With the power of conviction, there is no sacrifice.
They traveled the short distance to the crematorium on foot. Ichigo was still too small to help carry the casket, but they’d let him walk alongside the pallbearers, one hand resting gingerly on the side of the black lacquered box that held his mother’s body. He tried not to imagine the body inside: swollen and bruised, legs broken and grotesque beneath the pristine kimono they’d dressed in her in after the fact. Instead he tried to imagine his mother whole and smiling happily, the way she had when she’d been alive. The way that Ichigo imagined she would when she came to say goodbye to him in the afterlife.
…except that she hadn’t. Days had passed, and his mother had never appeared before him as a ghost. He knew that Dad and the twins didn’t see ghosts, so he hadn’t wanted to upset them by asking about it, but somehow he had expected his mother to come say farewell before she passed on. He tried to imagine why she hadn't come.
Maybe she had passed on already, and was already happy and doing whatever it was that people did in the afterlife. Maybe she was mad at him for screwing things up so badly. Maybe she had already forgotten him.. He bit his lip. The skin there was wet and salty.
He looked up as Isshin’s broad arm wrapped across his shoulders, holding him still. He realized they were finally at the crematorium.
“This is as far as we go,” Isshin said, ruffling his son’s hair.
“But..” Ichigo looked after the casket in alarm.
“It’s all right. They’ll do the rest.”
Ichigo watched as the empty shell of his mother slid further from view, toward the open mouth of the flames.
“No,” he heard his voice tremble. Isshin held him a little tighter. “No,” he said again, a little bit louder. The tears were flowing in earnest now. “Give her back!”
He could hear himself screaming, his voice echoing plaintively down the empty halls.
“Give her back, give her back!”
The rain was coming down heavier now than it had been before. Rukia wasn't sure if the tempo of the storm had increased or if the rain simply felt more aggressive out here on the open ground without the shelter of the trees, but the drops felt heavier, thicker. She could hear them thudding against the canvas of the palette she pulled behind her like a strange and frantic drum beat.
The ground was slick and wet, and her feet made sticky sloshing noises with each step. The palette slipped along after her like a snake, flattening the grass down until it caught in the mud and leaving a long smooth trail in it's wake.
I'm sorry, Kaien-dono, /she thought. /I'm sorry for dragging your body through the mud like this. If I were stronger, maybe I could carry you. I'm sorry for being so weak.
It was weakness, after all, that had prompted her to run. Weakness that she had been able neither to save him nor to fight him. Ordinary, understandable, commonplace weakness.
That wasn't the weakness that scared her. The weakness that scared her, lurked in the back of her mind no matter how she tried to ignore it, was the weakness she had felt when she was confronted with that contorted face, the horrible rasp of its voice: "I'll start by eating you first!"
And for a second, she had wanted to give in, had wanted to let the thing eat her. Eat her whole and consume her and be done with it. Because really, what part of existence was worth going on with without Kaien?
She'd been a bit wary of her vice-captain at first, Kaien had been a maelstrom of energy and ideas, and she had found his enthusiasm a bit overwhelming at times. He threw her a little off kilter, teasing her to such embarrassment that she'd wanted to flee his presence on more than one occasion. Yet she had kept coming back, drawn in by his warmth and his sunny disposition. Over time she'd found that was exactly those qualities, that overwhelming enthusiasm, that made her want to get out of bed each morning and see what the day would bring. Gradually her loneliness and isolation had slipped away to be replaced by a happy camaraderie. Kaien's eccentricity had become a natural part of her life.
The thought of being alone again was unbearable.
But it was more than that. The hollow had twisted Kaien's body, perverted his face, his energy, his reiatsu. The thing before her had been Kaien, and yet not Kaien. It had taken everything good and wonderful about him and turned it into a sick parody, everything that she had learned to love was suddenly lewd and grotesque.And she had been momentarily drawn to it, because despite all that, it had still been Kaien. Killing him outright would have been better, she thought. Better than twisting him like that.
Captain Ukitake had been right; she should have stayed out of it.
The Shiba estate gradually became visible in the distance. Rukia noticed that the rain had begun to let off. Her tears seemed to have run dry as well. She was sure she must be covered in blood, but she had no mirror to check and the rain made it difficult to distinguish between wetnesses. With a great weariness, she found that she really didn’t care.
Shiba Kuukaku was standing outside. No doubt Captain Ukitake had already sent her notice. The expression on her face reminded Rukia of Byakuya; dignified and impassive. She wondered if her own brother’s expression would change if her body were being brought home bloody and broken.
Behind Shiba-dono she caught sight of a child, wide gray eyes peering out from under a mop of shaggy hair. Kaien had had a brother, too, she remembered. She could feel his eyes on her. She must look like a demon, she thought, soggy and covered in blood and carrying the body of his only brother on a mud-soaked sling of canvas.
His eyes were glassy, and the moonlight reflected sharply in his gaze. He looked down at her bundle with apprehension. She could see his lower lip begin to tremble. Rukia expected him to cry, but instead he clenched his fists and swallowed the sob. When he looked up at her again, Rukia could see the hate in his eyes.
Good, she thought. Let him think it’s my fault. He could hate her, lay all of his blame on her. It didn’t matter. Anything was better than letting this little boy see that twisted version of Kaien that in no way resembled his brother.
The middle school building in Ichigo’s section of Karakura was typical in every way. The long, boxy, beige tiled building sat in an L shape at the corner of the school lot, strategically designed so that both teachers and administrators could observe the playground and sports fields from the convenience of their offices. The hallways were decorated with the typical hand-drawn fliers for activities and school elections, broom closets filled with the typical kinds of cleaning materials. And just like every typical middle school, Ichigo’s school had a certain requisite number of hiding places, discovered and rediscovered over the years by students looking for solitude. Ichigo’s favorite was the topmost landing of a stairway in the southeast corner of the building which no one ever used.
He’d started coming up here after they’d first read Shakespeare in his Classics class. Intrigued, but too embarrassed to openly admit to actually liking something stuffy like old poetry, he’d sought out someplace private to read in his spare period. Ichigo had since spent countless hours in this very spot, pouring over the pages in fascination until the spine of the textbook started to crack and the pages began to look dog-eared. Even after they’d left the chapter on Shakespeare behind Ichigo had continually returned to it, reading and re-reading.
This week they’d started on Euripides.
Ichigo sat in the back corner of the landing, book closed and sitting on the cement floor next to him. This time he didn’t even need to re-open it, he remembered the story clearly.
How long hath he laid upon this couch?/
Ever since he spilt his mother’s blood…
Orestes killed his mother with his own hand. The furies had descended upon him, bringing madness, torture, pain. His family had turned from him, adding bloodshed to bloodshed. And in the end, not even the gods had been able to save him from his fate.
Madness, torture, death… That was what a murderer deserved. He deserved to be punished, to pay for what he had taken with his own blood. It was only fair, a cosmic system of divine justice.
Ichigo sat on the cold cement and wondered when the furies would come for him.
When she had first moved into Ichigo's closet, Rukia had done a requisite amount of snooping. It was important, after all, for her to have a fairly firm grasp on her situation. Knowing some basics about his family had helped her plan her entries and exits, her baths, the occasional trip to the kitchen when Ichigo was being difficult. For the first week after she moved in she had kept careful tabs on what Yuzu wore, so that the next time she went digging for clothes she could find something to "borrow" which would not be immediately missed. She had also, as a matter of preserving both her health and sanity, figured out which towels belonged to Isshin and studiously avoided using them.
All of that was different from /spying/, which, truth be told, was what she was doing now.
That wasn’t exactly the case, she argued with herself. She was still gathering information on this world. So it made sense for her to follow and observe when Ichigo offered to go to the convenience store for groceries with his little sister. Besides, she needed to stay close to Ichigo in case there was a hollow alert.
But she’d noticed at once that Ichigo acted differently once it was just him and Yuzu. He was-softer, somehow. His hands were still buried in his jeans pockets, but somehow the stiffness of his usual gait had left him. Even the chain on his pocket swung differently. His scowl disappeared, and he even condescended to holding Yuzu’s hand when they crossed the street.
She tucked herself away behind a vending machine across the street as her two subjects entered the convenience store. Yuzu made her way through the store with the utmost efficiency, filling the little green basket with more experience and decision than was proper for an eleven-year-old girl. She and Ichigo stopped to consult over the ice cream freezer, and after some deliberation she added a few more items to the basket.
They took one last walk along the back wall and Ichigo grabbed the drinks that Yuzu pointed to in the top of the fridge. .
As they left the store and started home, Rukia was struck with the realization that she had seen something special, the tender side of Ichigo that was normally locked away from the world. And so even though it had not been her intention, in following along behind them she had intruded in something very private.
Rukia watched as the two figures retreated down the street in front of her. The sun still creeping down the edge of the horizon, and its last rays caught Ichigo’s hair, turning it into a violent halo of orange. He said something to Yuzu that made her clap her hands in delight. Rukia couldn't be sure, because Ichigo ducked his head as they turned the corner leaving her blinded by a face full of sunlight, but she had thought, for a second, that she saw him smile.
Ichigo threw his backpack down in the foyer, letting it fall with a thud. It had been A Long Fucking Day, and dealing with subtleties like putting his bag down gently was beyond him. There had been no fewer han five hollow attacks, four of them during school hours. At one point there had even been two of them on opposite ends of town, prompting Rukia to suggest they split up and try fighting one on her own. That plan had ended in a lot of cuts and bruises and a fair deal of extra work for Ichigo. She’d done her best to heal up both of their wounds, but there were still a few left untended, and the effort had made her snappy and irritable. He'd been plenty of both in return. The entire situation was exasperated by the fact that neither of them had gotten much sleep, since hollow number five had appeared sometime a couple of hours before sunrise.
Come to think of it, Rukia was probably going to give him shit for leaving without her after last period.
Oh well, /he thought, trudging up the stairs. /She can just fucking deal.
To Ichigo's surprise, Rukia was already upstairs, sprawled out on his bed. He was about to holler at her about staying off of his stuff when he realized that she was actually asleep.
That didn't really excuse her for being on his bed, but it was more difficult to be mad at someone who was asleep than someone who was awake. Particularly someone who looked so peaceful.
Ichigo was pretty sure she hadn't meant to fall asleep on his bed. She was crunched over awkwardly, and her legs were hanging halfway off of the bed, as if she'd sat down and nodded off unintentionally. He stared for a moment. She looked smaller when she was still like this instead of bounding around like a hurricane. He knew intellectually that she and Yuzu must be nearly the same size, but somehow he had always thought of her as being much more imposing. Now he noticed the slightness of her wrists, the light perspiration that had formed on her brow while she was sleeping. For the first time he saw that she had a scar on her right knee, old and healed, but faintly visible with the look of a mark that had been there for so long that the original incident had long since been forgotten. She had probably fallen out of a tree or something, her mused.
That single obstinate lock of hair was hanging in front of her eyes again, falling lightly across the bridge of her nose. Ichigo found himself fighting back the urge to go and push it back from her face. He shook his head. Obviously the lack of sleep was getting to him, too.
Ichigo closed the door gently and headed back downstairs. Maybe he'd just go watch TV for a while.
“This boy looks very much like him.”
It would be foolish to try and deny her brother’s words. It was clear for everyone to see. And yet over the course of the last month she had nearly forgotten the resemblance. It wasn’t that she had tried to push it from her mind, only that Ichigo had begun to look more and more like Ichigo to her, until the uncanny resemblance to Kaien faded gracefully into nothing like ink in a painting.
And yet with those words Byakuya had splattered a new mess of heavy black dots across her mind, each one bleeding and expanding until the original figure was hopelessly confused.
All the same, he looked nothing like Kaien now. He looked small, almost scrawny, laying there bleeding into the puddles on the pavement. The dingy glow of the streetlamps washed everything the same color, and yet somehow Ichigo’s hair retained its brilliance, even as his reiatsu faded around them.
His eyes were wide as he looked up at her, confused by her sudden betrayal. Rukia recognized that look.
She pulled her old aloofness around her like a mantle, letting it cover her. She had been right. She had stayed far too long in this world. She had gotten too involved.
She turned away, willing herself not to look back. It didn’t matter. There was nothing more she could do here. After all, she told herself callously as she stepped through the gate, she had already killed one man. What difference would two make?
It was indecently hot. The black of his robes soaked up the sun’s rays and pulled them in closer, making the cloth swelteringly hot against his skin. He had stopped caring about the sweat pouring down his back two days ago; it was indistinguishable from blood streaming down his sides, anyway. Neither of which were important now. The only thing he needed right now was to get up.
The air around him was heavy and stifling. Somewhere in the distance he thought he could hear a hum. Maybe it was just the blood throbbing through his head. He closed his eyes and concentrated.
To Ichigo’s senses, Soul Society was a jumble of strange and incoherent reiatsu, like a radio tuned in to a hundred different stations at once. But if he really focused, he could pick out a line here, a line there. There was Ishida, thin and concise, distinct from the usual noise of thousands of shinigami. There was Inoue, soft around the edges like the glow of dawn, and low and muted, but undeniably there, he could sense the quiet rumble of Chad. Ichigo strained his senses again, looking for the one thread that must still be there, the one that had brought him to this place.
He strained again.
It doesn’t matter. He pushed against the ground. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to get her back.
For the first time, he heard the tinkling of a bell in the air around him. He grinned.
/I’m going to get her back.
When Captain Ukitake sent a message late in the evening requesting her presence at a meeting, Rukia figured that it must be about Kurosaki Ichigo. Not because her connection to him was the only reason she could think of that the captain would be calling her into his office, but simply because everything nowadays seemed to have something to do with Kurosaki Ichigo. She had steeled herself, checked to make certain her uniform was straight, and followed the page who had come for her down the hall.
The page led her not to Ukitake's office, but to his private quarters overlooking the lake. The young girl announced their presence, showed Rukia inside, and quickly disappeared back down the long bamboo walkway, leaving her inside with Captain Ukitake, and to Rukia's surprise, a rather comfortably sprawled out Yoruichi.
"Kuchiki," he greeted her with a smile. "This is meant to be informal. Please make yourself comfortable." He gestured to the cushion across from him and poured her some tea. She tried to settled herself, but somehow the attempt at normalcy simply made her more apprehensive.
"You've read the brief on the arrancar?" he asked with no preamble. Rukia nodded, grateful he'd jumped straight to the point.
"It's been decided that we should send a team to the living world, both for the protection of the inhabitants there and a means of keeping tabs on the situation."
"You want me to go," she surmised
Ukitake nodded. "You've been nominated to be part of the team, given your experience in the living world and your connection to Kurosaki Ichigo. Captain Yamamoto feels that it's best for us to send an envoy immediately; we may need his help in this matter."
"I'll go, of course," she responded immediately.
The captain hesitated, exchanging a long glance with Yoruichi. "There's more you should know," his voice sounded heavy and serious.
She threw a quick glance at Yoruichi. "That boy has a hollow in him," Yoruichi told her from her spot on the floor.
The statement resounded meaningfully inside Rukia's head, it's echoes rippling deeper and deeper. She realized its truth with a sudden shock. She had known before, even if she had been unable to admit it to herself. She looked up. "I know."
Yoruichi's eyebrow quirked.
Rukia shook her head, eyes falling to her lap. "No one told me. But his reiatsu felt different. Different from before, and different from a regular shinigami's. I thought it was just because he wasn't properly dead. I ignored it."
Yoruichi tsked. "It's Kisuke's fault. Him and his damn experimental methods. I didn't even realize what he'd done until the boy was halfway through soul society. It has only been a minor inconvenience so far, but if it grows stronger it will become a problem. Ichigo will have to learn to keep it under firm control."
There was a short silence before Ukitake spoke again. "You are not required to go. I would not ask it of you if I didn't think you capable, but I will not ask you to do something you would rather not." He tucked his hands in his sleeves. "Take some time to think about it. I will respect whatever decision you come to."
Rukia looked up at him.
Ukitake smiled at her. "Go get some rest, Kuchiki."
She nodded, thankful for the dismissal, and escaped out into the evening air.
Two days, seven hours and an indeterminate number of minutes. Two days, seven hours and change since the hulking figure with the hole in his chest had pummeled Chad into the ground and sent Inoue skidding across the dirt in a bloody mess. Two days and seven hours since Ichigo had failed to protect his friends or anybody else from the white faced freak in the weird jacket. Two and a half days since The Voice had infiltrated his head.
Don't fool yourself. I've been here longer than that, partner./
His head was pretty well torn up, and he had an assortment of scrapes and bruises all over. Not that any of that even came close injuries Chad and Inoue were walking around with. He tried to focus on the pain in his leg. Maybe if he thought about the pain hard enough The Voice would go away.
Ooooh, that is a fun game, it purred. Do /you know how long I've been here?
"Ignore it,"/ he thought. He turned over on top of the sheets and tried not to stare at the oddly shapen glop of paint on the wall. It had been there for years. Whenever he couldn't sleep he'd stared at it, finding different shapes and faces in the outline. He'd stared at it for months after his mother had died.
/Oh, that's a good guess. You're probably right, I've been here for a while, deep down inside of you. But that isn't when I woke up.
/He rolled over again and quickly realized his mistake. Now he could see the wide sliding doors of his closet. The closet which was conspicuously empty.
The Voice cackled. /That's it, partner!
/"/Shut up,/" he thought at it.
Do you miss her, partner? I'm here because you wanted the power to go after her, after all. I do applaud your taste, she smells /delicious/.
/Ichigo closed his eyes. It had a point. It was Rukia's fault he'd gotten into this mess in the first place. But he'd chosen to go of his own volition. The excuse he'd given Ganju had been a lie. He'd wanted to go. Wanted to save her. Wanted her to come back with him...
But she didn't, did she? Don't worry, when we find dear Rukia-chan again I'll lap her right up. //Then she'll always be here with you.
"Shut up!" he surprised himself with vehemence of his own voice. "And get out of my head. You're not me, you're not my 'partner' and I don't want you here."
Ahaha, but you see, there's the thing. I /am part of you. And you'll never get rid of me. Because the truth is, you know you deserve me. You deserve me for the things you've done.
/ Ichigo heard light footsteps in the hall.
"How long has he been in bed?" he heard Yuzu ask as they passed his door.
A shiver ran down his back.
/You deserve me. /He could almost hear it grin.
/So tell me, partner. Was she worth it?
The air had cooled by the time Rukia reached home. She threw open the door facing the garden, intending to sit there and think for a while, but instead she found herself going through her trunk, trying to decide which paintings and notecards would look best on the walls of Ichigo's closet.
I guess I'm going, aren't I? she thought ruefully. Somehow she thought she should hesitate more, but the answer seemed as apparent now as it had when Captain Ukitake first asked her. She made herself put away the distraction of packing sat down and closed her eyes.
/Could you do it? /she asked herself. /Could you kill Ichigo, if you had to?
Rukia found she didn't have the answer. The idea horrified her.
She forced herself to face it again. She tried to imagine the hollow Ichigo before her. The edges of his eyes would be black, the skin around them pale and ragged. No doubt his voice would change, would take on the raw quality of a hollow's despair. When he opened his mouth she would be able to see the long, serpentine tongue of a hollow, curling lecherously along his lips.
Was she imaging Ichigo or remembering Kaien? She stopped herself and opened her eyes again. This would do no good.
But she wondered, if, when the time came, she would be able to resist that pull she had felt when the hollow in Kaien's body had turned on her. That impulse toward surrender, toward death. She had rebuked it once before, would she be able to this time? Or would she be swept away by her own weakness and the tempest of Ichigo's power, allowing both their lives to break apart and shatter?
She sat still for a moment, eyes tracing the straight raised lines of the door tracks, following them to the seam of the crossbeam and up to where they resumed again overhead. To her right she heard soft splash as a turtle dove into the pond. Its entrance resulted in a stream of ripples, causing the dark surface of the pond to shimmer in the corner of her vision, reflecting the moonlight in sharp, sudden jumps. Rukia felt her chest tighten as she remembered the night she had brought Kaien's body home to his brother and sister.
She would go, she decided, standing up resolutely. And she would do what she must. There was more at stake here than her own selfish apprehension. She owed this to Ichigo's family. And more than that, she owed it to Ichigo himself.
Zangetsu came down with a crack, shattering the mask beneath it with the precision of a well practiced chef cracking open an egg. With a howl, the hollow disintegrated and disappeared, leaving behind only the peaceful waving of the breeze and the bright blue of a late summer sky.
Ichigo turned. For the first time in weeks he felt whole. The black cavern inside his heart had receded, as if someone had pulled open the blinds to a dark room. He replaced Zangetsu on his back, and this time the weight seemed reassuring rather than burdensome.
Rukia crossed the courtyard to join him. He half expected another kick to the shins, but to his surprise she said nothing.
For the first time since she'd appeared in the classroom window he looked at her. Really looked at her. She was just as scrawny and imperious as ever, and she was wearing her typical "I-told-you-so" smirk. A few strands of hair were stuck to the side of her left cheek, and the corner of her collar was creased at an odd angle.
She looked beautiful.
Ichigo threw aside his restraint and did the thing he'd wanted to do since the first time he'd seen her standing on that bridge in Soul Society: He kissed her.
Her lips were soft and warm, and as her tiny hands found their way around the back of his neck, he realized that he had just stepped beyond the point of no return. He deepened the kiss.
Consequences be damned, /he thought.
The wood was cool and slick beneath her toes as she crept, barefoot, from the twins' room into Ichigo's. She had learned the creaky spots on the floor long ago, and they came back to her now like the old notes of a familiar tune. She pushed the door open carefully, and was not at all surprised to find that Ichigo was still awake, sitting crosslegged at the foot of his bed staring out the window.
She'd come with the intention of visiting her old bed in the closet, but instead she found herself joining Ichigo in front of the window, looking out at the clear night sky with a sense of foreboding. She wondered how long it would be before the sky tore open again, spilling forth an army of gillians and arrancar upon the unsuspecting citizens of Karakura. The day would come eventually, and she could only hope they would be prepared by the time that desperate battle fell upon them.
Ichigo glanced at her, and she suspected from the seriousness of his expression that he had guessed what she was thinking. His toes brushed hers on the bed, and she felt her pulse quicken. It was the second time in as many days that he had made her heart race like that. She reached her hand out to brush his cheek, feeling awkward and yet somehow wanting to close the distance between them. He leaned foward and then they were kissing again, hot and pleasant and somehow both tender and insistent at the same time.
Rukia found herself running her hand up the back of his shirt, tracing the muscles of his back with attentive fingers. He slipped an arm around her waist, and she felt her brain go hazy. It was downhill from there. The world became a flurry of sensation, lips and skin and heat and need, all exquisite and indistinguishable. She felt herself falling into it, reaching out to it, pulling Ichigo closer and demanding more. Each touch of his fingers felt like a tiny shock along her nerve endings, causing her to arch up and cry out incoherently.
She hadn't meant for things to go this far, but when Ichigo's fingers fumbled at the buttons of her pajamas, Rukia found herself helping them along, undoing from the bottom as he worked from the top. And when she slid the elastic of his waistband down his hips, the enthusiastic working of his lips on her neck reassured her that he wanted this just as badly as she did. Their bodies collided in a desperate frenzy.
In the years after Kaien's death, Rukia had established a dispassionate sort of peace in her life, a stoicism which had become habitual. She had left behind the tempestuous excitement of her childhood. If nothing had excited or pleased her, nothing had disturbed her serenity, either. The truth, however, was that those years of calm had only been a brief lull, like the eye of a tornado.
As she came shuddering in Ichigo's arms, she realized that the real storm had yet to come.
When Inoue showed up at the vaizard hideout Ichigo had been surprised, both that she’d found the place (Inoue’s sense of direction was not characteristically good even in normal circumstances, and this was something of an odd case), and that she’d bothered to come. Her visit had left him feeling reassured.
When Renji showed up two days later, his visit left Ichigo feeling determined.
Ichigo was in the middle of the daily ass-kicking from Hiyori that was apparently part of his training when Hachi appeared, a rather perturbed looking Renji in tow.
"I found him outside the barrier," the large vaizard rumbled. "He said he wants to talk to Ichigo."
"Jesus christ, can't we go three days without one of your little friends showing up?" Hiyori gave him another kick to the skull. "You've got ten minutes, and then we're starting over. And if you can't do four seconds by then, it's dishes and laundry this week." She sauntered off, grabbing one of the magazines from the stack beside Lisa on the way.
"We need to talk," Renji looked at him seriously. "Privately's better."
Ichigo glanced at the vaizards lounging in the corner. "This is about as private as it gets. What's up?"
Renji gave him a long look. "What do you know about Shiba Kaien?"
Ichigo stilled. "I look like him."
He took a breath. "He was Rukia's vice-captain and she killed him and I look like him," his voice sounded flat, even to his own ears.
Renji looked almost impressed. "So you do know."
Ichigo met his gaze. "I know that much."
"Look, Rukia doesn't talk to me about this stuff, but after so many years word gets around you manage to find things out. So lemme tell you the rest of the story, "he said. "She killed him because he was a hollow. They'd met up with this thing that could merge with other spiritual beings, and it pretty much took him over. It was her vice-captain who she watched die, but he was a hollow when she ran him through. We weren't really on close terms at the time, but it doesn't take a psychic to figure out that that fucked her up pretty bad for a good long while."
Ichigo knew better than to ask what his point was. "I see."
"I'm not gonna watch her do it again," Renji told him bluntly. "If it comes down to it, I'll kill you myself."
He let the words hang there between them.
Finally Ichigo gave a snort. "I guess I'd better not need killing then" He grinned. "Since I know you can't beat me in fight."
"Heh." Renji turned and headed for the door. "You'd better not take too long," he called back over his shoulder. "Or I'll catch up with you while you're busy playing around in here." Ichigo watched him go, knowing that the admonishment had to do with more than their respective training levels.
He turned to meet Hiyori's gaze.
"Let's get down to business."
Water roared past, a deafening rush in her ears. The force of its movement created a windstorm in the air around them, nipping and tugging at Rukia's cloak and sleeves. The air whipped around her, spray snapping sharply against her cheeks.
"Welcome to my little flood, Kuchiki," the low voice resonated in her ears.
She stood her ground. The squall came at her again, relentless. Rukia deflected again, moved aside, regrouped.
She had come here knowing that she would have to face the hollow inside Ichigo. And she came knowing that she would have to confront her own fears, overcome her own past. Never had she thought that when she did so, they would wear Kaien's face rather than Ichigo's. The storm around her subsided and she could see his face again, cold and serious but eerily familiar.
"Are you prepared to be killed by me, Kuchiki?"
/She had been. For years she had awaited the forfeit of her life, until the day that Ichigo had appeared at the top of that scaffolding and taught her that there were things worth fighting for. Not just things worth dying for, but things worth living for. Kaien had taught her to fight with a sword; Ichigo had taught her to fight with will.
Thank you, Ichigo, she thought. /Thank you for teaching me strength. Thank you for teaching me the meaning of friendship. Thank you for. . . Thank you.
/The trident came down again in a flurry of blue, the triple prongs of its crown glistening. She heard the whine of metal against metal, and with a twist the spikes wrested Shirayuki from her hand, sending the white blade skittering across the floor. She jumped back and gathered her kidou around her.
She had never been very good at swordplay, anyway.
The pool of blood on the floor was huge, bigger than Ichigo wanted to think about. The orange glow of Inoue's healing made it appear dark and purple and alien. The dried blood on Rukia's cheek and forearm cracked and flecked away like dead skin.
Watching Inoue's healing technique at work was somewhat disconcerting. It began to mend the deep, ragged hole in Rukia's flesh from the back, slowly bringing tendons and bones and organs back to whole, like a video in slow motion rewind. Pieces came together at weird angles, simulating in reverse invisible impacts that Ichigo could not see but could only imagine. He spared a glance for the thing rotting in the corner. He was a little pissed at Rukia for finishing it and denying him the opportunity to pummel the thing that had done this to her.
He'd watched this too many times. Watched Aizen stick his fist right through her and pull it out clean. Watched Inoue perform this exact technique the night Grimmjow had gutted her right before his eyes as he watched helplessly. And here he was, watching Inoue fix the same wound again. He was going to kill Renji.
He tore his eyes away from the hole in her chest and forced himself to concentrate on her face. She looked peaceful, as peaceful as the day he'd found her sleeping on his bed so many months ago. He wondered briefly if she would be mad at him for asking Inoue to bring her back. Had she meant to die here? The idea made his chest constrict.
Don't die, Rukia, he thought. Don't die. Not after I worked so hard to get you back. I need you to wake up and yell and scream and kick my ass. I need you to tell me what an idiot I am. I need you to live.
Rukia's body convulsed with a slight jerking motion, and suddenly she was breathing again. It wasn't until he heard the slight rasp of her breath coming in and out that Ichigo realized he had been holding his own. A few more breaths and her eyes fluttered open, her weary gaze meeting his.
"Hey," he smiled down at her.
"Hey," she smiled back.