Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.

There was a stirring inside him; a sick lump of dread which formed in the pit of his stomach, waves of ill feeling accompanying gentle yet sporadic prods against his soul.

It was happening again. Ichigo cursed and rolled over, the sheets sticking to his sweaty limbs from the humidity of the night. He wished his bed was bigger, so there could be more cool spaces: he wished the bed would stop swaying, so he could get a reign on the nausea which pushed against his throat. He refused to open his eyes: that would make it real, and not just a figment of his imagination: a nightmare brought on by exhaustion from lack of sleep.

He knew from the last time he'd looked at his alarm clock that it was around one in the morning. He'd had a tiring day; fighting hollows, putting up with classmates, annoying shinigami, and his even more annoying father. And now this. He sighed in frustration and irritation at his own self-pity. There was another soft push against his soul, and Ichigo tensed up, but forced himself to relax.

Relax. It's the key to falling asleep, he reminded himself. Just relax all the muscles...regulate the breathing...If he didn't think about it, maybe it would go away. He was deluding himself and he knew it, but it was late, and Ichigo was no stranger to denial. He forced his thoughts away from Rukia, sleeping in the next room with his sisters.

His breaths fell to an even rhythm as the minutes ticked by; the room became silent, and he was able to hear Kon's scratchy almost-snore from under his bed and tried to get his breathing to match the plushie's...relax, relax, don't think about it...

Ichigo hadn't realized he'd dropped into a doze until a wave of nausea jolted him out of it: he sat up abruptly, sweating and gasping for air as if he'd just been punched in the stomach. The sheets made a tangle around his legs as he made a desperate attempt to calm down, to conquer the nausea, to ignore the voice which sounded in the back of his mind.

"Hello there, King. Nice night, ain't it?"

Ichigo attempted to ignore it, concentrating on forcing the nausea down to manageable levels. If he didn't answer it, maybe it would go away. Maybe he was just imagining it, anyway...

"It's been a while, King, and I'm bored. Why don't you let me out for the night?"

"Hell no," Ichigo said automatically, then cursed himself for responding.

"And why not? What's so bad with letting me have the upper hand for a little while? It's not such a terrible request...one night, even, and I'd let you have the body back in the morning."

"Never," Ichigo whispered, determined not to wake the other occupant of his room. "You're a killer; I'd be an idiot to let you out willingly."

"I'm a killer?" The hollow sounded amused. "That's a bit hypocritical of you, King. I've never actually killed anyone before. Whereas you have killed many, many hollows."

"That's different. They're purified and sent to Soul Society; it's the right thing to do. You just want to kill because you like it."

"Don't you?" His hollow cackled a bit. "Admit it, King - you get a rush from battle. You love it!"

"So maybe I like fighting, so what?" Ichigo whispered defensively. "But I don't fight to kill people. I wouldn't like doing that."

"Yet you unleash your bankai on the captains of Sereitei and attempt to crush them no matter the cost. You can pull punches but not bankais, King." Ichigo felt it smirking.

"That was to save Rukia," Ichigo said, but had no other answer. It was true. He had tried his best to kill Renji...Zaraki...Byakuya...all because there had been no other way at the time, though, he thought desperately. It had been the only option.

"There was always an option not to fight, King."

He couldn't have done that. To let Rukia die... he could not have done that.

"We'd both kill, given the circumstances and chance," his hollow whispered, and the words were like poison gas filling the corners of his mind; he could not get away. "How am I different from you, Ichigo? I am superior because I know that I would kill, King. I've accepted that, and that's all there is. Don't push your traits on to me, King; don't make me the bad guy, here. We're one and the same. It's like blaming a mirror for the colour of your hair. So what difference does it make if I'm in charge, rather than you?"

"I'm still not letting you out," Ichigo hissed, furious. His hollow only cackled. "Damn you, I'm not letting you out!" He half-yelled this last part, and for a moment Ichigo froze as he heard movement from the other room. It settled down after a few seconds; Rukia must have just turned over. He forcibly lowered his voice, but it was hard. "As long as you exist, it puts my family in danger. Do you think I'd give you control here, around them?"

"Oh?" The hollow seemed amused by Ichigo's words, infuriating him still further. "Would you then let me out here, around her?" There was a subtle shift in its tone of voice. In the next room, Rukia coughed.

"Around...no, I wouldn't!" Ichigo whispered fiercely.

"Disappointing how you underestimate her so, King. Don't you think she would be able to handle me...in battle?" The pause was not lost on Ichigo's sleep-starved brain. "Or are you so afraid of your own lust? For blood, of course..." It sniggered, a high-pitched, grating sound, and Ichigo wanted badly to hurt it.

"You're sick," he said, but that only made the hollow laugh louder.

"Oh, now it's my fault? Don't lie to me, Ichigo: I know how you think about her. And this is where our difference comes through again; you have the mentality of a nine-year-old when it comes to women, King." His hollow's voice was laden with derisive scorn. "I've seen you: you blush at breasts as if you'd never seen them before! Ha!"

Ichigo plugged his ears, tried to think of something else, but the hollow persisted, and Ichigo hated it more than ever before.

"You think about her, King. But that's all! You're pathetic! What kind of man just stands by, doing nothing, when the woman he wants has been sleeping in the exact same room?"

"A decent one," Ichigo muttered, feeling stupid and embarrassed and loathing both his hollow and himself. He wasn't like Mizuiro: confident around girls he liked, or Keigo: admitting his feelings at the drop of a hat. Besides, what if she didn't like him? "I...I'm going to say something to Rukia, if she ever acts interested," Why was he defending his himself against an evil monster, again?

"Interested? She talks to you. She hits you. She jokes with you. She's interested, King. How are you so blind?"

"She does all of that with Renji," Ichigo said, an incredibly surreal feeling crawling over him. He was talking about girls with his inner hollow.

"She rides on your back," the hollow pointed out, voice laced with innuendo. Ichigo's face flamed up again, mortified by the previously unthought-of interpretation of Rukia's mode of transportation before she had regained her powers. There was something like a sigh from the hollow, and the next thing Ichigo knew was blinding pain from the intense, all-encompassing waves of nausea crashing through him.

Springing out of bed, Ichigo rushed down the hall and made it in time to the bathroom, where he heaved and retched over the toilet in abject misery. The hollow had done something, he was sure of it, but it was giving no explanation. It felt as if someone had reached into his heart and wrapped an icy hand around his soul. He threw up until there was nothing left, but the feeling didn't go away. Standing shakily, he leant heavily against the sink and counter, rinsing out his mouth and brushing his teeth weakly, hoping that the minty taste would help him feel better. It was only after this that he felt strong enough to raise his head to look at himself in the mirror.

Shreds of black were creeping across the white of his left eye. Ichigo swore and - for lack of anything better to do - slapped himself across the face, hoping to ... what? Jolt the hollow's grip on his soul? He could hear faint laughter in the ringing silence, and the icy fingers tightened: Ichigo heaved over the sink, but nothing came out.

"If you won't let me out yourself, King," the voice tore through Ichigo's pained breathing and choking, "then I'll find a way to come out myself. I've done it before...and now I know how..." its voice was smug.

But that was in battle, Ichigo thought between abdominal spasms: his throat felt raw. Only when my life is threatened, when I'm about to die, only when I'm outside my body, he...shit! Ichigo coughed as bile, coming up from his tortured stomach, was caught in an air passageway: it burned unrelentingly and Ichigo gripped the counter with white knuckles as wracking coughs tore at his throat. There was blood on the white porcelain of the sink.

He could feel his consciousness starting to slip; black spots were dancing in front of his eyes, he couldn't get enough air, he was coughing too hard: the spasms rocked his stomach, and he heaved again. The mad laughter was getting louder - closer, and Ichigo began to panic. There were two hands on his soul now: he could feel their icy grip shifting and squeezing, and the nakedness of his self terrified him. Somewhere along the line, his legs gave way; he slipped down to sit on the floor, scraping his shoulder against the edge of the counter and bashing his knee against the toilet, but he was past caring by now. Ichigo curled into the fetal position, body shuddering involuntarily as he lost all control of his muscles, and those hands began to pull.

The pain was unbearable, and Ichigo felt his mind beginning to shut down in response. No! He thought, panicking entirely. This can't be happening! He could feel the blood in his mouth, warm and coppery; his abdominal muscles screamed in pain; he could hear the blood pounding in his ears, getting louder and louder until it nearly eclipsed the laughter of the hollow.

The thudding stopped abruptly and Ichigo, spiralling in to blackness, saw the hazy image of two feet standing on the floor before him, wavering before dissolving in a wave of red.

"Good night, King."