Author's note: spoilers for manga chapter 196.
More author's note: Many thanks to Dani for doing a thorough job of beta-reading this story for me.
That Hollow Feeling— A Bleach Fanfiction
She could smell it. As she stared at him from across the classroom, surrounded by humans and shinigami alike, she could still smell it. It was there, just under his skin. So out of place, she wondered how the rest of her comrades could fail to notice it. It was the scent of the air before a storm—a strange mixture of lightning and moisture.
"Ru…Rukia," she heard her name escape his lips, his voice low and disbelieving.
She took a deep, calming breath before meeting his widening eyes.
Long time no see, Rukia-chaaaan!
She clenched her jaw as she turned her gaze to look at her fellow shinigamis standing behind him. The scent was getting stronger now, like the smell of the damp earth during the pouring rain. She hated, hated that smell. How could they not notice it?
Even as she told herself that there was nothing threatening, nothing insidious, in the way the scent seemed to wrap itself around her, she steeled herself against the horribly familiar smell of rain and earth and foliage as she jumped down from the window ledge to give Ichigo the swift kick he deserved. She ignored the onslaught of memories evoked by her overactive senses and forced herself to stare at the pathetic expression in Ichigo's face.
"What's the big idea?" he shouted indignantly, touching the side of his face as he fell backwards against Renji's waiting arms.
Did you miss me, Rukia-chan?
Her eyes narrowed in response.
Carefully unclenching her fists, she leaned towards him before quickly unleashing a barrage of slaps against the face that had no business wearing such a defeated look.
"Damn—" he yelled.
"What's with that wimpy look on your face!" she demanded while giving him no chance to explain or defend himself. Was it because for just one moment, more than the smell of rain, it was that look on his face that caused the icy clutch of fear to take hold of her heart?
She grabbed hold of a fistful of his hair and forcibly dragged the honorary shinigami from his body.
Gripping him by his robes, she led him outside with the words, "Come with me," shouted for all to hear.
If you wanted to be alone with me, all you had to do was ask, Rukia-chan.
"Wait!" Ichigo protested as he scrambled to regain his balance under her not so gentle grip. "What do you want, Rukia? Where are you taking me?"
She ignored his questions the same way she used to ignore his complaints about the shinigami work she had him do. Strangely enough, once outside, they moved in harmony as if her time in Soul Society never separated them. With Ichigo casually carrying her against his back while she held on tightly, they jumped though various rooftops under her direction. In this proximity, however, that miserable scent got even stronger. And whether it was his shinigami form or the fact that she was now physically much closer to him, she didn't know, but the smell of rain now threatened to overwhelm her. What's more, she couldn't help but feel the slight crackle of electricity beneath her fingertips or ignore the presence of something foreign crawling against her skin.
It felt eerily like a caress.
She shuddered at the thought and impatiently urged him to hurry.
She stopped touching him as soon as she could. In fact, she kicked him as hard as she was capable of doing towards the hollow she wanted him to fight. And if she kicked him a little harder and with a little more force than necessary, she was sure Ichigo wouldn't have noticed. After all, he had other things in his mind.
But I would notice, Rukia-chan!
She swallowed a wordless cry of shame as she watched him fight the hollow she had designated. Her mouth formed a grim line as she noticed the less-than-sure Ichigo fighting in front of her. There were too many things different, so many things wrong with the picture she was seeing. And, in the end, she could only attempt to fix one thing at a time.
"Do you think that I don't know?" she yelled at him, watching the battle with frustration. His half-hearted swings and dodges were pathetic and they weren't getting him anywhere. That idiot! "Do you think I don't know that ever since losing to the Arrancar, you haven't taken the form of a shinigami even once!"
Che! I did not lose, Rukia-chan.
"What are you afraid of?" she demanded, mentally brushing off the feel of fingers running down her cheek. "Chad got hurt. Inoue got hurt." She looked at him intently from her position and at the same time maintained a careful eye against the hollow behind him. "So what?" she asked harshly. "Have you ever been a man who loses his will over little things like that?" Slowly, she walked closer to him, ignoring the scent of rain and earth and lightning that assaulted her nose. "Is it scary to lose?" she asked directly. "Is it scary not to be able to protect your friends?" she pushed forward. "Or," she paused, "is it scary…to face the hollow inside of you?"
There. She had acknowledged its existence.
And as she looked at Ichigo's panic-stricken eyes, she swallowed the lump that seemed to have permanently lodged itself against her throat.
This was Ichigo, the one whose life she had twisted.
This was Ichigo, the one who had risked his life to save hers in Soul Society.
"If you're afraid of losing, just get stronger," she told him, closing her eyes against the picture he made standing there looking at her with his feelings naked for all to see. "If you're afraid of not being able to protect your friends, then swear to get stronger until you can protect them." She bit her lip hard. "If you're afraid of the hollow inside you, then—"
Then what, Rukia-chan?
"Then just get stronger," her voice came clearly as she opened her eyes to meet his gaze, "until you can crush him."
That's not a very nice thing to say about me, Rukia-chan.
"Even if you can't rely on anyone else, you've always been able to believe in yourself!" She licked her suddenly dry lips and stared at the eyes that had looked at her with such guilt and horror before. "That's the kind of man you have been in my heart, Ichigo!" she finally said, her voice strong and clear.
And just like that, with her last words echoing in the wind, his whole manner seemed to change. She saw an unnamed emotion flash quickly in his eyes before he had a chance to suppress it and look away.
"Tsk," Ichigo commented, finally giving his full attention to the hollow before him. "You're really noisy," he said cockily, "did you know that?"
The scent of rain retreated somewhat just then. It didn't disappear altogether, much to her disappointment, but it seemed… less overwhelming than before. The tension that had gripped her ever since she'd found out about his hollow slowly began to unwind.
You can't get rid of me that easily, Rukia-chan.
She crossed her arms over her chest and watched with no small amount of satisfaction as Ichigo disposed of the hollow before them in his usual fashion.
This was the Ichigo she knew. This was the boy who fought against the rules and took on Soul Society, including her brother, so that he could save her. This was the boy who risked everything—his life, his humanity—all in order to pay a debt he assumed he owed her. She had to bring him back to himself.
Because, like Ichigo, she would risk all to pay a debt.
And she knew, she just knew, that his hollow was her debt. It existed so that he could save her in Soul Society. Without meaning to, she had twisted his life again, just as surely as she'd twisted it when she first transferred her shinigami powers to him.
You can't ignore me forever.
She looked up at him as he approached her, his sword against his shoulder.
"Rukia," he said, his voice rough but steady and tinged with the old self-confidence she was so familiar with. He stood by and watched her for a few moments before stating, "You're back."
"Yes," she replied, feeling the wind blow against her face. There it was again, the smell of rain. "For a little while, at least."
Finally sheathing his sword, he walked towards her until he was only an arm's length away. "I wasn't sure if I'd see you again," he said softly. "This soon," he added.
"Don't be stupid," she stated peremptorily, hiding her clenched fists. "My duties will always take me to the human world. It was inevitable that I would come here eventually."
His only response was to stare at her before shaking his head. "How long have you known?" he asked, assuming that she would know what he was referring to. "Did you know back in Soul Society? Back when you told me that you were going to stay instead of going back with us to the human world?" He ran his fingers through his hair, looking away. "Did Byakuya tell you?"
Oh, yes, Rukia-chan! Tell us! Tell him because I already know.
"Nii-sama," she said a little too quickly as she thought back to her brother's words the night before she left Soul Society. They had been words of caution more than anything else. She couldn't read his eyes, but then, she never had been able to. But that night, there had been something else besides the impassive expression that she had come to associate with her brother. That night, there had been…concern?
Was that because he had already seen and fought the hollow in Ichigo?
I would have beaten him too if this brat hadn't interrupted!
Ichigo gave a bitter laugh. "Yeah," he muttered. "Your brother."
"No," she replied quickly and truthfully. Nii-sama had never mentioned Ichigo's hollow. But then, he had not needed to. She had already known and…her brother had known that, too.
He gave her a disbelieving look.
"He didn't need to tell me, Ichigo," she informed him. "I already knew. I'd known for awhile."
"Then let's go back to my first question, Rukia," he bit out. "How long have you known?"
This time, it was she who looked away. How long had she known with some degree of confidence? Because she certainly had not known or even noticed back when he first saved her from the Soukyoku. She had been too preoccupied by both her own plight and the imminent danger to Ichigo, surrounded as they were by captains and vice-captains alike.
Tell him! Tell him when I started to talk to you! Tell him, Rukia-chan!
When did she first start to feel that prickling sensation, the one that caused the hair on her skin to stand on end? When did she first start to smell the scent that reminded her of a mixture lightning striking the ground, of heavy rain just before it poured, and of the damp earth all rolled into one?
"How long have you known, Rukia?" he demanded again.
"In Soul Society," she replied. "When you were still there."
She saw his jaw clench as he grit his teeth.
"I began to suspect back when you picked me up from Rukongai, back at Kuukaku-dono's home," she specified.
Oh? I don't remember talking to you then. It was after. Wasn't it after?
She remembered being disturbed by the faint smell of rain, but when she had looked up in the sky, there were no ominous clouds in sight. She had looked to the people around her to ask them if they noticed it too, but from their expressions, she had determined that they did not. She had chalked it up to a figment of her imagination right then.
Except, when Ichigo had come closer, the scent had become stronger. And she had felt strangely…unsettled.
"How did you know way back then?" he asked, in a tight voice.
She remembered the air around her getting thicker. It had become that much more difficult to breathe, almost as if she were being choked. And she remembered feeling like she was being strangled when she had told Ichigo that she was staying in Soul Society.
"There was something different about you," she stated calmly, belying the surge of feelings that rose up within her.
So you did notice me then! And before I even talked to you! Well done, Rukia-chan!
"What was it?" he demanded. "What was it that you noticed while everyone else in Soul Society didn't? Because I'm pretty damn sure they wouldn't have let me go that easily if they all knew I had this…this…thing inside me."
"It was nothing overt," she told him. "I wasn't even sure what it was except—" she paused, uncertain what to say.
Except then I talked to you! Did I confirm your fears, Rukia-chan?
"Suddenly I was sure," she finished, lamely.
She had been walking home with Inoue and Ichigo when Ichigo had swayed slightly against her. She had been cursing Ganju for spiking the boy's drink when suddenly—
She shook her head. It was no use dwelling on that unpleasant memory.
Awww…now you've gone and hurt my feelings!
She looked up at Ichigo and chose her words carefully. "I know I'm not making any sense, but Ichigo, I know you." She moved closer to him, ignoring that hated scent and the fact that goosebumps began to form around her arms. She touched his forearm with both her hands.
"Was that why you stayed back in Soul Society?" he asked her, with an attempt at nonchalance that he most certainly did not feel.
"No!" she quickly returned. Perhaps a little too quickly for his liking? "I'd decided before then. My staying in Soul Society had nothing to do with you and everything to do with me and my mess." She took a deep breath. "Please, if anything else, believe that." Because that, at least, was true.
"You're strong, Ichigo," she said warily, more than aware of the invisible hands that circled around her neck. "Stronger than it." And if those same invisible hands felt like they were on the verge of choking her, she ignored the menace they represented. She couldn't…she wouldn't give in to its threat.
In the back of her mind, she wondered if she'd bruise.
"You'll find a way to deal with it." Then, sensing the insensitivity of that statement, she clarified, "We'll find a way to deal with it."
He looked away from her in attempt to cover, she was sure, the shame that clouded his eyes. "Everyone got so hurt and I couldn't do anything," he hissed. "What makes you think I can—"
She socked him in his stomach, knocking the wind out of him.
Laughter rang in her head.
"Well, you can't keep thinking that way or we might as well give up now," she declared. "You can get stronger, Ichigo. In fact, you will get stronger. To protect your friends. To beat the hollows. Even the one inside of you." She brought his face closer to hers. "I know it! I believe it!"
He was still struggling for breath from her sneak attack when she smiled up at him.
Will you kiss us, Rukia-chan?
"Let's go," she said softly, ignoring the ghost-like feeling of hands against her face. Ichigo's hands were at his sides rubbing the belly she had abused. And with no small amount of glee, she dragged him by his shirt and led him back to school. He had things he needed to do, and school was a good start.
"Where the hell are we going this time?" he demanded, muttering invectives all the way.
Are you taking us somewhere to be alone, Rukia-chan?
"Oh, shut up!" she finally said.
And whether she meant it for Ichigo or for the voice that she wanted deny hearing in her head, she wasn't sure. What she was sure of was that the time was coming when she wouldn't be able to pretend to the rest of the world that the words in her head were a figment of her imagination. The time was coming when she wouldn't be able to ignore the phantom touches that she felt. Because, as much as she wanted to deny it, the voice and the touches and the smell of rain all occurred only in Ichigo's presence.
"Is it too much to ask where you're taking me?" he groused.
"Why, back to school, of course," she replied. "You have some apologizing to do to Inoue."
A disappointed sigh.
She ignored it as well as Ichigo's mumblings.
There'll come a time when you won't be able to drag me around like this, Rukia-chan.
She tried to close off her mind.
Then what'll you do?
To no avail, obviously. She tried not to shudder in revulsion at the sensation of hot breath against her ear.
Will you tell him about us? Will you tell him about our tête-à-têtes?
She closed her eyes.
Or do you think he already knows?
She bit her lip. He didn't. Ichigo didn't know; she was sure of it. Because if he did, if he did…if he knew his hollow spoke to her…touched her…
She refused to think about it.
"Ne, Rukia," Ichigo's voice broke through her thoughts.
She opened her eyes to glance back at him; he had been strangely silent these past few minutes.
"What is it?" she asked threateningly. If he thought he could get away with not apologizing—
"Thanks," he mumbled softly. "For all of this," he added, his eyes looking everywhere but towards hers.
She smiled weakly. "Anytime," she muttered.
Awww…that's just cute, Rukia-chan.
Why wouldn't the damn thing shut up?
I'll keep quiet for a while if you talk to me.
She shook her head. The voice sounded plaintive that time. Almost—
If you promise to talk to me later, I'll keep quiet for now.
Lonely. That's the word.
Don't you want to know more about me?
She had to stop herself from giving a scathing reply.
If you knew more about me, then maybe you could help him.
Tempting. It knew her weakness.
If you knew more about me, then maybe…
Maybe, maybe, maybe…
Isn't that what you want, Rukia-chan?
And no matter how much she told herself that it was most likely lying and trying to trick her in some way, no matter how much her mind railed against her decision…
I knew you'd see it my way, Rukia-chan.
She swallowed her fear.
'Til later, Rukia-chan!
And hoped against hope that what she was about to do was the right thing.
To be continued.