Please remember to follow the goshdarn rules/guidelines, though. If you haven't read them before you post, please read; if you have read them, read them again before you comment. As much as I'd taste good barbecued, we want to keep this civil.
Ichigo is sick.
Rukia is unfamiliar with what being “sick” in the real world means, but Kurosaki-san keeps using the word “flu.” Rukia had always thought that had something to do with fireplaces, but apparently it is also an illness. What sort of illness she does not know, and no one will tell her, though it seems to involve a lot of sleeping and drinking of various colored things. Karin, too, has also come down with it, though her case is apparently much milder. Yuzu has been acting as their nurse, but now, after dinner, Rukia asks to take a turn with them. Both Yuzu and Kurosaki-san object, but Rukia is firm: if she is to be a part of their family, she will not shirk these sorts of duties. It works; they are both ridiculously touched by her words, and as they fall on each other sobbing, she slips into the sickroom.
The room is dim when she enters, and she takes care to be as quiet as possible inside. Ichigo and Karin are both asleep, their faces flushed and wearing near-identical grimaces. She moves to Karin first and does the little things one can do for a sleeping patient: making sure she is completely covered by the blankets, getting her a fresh glass of water, and making sure the compress on her forehead is set well in place. Sickness isn't all that common in Soul Society, but Rukia serves under Captain Ukitake, and she knows something about caring for the ill.
When she finishes, she moves to Ichigo's side. His face is crinkled, as if furious or in pain, like he has just come out of a fight. She removes the compress from his forehead, touches it, and frowns: hot and dry, despite the wet compress in her hand. Strange, she thinks, but for all she knows about his condition, it could be normal.
She scoots in closer and lays a hand on his shoulder. Normally, she would not touch him at all—she would not have to—but she is unsure what her powers can do for this illness. As well, she is sure Kurosaki-san and Yuzu will check on her soon, and it is much easier to explain a touch than a hand floating above his head.
"All right, Ichigo," she says, and closes her eyes. She needs a moment to collect the necessary energy, the space of a breath.
She opens her eyes and looks around her, but there's nothing, no one. Yet when she focuses back on Ichigo, the laughter echoes again, slightly louder. This time, she realizes where it is coming from, and her eyes narrow. No one in this house should be able to get inside her head.
"Who?" she asks sharply.
The laughter dies away, and a cottony whisper says, Rukia?
Her brow furrows. "Ichigo?" There’s no way the idiot could do this.
No. Yes. the voice replies, again slightly louder.
"Zangetsu?" It is not likely; swords do not usually speak for their owners. But this is Ichigo; the rules do not stay in straight lines for him.
No. No. the voice replies, a little louder, twisted with laughter.
Which leaves only one other possibility. A possibility without its own name.
"Hollow," she says, voice hard.
Yes. Yes. comes the reply, mocking and low. Then, No more questions?
She starts to reply, then stops herself, unsure if she should break the connection or not. There's very little to be gained from talking to a Hollow, even this one.
Come and see.
She starts to say “No,” starts to pull back from it. But her moment of resistance is met by a strong tug, and the world around her smears as she is pulled down. The last thing she hears is Karin behind her, taking a labored breath.
Rukia opens her eyes.
She is standing in a world of gray and blue, composed of strongly outlined buildings in glass and steel. The sky above has hints of blue, but is otherwise overcast, like a cloudy day without rain. She is no longer in her human clothes, but is dressed as a shinigami, complete with her sword. She touches the hilt, taking comfort in it.
It takes a moment to register that the clouds are moving at the wrong angle. She turns a little, eyes sweeping across the buildings around her, and realizes she is standing on the side of this one.
She crouches and touches the surface. It appears to be metal, but it feels like glass, sun warmed glass. Ichigo's power, so distinct and familiar, thrums beneath her fingertips.
This is his mind, she thinks, and stands easily. Now that she knows what this place is, she is confident she won't fall here.
From behind her comes the sound of clapping.
She whirls about to see a figure standing on the edge of the building, a figure carved in white, trimmed in black, with piercing white eyes even at this distance.
"Very good, Rukia-chan!" it calls out. "VERY good. Much better than he did before." It tilts its head and adds, in a dream-like voice, "He thought he would fall."
She shifts her hand to grip her sword hilt. "Why?"
The Hollow grins, lips spread in a parody of charm. "Because," it replies, "he fell before."
Rukia stares at the Hollow across from her. It stares back, grin faint and eyes sharp. Finally she says, "What do you want?"
Its grin broadens, seeming to spread over its whole face . His face is Ichigo's in shape, in general terms, but not in the details. Especially that mouth, and those eyes; one too flexible and broad, the other too sharp and narrow.
"To meet Rukia-chan," it replies.
"Don't call me that!" she snaps.
It laughs. "He thinks such interesting things about you, Rukia-chan," it says, stressing the honorific. It takes a few steps towards her, and her hand tightens on her sword hilt. "Though really, I thought you'd be...taller, somehow."
She says nothing.
It waits a moment for a response; when one doesn't come, it frowns. It looks around, as if seeing the overcast, blue coated world for the first time. "Hm," it says. "Not the best setting for a first meeting, is it?"
It snaps its fingers.
Rukia opens her eyes.
She's sitting in a black iron chair, slightly too big for her, in front of a table made of the same metal. A small, finely made cup and saucer sit before her, the liquid within steaming gently. She looks around, expecting to see the rest of the world tilted sideways, but it's not. In fact, it appears to be a lovely sunny day, with only the faintest traces of cloud in the sky. The landscape around her is completely unfamiliar, though, and oddly blurred; off in the distance she can make out a large, tower-like thing. There are no other people about.
She is still dressed as a shinigami, and for a moment, feels out of place.
"Where...?" she whispers.
"Paris," comes a voice from above her, and she looks up to see the Hollow, hanging upside down from the café sign. It's wearing a white suit trimmed in a black, an orangey-yellow tie, and a white hat with a black band around it, along with black socks and white shoes. It grins at her, then falls gracefully to its feet, pulls up the chair next to her, and sits. Another cup appears in front of it, along with a plate containing crescent shaped brown...things. Pastries, she guesses.
“Ichigo has never been to Paris,” she scoffs, raising her chin slightly.
"How do you know?" it asks, picking up a crescent pastry and breaking off a piece of it. It dips the piece in the cup, sending coffee sloshing over the sides, then pops it into its mouth. It chews for a moment, then smiles. There's brown smeared across its teeth.
"If you wanted to know...he hasn't," it says before she can reply. "But he's read about it, and this," he waves a hand, "is the most vibrant picture in his mind of it." It gives her that mirthless grin. "Not very vibrant, is it? His imagination..."
"Why?" she says, cutting it off, voice exasperated.
"Rukia-chan, it's Paris!" it crows, as if that's any sort of explanation. "The perfect setting for a meeting such as ours." It pushes the plate towards her. "Have a croissant. There's chocolate in 'em."
She looks at the plate, then up at its grinning face. "What do you mean, a meeting such as ours?"
Its grin recedes a little. "Ah, Rukia-chan, so many questions," it says. It looks around for a moment, then says, "Perhaps this environment is also wasted on you. In that case...something more homey?"
It snaps its fingers, and the world blurs again. Rukia tries to keep her eyes open, but the blur of the world around her is too much, and unable to help it, she closes her eyes.
Rukia opens her eyes.
She blinks, and twists in her chair, looking around. Slowly, she turns back to her original position.
It is Ichigo's house, and she's sitting in the kitchen, at the table. She's still in her shinigami uniform, but otherwise everything else is normal. There's her homework, scattered messily in front of her, the occasional bright scribble dotting the pages. There's Kurosaki-sans's coat, over the chair; Karin's hat, on the peg on the wall; Ichigo's bag, by the other chair. She sees nothing of Yuzu's--odd. A cup of tea sits before her, steaming gently.
Caught up in it for a moment, she reaches for it, then pauses. She does not see the Hollow, but that doesn't mean it's gone. "Show yourself," she commands.
A moment, and then there's a light step behind her. She turns slowly, suddenly afraid of what she'll see.
Her intuition is good, as always.
The Hollow is dressed like Yuzu, down to the hairpin in its spiky hair. It wears a white apron patterned with tiny black flowers, each with a little yellow dot in the center; the entire thing is trimmed in black. Behind that is a white hooded dress, also trimmed in black. It even has on white fuzzy slippers with little black ankle socks.
It's carrying a tray of snacks, and she watches, unable to speak, as it pads over to the table and sets them down. It slides a chair out and sits across from her, giving her a twisted imitation of Yuzu's shy, sunny smile.
"Like it, Rukia-chan?"
Her mouth opens, closes, opens, shuts. She has no words. She's not entirely sure what words are anymore.
The grin widens, and it takes a cookie. "The look on your face, Rukia-chan..." It giggles, a sound high and young over something colder, darker. She has an image, suddenly, of white worms wriggling in the dirt. "I wish I could show it to you!"
"What's the point in this?" she snaps, enraged. "Why have you brought me here?"
It munches on the cookie, crumbs spilling carelessly down its front. "I told you, Rukia-chan. I wanted to meet you." Its lips twitch. "What he thinks about you...it made me curious."
She does not have to ask who 'he' is.
"Would you like to hear his thoughts?" it asks. "I can certainly arrange it." It points up at the ceiling.
"Do not DARE."
It drops its hand and shrugs. "As you wish, Rukia-chan." It shifts and winks at her. "But you're missing out."
For a moment, there's a sound. It sounds like her name, and it sounds like Ichigo saying her name, but she's never heard it like that. Like...
She glares at it, blocking out that sound, blocking out the room around her and the figure it apes. She focuses on its eyes, neon white in black sockets, inside-out eyes. She knows that type of eyes.
It taps its fingers on the table. "I sense you're not entirely comfortable here, either." A small frown appears on its face, an entirely petulant expression. "And you haven't touched your tea."
She reaches out and pushes the cup away from her.
Its eyes narrow at her for a moment, but then that recedes, and it is simply looking at her. "All right, Rukia-chan," it says, raising its hand. "We'll go to someplace more...suited to you."
She closes her eyes as it snaps its fingers.
Rukia opens her eyes.
Immediately, she recognizes this place. It's a teahouse, very much like the one she had occasionally gone to with her division: paper screen doors, a tatami floor, and a low table in front of her. A cup of tea sits on it, steaming gently.
She looks around the room with wide eyes. Several scrolls hang in their niches, but the characters on them are all wrong--'black,' 'white,' 'snow,' 'moon.' A bone white vase stands by the door to the outside, dark and leafless maple branches within it. She slides hesitantly over to the door, and cracks it open. A light snow is falling, adding to the powdery layer already present, but she can't see much more in the yellow glare of the lantern above the door. She squints and frowns; there is something in the distance, something familiar…
The door on the other side of the room opens, and the Hollow steps in. It wears its shinigami uniform again, reversed colors and all, but over that is a surcoat of black. It takes her a moment to realize that it wears a captain's coat--almost. The Soul Society versions are plain but for their division number, but this one has a subtle pattern of white and yellow petals worked across it. It reminds her not of cherry or plum blossoms, but of the deadly blades of her brother's released sword.
It crosses to the table and kneels. There is a sword at its belt, sheathed in black. Unconsciously, she moves back across the floor to kneel opposite it.
It nods. "Rukia-chan," it says, "is this place more to your liking?"
She does not want to respond with how familiar this place is, with the good thoughts it brings back to her. Instead she says, “It is a place out of my memories.”
It gives her a knowing look, and she realizes that its grin has dimmed. "Some of it is his," it says, picking up the teapot. Its eyes are on the cup as it pours, and she is surprised at the grace in its movements. Still, it spills some tea onto the table.
"Some of it is yours," it says, and sets down the pot.
She shakes her head. "That's not possible," she says.
It picks up the cup, blows away the steam. "Oh?" it says, voice light. It drinks, and does not spill any tea.
”Yes,” she says, voice firm. “Impossible.”
It finishes a long sip and sets the cup down. Its eyes return to her face. "Did you not give your powers to him?"
"Did he not drain you of your power?"
"Yes, but..." She emphasizes the last word, and it ignores her.
"Did you think you lost only your powers then, Rukia-chan?" There's no lightness of tone on the honorific now. "He pulled the essence of your soul out of you. 'A shinigami's life is tied to their spirit force,' is it not?" It raises the cup, looks over the rim at her. "Did you ever stop to think that more came to him than just your power?"
She stares at it.
It drinks again. "More than your power resided here. A piece of you also lived here for a time. And it shed, Rukia-chan, tiny bits of experience, of memory. Of you." It rubs the side of its thumb along the cup edge. "Or did you always struggle to remember your sword's name?"
Her eyes widen, and her hands curl for a moment on her lap. “How..?”
It raises its head. There is no grin on its face, and the seething of its eyes is a flicker.
"Do you like your hair, Rukia-chan?"
Her eyes widen a little more, and she reaches up with one hand to touch her hair. Her fingers glide over a smooth ivory comb, its surface warm beneath her fingers. They tremble for a moment, and then she lowers a steady hand to her lap.
It gazes at her for a second, then says, "I was born out of need. He needed to become shinigami, needed to regain the power that was no longer his. For a moment of his journey, he passed through me. For a moment, until he tore off that mask." It stops, and something flickers in those eyes. "I was born into a world of turmoil, based in desperation. Shinigami, shinigami--this is the first word I heard, here in his mind."
Its voice has been similar but unlike Ichigo's to this point. Now it sounds uncannily like him.
"And I was born knowing another thing," he says. "The remnants, the ghost, of your power."
"But my brother," she starts.
"Byakuya severed the links to his spiritual power and your shinigami form," it says. "But it could not erase that trace of you that lingered on inside these walls."
It looks to the side for a moment, then back. There is a slight grin on its face now, more fire in its eyes. "I was his partner through training, through those first battles. That stupid boy." Its lips twist for a moment. "And in that time, your name echoed inside these walls. Rukia, Rukia--I heard it so often I was sick of it."
It flashes her that twisted grin as its fingers tangle around its teacup.
"The battles went on. He got stronger, and so did I. Until the moment he faltered...and I emerged." Another flash of fire in its eyes. "Against your brother."
Rukia's hands curl on her lap.
"And I almost had him then, too." There is a hungry satisfaction in its voice. Then, its lip curls, and it spits, "Until he tore me off. Again. Banished me back here. Again."
Its fingers tighten together, and the tension in the air thickens. "But I was strong, and getting stronger," it says, voice taut with emotion. "I could whisper to him now, back in this world. When the Visored told him of my existence, I raised my voice in his mind. He could hear it." Its voice drops maliciously. "He could hear it, and he was afraid."
“Visor…” she begins, but it shakes its head and continues.
"I even managed to paralyze him in a fight," it says. "I brought him to his knees!" The last comes out as almost a hiss, and the light flares in its eyes again. "How this world quaked when I made my presence known! How it shivered with his sorrow when he failed them, all of them."
There is such glee in its eyes, its posture, that Rukia feels something freeze inside her. She has seen such glee before. Her nails dig into her palms.
"It could've been magnificent," it says. "To speak and whisper and feel him tremble. But then...you." The last word comes out venomous and hard, and it turns its full, crackling eyes on her, mouth a sardonic, dark gash in its face.
She meets its eyes and does not flinch. A trickle of blood slides across her palms.
"You came back," it sneers. "You, whose powers I knew in my first second of life. You, whose name I heard daily. You, who he left behind. You, who was supposed to stay there!"
It bangs its fist on the table, and the wood crackles beneath its hand. "Why couldn't you stay gone?" it sneers. "He was King of this world once, but I am its Prince, and I am tired of waiting!"
"Then eat my soul and be done with it," she replies.
It stops, and for a moment, its expression twists in complete confusion.
"That's why you brought me here, isn't it?" she says, reaching up to her hair. She runs her fingers through it, finding the pins that hold it in place. "It wasn't just to 'meet me,' just as your illusions were not for my comfort. No, you sought to beguile, to trick. To make me fear you." She punctuates each point by pulling out a pin and dropping it on the table. "And this," she runs her hand over the warm, ornate comb, '" is nothing but a trick of power. You said it yourself--my powers left their marks here. That is all you have used for this."
She yanks the comb out of her hair, and it spills down around her face. She lays it on the table, and slides it towards him.
"But I am not Ichigo," she says, tone low. "I have faced this once already, yes. It troubled me for a long time, yes. But," she raises her eyes to it, "no longer. Because all Hollows can do is lie."
She stands and moves to the outside door. She throws it open and points outside. "If you are this world's Prince," she says, "how do you explain that?"
It snows outside, a light layer to cover the existing powder. A bright yellow lantern sits just outside, its light harsh on the side of her face. And a few feet beyond it...
The broad strong outlines of buildings laid sideways, glass and steel under an overcast sky.
"Ichigo is stronger than you, no matter how you try to hide it," she says. "I see that now, more than before."
The Hollow stares at her now, and she is proud of that stricken look on its face.
Then, it lowers its head and says, "Ah. That's what he sees."
It puts its hand on the table, and rises. Her hand goes to her sword, but it makes no move. It doesn't even look at her.
"Rukia-chan," it says. "You're right."
She tenses, hand tight on her sword, but it does nothing. For a long, long moment, it does nothing.
Then its head starts to rise, and she can see its broad, broad grin. "I was going to eat you," it says. "Confuse you, trap you, eat you." Its head rises fully, to show brilliant eyes and a broad, skewed, smirking grin. "Now I'm going to do it ...slowly."
She avoids the first blow by throwing herself backwards into the courtyard. It comes around and charges her again, but she's above it, over it. Her feet touch down on stone for a moment, and she leaps again as it crashes down just behind her. She dives, pivots on her hand, and comes up to slide across glass and metal. She stands and draws her sword, moving into a defensive stance.
It leaps until it is a little ways in front of her, and sneers. "You would use that here? Knowing what damage it could cause?"
She does not hesitate. She whacks her sword against the building below them. It ripples beneath their feet for a moment, but remains undamaged.
She makes a derisive noise at its uncomprehending look. "Yes, I will. I told you, Ichigo's strong." She lifts her chin slightly. "Stronger than either of us."
"Ah. Well. Since you think that way," it says, then draws the sword from its sheath. She expects, for a moment, the black blade she has only heard about, but the metal is still steel grey. She can see a worked guard on the hilt, though it is a pattern she does not recognize.
The Hollow raises it and points it at her. "His sealed sword," it says. "A sign of my own power."
A moment of stillness, and then, they charge.
It's apparent fairly quickly that Rukia is weaker than it; not surprising, given that its power is linked to Ichigo's. But she's been fighting taller, heavier, more powerful opponents for a long time now. She also has an astonishing turn of speed, excellent reflexes and agility, and absolutely no compunctions about aiming for kneecaps.
They clash, fall away, clash, slide back. She comes up panting, hands sticky on her sword hilt, hair sweat-stuck to her face. It comes to a rest not panting, but not untouched. Twice touched, in fact.
It lowers its sword for a moment. "My, my, Rukia-chan," it says. "You've been keeping secrets."
"Idiot!" she spits back. "You know nothing of how I fight, because Ichigo knows nothing of how I fight!" Her mouth pulls taut. "Aside from that, I've been shinigami longer than either of you have been alive." She strengthens her stance and bares her teeth. "And do you know what shinigami are trained to do?"
"What, Rukia-chan?" it says, giving her a lazy look.
She steadies her sword. "Kill Hollows."
It stares at her, then laughs. Not cackles, not giggles, but laughs softly, as she first heard it. "Oh..."
"...Rukia-chan," it says, voice in her ear.
Her blood freezes momentarily, but she manages to shout, "Dance, Shira..."
Its hand clamps over her mouth. "None of that," it says. Its other hand reaches down, wraps around one wrist, and crushes. She gasps against its skin, and slowly, the sword drops. It hits the building, and skitters away from her.
"Ah, Rukia-chan, I've..."
She bites its hand.
It lets out a yelp, other hand clutching at her waist. She tastes blood, thick and bitter, before it shifts that hand down and wraps it around her throat.
"As much as I enjoy these games," it says, voice low in her ear, "I think it's time to end them, don't you?"
It slams her to the ground, putting her back against the building wall. Before she can move it's above her, hand at her throat, a leering grin splitting its face.
Its hand forces her neck to the side, with just enough pressure on her windpipe to turn the edges of the world black. It leans in and buries its head in the curve of her neck, inhaling deeply. The gesture strikes her as somehow…intimate.
"Rukia-chan," the Hollow sighs, then touches its lips to the skin of her neck. They're warm, and their touch draws pinpricks of heat to the surface. She goes rigid beneath them, beneath it, but it doesn't seem to notice.
It kisses up the side of her neck, then down again. Each touch is hot, dry, and leaves behind a prickling feeling. It nuzzles against her collarbone, tongue flicking out lightly to leave a thin, cold trail there. She shivers under it, and it's almost entirely out of fear. She wants to beat at it, kick at it, but its palm is at her throat and every touch seems to paralyze her further. The scent, the stink, of Hollow fills her nostrils, and she can't move. She…can’t move.
Its thumb sweeps up the side of her neck, then strokes down. It presses its face there again, and whispers "Rukia" against her skin.
Then it shifts up and bites down on the side of her neck.
She can't help it: she yells, loud and high, in surprise and pain and most of all at the pulse of heat that rises under her skin.
It sucks at the wound once, twice, each pull making her eyes crinkle in pain. It pulls back a little, her blood on its mouth, and breathes, "You taste as good as you smell." It raises its head a little more, so she can see the glimmer of its eyes, and says, "I knew I would enjoy this."
Something clicks on the glass above her head.
Then the Hollow is gone, yanked up off her by someone she can't see. There's a hissed sentence, then a whoosh of air as something is thrown over her head.
A hand appears in her vision. She brushes it away and sits up, hand going to her throat as she takes shallow, painful breaths. She scrunches her eyes against the pain, against the throbbing in her neck and the acid in her stomach, and just breathes.
When she has regained her composure, she opens her eyes. A man is crouched before her, and she tenses...then relaxes. Though she's never seen him before, there's only one person it could be.
"Kuchiki Rukia," he says.
"Zangetsu," she replies.
He holds out a hand, and this time, she takes it. He stands, assisting her to her feet. Their eyes meet for a moment.
"Where were you?" she asks, sliding her hand out of his.
"Seeing to Ichigo," he says, in a voice that echoes with the power of the world around them. "It unbalanced him, setting this world out of order. I corrected it."
"It?" she asks, then sighs. "The Hollow."
"That would explain why Ichigo is sick," Rukia says. A pause, and she adds, "Karin, too."
She looks up at him. "Does it have so much power?"
He raises a hand and puts it to her neck. There's a momentary sting, like a slap, and she feels the wound close. "It grows," Zangetsu says.
"Stronger and more impatient," she says.
She gives him a sour look. "You certainly are Ichigo's sword." She pauses, then her eyes widen, and she looks around her. The Hollow had dropped her here, so her sword should be...
"Kuchiki Rukia," Zangetsu says, and she looks back to see Shirayuki in his hands.
He slides one hand up the blade, and the first tendrils of white fade away. He holds it for a moment longer, eyes down, then offers her the hilt.
Rukia takes her sword and sheathes it. "You knew her, didn't you," she says, voice quiet.
"Yes," Zangetsu says, and behind that word is a history she'll never know.
"I see," she replies. Then, in a firm voice, "Send me back."
He places a hand on her head. Rukia closes her eyes.
Rukia opens her eyes.
She's sitting in the chair by Ichigo's bed. Behind her, Karin lets out a pained breath.
She stays completely still as her soul reawakens in her body, bringing the sting of each wound with it. Each pain that blossoms, throbs, is another sign that she is completely back in this world. Finally, when no more new sensations break over her, she lets out a long breath.
She reaches up to touch her neck, feeling the tender, closed skin. Her fingers tremble as they press against the spot, and she pulls them away. She stares at her hand. Before her eyes it trembles, it shakes.
Impulsively she reaches out and takes Ichigo's hand in both of her own. His skin is clammy, but when she pulls it closer, leans her head against it, it smells human. It smells like Ichigo, and only Ichigo.
"You're stronger than him," she whispers. "You're stronger.”
For a moment she hovers there, skin against skin. Then she lets it drop away, pushes back her chair, and rises.
"I'll send in Yuzu," she says, to no one in particular. Her voice still rasps slightly, but it does not tremble. It does not break.
She turns and walks to the edge of the bed, and looks back for a moment. She doesn't know what she expects to see, but there is nothing there but Ichigo, orange hair vibrant in the half-light. She watches him a moment longer, then forces herself to unclench the side at her side. She takes a breath, turns, and walks from the room.