confidence is king
I am all that you're projecting
Inside feel the rising tide
And the revolution's deafening."
-- "Hero" by Darren Hayes
Its Hour Come Round At Last
"How long will it hold him?" Isshin asks.
"A day," says Urahara. "Maybe less."
Rukia crawls into a corner and throws up.
Between one bite of rice and the next, Ichigo's power bursts across her senses. Kurosaki-san and Karin are already looking at her when she excuses herself.
She keeps her eyes closed and focuses on breathing, on the sound of Urahara and Isshin talking over the rhythmic buzz-CRACK, buzz-CRACK of Ichigo throwing himself against the barrier.
"Pleasant boy," Urahara is saying. "He does take after you, Isshin-san."
"He does not!" Isshin's voice is too loud, too affronted. But under the exaggerated indignance there is something in Isshin's voice that… that sounds like Ichigo. Rukia's stomach turns again. Buzz-CRACK.
"Give me that thing!" Isshin snaps, and Urahara makes a little sound of surprise. The barrier control, Rukia supposes. She wonders dully whether she should feel better or worse that it is in Isshin's hands now.
"As you wish, Isshin-san," Urahara says, and there's the tiny rustle and clack of his fan opening. Rukia shudders. "I'll be getting out of your way, then." She hears footsteps, then, "Have fun, Kuchiki-san!"
She's halfway around the block before she realizes the smell of Hollow tangled with Ichigo's power is not because he's fighting one.
She leaves her false body behind and keeps running. She doesn't stop until he drops out of the sky, cracking the concrete in front of her with his claws.
Isshin talks incessantly – to her, to that thing that used to be Ichigo.
He paces inside the barrier, and she can feel his eyes on her.
"I always wanted a tail," Isshin says thoughtfully. "Don't you think it would be fun to have a tail, Rukia-chan?"
Rukia staggers to her feet. "I need water."
His awful bone mask grins toothily down at her. "Yo!" he says. He looms over her, too big, too sharp. "I've come to kill you, Rukia." He laughs.
There is a hole in the center of his chest.
She wants to recoil but she cannot, cannot. Her fingers are cold on the hilt of her zanpakutou.
"What do you think? Better than my entrance last time?" That voice is too rumbling, too gleeful to be Ichigo. But it sounds like him still.
"Ichigo," she says. He must be in there. This is not him, but he isn't gone. Ichigo cannot be lost. "What has happened?"
He holds his arms out as if showing off his new shape. "I went to get stronger, Rukia, just like you said I should!"
She rinses her mouth again and again, but the sour taste won't fade.
Rukia stares at what Ichigo has become. She remembers Kaien's empty eyes. She remembers trembling when she killed him.
The horror that throbs within her now is too deep for trembling.
"I told you to defeat the thing inside you!" she says. "Not to become it!"
She draws her sword.
She leans against the wall, panting and sweating and trying to stop the shakes. She spits, then wipes her mouth with one hand. As her hand drops she turns her head, hair scraping against rock, until she can see Isshin. He sits on a small boulder near the barrier and whistles a little tune. The sound of it cuts into her head, her chest.
"How can you be so cheerful?" The words come out scratchy and raw.
"Cheerful, Rukia-chan!" He frowns at her over his shoulder. "Daddy hates waiting!"
"This is not a joke!" she cries, and wishes she could hit him, or at least stand all the way up. "Your son is a Hollow!"
Isshin looks back at the monstrous form inside the faintly glowing barrier. "I noticed." He scratches his chin. "I thought he'd be bigger as a Hollow, didn't you?"
Rukia sags against the wall. "I do not understand you."
"Buck up, Rukia-chan! My foolish son has gone through worse phases than this!" He leans back on his hands and tilts his face toward her, expression conspiratorial. "Why, when he started potty training he would drag his mother or me to the toilet to show off every time he—"
"Be silent, old man!" The Ichigo-Hollow springs to his feet, snarling.
Isshin turns to him. "Embarrassed, Ichigo? You should have thought of that before you decided your poop was artwork!"
"I was TWO!"
"You wouldn't let us flush for DAYS! Mommy and Daddy had to wear surgical masks constantly just to breathe!"
"WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU!" Rukia shouts, pushing off from the wall. "Why are you arguing about things that don't matter?"
"How cruel! Every moment in a boy's life matters to his father, Rukia-chan."
She blinks and frowns at him, then at Ichigo, who crouches at the near wall of the barrier. She wonders what Isshin sees. He may be crazy, Ichigo's father – he is crazy – but maybe… he's not wrong.
The possibility of hope terrifies her.
Ichigo's blade is slim and black when it meets hers. She recognizes it, knows that against this blade even her brother fell – she thinks she is braced for it, but the impact jars her to her bones. She grits her teeth and focuses all her reiatsu on reinforcing Sodeno Shirayuki.
They come together, leap apart. Again, their blades clash, white sliding against black. Again. With every strike Rukia gives a little more ground.
Rukia pulls back and dodges, leaping around behind him, trying to draw him back the way he'd come – away from his family's house. He follows readily.
She knows he is toying with her.
In the open street she flash-steps, drawing a circle and hissing, "Beginning dance – Tsukishiro!" under her breath.
Ichigo is fast, but Rukia knows the way he moves, even now, and he wasn't paying attention when she used this attack before.
His arm is caught within the circle.
She hopes he will forgive her.
"Don't worry so much, Rukia-chan!" Isshin grins at her and toys with the round barrier control in his hand.
"Who are you?" she says. Her voice is raw and ugly. "You're obviously captain level. Like him. But before this I never sensed anything from you. Your body – is it a gigai? One of Urahara's? Are you an exile?" She forces herself to walk across the cavern toward Isshin and the translucent cage that holds Ichigo.
"So many questions, Rukia-chan! Daddy knew when you turned up that it wouldn't be long before he got to share his thrilling tale of adventure, daring, and true love!" He glances at the barrier. "But if you don't mind, there a few more things Daddy has to take care of before he tells."
Rukia looks at the cage. Ichigo sits silently, watching them with glowing yellow eyes. His tail twitches, like a cat.
She is tired. She turns away, and after a moment sits on a boulder next to the one where Isshin is perched. "Yes," she says. "He'll—" she stops. "Do you… know what he is? If he – if you've been in a gigai all this time… is he even human?"
"Rukia-chan," Isshin says, and he sounds gently reproachful. Rukia presses her fingers hard against the rock and closes her eyes. "Does it matter?"
"I don't know," she whispers.
"What the—" Ichigo sputters as his arm shatters. He turns and glares at her with yellow eyes. "Et tu, Rukia?"
She doesn't have time to wonder what that means before the arm grows back.
Isshin is silent for a moment. Rukia opens her eyes, but keeps them focused on her knees. Then, "You spent several months in a gigai, didn't you, Rukia-chan?"
Her uniform is all in disarray. She pulls at it for a moment before she remembers to nod. She doesn't know if Isshin is looking at her.
"A few months," Isshin says. "Did you synch with it?"
Her kosode won't straighten out. "I had bones."
"Ah," he says, "bones. Leaving that body must have been painful."
She does not answer.
"Painful, Rukia?" Ichigo says. Long, slow words. It is the first time he's spoken in a while. "How much are you still not telling me?"
She cannot help looking at him, though she makes no answer.
"Rukiaaaaaa," he says. "Don't you trust me?"
She is on her feet, fists clenching. "How dare you," she says, "How dare you!"
There's a loud crash, and Rukia jumps as something strikes the barrier. It struck on the outside – a rock, she realizes as the dust settles. Isshin threw a rock.
"Daddy was trying to make a point!" he says, folding his arms and sticking out his chin and his lip in a way that –
Rukia turns away from both of them, nails digging into her palms. She wants to tell them she is sorry she's not strong enough to face him herself. She says nothing.
Renji is the first of the others to show up. The baboon fur of his bankai is already wrapped around his shoulders.
He knew, Rukia thinks. Renji knew what he would find here.
Bankai to bankai. Renji was ready.
Rukia's shikai is powerful, stronger than Renji's first level release, stronger than Ichigo's. It will never do.
"My son is a freak!" Isshin says proudly, rapping his knuckles on the barrier wall.
Ichigo snarls at him.
"He's shinigami, but he wouldn't fit in in Soul Society – I bet he stomped on all kinds of social conventions while he was there rescuing you. Ho ho ho, the faces those nobles must have made as Ichigo made an idiot of himself!" He grins and kicks the barrier happily.
"Shut it!" Ichigo snaps. "I only made idiots of them!"
"You shut it! Daddy's talking to Rukia-chan!" He looks at her and winks.
For a moment she almost looks at Ichigo to exchange glances. She takes a step back and turns her face away. Her chest is tight.
"He doesn't really fit here, either," Isshin continues. "Always talking to dead people, how could he properly belong to the world of the living? Ichigo is neither here nor there, and it is because he is my son. One of a kind, Rukia-chan. The lucky bastard!"
Rukia squeezes her arm tightly and shakes her head. She cannot hear what he is trying to tell her.
Chad, Inoue, Matsumoto, Hitsugaya, they all come.
"This is no fun," Ichigo says, spitting out blood. It might even be his own. "I'll get to you all, but you've got to learn to wait your turns!"
Around his clawed fingers, energy begins to gather.
"Cero!" Hitsugaya shouts. "Get back!"
But Ichigo can't use kidou, Rukia thinks, and doesn't move.
Light explodes around her, crushing her into the pavement. Then the pressure is gone, and a stark black shadow cuts through the blinding light.
Slowly, the light fades. There is wreckage all around, and the Hollow stands over her. "You come with me now, Rukia."
She reaches for her sword.
His clawed hand wraps around her as she wraps her hand around Sodeno Shirayuki's hilt. She tries to bring the blade up against the arm pulling her in, but her limbs are still weak from the power he shouldn't have known how to use. He presses her into his broad chest and she squeezes her eyes shut, holds her breath against the hot stink of Hollow.
They're moving. She clings to her sword and waits for her strength to return.
"Can you kill me, Rukia?"
His tail swishes cheerfully in the silence. "The old man can't…" he pauses, glances around at Isshin. "I have to die after him! Or he can't face my mother!" He laughs, throwing his head back and slapping the ground with his tail. "You remember, Rukia! You were there. And you know what happened to—"
He stops abruptly. "What happened…"
She wondered when he would make this connection.
He leaps to his clawed feet and whirls on his father. "OLD MAN!" he roars. "Old man, you KNEW!" His tail slaps the floor again, but there is no mirth in it. "That thing ate her soul and YOU KNEW!"
Isshin is on his feet, his expression serious.
Ichigo lunges at him, smacks hard into the barrier. He lunges again. The barrier hisses.
"Would it have made it better, Ichigo?"
Ichigo pauses, crouched for another spring against the barrier.
"I could have told you that it was a Hollow that killed your mother. That we knew you had power and knew the risks. I could have told you I should have been there to protect you. Would it have helped?"
Ichigo digs all his claws into the ground. His head is down. Rukia stares at the mane of orange hair that lies along his broad back and sees the boy who fought that day in the graveyard. She could not have imagined then that they would ever come to this, but she can see the line of destiny now, stretching back from here, to there, to a nine-year-old boy who believed he'd killed his mother but didn't know how.
Perhaps there was never any path but this.
A low snarl is coming from Ichigo, growing slowly louder.
"Nothing I did would have made her any less dead, Ichigo."
Ichigo roars and springs at the barrier again, headbutting it fiercely – this time it cracks. Isshin staggers back as feedback sparks shoot out of the barrier control panel and up his arm.
Rukia leaps forward, hand on her hilt, but Ichigo doesn't press his advantage. He sags against the barrier, shaking his head slowly against it. It makes his hair crackle with static. His claws work slowly in the ground, clenching and unclenching through solid rock.
Isshin steps close to barrier, and the crack smoothes over. "Your mother and I chose not to tell you for the same reason you chose not to tell your sisters – or me – about what you became when Rukia-chan showed up."
Ichigo raises his head a little, enough to glance at his father, then at her. His yellow-glowing eyes have darkened and Rukia finds herself drawing closer to him. "Ichigo," she says.
He springs, snarling, claws scraping down the barrier walls. Rukia flinches a little, but she takes another step forward, hand falling away from her sword. Ichigo slams a fist into the wall.
"Ichigo," she says again, and puts a hand on the barrier. Her skin tingles unpleasantly. "It's all right."
He punches the barrier again.
"Where are you taking me?"
"Someplace we won't be interrupted. Don't you want to be alone? I can't hurt anyone else as long as I'm with you, after all." He laughs.
She can feel the power thrumming through his body. It sets off all her internal alarms and worse, reassures her in the way that Ichigo's solid, unrestrained power has come to do.
"How did this happen?" she whispers. Her limbs are beginning to feel like her own again.
"Isn't it obvious?" His claw tightens on her. Carefully, she moves her right wrist, gauging how much room she has to maneuver her sword. "Ichigo came to face me, inside our head. To suppress me. As if he could!"
She pauses. "You acknowledge that you are not Ichigo?"
"Of course I'm Ichigo. Who else would I be? We're a very complicated young man."
"If you are Ichigo, then you will defeat this thing," she says, angling her sword at its belly. "And if you are not—"
"Oi, Rukia! None of that! Didn't all this trouble start the last time you stabbed me?"
It makes her sick that he is right.
"All right, Rukia-chan," says Isshin, just behind her. "This barrier is no fun anymore." The wall between herself and Ichigo falls away.
Ichigo dives at her immediately. Rukia dodges and does not reach for her weapon. She cannot hurt him, not now when she can see the pain in every line of his distorted body. This, too, is a betrayal – to not fight him when he is like this, to let him go, let him hurt those he cares about (even her), may be worse than killing him – but she can bring him no more pain, no more.
If they are to defeat this, Ichigo will defeat it himself, or perhaps his father will defeat him. She knows it should be her, she owes him that, for all of this is her fault in the first place – but she tried to fight him, she did fight him. She didn't understand. It didn't matter, doesn't matter. This is him and she cannot hurt him again and she is not strong enough to save him.
Ichigo leaps again and this time she cannot even dodge – but he snaps back with a yelp. Isshin has caught him by the hair.
"What is this rock star hair, anyway! Daddy is sick of this!"
"HEY!" Ichigo cries, trying to reach back and slash Isshin with his claws. He seems to have forgotten about his tail. Isshin elbows him in the back and kicks out his knees. "Let me go, old man!" Ichigo shouts as he hits the ground. Isshin sits on his head.
"I think it's time to get that mask off, Rukia-chan," Isshin says, looking at her over his shoulder.
For a second she just stares at him. Ichigo is growling but there is something sullen about the sound, and he isn't struggling. Rukia kneels in front of him.
"Come on, Rukia, you don't want to hurt me. You were willing to die to protect me! I remember." He pulls her away from his chest a little and grins in her face. "You'll never kill me. Not you."
Rukia meets his eyes and shakes her head. "I do not want to kill you," she agrees. Then she twists Sodeno Shirayuki up against his throat. "That doesn't mean I won't. Second dance – Tsukikage!"
A long blade of glittering ice extends from her sword and as Ichigo twists to avoid it she kicks hard against his chest, breaking out of his grip and flipping away.
Behind him, her loosed ice blade strikes an empty building, and frozen cement tumbles down, shattering where it strikes the ground.
"Third dance – Tsukiakari!" Thousands of ice shards cascade around him, taking tiny slices out of his skin. The rain of ice intensifies, forming thick rays that envelop Ichigo's body until all she can see is a shimmering column of blue-white and red.
Then he roars and his power surges; her ice shatters and she tumbles backwards.
She scrapes her hand raw on the pavement in catching herself. His enraged scream pounds against her head. She staggers to her feet. He is almost upon her.
Under her knees, the ground vibrates with his steady growl.
She leans forward, runs shaking fingers over his mask. It is still incomplete – his black-and-yellow right eye looks up at her from the exposed corner of his face, angry. Or maybe that is pleading. She touches his hair.
"Will it hurt?" she asks.
"No more than it hurts to wear," Isshin answers from his seat atop Ichigo.
Rukia hooks her fingers under the mask and pulls.
"It's a different kind of pain," Isshin explains.
There's a flash and suddenly a tall shinigami whose reiatsu is utterly strange and yet familiar is standing between her and Ichigo.
Ichigo bounds backwards in a spray of blood. His severed tail flops to the ground, lifeless.
"A warrior for a new age, compassionate and full of strength: Kurosaki Isshin!" the shinigami says, then he looks at her over his shoulder and grins. "Never fear, Daddy is here!"
He – Ichigo's crazy father – frowns. "All right, Rukia-chan?"
She forces her mouth to snap closed, and nods briskly.
Ichigo begins to laugh, a wild, unhinged sound that is much too loud. His tail has grown back.
"I wonder if the same thing would happen if I cut off his head," Kurosaki-san says.
His power is tremendous. It isn't wild like Ichigo's, but it has the same intensity. She takes a breath. "So it's you," Rukia says. "His power doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from you."
"From my old man!" Ichigo cackles. "How could such an idiot be a shinigami?"
I've wondered the same thing about you, Rukia thinks, only you're not you –
Kurosaki-san scoffs, "Ichigo's power is nothing like mine!"
"That," says Ichigo, no longer laughing, "is true."
Kurosaki-san gives ground as Ichigo attacks, but he parries all of Ichigo's strikes. He doesn't look like he's working very hard.
But neither does Ichigo.
Between one blink and the next, Ichigo shifts into flash-step, attacking his father from three directions almost at once. Rukia leaps into his line of attack and strikes with Tsukikage again. He dodges and backs off slightly. Another building becomes a glittering pile of ice in the street.
"Well done, Rukia-chan!" Kurosaki-san says. "That place was an eyesore."
Ichigo circles them, faster than she has ever seen. He seems to be everywhere at once. She stands back to back with his father.
"This way," Isshin says under his breath just before Ichigo dives in for another attack, and Rukia understands that Isshin is allowing himself to be driven back – drawing Ichigo.
Then darkness opens around them. The world drops away and four walls of light shoot up around Ichigo. They are standing in some kind of enormous cavern. Ichigo is contained.
"Welcome, Kuchiki-san, Isshin-san! Ichigo-san. I thought I was going to have stand there all night."
Ichigo is contained. Rukia tightens her grip on Shirayuki. Her ribs seem to be too tight for her lungs.
Ichigo punches the ground and flings himself up, throwing Isshin off his back. Rukia never stops pulling. Cracks run across his skin and his huge Hollow body falls away, disintegrates, as she pulls off his mask.
Underneath – underneath there is Ichigo. Human, himself.
Except for the mask.
Rukia looks down at the mask in her hands – bits of hair and skin have come away with it, but it is still incomplete. The mask Ichigo wears now leaves no part of his face exposed, and the stripes cover its whole left side. She drops the old mask and, as it clatters to the floor, reaches for the new.
Ichigo's hands come up to catch her wrists as her fingers brush cool bone.
"What are you doing?" she says fiercely.
Those horrible teeth part, and Ichigo's voice says, "I think I should take this one off myself."
Rukia's fingers curl away from the mask, but she doesn't sit back and Ichigo does not release her wrists. "Ichigo," she says, only it sounds more like a sigh. Relief pricks her eyes. "Ichigo. Are you sure?"
"Do you think I can't?" The mask wears no expression, but she can imagine his face underneath it: the quirk of his eyebrow, the cocky curve of his mouth.
She sinks back against her heels. "Of course you can," she says. Her pinkies brush his bare shoulders. He lets go her wrists, and she finds herself pressing her hands into his skin, as if it can prove the truth of him. "Of course you can."
Ichigo reaches up and lifts the mask away.
"Kurosaki-san," she says, "is that barrier strong enough?"
"It had better be. And you must call me Daddy, Rukia-chan! We're family now!"
"Isshin," he says. He looks at her, and his face is almost serious. "Shinigami to shinigami, you can at least call me Isshin."
Her hands are starting to shake. "Very well," she says. "Isshin."
There is time now, time for her stomach to turn and her palms to sweat. She puts her sword away and suddenly finds she has to sit down. She wonders how long they have until it all falls apart again.
It takes him a moment to realize how naked he is, but she knows the instant he does because his face suddenly goes red. And his neck. And his chest.
She doesn't look any further. Her hands fall to her lap.
"Nakedness is nothing to be ashamed of, my son!" Isshin cries, and as he gets up he tears off his own kosode and shitagi, tossing them to the ground and puffing out his chest with an expression Rukia thinks is supposed to illustrate some kind of manly pride. "The human body is a beautiful thing!"
She looks back at Ichigo. He looks annoyed but even more embarrassed, kneeling there with his body tense and straight. She shakes her head and leans past him, reaching for Isshin's discarded robes. Snagging them, she sits back, tossing them over Ichigo's head.
He fumbles for a moment before he gets his head uncovered, then he tugs the robes on, arranging them carefully. He glances up at her sheepishly, and his eyes hold hers for a second before dropping away with a little smile so brief it might not have been there at all.
But that smile makes something pull tight under her ribs. Rukia's hands clench in her lap.
"I'd better return this thing to Urahara," Isshin says, tossing the barrier control from one hand to the other. "Daddy will meet you two at home!" He knees Ichigo in the back on his way out.
"Urk!" Ichigo says, and falls into her chest.
He knocks her over in his rush to sit up. Rukia picks herself up and glares.
"Stupid old man," Ichigo mutters, scowling after him.
Rukia almost says a hundred things, but they all tangle in her throat and she stands up in silence. Ichigo looks over at her, then gets carefully to his feet, pulling the kosode close around him.
"Rukia," he says, and she stops. Looks at him. He clears his throat, glancing away. "I'm sorry."
Her mouth falls open. Part of her wants to laugh, or scoff, or cry – a bigger part suggests smacking him one, but she just stands there, staring at him with his messy orange hair and his skinny boy legs sticking out under his father's robes and his power radiating around him.
He belongs to neither world, she thinks. He belongs in both. And she believes it.
She steps in front of him and takes his face in her hands. He looks down at her, frowning solemnly. She rises onto her toes, pulling his face down to hers, and kisses him softly, closing her eyes, just feeling the warmth of his lips against hers.
Ichigo doesn't move, and after a moment, she pulls back, suddenly nervous. Her hands drop away from his face.
"Wha—" he sputters, eyes wide. "What the – you – what – are you, are you crazy!" His face is red, his brow as deeply furrowed as she's ever seen it, his lip curled like – like horror, like he –
Her stomach twists and she looks down, clenching her fists. "Nothing," she says. "Nevermind. I was just—" she shakes her head a little. "I apologize." She turns away.
"We should go home." She starts toward the exit.
He grabs her arm, too hard. She stops, squeezes her eyes shut, and says, "Ichigo." His name seems to choke her. "Let's just—"
He turns her around and kisses her clumsily. His grip on her arm is still too tight but his lips are gentle, and she understands that he's afraid, maybe more afraid of this than she is, but for completely different reasons. Stupid teenage boy reasons. (Sometimes she forgets how young he is.) So she puts her arms around his neck and guides him softly, parting his lips with hers, slipping her tongue along his, then pulling back, just a little, so he follows. Slowly, slowly, his hands relax on her arms, then slide down, find her waist. She feels his thumbs moving over the fabric of her uniform and she tilts her head, presses higher onto her toes, deepening the kiss for just a moment before pulling away. She lays her forehead against his and looks at him.
His thumbs don't stop moving. He takes a deep breath, and with his eyes still closed, says, "What happens now?"
"I don't know," she says, brushing her fingers against the hair at the nape of his neck. "I guess we go up and find out."