A/N: Spoilers for recent manga chapters, especially 195+. And because I got the idea after watching FF7 Advent Children, there are spoilers for particular dialogues from the movie although there is no explicit reference to AC's plot.

Dreams, Phantoms and Reality
One-shot by MP

"What did you just say…?" Rukia stared at the man in front of her in disbelief. She was not sure if she had heard him correctly.

"Hmph." Abarai Renji crossed his arms impatiently. "You heard me, Idiot. Soul Society has decided to send a team to the living world to prepare for the impending war against the Arankaru. Geez, I didn't realize you've lost your wits and--- Ouch!" He rubbed the sore spot on his head where Rukia had just hit him. "What was that for?"

Angry vein popped on her forehead. "For calling me names. And just for the record, I understood you loud and clear about that part. But you said that I was to come also…"

Renji watched the annoyance disappeared from her face, replaced by uncertainty. "Only if you want," he said in a nonchalant manner, pretending not to notice the change in her mood, "you don't have to accept the mission though." He wasn't sure what that look in her face meant. She was having doubts—that's a given—but why and about what?

Whatever it was that was bothering her, Renji knew that the stubborn woman probably wouldn't tell him, so he was going to let her deal with it on her own. And we all thought she would bounce in joy when she heard about it… Rukia, you're really a pain in the ass…

"We're leaving tomorrow at noon. You have the time to decide until then. We won't wait for a second longer, even for a Kuchiki." With that said, Renji turned and walked away. But before he completely exited the room, he stopped at the door and said in a gentler tone, "I just don't get you sometimes, Rukia. Isn't this what you wanted?"

Then he slid the door close, leaving Rukia alone in the middle of her room.

Later that night, Rukia was lying on her bed with eyes wide open, her spirit restless. She wondered why she was being so indecisive. Isn't this what you wanted? She asked herself then, repeating Renji's question from earlier this day.

It's not that she didn't want to see Ichigo again. Ever since he and his friends went back to the living world, not a day went by that she didn't question her decision to stay behind in Soul Society. Soul Society was supposed to be her home. She was glad to see her old friends again, especially for the chance to mend her broken bond with Byakuya. But she had been having this nagging feeling that this wasn't where she belonged.

Sighing deeply, Rukia clutched her bedsheet lightly. She had been right all along; she had gotten too attached to Ichigo's world. Further musing challenged the truthfulness of that statement though. Her attachment…, was it to the world or to a certain person who inhabited the world?

Really, it all came down to a matter of the heart.

In her heart Rukia knew that she harbored deep, strong feelings toward Ichigo. She missed the fool who would never listen to any of her words.

So why was she hesitating? Why was irresolution clouding her mind?

Kaien's ghost still haunted her like a shadow that never leaves. Rukia was afraid that Ichigo would share the same fate as Kaien, especially given Byakuya-niisama's account of his fight with Ichigo. He had a Hollow within, and if the reports from the living world were to be believed, Ichigo wasn't doing too well in dealing with it.

Rukia didn't want to cause any more deaths. She wasn't strong enough to protect herself, much less protecting her loved ones. Memories flashed through her mind. Ichigo lying helplessly at Byakuya-niisama's feet, left to death under the rain… Ichigo fighting to death to protect her from Aizen… Several times he had faced death, and that was all because the fool was trying to save her pathetic self.

Despite everything that had happened, Rukia couldn't help but feeling that she didn't deserve to have anyone standing by her. Everyone told her that it wasn't her fault, that she should stop blaming herself. They were probably right, but she had lived in self-remorse and guilt for so long. Her sense of self-worth hadn't improved at all.

She couldn't bring herself to admit her feelings. She couldn't allow herself to hold on to what she once had thought as nothing but a saddening and troublesome emotion. All because she feared that she might lose Ichigo. Losing Kaien had nearly destroyed her; she never wanted to go through such agony again.

In the end, she still didn't know what to do. The night wore on, and it was with these troubled thoughts that sleep finally claimed her.

When Rukia opened her eyes, she found herself sitting on the riverbank. The moon cast a soft glow on her surrounding. There were fireflies fluttering about several paces away from her. Their unique light gave the place an ethereal touch.

With gentle breeze occasionally brushed her face, the night felt so peaceful. It was so unlike her troubled heart.

"So you showed up."

A voice from behind startled her out of her reverie. Rukia knew that voice all too well, if only for the surge of bad memories that ran through her every time she heard it in her dreams.

"Ka… Kaien-dono…?"

Dreams of her late vice captain usually involved blood and tears. It was always about her running away because she was afraid to fight him, then coming back because she was afraid to face her cowardice in the future, and finally stabbing him because she couldn't bear to see him in pain. Every time she was forced to relive that fateful night again and again.

Dreams of Shiba Kaien had never been this… peaceful. Her eyes were glued on him as the man moved to sit beside her, his knees bent and his hands supporting his weight as he leaned back. He was in his usual shinigami attire. There was not a single speck of blood anywhere on him. He even looked… contented. Then Kaien turned his head aside and caught her troubled gaze with his own.

Rukia couldn't hold her ground under the scrutiny of one whose death had shattered her so. Averting her eyes from him, she watched the fireflies drifting aimlessly in the darkness of the night. How she envied those little creatures; they had no care in this world.

"What's with that shitty face again?"

Rukia remembered those words clearly. Kaien had said them to her so long age when he had found her brooding shortly after she had joined the 13th division. The onslaught of bittersweet memories rendered her speech capability useless for a moment. In her bewildered state of mind, the only thing she could come up with was, "Huh?"

Kaien's eyes twitched in annoyance at her unintelligent reply. But he let it rest and said instead, "You probably won't tell me why you're being so gloomy if I ask you, but why exactly did you come here?"

Rukia considered the question for a while. Sadness flashed across her feature as she replied, "I don't know…"

"You don't?" Kaien raised an eyebrow in a condescending manner.

"I think…," she struggled with her words, her grip on her hakama pants tightened as a sign of her inner turmoil, "I… I wish to be forgiven…"

Can sin be forgiven…?

It was just a simple statement, but it conveyed all the emotions bottled up from years of painful struggle. Maybe, just maybe, if he forgave her, then she could find a way to atone for her sins.

The faintest hint of a smile touched her lips. Her voice gained a little more determination and confidence as she repeated, "Yes, I want to be forgiven."

"By who?"

Rukia's eyes widened in surprise. Even though confused as she was, she finally gathered enough courage to look at Kaien in the eye. She found no contempt there. "But---"

"Rukia…," the smile on Kaien's face was serene as he said softly, "I've never thought badly of you. I thought you knew that."

"But I…," sorrow clouded her countenance, bringing with it the painful memories of days long past, "I just let you die… You di---"

Kaien must have known how much saying the words out loud would hurt her. It was probably why he didn't let her finish. "You came for me, didn't you? That means a lot already…." There was a pregnant pause before he went on, "Hey, you said that you wanted to be forgiven." He reached out to her, ruffling her hair with brotherly affection.

His cheeky grin was something that Rukia hadn't seen in years. She almost forgot that her superior had also had mischievous, rebellious streak that had often gotten him in trouble with Soul Society. After all, it was his liberal nature that had created the bad blood between him and her brother.

"Why don't you forgive yourself?"

Silence descended upon the two of them. It was upon hearing Kaien's last sentence that she knew she had his forgiveness—for whatever it was worth, because he never blamed her in the first place. Her insecurity was all her own doing; sometimes it is easier to get through life's tragedies if you have someone to blame, and when there is no one left to blame, you blame yourself.

Kaien was right. She had to learn to forgive herself. Then and only then would she finally be free of her past regrets and able to move on. Her heart now a little lighter, Rukia voiced the question that had been nagging her. "Ne, Kaien-dono… what should I do now? I don't know what to do…"

Kaien looked at his former subordinate with something akin to compassion. "Even with a weak and confused heart, you still won't let go to what your heart holds on to so tightly…"

The world around her gradually faded into a white void. Kaien was gone along with the fireflies, the moon, the river and everything. She was surrounded by emptiness. But his voice rang clearly in her head.

"Isn't it the answer you were looking for?"

Time had stopped for Rukia that night when Kaien had died by her hands. From then on she had just been executing orders in the name of her shinigami duty, slowly turning into living machine without her realizing it. Companionship, friendship and love had just been needless emotions for her, because she believed that they would only hurt her in the end. She hadn't really lived.

Until she met Ichigo and relearned feelings she had long forgotten.

As she floated in the empty space of her dreams, Rukia wondered what she was afraid of.

Was it her inability to protect those dear to her? Then she only needed to become stronger.

Was it her fear of Ichigo being overtaken by the hollow inside him, and thus repeating Kaien's tragic demise? Then she only needed to trust him that he was strong enough to overcome his dark side.

Her consciousness slowly ebbed away, but this time there was no more troubling thoughts as she fell into deep slumber.

Indefinite time had passed by before Rukia gained awareness of her surrounding once again. She was still in that void enveloped in stark whiteness, but she could hear voices. It sounded like…

"Kaien-dono…?" She muttered without thinking.

Again? Miyako, I don't understand why she's still calling me.

Rukia thought she heard a soft giggle then. A woman's giggle.

Isn't it nice to be yearned for, love?

I'm not the one she should be calling.

Is that so?

You know that, don't you? Our place isn't here, I'm telling you…

If someone had seen Rukia in her sleep, that person would've seen her frown turned into a peaceful smile as she slept. Her heart finally found the long-sought rest after carrying the scars of guilt and remorse for so long.

Let the healing began.

Rukia was hanging by the windowsill on the 1st floor of the Karakura high school. Talk about flashy entrance… With a scowl on her face, she ranted about how she failed in her valiant attempt to reach the 2nd floor—where class I-3 was located—in one jump. I wish I had Kon's enhanced leg strength…

She heard voices then. It seemed that Ichigo still had no idea about who the Arankaru was. She couldn't help but felt the urge to scold him, realizing that she hadn't done that for so long. She actually missed scolding that little fool.

"Dumbass!" She yelled loud enough for Ichigo to hear, even if he was one floor above where she was right now. "Those were the guys that nearly killed you yesterday!" Using the windowsill as leverage, Rukia propelled herself upward and managed to reach her destination safely.

Standing on the windowsill, her eyes swept the almost-empty classroom from her shinigami fellows to Ichigo's shocked face. A movement from the back of the class caught her gaze.

There stood Kaien and Miyako. His arm was draped around her shoulders and her head was leaned against the crook of his neck. They both were smiling. And then she heard Kaien's voice.

"You're all right now, aren't you?"

Rukia found that she didn't really care whether it was really the phantoms of Kaien and Miyako she was seeing and hearing, or just her mind playing tricks on her. She was glad for the chance to see them for the last time.

A confident smile crept across her countenance as she focused on Ichigo.

From the corner of her eyes she saw the eldest Shiba and his wife turning around and vanishing into thin air.

Yeah… I'm all right now, because I'm…

"… Rukia!" Ichigo's face exhibited an array of emotions from shock to disbelief, from surprise to amazement as he stared at her openly.

… I'm not alone…

"Long time no see, ne, Ichigo?"

This was reality.

- The End -

Author's Notes:
I wrote this some times ago for the fall contest at IchiRuki LJ community. I hope it's believable enough as I haven't had much experience with this pairing… Anyhow, I wonder why I tend to insert a little bit of RK in almost every non-RK fanfic I write. Did anyone catch that? Oh well, I hope it was quite to your liking... Please tell me what you think!