Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
They had been walking in silence for ten minutes. For Ichigo, it might well have been a century, filled with agonized silence both from without and within. Rukia was dead silent behind him; she might as well have not been there, if not for the occasional poke from Sode no Shirayuki from when he stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk, or from when she jumped at a sudden movement of his. She had taken Zangetsu from him; the sword seemed content to stay in bankai form, and Rukia had thrust it through her waist sash, where it remained silent.
She was terrified of him. She was frightened, she didn't trust him, she probably would never want to see him again after this night. Emotion had a stranglehold on his throat; Ichigo had come dangerously close to crying several times as the image of her bruised face and impassive eyes resurfaced again and again in his mind.
And what could he say to her? What could he say to anyone? How could he face Rukia, day after day, working together, knowing what he had done to her? How could he allow himself to be around her - to be around any of his friends and family - when it could happen all over again? Blood still trickled and dripped from his left hand; slower now, the coagulants working, but each beat of his pulse reproached him, reminded him, taunted him with the fact that he'd done something that he could never take back. Ichigo felt sick, simultaneously wondering about the extent of what he had done to Rukia and shying away from the very idea of asking.
Rukia, behind Ichigo, kept her face as blank as possible, even though she knew that no one was looking. It wasn't the point; it was the principle of the thing. She had cried enough tears that night; a true Kuchiki would never let her enemy glimpse her with her guard down. She pressed her free hand to her face, using her healing kidou on herself: she was exhausted, however, and used her energy sparingly, enough to calm the swelling and deep bruising.
Was that it? Was Ichigo now her enemy? No, the thing inside Ichigo; that was her enemy, her true foe, not the boy who walked numbly in front of her, shoulders slumped, paying no attention to his wounds or the world. But how alike were they? The not-Ichigo had known her, known her name, known Ichigo's thoughts. As much as she hated to admit it, it had seemed that the not-Ichigo was part of Ichigo himself. So how much of Ichigo was part of the hollow? It hurt her head to try and think her way through it.
"Rukia," Ichigo had come to a halt; they were walking down a main street, office buildings lining the empty, lamp-lit road.
Rukia stopped as well, immediately tense. He started to turn around, and she quickly slid Sode no Shirayuki up to prick at the side of his neck.
"Don't move." She commanded, focussing her gaze on her sword. She didn't want to look at his face; what would she see there?
"Rukia, please -" Ichigo halted and swallowed, then continued with some difficulty, looking at her out of the corner of his eye. "Rukia, can I just talk to you?"
"No," she said, more forcefully than she'd intended, still staring intently at her blade. "No, you can't."
"And what would you say?" she snarled, manoevring so that she pressed him up against the side of the nearest building, her zanpakutou against his throat. "Would you say sorry? Would that make it better?" She was shaking, Rukia realized; shaking with not so much fear as anger, helpless and frustrated - anger with no direction, because the thing that she wanted to slice, to hack into little bits, was gone. And in its place was Ichigo, bleeding and motionless. He slumped against the wall, eyes shadowed by his ridiculous hair.
"Answer me," Rukia insisted, realizing as she did so that she no longer knew the question. She needed to hear his voice.
"Rukia, I -" He didn't know what to say. What was there to be said that did not already hang, unspoken, in the air between them? "I promise you, Rukia, it won't happen again," the words sounded pathetic even to his own ears, "I'm going to find a way to fight that thing on a level ground, and destroy it for good. I promise, I won't let it hurt you again."
"Noble words," Rukia said bitterly.
"But I mean them," Ichigo said desperately, knowing that it made up for nothing. "I'll get my revenge - I'll make it pay, both for me and for you."
"And what am I supposed to say? Thank you?" Rukia could feel the tears welling up behind her sore eyes, conscious of the fact that they were quite literally at a standstill. There was nothing Ichigo could do to make up for what had happened that night; they both knew it, and they both knew that things could not go back to normal, even if - when - Ichigo cast the demon out of himself.
"No, Rukia, I - I can't make this better; I - please put your sword away."
Rukia held it steady.
"I'm me again, Rukia, I swear. It's totally gone, it - at least look at me, Rukia." His voice was imploring. "Look at my eyes; you'll know it's me."
Rukia raised her face, her gaze running up the zanpakutou steel to focus on Ichigo's eyes. They stared back into hers, normal white and comforting brown; Rukia could feel the tears starting to trickle down her face, running hot over the sword-welt on her cheek.
"Please put your zanpakutou down," he asked again, and she could hear the hitch in his voice.
She shook her head silently. When she looked back up at Ichigo, his expression had turned to despair; tears fell from his eyes, ran down his face in a way that made her think more of an open wound than actual crying.
"Why?" His voice was a hoarse whisper.
"It's still inside you," she said, her voice warbling with emotion; she swallowed and continued. "How do I know it's not affecting what you do right now? How do I know that you're still...that you haven't begun to think like it, that you're not influenced by it at all..."
"I'm not," Ichigo said, but it was too hasty. "Oh God...it talks to me sometimes, Rukia, but I swear I'm still me. I would never act like that of my own will; never!"
"But you affect it," she said, "don't try to deny it...it knew me. It knew me, and though it lied to me about everything else, I know that it at least can feel what you feel..."
"It may think it's feeling what I feel, but it can't know. It's twisted, Rukia, and it - it is affected by me, but I swear it only works the one way...I'm not that thing...I wouldn't hurt you..." he trailed off miserably, feeling pathetic. "Rukia, at least tell me if I - what it...I don't know what happened after it broke your kidou spells - did it..."
His throat ran dry; Rukia was still holding Sode no Shirayuki to his throat with one hand, and with the other she was opening the front of her robes, exposing her front all the way down to the sash at her waist. She never took her eyes off of Ichigo, her expression defiant and accusing.
Ichigo drew his breath in sharply; the finger marks and hand prints were clearly defined, even in the shadowy darkness of the midnight street: he could see that the blood liberally painted over her front was beginning to cake as it dried. Again, his eyes were drawn to the damning trail of smeared blood that disappeared into her pants; what had it done?
"Nothing permanently damaging," Rukia said stiffly, as if reading his mind. "I believe your mangas call it 'groping'."
Relief was palpable in his voice. "So it didn't make me-"
"It made you do a lot," Rukia's voice cut across his; both hands were back on her zanpakutou's hilt, her robe hanging loosely across her front, exposing a strip of skin between her breasts from collarbone to navel. "Nothing that healing kidou cannot fix." Her voice was growing more clipped and distant by the minute, as if the act of revealing her body to him caused her to put an extra barrier around her emotions. "Come; the Urahara Shoten is several blocks away."
She stepped back, allowing him a chance to step away from the wall and resume walking in front of her. He didn't.
"Ichigo." She said, still in her formal Kuchiki-voice; Ichigo didn't flinch, exactly, but he didn't move, either.
"Rukia, we're not done here." He took a deep breath: somehow, he had to make this right between them; he had to convince her that it was really, truly Ichigo who stood here, and that he would never hurt her, no matter what.
"Yes we are," she said, a bit of mulishness creeping into her tone. She stepped closer to him, but to the side, to prod him forwards.
"No, we're not. I'm not. That means you're not, cause I'm talking to you." Ichigo faced her once again, glaring down at her.
"Yes we are. I'm in charge of this right now, so get moving, idiot!" She scowled a little, and Ichigo felt a massive wave of relief wash over him: she was acting more normal...more like her old self...
"Damn it, Rukia!" Ichigo knocked Sode no Shirayuki out of the way and stepped to the side: now she was the one with her back to the wall.
"I'm sorry for everything, Rukia!" he plunged forwards, his irritation helping him through his self-pity to find the words to form some sort of apology. "I swear that I will never hurt you again; I swear I'll never let that thing get the best of me again; I swear I'll make this better!"
He looked down into her eyes, hoping desperately for some sign of approval, and his heart crashed in his chest. Rukia was frozen against the wall, shrinking back from him, the fear in her wide eyes palpable. Her right hand was clenched around her zanpakutou in a fist so tight that the sword was shaking; her other hand clutched the neck of her shinigami robes, pulling them together, cringing.
"Rukia-" Ichigo stumbled back, faster than lightning; he landed sprawled on the pavement. Shutting his eyes tight, he cursed himself for his unthinking aggressiveness; he'd just ruined his entire oath through body language that the hollow inside of him had twisted to its own purposes.
Ichigo wasn't surprised when he felt cool steel against his cheek, smooth against the salt of dried tear tracks. He kept his eyes closed; whatever she wanted to do to him, he would accept it happily. He was a menace to everyone around him. He'd hurt Rukia - physically, mentally, and emotionally - he'd allowed something inside him to twist his life into a complete nightmare within the span of several hours.
He was surprised, however, when he felt gentle fingers replace the blade on his face: his eyes flew open. Rukia was crouching in front of him, her sword now resting across his neck, but her other hand caressed his cheek hesitantly, then cupped it, tilting his face up and bringing hers towards his. She halted about three inches away, and proceeded to study his eyes. Ichigo remained staring up at her, knowing what she was doing: studying him for any traces of his hollow. His eyes were literally windows to his own soul, and he hoped against hope that she would see only Ichigo within them. His body was beginning to react to her closeness, but he tried to ignore it; the electric feel of her cool fingertips on his cheek, her warm breath puffing on to his skin every once in a while, her very nearness...
"It's me, Rukia," he whispered. "I swear."
Her face crumpled; next thing he knew, he had his arms around her as she cried silently into his chest, and he was patting her awkwardly on the back. Her shoulders shook soundlessly, and she clutched Sode no Shirayuki in a desperate grip even as she herself was encompassed in Ichigo's embrace.
"I thought..." Rukia's voice, muffled and raw, came between sobs. "I thought I'd lost you...I thought - I could not go through that again, I wouldn't have been able to in the end...not with you..."
Ichigo made what he hoped were comforting noises; most of what she said wasn't making too much sense to him. Instead, his euphoric mind was paying attention every single point of contact between his body and hers; her shoulder against his chest, his knee against her back, her hands fisted in his hakama, his arms around her, her head resting against his shoulder... After a few minutes, the shuddering stopped, but Rukia remained leaning against his chest. Ichigo wondered what to do, but focussed on holding her small, warm form close to him, relief coursing through him. She didn't hate him. She trusted him enough to put herself in his arms. She believed him. Things were right again, and he would make sure that they stayed that way.
A/N: Thanks for reading. This was never meant to be more than a one-shot, and so perhaps the ending reflects that. I've written and re-written the ending several times, and none seemed to fit; this one I'm still unsatisfied with. Perhaps because I am still quite into the notion of Rukia meeting Hichigo in some way, shape, or form; I wouldn't be surprised if I began another fic on the same theme.
Again, thanks for reading and reviewing.