriates her.

She's lived her whole life trying to be as unassuming and unobtrusive as possible, only for it not to matter. They were always going to talk about her.

"How do you do this?" she finds herself asking him.

"Do what?"

She inclined her head in silent supplication; at the people that are wandering nearby, glancing and whispering at their corner of the room. Fortunately, there's a group sitting near them, scattered on the floor and on the other couch, though they're caught up in their own conversation and a game of cards Rukia doesn't understand the rules of; providing a further buffer between them and everyone else.

"Are they bothering you?"

Logically, Rukia knows that while people are interested, they aren't invested; they don't really care. Whatever's happening between her and Ichigo is just something to be gossiped about and cast aside. It doesn't matter. It doesn't. But her skin itches with the weight of their assumptions and she feels the urge to run.

It's a stupid feeling and almost stubbornly, her fingers dig into the cushion of the couch. I'm not afraid. I'm not.

"No."

He huffs out a quiet laugh. "You're a terrible liar."

"I beg to differ," Rukia retorts, "I got you, didn't I?"

"Fair," he acquiesces with an incline of his head and a smirk curling the corner of his mouth. Though his arm around her shoulder tightens, and Rukia has the vaguest feeling of being shielded. "Why does it bother you?"

"I don't know; anxiety doesn't need a reason."

"But there's usually something that ticks it off, gets your heart racing." His eyes are the color of butterscotch, and his hair looks almost blonde in the moonlight streaming in from the window behind them. "What happened today? You sound weird."

"And here I thought I was good at keeping my feelings to myself." Or maybe her family had always just been polite enough to wait her out. Ichigo doesn't have those same qualms though, as he raises a brow. She huffs out a sigh. "Just the usual shit about you and Kaien that's all."

"Me and Kaien," he repeats like the words together don't make sense, and Rukia almost laughs at his offended expression.

"Yes," she exhales, "new boyfriend, old boyfriend."

"Thirty-day trials don't count," he deadpans, and to that, she snorts.

"That's what I keep saying but," Rukia exhales, embarrassed when she admits, "he was the only evidence anyone had that I'm not some frigid workaholic, and he cheated on me so -"

Openly annoyed now, Ichigo interjects, "Sounds like a 'him' problem, not a 'you' problem."

"Anyway," Rukia waves a hand, trying not to show how pleased she is to hear it out of someone else's mouth that isn't hereditarily obligated to, "they're convinced you've had your fun with me, and you'll ditch me like Kaien did."

"Well I won't because dumb-haircut is an idiot," he scoffs.

"If we can keep this up for a month, I'm sure it'll be another conversation entirely."

He squeezes her knee to promise, "We'll go the distance."

"So you say." As she turns her head, she tamps down on her startled jerk, though not before Ichigo feels it. With them pressed together, his arm around her, and touching from foot to shoulder, Rukia shouldn't have been surprised, but she stills when she feels his warm breath against her neck as he asks, "What?"

"Inoue is so creepy," she inwardly shudders as the other woman stares unblinkingly at them from across the room. "Don't look," she warns him, and she feels his smile against her skin as he placatingly agrees, "Yes dear."

"Ugh," Rukia mutters to him, rolling her eyes. "That sounds so old."

"Bae?"

"Ew, take that back." She shakes a little from the force of his muffled laughter, and she makes a big deal of poking his side as she informs smartly, "My name is fine."

"But darling," he drawls in a deadpan and it's her turn to smother her laugh. When she pulls away enough to catch her breath, his smile is stupidly soft, though he's beaming down at her with amber eyes like nothing could possibly make him happier.

"How are you like this?" she can't help but ask, too compelled to touch him and rub at the corner of his smile with her thumb that she doesn't stop herself. Neither does he.

"Like what?"

"Like: leather jacket, tattoos, resting murder face and then," Rukia pauses dramatically, "squishy." Ichigo snorts, but she's insistent. "I'm serious: How do you do it? How are you just so unapologetically yourself?"

"I don't know how to be anyone else," he says, "besides, people see what they want, I just give them something fun to look at."

It's her turn to snicker. "Wow, someone thinks highly of their aesthetic."

They're close enough she can feel his cheeks warm. "You should talk; Miss Ice Queen, cold, beautiful and untouchable."

"I'm not cold, I'm selective," Rukia defends.

"And you selected me."

"You're welcome."

Ichigo's laughing again, and if anyone has any doubt that this isn't real, even Rukia has a hard time believing it.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"So, let me get this straight: you're faking it, both of you."

Rukia sighs. "I told you this already."

"But -"

"No 'but's, and you can't tell anyone," she interjects, with a sigh that's a mixture of relief and trepidation. When she'd decided to sequester herself in the apartment over the weekend it was to catch up with her studies and re-arrange some of Professor Ukitake's classes, not to get her ass reamed about last week's Instagram situation by her sister-in-law. Or be reminded that the last week of late-night parties and morning coffees was nothing more than the result of a fake-dating agreement.

She'd almost forgotten, what with Ichigo's insistence to walk her home every night, and greet her with a brush of lips against her cheek, not to mention the constant hand-holding. It certainly looked like a real relationship and felt like one too – Rukia supposes that would be the point. Not for the first time she wonders if Ichigo's an actor on top of everything else.

"What I don't get," Hisana began, "is why."

"I told you why."

She rolls her eyes. "Yes, but Ichigo's been spurning her advances for years, why decide to do something about it now?"

Setting aside her highlighter after another successful paragraph completed, she leaned back in her chair with a shrug. "End of the rope, maybe? Honestly, I wouldn't have gotten into this mess if it wasn't for my big mouth and Yui Mei. I highly doubt Ichigo would have proposed I pose as his girlfriend if I hadn't needed the help first."

Hisana rolls her eyes. "I can't believe she's pulling the same nonsense now that she did in high school."

"What do you mean?"

"Remember that thing you had with what's-his-name, Renji?"

Rukia raises a brow. "What 'thing' with Renji?"

She rolls her eyes so hard her body moves with her. "That thing where he was pining after you and you were oblivious." At Rukia's incredulous expression, Hisana waves it off with an exasperated sigh. "Anyway. She definitely had the hots for him, and he was trailing after you like a lost puppy, and when she couldn't get him, what did she do? She got your spot on the student council."

"Are you telling me she thinks Kaien is my current version of student council?" Rukia asks with a snort. "Listen, Kaien isn't even my favorite cupcake in the display case. He was like," she looked around for inspiration, seeing her abandoned (and cold) mug and exclaiming, "like that cup of coffee you really wanted, but when you took a sip you just got a mouthful of burned roast. Even she could do better than that."

Hisana snorted a laugh that only got louder as Rukia continued, "I mean, seriously. The Renji thing is whatever, I only saw him as a friend and it's her own thing if she wanted to see something more in that, but thinking it was a loss to 'steal' Kaien? Not a chance. Dick is high in abundance and low in demand, and that's that."

"You didn't have anything to do with his dick," Hisana pointed out, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.

"Yeah, well everyone knows that," she says, her turn to roll her eyes.

Almost immediately, all the humor drained out of Hisana's face, leaving her to look both exhausted and offended. "Oh, come on, really?"

"He told everyone that I was just as frigid as I look," Rukia says, ignoring the burning her eyes even as she rapidly blinked to stop the stupid tears from coming. If she was confident in anything it was her ability to say no, but that didn't mean she didn't feel the pressure or was immune to the things people tended to say about her and her "closely guarded virgin virtue". She huffs in residual annoyance. "Apparently a month is entirely too long without getting his dick wet which is probably why it was in Yui Mei by the end of the second week we were 'together'."

Hisana, already knowing all of this, scowls. "You should've let me run him over. Byakuya-kun is a great lawyer."

"He's also in property and contract law," Rukia reminds in amusement, "he wouldn't be much help in an attempted murder case."

"It's not attempted if I succeed," her sister sang, and Rukia's snorting a laugh of her own, only compounding her hysterics when Hisana tacks on, "And if he somehow makes it to the emergency room, Shiro-chan could just rewire his brain and hopefully Kaien will wake up a decent human being. Though not before Byakuya-kun runs him over again in the parking lot."

Rukia shakes her head, arms crossed but cheeks hurting.

"Alright, okay," Hisana says, clapping her hands. "So, this Ichigo thing."

"We really shouldn't slide from Kaien to Ichigo, he hates that," Rukia informs with a wry smile. "And I told you, he asked for this to get Inoue off his back and that's it."

"Well he's playing the boyfriend card pretty well," Hisana says casually.

"Yeah," that Rukia can't disagree with. "I think it's all the Shakespeare, or the K-dramas Karin pretends she doesn't watch, that he sits through." Hisana hums in a totally unconvincing way, and after seven years of knowing each other, five of which they spent as sisters-in-law, Rukia knows exactly what Hisana is trying to not-say. "He doesn't like me like that."

"How can you possibly know that?"

"I just do," she retorts, her phone's message notification distracting her from making her case, though opening up the floor for Hisana to make hers:

"He gets coffee for you, he makes sure you always get those cupcakes you like, he holds your hand, he kisses you in public and – not in public, let's not forget! – and even you admit it feels like a real relationship!"

"He could be an actor on the side, I don't know; I should ask him," Rukia defends, even as she's reading the message he sent, asking her simply: How's studying?

On hold, she types, my sister's visiting. How was your fake-girlfriend-free weekend?

On call and no fires, so pretty standard
We cleaned the truck and played cards. The usual.
And don't hold your breath, I still have at least eight hours to see you before Sunday is over

She groans. I don't want to go out though

Too much work?

No, Rukia admits, just lazy. I'm not used to being around people this much. Usually, I just hide in my apartment or the TA office between classes

How about food?

I survive off take-outs and my limited knowledge of not setting the kitchen on fire

What're you in the mood for?

You gonna bring me food?

I'm getting me food and I don't know what I want, he says, and Rukia smirks.

What if you don't like what I'm in the mood for?

Then I can get another girlfriend who'll read my mind, he retorts, the sentence punctuated by an emoji exhaling smoke through his nose, the exaggeration making her snort.

Weak

Hitting her with multiple big-watery-eyed emojis, he pleas, I'm hungry and have no idea what to eat, help a guy out?

Know the hole in the wall on Fifth?

What hole in the wall?

The sign's faded, it's a bunny.

Okay…I see it…

Order the number 7

What is it…?
Rukia?
Rukia?
Fuck I'm in the front of the line
Rukia, god, this better not kill me
I save people from fires
Remember this
This is not good for your karma

Rukia doesn't realize she's crying with laughter until Hisana is smirking at her from across the table. "Anything you'd like to share with the class?"

She coughs, cheeks reddening. "Uh, you see…"

Hisana's brow quirks and Rukia clears her throat. "You remember that fire in freshman year?"

Now she looks skeptical. "Yes?"

"Well, uh." She points at her phone and Hisana's eyes widen. "No way, he's the one who – how?"

"He volunteers at the Fire Department."

Her sister's jaw hangs aghast. "How…how did telling him he saved you go exactly?"

"Uh," she scratches her cheek absently, "it hasn't, actually. I haven't told him, and he hasn't mentioned remembering me so I just…haven't."

"Rukia," Hisana begins slowly, "he's the guy you were like half in love with."

"Only because he came in looking like the guy on the cover of a romance novel," she defends. "Plus, you know how bad the weeks before the fire was, I was just – latching onto something."

"I don't think this fake-dating thing is a good idea," Hisana says, uncertainly.

"No, listen okay – I don't – it was a crush that I'm totally long over, and I'm just helping him out – returning the favor in a roundabout way."

"Rukia…"

"He doesn't remember, he doesn't feel the same way; I know this, I'm good."

Still, Hisana doesn't look convinced, adding, "What if he does remember you, but he thinks you don't remember him?"

"Well, why wouldn't he tell me?"

She shrugs. "It was pretty traumatic, I don't think he'd want to drudge up memories like that, y'know?"

Rukia's eyes narrow. "You just want to make this more complicated, don't you?"

Hisana raises her hands in defense. "I'm just saying, you could end this whole thing right now and tell him thank you, and you won't have to do this anymore. You said so yourself that you don't care for Yui Mei's opinion or Kaien's."

"But Inoue -"

"Has been Ichigo's problem for years," she interjects, "If he really wanted her off his case, he'll find another way to deal with it."

Which was all…true? And while a week wasn't long enough to feel confident in venturing outside of Rukia's usual spots, she certainly felt more welcomed to them; how comfortable she'd actually be without Ichigo beside her was a different matter entirely.

"Or," Hisana trails.

"Or?"

"Or, it could turn out that he doesn't want to do this because of Inoue."

"What other reason would –"

"They've been to high school together, Rukia-chan, come on," Hisana prods, "You really think he'd bother doing something now for no reason at all? Maybe…maybe Yui Mei just gave him an opening?"

The doorbell rings before Rukia can say anything, and even then, all she can manage is shake her head. She abandons the table entirely, stringing some words together to the effect of, "You're out of it. Did you pour liquor in your coffee while I wasn't looking? Hisana, there's no way Ichigo -" She opens the door, and abruptly stops and stares. "Ichigo?"

He's wearing the same leather jacket as the one from that first night in Rukongai, what she vaguely remembers Rangiku referring to as his "good leather jacket"; skulls, metal and plastic wrapped around his fingers as he lifts the bag like a bounty, a smirk on his lips and a cheeky glint in his brown eyes. "Number 7 delivery?"

She stares at him dumbly until Hisana calls from behind her, "What was that you were saying, Rukia-chan?"

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"Oh, so you're the boyfriend," Hisana decrees, pointedly ignoring the way Rukia wants to die. "Kuchiki Hisana," she introduces, "I'm her sister."

Ichigo, to Rukia's shock, actually bows in greeting. "Kurosaki Ichigo, it's a pleasure."

"It is," she says, delighted, wiggling her brows at Rukia before he raises his head again.

"I brought enough for three, I hope you like whatever it is Rukia told me to order," he says, and Hisana nudges Rukia out of the way to let him in.

"It was the Number 7, you said?" she asks as he heads to the kitchen counter without direction, and when he replies in the affirmative, his back to them, Rukia wants to crawl into a hole at the way Hisana is looking him over approvingly, and then promptly never come out of said hole, when her sister echoes, "Excellent choice."

Which honestly, Rukia can't really fault.

If she weren't currently in the middle of an aneurysm, she'd be distracted too by the perfect fit of Ichigo's jeans.

It's actually criminal the way the denim hugs his thighs. They aren't even tight.

"He thicc," Hisana whispers with yet another suggestive wiggle of her brows, and oh my god, just-just end me now.

He looks up at them, orange hair in his eyes so that he has to peer through them, completely oblivious to how he's looking like the human personification of the sun she just wants to curl into and bask under. "Plates?"

"Bottom cupboard," Hisana replies in Rukia's stead, and when Rukia looks at her in wide-eyed what the fuck, Hisana meets her expression with outright glee and a way too loudly whispered, "He's so hot oh my god, Rukia."

"I hate you, I hate you so much," she whispers back, rubbing her face in a futile bid to get rid of the heat burning beneath her skin.

Hisana only grins before tugging her away from the door and into the kitchen to help.

With no choice but to do what Hisana bids lest Rukia leave her sister alone with Ichigo, Rukia gets out the plates while Ichigo empties the takeaway containers into serving dishes. Hisana has contented herself with clearing up the dining table and providing a running commentary on what the Number 7 is, and how Rukia found their favorite hole in the wall in the first place. "It was the bunny sign, Rukia loves bunnies!"

"No kidding."

Standing side by side at the counter, Rukia doesn't miss the tremor of a laugh that Ichigo successfully stifles. Though, it doesn't stop her from nudging him sharply with her elbow in warning which only serves to make him snicker.

"It's like you're not even afraid of me," she grumbles at him.

"Of course, I am," he says without missing a beat, "you're a scary history student with a love of bunnies."

Rukia huffs. "And you're the scary librarian with the resting murder face who happens to be able to quote Shakespeare."

"It's called having layers, babe," he retorts smoothly, and from the corner of her eye, Hisana is trying to suffocate herself on a pillow she was gracious enough to use to muffle her squeal. Jesus. "Besides, what makes you think I actually know Shakespeare? I could just be doing it for the aesthetic," Ichigo points out, still oblivious.

She pulls his hand in front of them, the inked declaration a clear brand on his skin and framed by her smaller digits. "Something wicked this way comes," Rukia reads aloud.

"So?"

"The first part of the quote is 'By the pricking of my thumbs', and where did you choose to put the tattoo?" She doesn't wait for his begrudging admission, not that he appears interested in giving it with the way he's looking down at his hand, still cradled by both of hers. Clearing her throat, she adds as she lets him go, "Why are all your tattoos so dark anyway?"

Ichigo recovers to pour them some water before he replies, appropriately cryptic, "Despair most fits."

"Well, you know what they say: Joy delights in joy," she retorts, and at that, he overflows a glass before jerking back and grabbing a cloth to clean up the mess.

Rukia's too amused at the blatant blush on his cheeks to yell at him about the mess, and when she looks up again, Hisana has the biggest shit-eating grin she's ever seen. Again, Rukia clears her throat, taking the dishes she can carry to set them on the table.

Strangely enough, having an early dinner with Ichigo and her sister isn't as awkward as she thought it would be, nor is pretending to be together particularly difficult. In such a closed environment as this: the intimacy of her home and Hisana's all-knowing presence, Rukia should feel uncomfortable at the level of closeness she and Ichigo are expected to play. But she doesn't.

Hisana teases. Rukia snarks back. And Ichigo – he keeps up.

Their arms brush, their hands touch and beneath the table, his knee knocks against hers. Occasionally, they'll steal food off each other's plate just to be annoying.

Hisana declares that they're as gross and annoying as she and Byakuya.

Every now and then, Rukia will catch him watching her from the corner of his eye, a slight curl in his mouth where he usually tries to hide his smiles, and she can't ignore that sinking pit in her stomach; like aborted adrenaline and a fear that's festering like a wound.

Her sister, too enthusiastic to think otherwise, is unaware, and Ichigo has no idea. Why would he? Why would anyone?

Maybe that's why no one's really cared for Rukia outside of familial obligation, it probably is her fault that she's never let anyone get close – why she doesn't have friends – why people think they can talk about her the way they do.

She's just a form of entertainment, a fleeting sort of thing that people pass around and talk about, but never talk to.

Not that she can blame them.

It's not like she knows how to reach out, or how to tell them she feels what they say like the paper cuts she sometimes gets when she's doing her work at the TA office, pointedly ignoring the way they'll loiter around her desk and pass comments about her as casually as one would about the weather.

What would be the point in telling them anyone?

It's not like they'll care. It's not like it'll matter. None of it does.

Her cutlery clutters almost too loudly, and she realizes in a numb sort of way, that she's zoned out.

"Rukia?" Their eyebrows are furrowed in concern, and when Hisana looks like she's going to reach over, Rukia jerks away like she's been shocked, muttering, "Excuse me" before she's flying out the room.

Her chair almost falls over in her wake, tilting precariously on one leg like some of statement art piece, but doesn't. And that's all she thinks of as she sits on the floor of her room. How a suspended chair somehow reminds her of how tilted her world has become, how easily it can tip over, how quickly it could fall.

Her breath comes out ragged, the random burst of panic changing direction rapidly, looking for somewhere to stick and land, like a spinning top let loose.

As usual, her mind goes to how she's going to explain this – to Hisana, to Ichigo.

She's been careful for years to keep her reactions to herself, it's why she'd taken a weird sort of pride in being referred to as an Ice Queen by her colleagues, and god knows who else. Untouchable, Ichigo had told her, she liked that, maybe he did too. But that wasn't who she was, and now he'd seen it.

Rattling around her chest, her breath leaves her as a knock on the door comes, and Hisana's worried voice follows, "Rukia-chan, are you okay?"

"'m'fine," she replies, and she doesn't hear anything more than an exchange of murmurs.

Rukia thinks talking to Hisana will be easier. She should know by now. It's a miracle Rukia hadn't told her ages ago. But it isn't Hisana that comes around the door, but Ichigo.

She dry swallows as he shuts the door, and when she manages nothing but to shake further, he's there to anchor her – arms strong and sure around her form. She buries her face against his shoulder as he cradles her, a warm hand rubbing soothingly up and down her back while his chest rumbles quietly, nonsensical murmurs brushing through her hair.

She doesn't know how long it takes for her to calm down, but when she does, Ichigo assures her, "It's okay…I…I used to get these a lot too."

"You…you did?" she croaks, and as if to congratulate her for pulling herself out of the spiral, however, temporarily, his arm tightens around her shoulder in a squeeze.

"Yeah, actually. My mom – she-she died ten years ago, and it messed me up," he admits, again, he squeezes her, as if she's the anchor now. Rukia squeezes back, but puts aside the initial urge to ask what happened to him and his mother. Instead, they sit in silence, her curled up in his lap, her head on his chest.

Together, they're quiet, until she whispers, "How…how did you move past it? The panic attacks, I mean?"

His exhale is slow, controlled. "I didn't, for a while," Ichigo says. "I was angry a lot, kept to myself for years. I don't think I ever told anyone about them, not even my sisters for the longest time."

"What changed?"

He huffs out another breath, and though Rukia thinks for a second that he's annoyed by the question, a hesitant smile changes the shape of his mouth and the words that follow, "I went to therapy. Been going for the past four years."

"Oh…"

"Do you…go to therapy?"

"My parents aren't exactly the most open about that sort of thing," she says with a wince. Just talking about it now was going to make her break out in hives, as would the conversation that would follow if she'd ever brought it up with them.

"Well," he trails, "you should consider it. One day, if you can. It helps."

She nods, not lifting her head to meet his eye but smiling slightly nonetheless.

Ichigo shifts slightly before he asks, "Is that why you don't really go out? I mean before I dragged you around on this fake-dating situation?"

"Yeah," Rukia says in a sigh, "and it's dumb, I know it is. It's just: going out, being around people, it shouldn't be hard. There's nothing hard about it."

"At least that's what you tell yourself," he tacks on, and she huffs out an unwilling, shaky laugh before she echoes, "Exactly."

"Do you want to stop?"

"Stop?" she repeats.

"Doing this," he says, and he pulls away slightly so she can't avoid his eyes and the furrow in his brow and the way a frown is tugging at his lips. "If I'd known it made you uncomfortable, I wouldn't have asked, I'd never force you to do anything you wouldn't want."

"That's not…no, I like this," she says, too quickly, too firmly for it to be a lie. "It…it helps. But sometimes it…kind of just hits me and…."

He says nothing for a while, watching her quietly with warm brown eyes until she admits softly, "I like this, doing this, being with you. I don't think I've ever just let life happen to me as much as it has in the past week. Routines…they're comfortable and safe, but I'm…I'm tired of being afraid."

Still, Ichigo looks at her, as if he could see through her.

Rukia doesn't flinch, doesn't back down.

She's not afraid. She's not.

"Okay," he murmurs quietly, "then, if we're going to do this, and you're not comfortable at any point, just tell me." And though she nods, Ichigo amends, "or squeeze my hand twice."

"Squeeze your hand?"

"Well we're always holding hands, might as well make it easy to let me know when you aren't feeling where we are or what we're doing, right?"

The warmth in his eyes and the softness of his smile seeps into her skin, and she smiles back. "…thank you, Ichigo."

He exhales a small chuckle before tugging her close once more, his lips pressing firmly against her temple as he murmurs back, "Any time."

 

Chapter Text

 

Got called in
Won't see you for breakfast
Hope this makes up for it

Rukia can feel Shiro squinting at her and forcibly suppresses the rush of blood threatening to fill her cheeks. Coughing delicately to dissipate the awkward silence, she busies herself opening the brown paper bag, still surprised despite Expresso Patronus' logo to find her takeaway coffee and two cupcakes – both mandrakes seemingly "bloomed" to look like sunflowers.

"I've never seen those before," her brother intones, suspicious.

"I know a guy," she retorts.

"Dating one, more like." Shiro doesn't see the blush stain her skin as he closes his eyes in thought. "At least Kurosaki's got an in with your favorite coffee shop, can't say that doesn't come with perks."

"Oi."

"What? Like you got anything out of dating that bozo with a bad haircut," he says with a snort.

Rukia pointedly ignores that, choosing to ask instead, "When did you even get this? You're not even dressed and…" She takes in the fact that he's looking uncharacteristically naked. "Why the hell aren't you wearing a shirt?"

He grumbles. "It was hot last night."

This, from a guy who still occasionally wears shirts when he swims. She raises a brow disbelievingly before he grumbles again, passing one beat in annoyed silence before answering her first question, "Karin delivered it."

"You know Karin?"

He shrugs, turning away to the counter to dig around for the sugar container despite the exact number of sugar packets beside his own takeaway cup. "She usually delivers my coffee whenever I need a fix."

"Oh…does she now?" Rukia trails, tone heavy with implication which is more than enough for Shiro to snap, green eyes narrowed, "Shut up" which would be more terrifying if he wasn't redder than a tomato. She smirks, just as he says, "Karin just brings my coffee, Kurosaki's the one baking you shit."

"I still don't get how he has the time for that," Rukia wonders aloud, setting aside the sticky note and absently reaching for her phone.

Shiro shrugs. "Karin said the owner is like some weird uncle of theirs, they've been working at the 'shop since they got accepted at the university. Kurosaki did it before the firefighter gig."

"You and Karin talk a lot then?"

"Shut up," he repeats, his usual of deadpan returning even in spite of the blush still on his neck before he wanders back into his room with his coffee in hand, adding over his shoulder, "There's a bunch of papers on the table, I'm going to assume they're yours. Next time you have a dinner party, maybe say goodbye to Hisana-nee before she freaks on Byakuya-niisama again."

Rukia huffs out a breath, rolling her eyes a little before messaging her sister in apology while simultaneously turning her attention to the evidence of Hisana's research.

While the table had been mostly cleared of the dinner she abandoned last night, her books neatly set aside; the surface of the table is covered in paper. The first page, she picks up, as well as the third, fourth, fifth and sixth indicate a pattern she should've seen coming purely because they were all familiar things she'd looked up and printed out the first time she started experiencing them: What is a panic attack and what causes it? Treatments for panic attacks. What to do about anxiety? Conditions relating to –

Hisana's latest message beneath the barrage of her panicked questions last night reads simply: I'm sorry I didn't know, please talk to me?

Sighing, Rukia ran a hand across her face, rubbing away the exhaustion that still clung to her skin before she replies with nothing to apologize for, I was the one who didn't tell you. I have class until 5, we can try dinner again if you want?

Rukia isn't surprised when Hisana replies instantly, of course, just you and me?

Please? And tell Byakuya-niisama that I'm okay right now

He told me to send you this, Hisana responds, and there's a picture of their rescue dog, his prosthetic leg an almost eyesore yellow, the black outlines of sunflowers Rukia had done herself, on display as he flashed a doggy smile into the camera. In your brother's own emotionally constipated way, he wants you to feel better, so we both hope that helped?

She's already smiling so isn't lying when she says so.

With that confirmed, Hisana and Byakuya, by proxy, wish her a good day and confirm that they'll text when they're free for dinner, Rukia turns her attention to her takeaway coffee.

Panic attacks usually exhaust the hell out of her, and even with passing out sometime after Ichigo had calmed her down, she gulps down the brew greedily.

Waking up in bed had been confusing though, she recalls, as was realizing that it was morning and she'd somehow slept through Ichigo putting her to bed – tucking her in and sticking her Chappy doll in her arms, to her embarrassment – and him leaving sometime after.

His messages from last night were longer than the one written on the sticky note that accompanied the takeaway bag:

Your sister might've gone overboard with the research but she's just worried about you. Take it easy.

Followed by a picture of her sleeping, Chappy tucked under her chin, her face obscured by pink bunny ears, and the caption reading: You're like a human octopus, hope you don't mind 'Chappy' replacing me, you seemed attached.

Rukia snorts despite the embarrassment, and replies, you're just jealous because you don't have a Chappy of your own followed by thanks for the coffee and everything else, by the way, you didn't have to. be safe.

It doesn't look like he's been online for at least half an hour, and she sets her phone aside to get ready for the day.

With a shower, her coffee and the cupcakes she's carrying into the TA office for a treat later in the day, Rukia feels almost normal and self-conscious that she'd had a breakdown at all especially taking into account that Ichigo's out dealing with an honest to god fire.

Getting into the elevator to leave her apartment building, she passes an absent smile at a trio of girls already inside though only one of them smiles back as her friends huddle over their phones, and over the din of the elevator to declare, "The fire was huge."

"Yeah, I heard the whole department had to be there."

"No kidding," one of them gasps, and by the time the bell dings to announce her floor, Rukia has her phone in her hand – mind racing between blowing up Ichigo's phone with text messages or googling about the fire –

Fortunately, the choice is made for her when her screen lights up with a text from the man himself: Was the coffee okay?

With a breath huffed out in a nervous laugh, she hits the call button and he answers almost hesitantly, "Either I somehow got your order wrong or you're gonna yell at me about something else."

"You're ridiculous."

"So, something else then," he decides, and it should say something about her that she can hear how his smile shapes the words.

She exhales loudly at the mental picture she has of him - leaning back in his chair, careless and relaxed and effortlessly cool with a hand in his hair. Rukia blames  the sudden thudding of her heart to written off adrenaline, and asks, "Are you okay?"

He pauses, and Rukia thinks absurdly that he thinks she's the ridiculous one, until he answers, "I'm alright, I got a couple of bruises, though, but not the worst."

"Okay," she exhales again, "okay, great."

It's so incredibly stupid that she doesn't even need to see his face to know he's got a smug expression as he prompts, "You worried about me?"

"You're an idiot."

He snorts a laugh before eventually confirming, "I'm okay, I promise. I'm always careful."

"Good, great," Rukia says, "I'm glad," and then trails off in a bit of a panic when she realizes she has nothing else to add to the conversation.

What the hell was she even thinking? She internally laments just as she's just about to awkwardly say goodbye and abruptly end the call, she realizes that someone's standing in front of her, and doesn't seem particularly interested in her attempt to sidestep them.

With a determined furrow between her brows and eyes narrowed, any softness Rukia would've attributed to Inoue Orihime is restricted to the summer dress she's wearing and the not-unsubstantial size of her breasts, squished viciously together by her crossed arms that Rukia is momentarily concerned that the other woman is threatening to pop them in her face. "Uh?"

"You don't deserve him," Inoue opens with.

"Excuse me?"

Her lip trembles. "Y-you," Inoue huffs, lifting her chin. "You don't know him, not like I do, you don't deserve him. You don't know how amazing and kind he is. Kurosaki-kun is like a prince and you-you don't – you don't deserve him."

Rukia is too baffled to even ask where this is coming from which is just as well because Inoue isn't finished:

"I've loved him my whole life. Ever since his mother died in that fire, I wanted to take care of him, and I know – I know I could make him happy. I knew because-because he was always so sad, and so angry, and even when he would push everyone away, I knew he wouldn't do that to me. But I didn't want to hurt him by forcing him to hurt me before he was ready to accept it, so I waited and waited – and then you come along and -" She giggles almost hysterically. "You don't even realize how perfect he is, just-just using him like you do! Sending him on coffee runs and holding him so tightly, like that would make him stay, like that would fix him! But you have no idea how broken he is, you have no idea the amount of love he needs. It's okay if it's overwhelming – Kurosaki-kun is like the sun and not everyone can give him the love he needs. Except me. I know I could – I know if he just let me -"

The adrenaline is back, pumping violently and angrily in her veins as she turns the words over and over again until –

"But he didn't," Rukia interjects coldly. "Ichigo didn't let you in, hasn't for as long as he's known you, and maybe this is why." She makes an abortive gesture to the small crowd that's gathered around them in interest, felt their obtrusive fascination with unfolding public drama like ants on her skin. "You don't care about Ichigo or his feelings, you care about you and what he means to you, and what he deserves is more than someone else's projected fantasies."

Inoue tries to pull her back, exclaiming, "You don't understand -"

"No, you don't." Rukia doesn't let her, and she glares the other woman down something fierce that even their audience freezes up. "Whatever's happened to Ichigo, whatever pains he has, it's his. You don't get to wave your knowledge of them in my face just because you know, it's not your burden to share or prop up like some trophy. He's neither of those things. So, if you love him, like you claim you do, apologize for the mud you've tracked into his heart and leave him be, if he wanted to let you in to make the mess that you have, he would've already."

The crowd parts to let her through, and it isn't until she's standing outside the TA office that she realizes she forgot to end the call with Ichigo. When she brings her phone back up to her face, the call's still going.

To her surprise, when his voice comes through, there's a weird feedback, like they're standing too close, "Rukia."

She looks up to see him standing there, waiting, his phone still pressed against his ear.

"Ichigo?" There's no leather jacket this time, just the yellow suspenders and pants, a black shirt and a pair of gloves he's apparently forgotten to take off. "What are you…?"

"I…" he steps closer and then makes a face. "I'm gonna put the phone down now."

Muffling a laugh, she does the same and looks up at him inquiringly. "What's going on?" She isn't so much startled that he's cradling her head and pressing his lips against her forehead as she is startled by how all the tension from her interaction with Inoue completely drains out of her body.

When he murmurs a "thank you" between another kiss, she clutches at his black shirt and mumbles against his chest, "You smell like smoke."

And Ichigo laughs so hard, his arms around her shake them both, and at that, even  Rukia can't resist laughing with him.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"How do you do this?"

"Do what?"

"Everything," Rukia says, waving her hand around to ineffectually encompass his entire fucking life. "You still go to classes, right?"

"I have a few subjects left, yeah, but they aren't more than three a week. They're basically the missing credits I need to graduate," Ichigo says from the tiny bathroom he'd been lucky enough to have attached to his room at Rukongai, his voice muffled by a rush of water followed by the squeak of the valve before he appears in the doorway again.

He's still wearing his jeans, but his leather jacket is long gone, as are the leather bands he wore around his wrists, discarded on his desk beside their phones. Just in a t-shirt, well-worn and black, Ichigo was more exposed than she was used to seeing.

And not just because of the inked flowers peeking from the neck of his shirt and the hint of black words sprawled along left pectoral.

"But you still go?" She bounces a little against the headboard as he resumes his place beside her – shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh. She's balancing on his leg to readjust the pillows behind her and pinches the denim between her fingers when he nudges her with his knee.

"Obviously."

"So, explain to me," she began, "how you have time to bake, work at the library, volunteer and go to parties because I only go to classes and that's essentially my life."

He shrugs, pinching her back and smirking lazily at her squirming. "You're on a nine to five schedule, babe."

Rukia rolls her eyes, ignoring the tightening in her gut at the careless term of endearment. "Point?"

"Point is that I have hours to fill," he says. "When I'm at the library, I do course work. When I bake at Expresso it's usually a few hours before my shift at the station. When I'm here, if I'm not sleeping, leaving my room is essentially walking into a party." And as if to prove his point, just beyond his bedroom door, there's a loud whoop as the music is turned up higher. At her baffled expression, the unsaid but how do you even sleep with that noise is answered with a snicker. "Why do you think I usually volunteer for the graveyard shift?"

"I didn't know you did that considering how many parties we've been to in the last two weeks alone," she reminds with a roll of her eyes.

"Well if I'm not here waiting to get called in at an emergency, I'm at the station waiting for an emergency."

"And you've been waiting here for the past two weeks because…?"

He shoots her another lazy smirk, brown eyes shining amber. "Thought that was pretty obvious."

She makes a show of huffing out a laugh. "Right."

Ichigo, thankfully, seems to accept her deflection and grabs the laptop from his bedside table. "Where were we?"

"You know we really don't have to be here," she points out, "we can sit outside."

Beyond a door, there's a chant going on for someone to "chug, chug, chug!" and he shoots her a look perfectly displaying a combination of unimpressed amusement. "Really?"

"I'm just saying – you have a reputation to uphold."

"So, we can sit on the couch and cuddle in front of everyone?" He wiggles his eyebrows outrageously at the word, getting her to snort and punch his arm.

"The fact that you can say cuddle without cringing brings to mind the question of where your reputation even comes from." Rukia's pretty sure that both her brothers are allergic to certain words, and that was probably why Hisana had been the one to propose, and why Karin had taken to wilfully misunderstanding Shiro whenever he tried to coolly suggest they go out some time without having to actually say the words.

"Something about the leather and the scowling and the tattoos," Ichigo muses. "My mom, she actually had a thing for that, told us that that was how my dad got her attention." He chuckles to himself at the memory. "Of course, my dad was just trying to impress her, and if it weren't for the cigarette he didn't know how to smoke and started choking on, I don't think she'd have ever spoken to him."

His expression is all fondness, his eyes are butterscotch bright, and his smile is soft. Rukia bites her lip.

Since that episode with Inoue, she hadn't been sure how he'd react to having his mother's death – Christ Almighty – brought up in such a way. Besides his thanks, Ichigo hadn't said anything else about it, and Rukia had been prepared to rehash the speech altogether to ensure he wouldn't feel obligated to say anything further. And yet…

"I don't mind you know," he says, and he's looking at her like he's a goddamn mind reader on top of everything else, "I don't mind you asking."

"It's not my place to ask."

"And if I want to tell you anyway?"

She licks her lips. "Then I'd want you to because you want to, not for any other reason." When he doesn't say anything further, she looks back up at him and he's still staring at her. Self-conscious, Rukia leans over him slightly to move her index finger across the trackpad, pressing play on the show she'd forgotten the name of but they were half-way to finishing.

Eventually, the hum of the party is replaced by the quiet murmur of dialogue over the screen, until, "She died in a fire."

Rukia doesn't say she knows because she doesn't, can't even begin to. Her silence is something he seems to appreciate.

"I just started high school when it happened. My dad – he wasn't home, he was at some medical conference over the weekend – but my sisters, my mom, we were there." He doesn't say anything for a while, and Rukia's already reaching for his hand and squeezing it in hers before she realizes. He squeezes back. "I woke up and the house was filled with smoke. I got to the twins' room before the rest of the hallway caught on fire, couldn't find my mom, even when I yelled. By the time I got outside with the girls the whole house was just – the fire department sent some guys in – the coroner said she'd died of smoke inhalation. I don't…I don't even remember what the last thing I said to her was."

He doesn't cry, doesn't shake, but the numbness and the blank look on his face surprises her. "You've talked about this a lot," she realizes.

"Therapy," he replies to her unasked question, "Dad insisted after I almost flunk out. Not that he blames me for that, the old man has his own issues about it." Her look is quietly inquiring, and Ichigo snorts under his breath. "My dad got really attached to all of us after, wouldn't go anywhere without us. When I got accepted here to study, he moved us all down. Not that I complained," he admits and adds with a smile, "but I drew a line at living with him after they made the move, I love him but he's an idiot."

She snorts at that. "You must get it from him."

"Hey," he protests mockingly.

They sit together in comfortable silence until Ichigo says, "That's how I know about the panic attacks. When I decided to volunteer, I had them. Hell, I had them before then too."

"Then why do it?"

He exhales noisily. "Real reason?"

"Indulge me," she says lightly though he has other things in mind when he answers, "We lived in the same student block in freshman year."

Rukia blinks at the abrupt change in topic. "What?"

"I'd already started volunteering at the department, Dad was convinced I was doing it under some misguided belief that if I couldn't save my mom, I could save someone else. And he wasn't wrong, not really. But I…I hadn't been in a real fire since I joined. I'd been doing mostly easy stuff – cats out of trees, getting dogs out of weird places, redirecting traffic, getting the shitty station jobs. But then that fire in the student block happened and -"

"You saved me," she finishes, and there's an honest to god blush on his cheeks, warming the golden tone of his skin as he looks away. "I wasn't on duty that day, but…yeah."

"Were you ever going to tell me it was you?" Rukia asks like a coward like she hadn't known it was him the entire time.

"Figured you didn't want to relive it." He says with a shrug. "I certainly didn't, almost quit the department right after."

"But…?"

"But," he shrugs, and just like that the flood gates close, and he's staring resolutely at the screen, the tinny of How to save a life playing over the speakers. Ironic, Rukia thinks, before leaning over and pressing a kiss against his cheek. "Thank you."

He turns his head, and they're leaning so close that the air is warmed by his breath as he returns, "You're welcome."

The episode ended sometime during the conversation, nothing but the hum of the laptop to break the quiet when the screen blinks out due to lack of activity, and Ichigo turns his attention back to waking the device up again.

Rukia doesn't see the password he puts in to unlock it, but she does recognize his wallpaper: a watercolor interpretation of the Tempest, represented by a rising wave of women, expressions mixed with pain and serenity, anger and peace.

"Where did you get this picture from?"

"Art gallery," he says, "they were selling the print which worked out great because I wouldn't have been able to get the tattoo done without it."

"The tattoo…You got this as a tattoo?" Rukia exclaims, and he's startled and confused until she points incessantly at the corner of the screen where a KR signature is done up lightly in pencil, Hisana's only critique of the work before she'd placed it in the university art gallery at the Interpretation of the Classics collection.

"You," Ichigo finally makes the connection and asks, "this is yours?"

"Well technically it's yours, you bought it and put it on your skin," she says baffled. "I knew Hisana managed to sell it, but I didn't think -" She shakes her head. "Where…where did you get it placed?"

"The print is at my dad's," Ichigo says, and he sets the laptop aside to lift his shirt, exposing his entire right side to her – sharp hip bone and the ladder of his ribcage, the exact same piece of art pressed into his skin like a dried flower between the pages of a book.

Rukia's already touching it before her brain can connect that she shouldn't, tracing her finger over the swirls of the seafoam as she whispers, "Holy shit…"

"I think it turned out okay," Ichigo says, and she shakes her head, a broad smile on her lips.

"That's just…oh my god," she murmurs and he seems amused by her speechlessness. Still touching his side, palm pressed against his warm skin, their noses brush almost of their own accord. "It looks beautiful." 

"Thank you for creating it."

Rukia smiles almost breathlessly back and their noses brush again as he leans in closer. 

Though anything further that could be said or done is interrupted by the door opening and Yuzu's squeal of delight and then there's another body on the bed as she takes a running leap to sprawl all over them.

"You guys look so cozy!"

Ichigo snorts out a startled laugh, and Rukia shakes herself from her daze, patting the younger woman's head in amusement. "Ne, Yuzu-chan, how much did you have to drink?"

"Enough," she declares, nuzzling her head between them to praise, "She's the nicest, Ichi-nii, you should keep her." Though she stops abruptly, sitting up and looking between them frantically. "Oh no, did I…interrupt something?"

Rukia chuckles nervously, patting her on the head again to soothe her though Ichigo mutters, "Yes, yes you did" and she sends him a look that he pretends annoys him despite the fondness of his eye roll as he too takes to patting Yuzu's head, and asking, "Sleeping here tonight?"

"Pretty please?"

His pause is heavy as he pretends to think about it, and Rukia snorts when Yuzu's eyes go decidedly watery. She tugs the hem of his shirt back into place and smirks at him. "Like you could ever say no." And there's something about the darkness of his eyes that agrees for an entirely different reason.

 

Chapter Text

 

The latest party has wound down by the time Rukia decides that she should go home ("You could fit in the closet," Ichigo had argued, and she'd rightfully given him the deadliest stare in her arsenal. Though, its effects left much to be desired when he only sighed like it was a great injustice.). Unfortunately, just like the anomaly of hiding out in Ichigo's room instead of out by the common area of his floor, there were still people loitering around – sober enough to make some absurd connection about the activities she and Ichigo were engaged in while inside.

Ichigo grunts at them, rolling his eyes and scowling mulishly. Most back off. Though the ones who've gotten used to this particular temperament of his only continue to tease as they continue on their way out.

Rukia doesn't know which she prefers if she prefers either at all.

Still, with his arm around her shoulders, Ichigo easily shields her from their leers and takes their jabs and hollers with a practiced blank expression. If Rukia hadn't spent the last twenty minutes negotiating with him and his sisters over sleeping arrangements, she'd think Ichigo was exactly what he appeared: angry and stoic, a stereotype in tattoos and black leather.

Despite his insistence on taking her to a nearby carnival the next day ("Your sister said you'd like it. Besides, I owe you for that thing with Inoue."), he wears the exact same expression.

"Seriously, Grumpy," Rukia pokes with an extravagant eye roll, "just because you're out in the sun doesn't mean you get to hiss at everything."

"I go out in the sun," he sniffs.

"Tell that to your pissy face."

In retaliation, he puts her in a loose headlock, and she squirms just enough to escape, accusing him loudly of his ungentlemanly-like behavior which only earns her bemused looks from strangers and outright belly laughs from the walking traffic cone she's claimed as her boyfriend.

Fake-boyfriend, she mentally reminds herself, a mantra she's realized, has to be repeated daily before she forgets what this is – just two people mutually benefiting off each other's company.

He seems to notice, though, when the reminders hit.

Apparently, she has a noticeable shift in expression that is decidedly Not Good, by Ichigo's estimation, and he's working double time to make her life difficult.

First, it had been the cotton candy. Then the old-fashioned photo booth. Then the Fun House with its absurd mirrors and the Haunted House counterpart that has Ichigo's scowl on full display after one of the mascots inside got a little handsy. And now one of those rigged carnival games with a giant Chappy prize.

It's obvious that Ichigo's never been faced with one of these before when he goes into the game swinging – unaware of his odds and losing spectacularly.

In the end, Rukia wins the Chappy and rewards it to him with a smirk. "Because I know you were actually trying to win it for yourself."

He snickers, not denying it, before tucking the stuffed bunny under his arm and then being diverted by a food stand – "The pretzels are the size of your head. I want two."

It's ridiculously easy to forget what this is and what they are to each other, easy for Rukia to forget the mantra entirely when they're perched in the rickety metal basket of a Ferris Wheel; looking up at the clouds as they shift and change and drift by from cotton candy pink to swirls of apricot orange.

As the basket descends, their view changes from the clouds to the cars in the distance lighting up in the growing twilight, racing like streams of stars along the highway.

By the time they've touched the ground again, the sky has made its progression from bruised to puce to dusk, and the street lights flicker on with the gentle illumination of a firefly.

"It's pretty," Ichigo notes absently.

"Looking for another tattoo?"

"Only if it's yours."

She snorts, knocking the back of their palms together until he's woven her fingers through the spaces of his before they're both too exhausted to speak anymore.

Rukia has even made the executive decision to use Ichigo as her physical support stand which doesn't work so well when he's made the same executive decision as her.

"Unoriginal," she spits without the bite.

"Lazy," he retorts, and she can only manage a vaguely annoyed noise in reply.

"We should go home."

"We should."

Neither of them get up from the bench they've commandeered, content enough to just lean against each other with Chappy taking up the seat on Ichigo's other side.

The carnival's both quieter and louder at once; the mixed crowd of friends, students, and families from the afternoon slowly become replaced by couples, though no one she immediately recognizes until she remembers that showing Inoue or Kaien up hadn't been on the agenda today at all. There hadn't been a reason to do this besides wanting to.

"You know," Rukia begins tentatively, "we didn't have to do this." He hums in question, and she lifts her head on his shoulder a little so she can see his face. "You don't owe me for Inoue."

Beneath the glow of the street light, his hair is haloed gold. He tilts his head. "It wasn't entirely for Inoue."

She furrows her brows. "Like, eighty percent?"

"I'd make an argument for at least fifteen, maybe eleven." Ichigo's lip curls at the corner in a slight smile. "Can't I just do something nice for you?"

Rukia untangles her arm from his, blatantly aware of his hand cupping her knee, she takes a breath. "Don't get the wrong idea here, you could be the poster boy for 'How to be a good boyfriend'. Hell, you could write the book."

"But…"

"But…" She licks her lips anxiously. "We're playing at being in a relationship, remember? You really don't…the only reason we're here right now is that we agreed to fake date."

To that Ichigo is quiet, considering, before, "I don't know about you, but this feels like a real date to me." Her mouth opens and closes wordlessly, and he peers over. "Do you want it to be?"

Her hands twist, a panic ringing in her ears.

It would be easy to say no – to keep things the way they are. But what if what they are is exactly what it's like to actually be with someone? What if it's been real the whole time? It could be just as easy to say yes – and risk so much more than she ever had with Kaien, with anyone else, really.

The possibilities and the counterarguments are loud in her head, drowning out anything else until his hand is in hers and she squeezes – once, twice – I'm sorry.

Ichigo lets out a quiet breath and with a hesitant smile, he nods.

Despite his gracious acceptance, he has to clear his throat before he speaks and even then, his voice is rough and low as he tries to go for casual, "Alright, well, I'm gonna grab something for the road. I'll…"

"Yeah," she murmurs back, smiling apologetically and wishing she could just be a normal person for five goddamn minutes.

Rukia sighs to herself, feeling clammy and cold, and thinks back to her dinner with Hisana the day after the Inoue Incident, as Hisana had taken to calling it.

Just as she expected, talking about her panic attacks led to another. Fortunately, Hisana had put her reading material to the test and knew exactly what to do to keep her grounded. On the couch they ended up cuddling up on, her sister had run through the usual treatment options – the therapy and maybe medication – both of which she was stubborn against because I've been living with it forever, I don't need – Hisana looked incredibly sad at that before she'd said in return living with it doesn't mean you have to endure it.

Rukia still had the number of a therapist in her area – Byakuya said she's highly recommended, and Yoruichi uses art therapy so if nothing else…Hisana had trailed –

From the corner of her eye, she watched Ichigo step to the front of the line at a nearby food stand. While he easily towered over everyone, Rukia didn't miss the way he was hunched over slightly, mouth hard and gaze blank.

Rejection, she mentally supplies, and she sighs against an ache in her chest.

Rukia didn't want to say no.

But she couldn't say yes either.

I'm a mess.

"Rukia."

She's startled when she looks up and sees Kaien in front of her, no Yui Mei in sight.

Though her body feels just as exhausted and sluggish as her mind to reply beyond a perfectly passable unimpressed brow.

"I'm not following you or anything, I promise. I just – I saw you here and since you've done a fantastic job of pretending I don't exist ever since I started dating Yui Mei, I just wanted to -"

Ichigo's growled out, "What the hell do you want?" startles them both, and Ichigo looks just as foreboding as he's always imitated. With his scowl and the hint of teeth, his eyes glinted amber, Kaien puts his hands up in defense.

"I just wanted to talk to her which I can do, you don't own her."

"I never said I did." His gaze flickers to hers, and she shakes her head no, I don't want to talk to him, and gets up, reaching automatically for Ichigo's arm to tug him away.

Kaien takes that for what it is, and sighs like this all gives him the greatest pain, following after them with, "I know you're still angry at me."

Inwardly, Rukia snorts. "I think you're overestimating how much I liked you in the first place."

"But I just want you to understand where you went wrong -"

"Me?" she repeats, turning to stop and face him, baffled and furious. "I'm sorry, did I tell you to cheat on me?"

"Well you didn't give me much of a choice," he says, frowning. "And I mean, you seem happier with Kurosaki anyway, wouldn't want you to make the same mistake again. There's no way you've ever kissed him let alone do anything else."

She wants to tell him – God, what? That even if he did, she welcomed it? But that she's too much of a coward to commit to letting him in and tearing everything down? But Ichigo's holding her back, murmuring for only her to hear, "It's not worth it, he's not worth it."

"Don't hold your breath waiting for it, Kurosaki," Kaien continues with an almost disappointed head shake, "I'm just looking out for you. She's as frigid as she looks."

Only then does Ichigo let her go, but only so he can knock Kaien out with a fist to the face over Yui Mei's indignant shout before she's upon them too, yelling about Ichigo being a barbarian and a brute and –

Rukia pulls him away and they get as far as Rukongai without saying a word beyond the furious exhales they intermittently exchange.

She doesn't know why she does it, and she'll tell Hisana so.

But she can't deny that it was, at least a little, a calculated move.

With her mind a mess and Kaien's words spreading like poison, Rukia had decided this was it – this was going to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Ichigo wanted to be with her, and he's heard what happens when you are.

This – this is the end.

Almost two and a half weeks, a new record, she thinks sardonically.

Rukia's always been terrible at good-byes, but for once, she'll be selfish, for once she'll do something just for herself.

It's an awful kiss, really. There's no romanticizing it.

Rukia is still all snarl and teeth as if she could growl out Kaien's words that are no doubt repeating in Ichigo's mind, echoed by the part of him he's been careful to keep from her with musings of why is she like this; is she really as frigid as she seems; do those Ice Queen rumours actually hold water after all the time we've spent together seeing otherwise?

She can taste her own frustration, the unfairness tinged in salt water as it trails down her cheeks – touches her lips – slides down her chin.

Drip, drip, goodbye. Drip, drip, the end.

At first, he's just as furious, just as angry. But once he tastes her tears, without pause, he chases after it, licking into her mouth until she trembles and tingles, and she doesn't realize she's whimpering until he's quietly shushing her.

Despite their obvious difference in height and build, it doesn't seem to cross his mind to simply push her away.

Even if 'no' is always on the table. And it is, it always is. Especially, and more importantly in this.

So, what if their deal entailed Rukia winning at the Ex-Games, she'd never been willingly competing in the first place – and Kaien – Kaien didn't mean this much to her.

Ichigo doesn't owe her this kind of intimacy. He doesn't owe her anything at all.

Not even closure.

Not even goodbye.

It's a miracle in and of itself that they've gotten along as they have grown closer and gotten to know each other the way they did. Her long-awakened crush over him regardless, the degree of his reciprocity isn't guaranteed, and if nothing else, they could've been friends once this was all over.

Friends, she thinks, what a joke.

Friends don't push one another against the wall and press bittersweet fury against their mouths; friends don't run nails, vicious and grounding down their back; friends don't look at each other the way they do – like they're always, almost, about to –

Over her turmoil, Ichigo coaxes her gently until she's no longer pressing him into the wall with the force of her aggression. Between the pass of lips and tongues, he murmurs breathlessly warm against her heated skin, softer, softer.

Whether it's to placate the sting of her embarrassment-of-a-kiss or in response to her overall rigidity, Rukia doesn't know, but her body understands him better in an ancient sort of way that bodies do when pressed together the way they are, and yields to his direction.

That's easier to think about – Ichigo simply teaching her, showing her – proving to anyone that catches them – that Kuchiki Rukia, Ice Queen, can melt too.

And she does –

Whatever walls she's erected seem to thaw with every touch of him, liquifying what remains within until it feels like it's pooling between her thighs, leaving her pliant and unbalanced; forgiving and sweet in his arms until he's leaning his weight against hers.

The wall behind her doesn't seem like this hard, angry, violent thing it was mere minutes ago. It's as firm as he is, unwavering in its support as he cradles her cheek and slides his tongue against hers in an exchange she can't comprehend but knows all the words to.

All Ichigo replies with is her name, over and over, reverent and caressing; as playful as a breeze, as devastating as the rising wind of a hurricane.

He punctuates each declaration with a return of her lips against his like he intends to leave a permanent mark through contact and will alone. Eventually, he's satisfied, his speech written, the storm of him wrangled until there's nothing to say it was even there – except for perhaps their labored exhales, loud in the quiet of the hallway.

Faintly, Rukia can hear the sounds of another party in full swing just beyond them, but all she can think about is that his eyes are so dark she can just barely make out the gold ring of his irises, that his mouth is obscenely red.

She did this.

Not Yui Mei.

She'll get to remember Ichigo like this. That's more than she could ask for.

Turning against the palm cradling her cheek, she presses another kiss, gentler and softer against the heart of it, the brand of something wicked this way comes bids her farewell before she pulls away and flees.

Ichigo doesn't follow.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

If mourning was relative to the pain inflicted, she thinks she'll probably never stop grieving. 

It's a ridiculously dramatic take, and Rukia knows it, but feelings aren't meant to be rational. Even that, Shiro had agreed with, deigning to awkwardly pat her back before proceeding to dump her blankets, pillows, and Chappy on the couch in a bid to surround her with the things he knew brought her comfort, and then calling Hisana.

Wrapping her in a hug and shushing her mutterings, Hisana consoled her with the little she could, "Once you've loved you're never the same again, for better or worse", and Rukia, unable to deny otherwise, still couldn't decide if it was one or the other.

There didn't need to be much said after that.

Hisana was content to thread her fingers through Rukia's hair and murmur softly between the near-indistinguishable dialogue on the television; not asking for explanations or rationalizations; just companionship, just quiet, unjudging sympathy.

Shiro appeared again to leave dinner on the center table in front of the couch and then abandoning his course work for the night to perch on the adjacent couch.

The night passed in familiar silence that Rukia felt both too big and too small for; her skin itching with that familiar urge to run, run, run.

She tamps down on it for as long as she can; buries and hides instead.

She's in the TA office from near dawn to dusk just to avoid being without the monotonous distraction of paperwork. It's easier to drown out the whispers of their voices, both out loud and in her head, over the sound of the copier and the gurgling of the shitty coffee machine in the adjacent kitchen.

Rangiku seems to see through her tactics, always tries to lock her out so she'll go home – Rukia thinks it's the first time she's ever seen Rangiku actually do work at the office.

Nanao, too, seems to have taken it upon herself to keep a lock on who comes and goes in the office after Yui Mei spends fifteen of the longest minutes delivering lunch to Kaien and peppering his face with kisses. Rukia doesn't know if Nanao did it for Rukia's sake, or for her own, but she can't help but be grateful.

Three days crawl by at a snail's pace. Every hour grating on her nerves and fragile feelings, and she hates it, more so when she's suddenly seeing Ichigo wherever she goes.

Not seeing him exactly, but Yuzu's in some of the classes Rukia TAs, and seeing the younger woman's soft brown eyes and light hair, the apologetic curve of her lip and the careful, deliberate way she speaks, Rukia aches. When Yuzu consciously leaves behind Rukia's coffee order from Expresso before meeting up with Professor Ukitake for student hours, Rukia pretends that her stomach doesn't turn.

The reality of actually seeing Ichigo everywhere, though, doesn't happen, to her relief, but every time she spots his familiar build from the corner of her eye, the warm flame of his hair like a beacon she can't resist gravitating towards until she realizes that the face is all wrong, the way they carry themselves, the way they speak – it's not Ichigo, Ichigo's gone.

It's the frustration with herself and everything else around her, however valid, that leads to her showing up at the therapist's office.

It isn't a good idea, and it's the first time she had to call the TA office to excuse herself from duties for the day because she can't get a handle on her own head that Rukia feels like an utter failure.

She doesn't stop crying.

The urge to run, run, run beats like a drum in her chest the morning after, and there's almost a primal reason as to why as she decides, hiding isn't good. Hiding is for the scared, and she doesn't want to be scared anymore.

It's tragically early; the sky still dark and the street lights still bright.

When Rukia checks her phone to see the time, it's to a message from Byakuya from the night before, another picture of their rescue dog cuddled up on Rukia's bed at their house. There's no caption, but that's nothing new. Her brother's never been one for too many words if any at all.

There're another two messages, both from Ichigo that she doesn't touch from the day of the not-date-date.

Her eyes feel hallowed out, skin loose and limbs heavy – like everything that's been keeping her going – her fear, her anxiety, her inadequacies – have just been sapped from her bones, pulled through her tears to leave her empty.

The aftercare of an appointment, regardless of how casual, sets her into motion.

The shower makes her feel a little better, and feeling too hollow to even consider food, Rukia takes her urge to constantly flee, and goes with it.

Rukia has never been big on exercise but she relishes the burn in her lungs, the ache of her muscles. It hasn't been long since she started her impromptu run, and she's already winded, but she tells herself she doesn't care, and it works.

There are a few people joining her on the pavement as the sun begins to break through the lingering night; some that speed past, some at a steady pace, some just walking the route with a seemingly exaggerated swing of their hips; none of them actually pay any attention to how red in the face she is – how hard she's breathing – and that's when she focuses on until she forgets.

Almost bitterly, she thinks that Yoruichi's advice in their meeting, in what the therapist referred to as her "getting to know you" consultation, had some merits. Distantly, Rukia thinks, maybe she'll actually set an appointment next time.

She runs until her mind quiets, shrinking only to the sound of her feet on the pavement, the steady thud-thud-thud in her chest, and by the time she gets back to the apartment, the reminiscences of apathy have subsided; the grief feels manageable. And then, it's not.

Karin is standing outside the apartment.

The younger woman has the same stance her brother adopts; defensive and hunched over as if preparing to be turned away, the same slant to their lip and the tense clench of their jaw. Rukia had always thought they didn't look particularly alike until then; she doesn't know if she's glad or not to be proved wrong.

When Karin looks up, she offers the same hesitant smile as Ichigo had the day before and gives up the same takeaway bag as last time.

"You don't need to -"

"It's yours," she interjects, abrupt and sharp, "Ichi-nii made it for you."

The outright stubbornness of it, of Karin insisting, of Ichigo still caring; Rukia can't refuse it, doesn't want to. The burden of it is heavy to carry. "Thank you."

Karin nods and doesn't wait for anything more when she turns away, but Rukia is asking before she can stop herself, "Ichigo – is he okay?"

Over the litany of you don't deserve, he's not yours, you're barely yours, you don't deserve –; Karin huffs out a breath; her forced neutrality finally slips to one of impatience. "As okay as he can be with a broken heart but that's…that's his deal."

It says something about her that she feels a flicker of hope in that, that she takes some pleasure from his pain – if he hurts even half as much as I do – stop itit's selfish, it's wrong, "I didn't mean for it to happen." And that, that she means.

"Intentions don't really matter in the aftermath, do they?" Rukia stiffens at the accusation, rebels at the thought. I didn't mean to, I didn't mean to. But Karin shakes her head. "I've known you for almost three years. Granted, it was mostly as your barista, but I have to admit, I didn't expect you to be so careless with other people."

"That's not…"

"True?" Karin supplies when Rukia's voice fails her.

Possible, she wants to correct. She's never let anyone in enough to be careless with them.

Karin disagrees, and it's with a bittersweet smile that she says, "Just because Yuzu and I like you for us, and for him, doesn't mean you like us or him, for you. And Ichi-nii, he isn't owed your feelings just because he's cared about you for as long as he has." She shakes her head, anger pulling at her mouth. "I want to fix it somehow. Not just for Ichi-nii, but for you too. Yuzu says you're always working, and I don't even see you anymore."

"I…I didn't think you'd want me there," Rukia says awkwardly.

With a sigh that's just a puff of pair that is both frustrated and annoyed, Karin huffs, "Well for what it's worth, we all still like you so you can come back – not just at Expresso, but Rukongai too. We like you, all of us. Whether you're dating Ichi-nii or not."

Thoroughly exhausted by the conversation, it seems, Karin sighs again, puts on a smile that's the most genuine Rukia's seen, and says, "We're aren't just Ichi-nii's sisters, or just his friends, we're yours too."

Rukia's too overwhelmed by it all to do anything but nod, and satisfied, Karin returns the gesture and goes.

By the time she places the takeaway bag on the counter, she's messaging Yoruichi to ask, is it selfish to want to get better for another person?

Depends, she replies, will you stop wanting to get better if that person is gone?

I don't know, is her honest reply.

Let me rephrase: are you wanting to get better to please them, or wanting to get better to be a better person for them?

Another message comes through to interrupt her, from Hisana, a picture of her brother and their rescue dog, seemingly in conversation as they sit across from one another at the breakfast nook. The caption reads: They're arguing over whether they should come and see you or not, let me know what you think!

Beside her, Shiro empties the takeaway bag, separating their coffee orders and dividing up the four cupcakes inside. The sticky note he rolls his eyes at but leaves for Rukia on the counter informs: Keep your hands off my sister and the sunflowers.

She huffs out a startled laugh, and its decided then and there:

I want to be a better person for them.

Good, Yoruichi approves, I'll see you tomorrow.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Have a good session.

Unlikely, she replies with a sardonic smile. Though she can practically hear his snort of disbelief before he says, I believe in you.

You're so mushy.

Thanks, it's the Shakespeare.

Therapy is hard.

Rukia had always known it would be, but she hadn't quite expected it to go the way it does.

There were sessions where she'd be nothing but combatant or even silent. There were sessions where all she could report was a sense of apathy or a sadness she couldn't put a name to that went beyond missing Ichigo or trying to acclimatize herself to life with people who insisted they were friends, even if a part of her was still struggling to understand why.

But knowing she had someone to go to even if they were being paid to withstand the onslaught of her mental and emotional hang-ups, was a relief.

"You're paying me because I'm qualified to deal with it," Yoruichi had said. "So, vent, so scream, so cry, so be. Nothing you say will hurt me which is not something that can be said for the people in your life. With them, you have to be careful because their emotional needs are on the line too. In these sessions and during my office hours, I'm here for you."

"Doesn't it get heavy carrying other people's burdens?"

"I don't carry anything," she had said, amused. "I'm like a personal trainer. I suggest ways to help, and I keep you company and yell at you if you slack while you do the actual work."

Which was just as well. Yoruichi had no time for any of her excuses or current coping mechanisms – "They're avoidance tactics," the woman tuts, "which would be fine if you were using them because your environment isn't safe enough to process things, but the fact that you don't process them at all is an issue."

After a pause to take a sip of her tea, she continues, "Think of humans in the metaphor of a pot, and life, like the stove it's placed on. We're all filled with hopes, dreams, desires, anxieties, and insecurities which is all completely normal. But once that stove is turned up – heat, representing stressful situations and external pressure – whether your pot bubbles over or not is up to you."

"I'm a pot," Rukia repeats, disbelieving.

"In the case of this metaphor: everyone is."

"Wouldn't everyone eventually bubble over then?"

"Not if you lift the lid to let some of the build-up out," Yoruichi says smartly, adding, "that's what processing is, by the way."

Rukia huffs at her tone, though in the three weeks since they started working together, she'd known it was going to happen. Yoruichi did not do soft-ball therapy; she said what needed to be said whether Rukia liked it or not. "If she doesn't suit you, you could always get another therapist until you find one who does," Hisana had said, but despite Rukia's grumbling, she couldn't fault Yoruichi's methods, or her approach to Rukia herself.

She'd been pushing everything down for so long, repressing 'bad' emotions and navigating through life with the intention of leaving as little of an impact as possible; and as a result, only causing damage to herself, and unintentionally hurting those around her.

"Internalizing the things that bother you only make it easier to bubble over, and when that happens, any little thing could set you off – the heat doesn't even have to be turned up to max; it could take anything from one missaid word to one thought overworked, and then you lose it for apparently 'no reason'."

"So, going zero to a hundred?"

"In a way," Yoruichi allows. "More like everyone thinking you're at say, 60, unaware that your 60 is actually an 80, or even a 90. From there, it doesn't take much to hit a hundred, does it? Alternatively, it could indeed be a 60, but if you're at 60 for a prolonged period of time, eventually, it's still going to get too hot. Eventually, you're still going to boil over."

It makes Rukia feel a mixture of relief – that she wasn't alone in her behaviors, that there were reasons behind some of her 'unreasonable' reactions in the past – and dumbfounded – that it could be explained at all.

"No one is broken, we just learn how to function differently. Some of it isn't healthy which is why you're here; because you know it isn't."

"And the first step to treating a problem is admitting you have one?" Rukia supplies with a quirk of her brow.

"Admitting you have one and then doing something about it," Yoruichi corrects. "Self-awareness is one thing, but there are people who use their mental health issues as a conscious crutch to explain away their own toxic behavior. Similarly, there are those who are aware of their mental health issues but can't separate themselves from it – using it as a form of identity or seeing it as a reason for why they're unique. It's very typical in creatives, actually."

"Is that why I'm drawing while we're having this conversation?"

She chuckles. "Some people get fidgety talking about their emotions or problems, art provides an outlet for the excess energy, makes them less nervous. Plus, I like your sketches."

Rukia chortles.

Since becoming a history major and signing up to become a TA, Rukia hadn't drawn as much. The last piece she'd ever done had been the one Hisana had managed to get into the gallery, the one Ichigo had bought and put on his skin…It was good to get back to it, and her parents couldn't even fault her for investing in art supplies again – hearing Byakuya tell them testily that, "It's self-care" had been worth the argument.

"So, have you spoken to Ichigo?"

"Does messaging count?"

"If it's honest, communication is communication," she declares with a shrug. "I'm proud of you."

The corner of Rukia's lips quirks in a smile, letting herself feel the warmth of the praise, actively banishing the typical thought that deprecated it. For a while, they said nothing, only the scratch of lead against paper before, "You want to know what happened?"

"Only if you want to." While she would push for Rukia to examine the cogs of her own psyche, Yoruichi would only ever shine a light where she was directed.

"Therapy is only as useful as your willingness to do it," was the mantra Yoruichi had her repeating. Something she didn't quite understand until it sunk in how uncomfortable her own issues made her, how she wanted to clam up or get defensive. Rukia had learned that she had to mentally prepare each time to know which beast to tackle, which battle to fight.

Today, Rukia chooses him, "Ichigo said he understands, that he's happy for me." It was said with a tinge of confusion, and not a small amount of awe. "Outside of my family, he's the only person that knows I do this."

"Would you have told him if he didn't tell you that he goes to therapy too?"

If Ichigo was any other person, maybe. Telling someone you went to therapy felt too much like telling them that something was wrong with you. Not so with him. Never with him. "Yes."

"Do you discuss our sessions?"

"In broad terms." If it was good or bad; talking about how to get through it either way. "But mostly we just…talk." In the mornings to tell me that my order's ready, to tell him to get some rest; during the day to remind him to eat, to tell me not to kill anyone in the office; in the evening to tell him to be safe while at the station, to tell me  to get some rest. "I don't see him anymore though, but I see his sisters," she continues. "He's not avoiding me though. He got promoted, kind of? Apparently, they want him to officially join, not just as a volunteer, but he likes his library job. He still goes in to Expresso in the mornings but only to make his meal for the day which still includes the sunflower cupcakes he makes but leaves for Karin to give me."

"You said you like them right, they cheer you up?"

"Yeah," she confirms with a nod, and with a small smile, she adds, "When we were dating, I told him that I wanted flowers. Just because. When he asked which, I told him. When he asked why those, I told him that too. He hasn't stopped making them." At first, it had baffled her, made her uncomfortable at the thought that it made him uncomfortable until Karin had rolled her eyes and decreed, "You eat it, or I eat it, he only makes them for you two."

Which was then proceeded by this conversation:

You're going to therapy. It's hard. It gets sad. Sunflowers make you happy, let me at least give you that.

You don't need to give me anything, she'd protested, it's not your responsibility to make me happy.

We're friends, of course, it is.
Unless this really does make you uncomfortable, then I'll stop
So, here it is, you won't hurt my feelings: Do you want me to stop?

It took some parsing through especially when her initial response had been, do what you want, to decide why she was so hard-pressed to answer a simple question: because a part of her didn't want to take responsibility for what it meant: He still cares, and so do I

It reminds her of their breakfast dates. It reminds her of him. And maybe one day that memory will hurt. But that day isn't today.

No.

Okay.

"Probably because right after therapy tends to be a bad day," Yoruichi teases.

"Well it isn't necessarily a good day," she returns. It was emotionally draining if nothing else.

Sometimes her body would be physically exhausted afterward while her mind buzzed, turning the whole session over and over. Her inability to handle criticism meant that for quite a bit of time after the session she'd attempt to poke holes at it; justifying her past self's actions until she couldn't – until she had to ask herself why she was defending things so furiously when the aftermath of them had already past.

The answer came clear in her mind: She hoarded her mistakes; it was easy to hurt her because she was still hurting herself after the deed was done.

Self-awareness was step one, taking responsibility for it was step two.

She was working on it.

With that said, it made it difficult to plan for her day when Rukia couldn't figure out what her emotional state would be, but it was a sacrifice she was willing to make. Fortunately, having the discipline to follow a routine was actually a coping mechanism she had that was healthy.

"Our time's up. How'd you do?" Yoruichi asks, and Rukia examines the sketch – a wave formed to look like a hand, reaching for a boat.

"Do they mean anything, what you end up drawing during these sessions?" Rukia asks.

"Sometimes. It depends what you see in it, and why you see it."

Rukia turns her sketchbook so that Yoruichi can see the end result, something she doesn't always do and Yoruichi never pushes for. "It's the Tempest."

"Like Shakespeare?"

"He…Ichigo has Shakespeare tattoos, and one of them is mine, also the Tempest," she says slowly.

Despite the end of their session, Yoruichi asks, "So, what's the take away from drawing the Tempest?"

"Well, the main theme of the play was justice," Rukia began, "but it's in actuality a metaphor for stories themselves, or rather the people that write them; how you view things to fit personal narratives, how you want people to see you, and how you want to see yourself."

Yoruichi hums and Rukia would think that the therapist was disappointed with the conclusion until she bids Rukia goodbye with, "That sounds like a good metaphor for recovery."

Rukia decides she thinks so too.

She carries her sketchbook out, fingers tangling in the ringed spine as she walks, mechanically, purposely into Ink Inc.

She's never been into a tattoo parlor until that moment, and she doesn't know what to expect. Something stereotypically grungy and darkly lit, maybe. But the opening room is bright and white, tattoo designs done up on canvases instead of skin, hung up like art like the walls of a gallery.

The floor is almost sterile with its white floors and walls, punctuated by the black frames of the displayed tattoo designs. The sitting area is equally monochrome with black leather couches and black and white throw pillows, the only things to break up the color scheme is a collection of blood red leather-bound books on the glass table – one of them open to show more tattoo designs.

From the middle door of three facing into the reception area, a girl with green hair and hazel eyes comes out, flashing a friendly smile. "Good morning, can I help you?"

"Un," Rukia says approaching the counter that the girl comes to stand at – a glance at her name tag reads Nel – she opens her sketchbook and says, "I'd like to get this done please."

"Ooh, it's beautiful," she says, her delighted surprise making Rukia flush. "Wait, did you do it yourself?"

Rukia confirms that she did, getting Nel to say, "That's amazing! Well, I can book you in with someone who does this kind of style, her name's Riruka. You'll basically talk it through with her – where you'd like it done, how you want it done and any adjustments to the design she'll need to do to make it happen. There's a consultation fee for that session, and from there you'll make another appointment for when you actually want the ink done. Price will depend on the size, intricacy of the design and how long it'll take to do which she'll discuss with you."

She blinks a little, overwhelmed, though Nel continues to smile sweetly before concluding, "Riruka is actually busy with one of our regulars right now though. Do you want to come back to discuss it with her, or would you rather wait?"

That is much faster to process than the rest of the information so Rukia's quick enough to remember that she still has a class to shadow with Professor Ukitake, and so she opts to come back, though before she can say so, one of the other doors made of glass, opens and a woman with magenta hair sticks her head out. "Oi, Nel -"

"Ah, there she is," she interjects, taking the sketchbook to her co-worker. "Ri, check this out! Doesn't it look cool?"

Riruka, apparently; looks impatient until she sees the design and then she's grabbing it, glancing back into the room she just left, and then looking at Rukia. "Hey, you, did you do this?"

Too surprised to be offended at the other woman's rudeness, Rukia confirms that she did before the woman disappears inside the room, spiriting her sketchbook away as she does.

It doesn't take more than a minute for Rukia to process what just happened that she follows her into the room without hesitation – too fast for Nel to stop her, and too hopped up on the sudden spike of adrenaline to realize that Riruka probably wouldn't keep her sketchbook forever – and gaping.

Riruka looks more impatient than annoyed at being followed, but Rukia forgets about the other woman entirely because on what is probably a tattooist's version of a couch, Ichigo's lying there, with his brows furrowed as he's presented with Rukia's sketchbook. The page is open to the Tempest while his version, in bright swirls of watercolor blue, beautiful and haunting, contrasts with the golden tan of his exposed skin.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

"You're a coward."

Rukia doesn't so much as look up sharply, a barb on her tongue, as much as she sighs in defeat and bows her head in shame. "I know."

"Cut her some slack," Rangiku says with a sigh. "love makes people do stupid things." At Rukia's look of dismay, the buxom blonde slings her arm around Rukia's neck. "If it makes you feel better, Ichigo was worse." At that, Rukia's look became more pointed, though Rangiku only smiles inanely and continues to pat her arm as if consoling her over an inside joke she thinks Rukia is part of.

In the corner counter next to them, Nanao sighs before she pats Rukia's arm too, and despite the physical contact, Rukia's never felt so left out.

Regardless, with the matter at hand, it hadn't been Rukia's intention to run out, sans sketchbook, like a bat out of hell. She just…needed to get to her class, that's all. She was already running late thanks to her detour to the tattoo parlor. Though, not late enough to feasibly turn down the cup of tea Nanao slid her way with a worried furrow in her brow.

Rangiku, escaping her professor, had shut the door behind her to the office with a dramatic sigh, and had she'd taken one look at Rukia's face and asked what was wrong.

Everything. Nothing. Me. Him. I don't know.

Despite the confusion, Rangiku dragged them into the small kitchen adjacent to the Teaching Assistants' Office, and kicked everyone out, locking the door behind them before turning to Rukia with a serious expression.

Rukia doesn't know what sets her off, actually; what makes her decide to spill her guts to people who are neither her family nor her therapist or even Ichigo for that matter. Maybe it was the healthier version of the misunderstood "zero to a hundred" analogy Yoruichi had talked about. Maybe she's just finally done with pretending Ichigo hasn't completely turned her life upside down.

Either way, Rukia cracks like an egg, and by the end, she feels ridiculous and stupid and – look at you, shaken up and broken down by some boy.

But Rangiku's arm around her shoulders keeps her from flying apart and Nanao's steady, perpetually unimpressed calm, grounds her to what she knows, the bare bones: "You didn't need to run." Rukia groans. No matter how much she hates it.

"Well that's not going to help her now, is it?" Rangiku huffs, and Rukia can be forgiven for wanting to bury herself in the sympathetic shoulder the blonde offers, and hide in the comfort of self-pity Rukia has the bad habit of retreating into.

"I just needed to make sure she knows," Nanao smarts. "It's not a big deal you know," she tells Rukia, "running, I mean. We all do it. Fight, flight or freeze. It's biology."

With a sigh, Rangiku agrees, "Ichigo did it with you often enough."

Even when her mind flexes and reaches for reasons – instances – that Ichigo would even need to do that with her, she mutters, "That doesn't make me feel better."

"Yeah," Rangiku sighs, and she practically rolls her eyes with her whole body. "You'd think he'd have outgrown it in first year, but apparently not."

Her brows furrow and Rukia pulls away slightly to give the woman a confused look to accompany her baffled, "What are you talking about?" just to make sure there's nothing but clarity from here on out.

"You can't tell me he hasn't told you yet, you guys've been together for like a month."

"Two and a half weeks," she corrects, "but that doesn't -"

"No, no," the blonde huffs. "It's over a month now!"

"We broke up." At that, Rangiku trades a look with Nanao, and Rukia turns wary. "What?"

"Nothing, just," Nanao exhales loudly, "that explains why Kurosaki's been looking a little rough lately at the library."

Rangiku releases Rukia to hide her face with her hand. "Oh man, now I feel shitty for yelling at him."

Her brows furrow, her incredulity is enough for Rukia to exclaim, "You yelled at him?"

She raises her hands in defense. "Geez, sorry. At first, I assumed you guys were just bailing on us to spend time alone, and then I found out Ichigo's been at the Fire Department instead. So, then I figured you guys were just having a fight – about him taking more hours maybe – or if that was just how he was coping with being in the dog house. I didn't know you broke up."

A part of her shrivels up, that niggling fear that they were only concerned about her because of Ichigo blooms, poisonous and ferocious.

In kind, she wilts. "Is that…a problem?"

"Of course not," Rangiku waves off like it doesn't matter. "I just – he's my friend too and I feel like a total heel for giving him shit." Sighing, the woman shakes her head. "Ah, I'll apologize later. But now-now we've got you to deal with. So, what do we do about your situation?"

"You still…want to help me?"

The look she gives Rukia is loud enough that it rings you're actually an idiot, Kuchiki, as she adds with the tone to match, "Duh."

Nanao, though, shakes her head. "If you're asking me, I think it was a good idea you ran."

Rangiku splutters, "You just called her a coward."

"Hey, cowards live another day," she shrugs, readjusting her glasses. "It was a surprise, neither of you expected it. So, you weren't ready to face him, whatever. When you are, I'm sure you'll talk to him." When Rukia can neither confirm nor deny what future action she'll take, Nanao continues on, "Until then, you've got a class to focus on; Professor Ukitake isn't in today and the others can't make all his classes, so you'll be teaching a few."

Everything grinds to a halt.

"Wait, what?"

"You write his lesson plans, and you've been taking his student hours since you started; you'll be fine," Nanao waves off like its no big deal, and Rukia knows she's screwed when Rangiku nods in agreement.

"I've never – I haven't -" At her stricken expression, Nanao holds her steady as Rangiku soothes, "Plus side: this we can definitely help you with."

With a quick debrief with the rest of Professor Ukitake's TAs, Rukia finds her footing with what she already knows as she coordinates with them over how the classes are going to be delegated, and with the more senior TAs' help (as well as Nanao and Rangiku's assistance), Rukia gives two blocks of lessons all on her own.

Strangely enough despite being a TA for most of the year, she's never had any aspirations in academia.

While Shiro, with his genius-level intellect, had immediately gravitated towards a goal in research, Rukia had only taken the TA post at an attempt to put herself out there more in an environment she was comfortable in.

Both Hisana and Byakuya had concerns, however, which was fair. She was, by her own admission, a horrible student, but she'd used her ability to pinpoint what was important to focus on as a way to pass her classes for the past few years, and it had served her well. Helping others get through their own rough patches with subjects she'd grown to love had always given her purpose in the hour-long bursts of tutoring sessions she led, but never as much as teaching a class of her own had.

Rukia almost felt buoyant at the end of the day.

Tired, but fulfilled – not happy, necessarily, but content – accomplished, enough.

It felt good.

"Teaching bug bit?" Nanao inquires with a raised brow, and Rukia smiles bashfully in return pretending to focus on her paperwork, a move that gets the other woman to shake her head with a chuckle.

Rangiku, for her part, rolls her eyes before lightly smacking Rukia in the shoulder with a handful of papers she was getting printed nearby. "Hey, don't get lame on me. You're the only one in this office I can stand."

"Careful Matsumoto, you'll hurt all three of my feelings," Nanao deadpans, and she muffles a smirk of her own as they snicker.

A knock on the door cuts their laughter short and upon looking up, Rukia feels herself go frozen all over again.

Ichigo's standing in the doorway like some kind of Calvin Klein model; bright hair tousled, skin golden and eyes amber bright.

His build fills the frame almost carelessly, though he's angled himself just enough that he doesn't actually block the door with his ridiculously defined body encased as it is in a pair of perfectly fitted jeans, heavy boots, his "good leather jacket" and a shirt he's thankfully wearing this time, just tight enough to show off the strength of his totally unnecessary biceps.

Though frankly, after seeing him shirtless earlier in the day, Rukia felt like the sight would be seared into the back of her eyelids. It isn't helped that the neck is a little wide on his shirt, just enough to catch a glimpse of those flowers blooming from where she now knows, is his heart, in a Shakespeare skull, while the edge of a white bandage winks tauntingly over his left pec.

Vaguely she thinks that there are words there, she's seen them before but not properly – not long enough to make them out –

"Kurosaki," Nanao interrupts voice flat but with undisguised warning. "What can we help you with?"

He raises his hand to show off his bounty: Rukia's sketchbook. "Just thought I'd drop this off." He doesn't make to enter any further, and with Rangiku standing at Rukia's side while she's still seated, she has the distinct expression that she's being guarded.

The thought would make her laugh if she didn't feel so grateful.

Standing, she squeezes Rangiku's arm and throws a smile Nanao's way. "I got it."

Rukia doesn't think she'll regret it when she cleans up her desk and slings her bag over her shoulder, doesn't think she'll regret it even when she brushes past him – rush of adrenaline be damned – not even as the two of them walk in silence, hands just barely brushing until they're outside the building, walking aimlessly to nowhere.

"So, this is going to happen, then?" she finally says.

"What?"

"Talking."

His lip twitches. "We've been talking."

"Not really." Avoiding is more accurate. "We talk because we don't want to not talk, so we talk about a whole lot of nothing instead."

He huffs out something like a laugh. "Therapy's treating you well I see."

"I'm emotionally maturing as we speak," she informs with more pomp than she can own which makes him snort nonetheless and she counts that as a win, and on the temporary high of knowing she can still make him smile, Rukia rectifies, "Though I may have lacked such maturity earlier on when I walked in on you…and I'm sorry, I legitimately didn't know you were in there."

"I figured."

"She just took my sketchbook and I – I don't know, I couldn't leave without it."

"And yet…" he trails waving it in her face, though when she reaches for it, he relents easily. "You drew something new."

"Therapy," Rukia explains lightly, blushing despite knowing that he'd seen the drawing at all, had been staring at it for several minutes before he'd even realized she was there. "It's a rough, but I like it and I like what it means."

"Figures your first tattoo would have a meaning," he snorts, and he bumps their arms when he slips his hands into his pockets. She nudges him back. "Well excuse me, Mr. Shakespeare, not all of us have an ink problem."

At that, he chuckles. "Well, it has to have meant something important for it to be your first. So, let's have it."

The sky is the color of orange candy floss, a trail of pink winding its way lazily through the clouds like a pastel ribbon trying to corral them together in a bouquet before the sun disappears into the horizon; shadows growing steadily longer to chase after it.

"Recovery," she answers simply. "This is my story, I get to write it. I get to see it and take away from it what I want, for better or for worse. Therapy reminded me of it."

"Thought is free," he echoes.

Of course, he could quote it, she thinks with an amused eye roll. "A lot of the play applies," she says, and when she closes her eyes, she can practically see the lines of it, the curls of the waves, the hand is formed to smash the boat into bits – or perhaps reach for it, cradle it in seafoam palms and settle it into safety. "I like the Tempest," she concludes.

And like it isn't the most absurd thing he's ever heard, Ichigo nods in acceptance and he exhales a laugh that sounds about as surprised as she expects. However, there's a smile that she spots, curling at that spot at the corner of his lips where all his smiles tend to hide, and Rukia thinks he understands until he murmurs to himself, "Ironic."

"What's ironic?"

He huffs, their footfalls all she hears for a few minutes until he says, "Ask me about my first."

And as much as she looks at him, blatantly judgemental, his smirk gets her to roll her eyes and gamely oblige, "Gee, Ichigo, what was the meaning of your first?"

"What makes you think it had a meaning?"

She screws up her expression. "You just said it had to have one if it's your first."

"I didn't say it applies to me," Ichigo returns, and she flashes a scowl his way in disbelief. Unbelievable, she exhales, and he smirks like he heard her say it. Ass. "My first was this one." He taps over the bandage. "Its been a while since I got it done so I wanted it touched up."

"And it is…"

"An Ever-fixed mark," he recites looking straight ahead, the horizon burns in the distance setting his face aglow. "I got it for my mom, first year of college." The sky doesn't darken for a while after, and they don't talk again until it does, as if he wants the next words to be said in the cover of darkness, like a secret he can't bear to share in the light. "That looks upon tempests and is never shaken," he completes and his eyes flicker to hers. "I got that for you."

The night sky has started to bleed from the open wound of the sun, and Rukia is blinking back the shadows that yawn in its wake. It does nothing to soften the whiskey gold of Ichigo's eyes.

"Me?"

"The fire; it wasn't the first time I met you." He takes a breath. "You called the Fire Department about a week before about a dog, do you remember?"

"Of course, I made my brother adopt him."

His lips curl in that smile again. "Yeah, I figured…"

"But how do you -"

"I was the one that had to wrangle her out." His smile widens at the memory. "You almost took Grimmjow's head off when he suggested otherwise. I think you argued with him the whole time I was getting the dog out."

Oh god, her cheeks heat ruddily in embarrassment. "I…"

"You made me take you with to the vet after," he continues. "And you were so worried about the dog that when the vet told you they had to amputate her, you didn't want to leave, and you snapped at me for even suggesting that you should. I didn't think I'd see you again after that."

He shook his head, his smile dimming. "And then the actual fire happened and…I remembered you from then." She doesn't know when they stopped walking or when they decided to turn towards each other, but Rukia can see a furrow in his brow even in the encroaching darkness. He licks his lips. "I didn't need medical attention, so they let me go early and I met up with a few of the people from the dorm and…none of them were looking for you, none of them even knew your name."

Rukia breathes in sharply, blinks back the phantom burn behind her eyes.

It's nothing she hadn't already known, none of it is really a surprise but still, the reminder of being so invisible…

Ichigo powers through the strain in his own voice, "I kept thinking the entire time that you've had the shittiest year if no one had ever bothered to reach out, that no one had even seen you; first with the dog and then with the fire, and all I just – I kept thinking if I hadn't found you – what if…"

She remembers his mother and her throat burns. "Ichigo…"

The streetlights flicker on, and she thinks she sees his eyes turn glassy before he looks away, talking to the shadows that still linger, "I drove everyone crazy for hours, and I couldn't even tell them why until Karin and Yuzu got it out of me that it was because of some girl whose name I didn't even know." He huffs out a laugh. "They…they suggested I go see you, just to make sure you didn't wake up alone because…I didn't want you to wake up alone."

She swallows, and his smile is almost heartbreakingly soft.

"You weren't though. Your family was there, and instead of being sad or angry about anything that had happened to you-you were just – you were making your sister laugh, and you were teasing your brothers, and your parents were crying. And you were in the middle of it all: in that hospital bed; covered in bruises and ash; still coughing up tar and telling everyone else it was going to be okay." Ichigo shakes his head. "You were unbelievable."

"You brought the sunflowers," Rukia realizes.

It's the first time he blushes. "Yuzu said I couldn't visit you empty-handed."

Again though, he shakes his head. "Anyway…by then, I…I'd stopped therapy. I was stubbornly convinced it wasn't helping and that I didn't need it, but then I met you and suddenly it didn't make sense for me not to go, not when I wasn't really trying in the first place. You went through one of the worst weeks of your life and... you looked upon tempests and weren't shaken."

Rukia opens her mouth to argue with him, but he's gently insistent, "Whether or not you broke down crying every day, panic attack after panic attack; that day, you became my reminder that I couldn't grieve for my mom forever, that I couldn't keep chasing fires in hopes of chasing her ghost, and that I couldn't heal if I was too stuck in my own head to try and get better. Whether you knew it or not, you saved me the same day I saved you."

"Why…why didn't you ever tell me? Why didn't you ever…?" She trails and she recalls, in bits and pieces, all the times other people have alluded to this long-time crush of Ichigo's that she was sure was nothing more than teasing, sure that it was nothing at all.

And Ichigo seems to know that that's what she's been doing the whole time by the sadness playing around his eyes. "I wasn't…I wasn't ready for anything then. Honestly, I wasn't much of a person then, just a walking, scowling, angry kid too sad to be anything else. I didn't think you'd want to be around me.

And…I liked you, the idea of you particularly, and for a while, that's all I wanted you to be, and it wasn't fair; it wasn't healthy or right. It was…cowardly and selfish, but you couldn't hurt me if you were nothing but fiction, nothing more than something I projected – but that wasn't what you are, you're a person, and I didn't want to risk hurting you to justify fixing myself. So, I stayed away."

He huffs a little then, chuckling lowly. "Though that didn't stop everyone that knew about it from trying to get to know you or teasing me about it – and it wasn't like my sisters ever forgot about you when they got accepted here."

She licks her lips, her mouth dry. "What changed though? You planned to stay away from me but then…"

"Nothing changed," he says. "Except Rangiku getting that message from you saying you were coming out to one of the parties, and I thought why not now? Why couldn't I just go up to you and get to know you like I wanted to? Four years…it's a long time to grow out of an image of someone, an idea of them on my skin or not. I didn't know if I'd like the person I'd meet that night, but I haven't stopped liking you since."

Rukia swallows. "You were…a lot more mature than I was then."

"Not without help," he admits with a wan smile.

"Were you ever going to tell me?"

"I was always going to tell you, I would've felt like I was lying to you otherwise. Hell, I kind of thought I wouldn't have to say a thing with the way everyone's always talking shit." At that, he scowls, but he's rubbing the back of his neck in that tell-tale sign of nervousness, and she can't stop the near hysterical giggle that bursts from her lips.

"I…I don't know what to do with all this," she declares.

"Anything you want," he tells her, and the laughter dies in her throat in the face of his serious expression. "Whatever you want – whether it's for me to stay or go – that's up to you."

"And what do you want?"

Ichigo chuckles, "I've had four years to fall in love with the idea of you, and about a month to do it for real. I could keep going if you let me, but only if you feel the same."

"I'm not the easiest person to love, you know." Despite it, she's taking one step forward.

He rolls his eyes, the tips of their shoes against the other. "Trust me, I've been trying to stop since I met you."

"Are we talking about when you met me before the fire, at the fire or after the fire?" Rukia asks, having to tilt her head to keep their eyes locked. Their noses brush.

Between one breath and the next, one careless brush of his lips against hers. "All the above; every day, right now."

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Among the Constellations, was Hisana's latest gallery opening, and while Rukia worried that it wasn't Ichigo's version of a good time, bringing it up with him at all had been a lot harder than she'd thought it would be.

Partially because, as she suspected – Ichigo had never been avoiding her in the weeks after their break-up. He still wasn't sure whether he wanted to take up the offer by the Fire Department to officially join but had managed to buy some time to think about it until after graduation. That said, he was still juggling more hours at the library as a result of the upcoming exam season, and Rukia herself had her hands full dealing with classes she was taking, not just as a student but as Professor Ukitake's more recognizable of replacements among his group of TAs. That wasn't even taking into account Rukia's regular therapy sessions and the stolen moments Ichigo used to keep stuffing them with cupcakes.

Their time together had been limited then, to eating meals at the apartment in a bid to avoid being dragged out into a party at Rukongai, and studying, intermittently cuddling and passing out on the couch with Netflix still on. (Which Shiro mocked them about relentlessly. It was a miracle Ichigo hadn't stabbed her brother after Karin and Shiro got caught drawing on his face with a marker come morning.)

The main reason, however, was actually because Rukia was an idiot who overthought things entirely too much and Ichigo was too much of a gentleman to get in her way.

"It isn't a big deal," she'd said, doing a terrible job of bringing it up casually. "I've just been looking forward to it. But I know you've got a pretty packed schedule, and walking through a gallery and meeting my family in an official capacity isn't exactly what anyone would want to do on one of your free nights off, but -"

He raised his brows when she abruptly cut herself off at the smug look of amusement on his face.

"Hisana already asked you to come, didn't she?"

"She did, but you were so cute trying to ask me out," he teased with a kiss on her nose.

"I hate you," Rukia declared, trying to smother him with a pillow, only for him to easily overpower her and cage her in his arms, her squeal of indignation muffled by his chest.

"Go to sleep, you're violent when you're tired."

"You're a jerk," she'd grumbled, begrudgingly nuzzling into the warmth of him, already dozing under the spell of his faded cologne and the soothing hand he was sliding up and down her back. Only vaguely did she fret over how he always seemed like the well-adjusted, level-headed one between the two of them while she seemed to always be a constant mess. It was a relief in some ways, but hardly a fair one.

Rukia wasn't the only one with insecurities, after all.

"You know," she trails just as they step into the reception area of the gallery, "you don't have to do things just because I like them."

"That seems like a perfect reason to do them," he retorts with a lazy smirk.

Rukia rolls her eyes, holding her to him by their hooked arms, her hand sliding easily into his as she looks up at him. "I mean it, though, the last two times we went out it was for things I wanted to do."

"Technically they were things your sister heavily suggested I do," Ichigo corrects, their fingers easily threading together before he lifts their hands to kiss her knuckles. "Besides, they make you happy, why would I say no to that?"

Suppressing the urge to deny how happy it does actually make her for some unfathomable reason probably related to her recently unearthed self-worth issues, Rukia chuckles bashfully at his affection before tugging him along. "I'm just saying, we can do stuff you want too."

"I'm a simple guy with simple pleasures. Even if your couch kills my back, hanging out with you and watching series is about as wide as my interests go," he admits.

"My interests are limited to looking at stuff because I think they're pretty," she points out.

"Explains why you stare at me so much."

She snorts but doesn't deny it, a fact that turns him bashful just as quickly.

"And for someone with so few interests," Ichigo adds in a tone that suggests otherwise, "you've got a diverse Netflix line-up. I should've asked sooner, but what's the link between your serial killer fascination and 90s American sitcoms?"

"I'm getting ideas from the first and using the laugh track in the second as mood music."

"You're terrifying," he informs, all fondness, and it's her turn to smile.

"Despite our very limited overlapping interests," Rukia says, "I hope you'll like this." The crowd around them hushes in near reverence as they step through the darkened doorway and are promptly enveloped in black.

Their clasped hands tighten around the other reflexively.

Someone ahead of them steps forward and where they step seems to glow a faint gold, each step that follows thereafter, of them, and everyone that trails behind them, lights up too and quiet gasps fill the cold room until a phrase upon a wall declares in curving starlight: My soul is in the sky.

Almost as one, the lights flicker on around the room as effortless as a blink, setting alight the suspended displays in bits and pieces of wavering wavelengths of color.

He squeezes her hand as he turns them slowly around, wanting to take it all in by following the movement of technicolor. Ichigo spins her slowly as a result – almost like they're dancing right in the middle of the infinity of the cosmos itself, and she can't stop the burst of a giggle as he swoops to press his lips against her temple.

"You like it?" she asks against his skin.

"It's beautiful."

Constellations contained to earthbound glass and spun from near-invisible wires hang throughout the room – every lazy blink of illumination, gentle as the twinkle of a lightning bug – sets another celestial body fit to burst under the proclamation: The fault is not in our stars.

From walls she's seen many a time, propped up with floor to ceiling modernist paintings, is instead replaced by dioramas of various collapsed stars moving almost hypnotically in mid-air, its entrails swaying like the near translucent arms of a jellyfish. The accompanying lines from Hamlet read, doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt thou the sun doth move.

As they walk and wander from one room to the next, the rooms grow steadily brighter, and the displays themselves rise to meet them. Suspended from the ceiling of what looks to be stone and iron and different fabrics the colour of a pastel painting; variations of fallen stars and comets burn the white skies around them in their wake. Like Icarus and his wax wings, trails of midnight silk – made to look like smoke – darker closer to the art piece until it bleeds lighter and lighter, expands around the remaining space, stretched out like the last vestiges of twilight towards the last door, a breaking dawn.

The final room is empty of art, almost blindingly bright in its hollowness until, towards the exit, the display bids them farewell with the reminder:

It is not in the stars
to hold our destiny

The whispered discussions of the other gallery-goers adds to the hush, and Rukia asks in kind, "What did you think?"

Ichigo exhales. "For a guy who wrote a lot of dick jokes, he's pretty profound." And to that Rukia snorts, and it's like a dam has broken through as the voices around them lift to fill the reception area once more.

Though Rukia spots Hisana, her sister-in-law is busy with a bunch of well-dressed members of the gallery board, and when one of them glances their way, looks Rukia up and down and then outright laughs before whispering to her partner, Rukia rolls her eyes and steers Ichigo away.

She's too annoyed by the blatant snobbery to notice how Ichigo's stiffened against her but is grateful when he suggests not five minutes later that they head out.

He's quiet on the walk back which works out just fine because Rukia's feeling particularly talkative as she usually is after a gallery viewing, and she's thankful that they didn't take Ichigo's bike to get here when she's using one of her Yoruichi-approved "drown the two minute bad thing in the bucket load of good things" coping mechanism.

By the time they reach Rukongai, she's tired out, and though it's still early enough that most of tonight's party is still sober, Ichigo's seems particularly focused in getting back to his room that no one tries to drag them into joining.

Rukia's in the middle of shedding her jacket when she spots something on Ichigo's bed, and then promptly forgets about anything else as she bounds over gleefully. "You kept Chappy!"

"You won him for me," he says in defense and shakes his head with a poorly veiled smile as she squishes it against her chest.

"Thanks for coming with me," she says against Chappy's plush as he takes his time to remove his outer layers – taking care to hang his jacket up and toe off his boots, before leaving her on her own in his bed as he heads into the adjacent bathroom.

Though she's comfortably propped up against his pillows, Ichigo's Chappy in her arms and his laptop on the nightstand, she hesitates about reaching for it and turning it on and asks first if she can, to which he simply grunts a non-answer. Rukia's frown only deepens when Ichigo comes out of the bathroom, his face drawn; expression carefully blank.

"What?"

"What, what?" he parrots back.

"Real mature," she informs with a roll of her eyes before patting the empty space beside her in invitation, which he accepts albeit not without some reluctance. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"Ichigo," she began growing more concerned as he avoided her eyes. Almost frantically she recalls the night in its entirety, hoping that if he won't tell her then perhaps she'll figure it out for herself, but nothing sticks out to her, and she sighs. Pulling at his unwilling arms, she opens them just enough to stick Chappy in them and then tugging them closed in a hug. Ichigo looks down at his arms in a mixture of surprised bafflement at the plushie who's ears tickle his nose, but he's looking in her direction which is good enough for her as she settles into his line of sight and fixes him with a look.

The silence stretches, and at the miniscule twitches in his expression, she grins and prods, "Come on Ichigo, tell me…"

"It's stupid."

"No doubt." Rukia knows the insecurity tugging at his eyes as easily as she knows it in hers. "But tell me anyway."

"I know it isn't even true."

"Then you'll have no problem telling me."

"Rukia," he sighs, and there's a flush at his neck even as he rolls his eyes.

She mocks in return, "Ichigo!"

With another sigh and a scowl at his mouth, he informs her, "You aren't embarrassed to be seen with me." Rukia pops the "p" in her cheerful, "Nope" which gets the scowl to soften but not to disappear. "You like the way I dress."

"I do," she concurs.

"And you don't care that a bunch of strangers see us together."

Considering the first part of their relationship, fake or otherwise, involved being seen as often as possible, suggesting that it bothered her at all was frankly ridiculous, but insecurity had no need for logic so Rukia gamely agrees, "Not a whit."

By now, the scowl is mostly gone, but he still sounds uncertain, "And you don't care what they think?"

At that, she's slower to answer, "Only about me, but I'm working on it." To that admission, he seems satisfied, but her curiosity lingers, "What's this about, Ichigo?"

"I don't know if you've noticed, but you're out of my league."

The response is so out of left field that she laughs out, "What?" When he only looks at her, as if his stare is enough of an argument to the contrary, Rukia points out, "Are we forgetting that you're an emotionally mature guy who's responsible, openly caring and loving, who also happens to be extremely good looking, funny and smart?"

"But you're -"

"Recently checked into therapy, incredibly work orientated and so introverted that this is the first time in my life I've had more than one friend at once. Yeah, I'm aware." And while Rukia has learned that self-deprecation helps her least of all, she's personally quite proud of the level of honesty she's able to own, even if Ichigo is frowning again.

"If I can't talk shit about myself you can't either."

"But I'm not -"

"Nope," he interjects, forgetting about Chappy entirely to wrap her in a hug, nuzzling into the curve of her neck until she's squirming and laughing, the comforting weight of him pressed against her front.

"You're the worst," Rukia accuses.

His breath is warm against her skin as he grumbles back, "I told you it was stupid."

Carding her fingers through his hair and smoothing out the tension in his back with her free hand, she murmurs back, "If it makes you sad it matters to me, I don't care how stupid you think it is." He doesn't reply, only tightens his arms around her as she leaves an absent kiss against his forehead before nudging him slightly, so their noses brush and their eyes meet. "Promise me you won't pretend you're okay when you aren't."

"Ironic since we only got together pretending in the first place," Ichigo reminds with a hint of a smirk.

"Promise me," Rukia insists against his mouth, far more serious than this conversation has been so far, and it doesn't hit her when the words come out what she's asking for – what's she's promising in return – until it does.

No more running. No more hiding. All in.

Ichigo seems to taste the weight of it in the tremble of her lips, and he withdraws just enough that their foreheads touch. His eyes are a warm honey gold, his smile achingly soft before he promises in kind, "No more pretending."