a/n: It's AU, angsty, and slightly OOC. Read at your own risk. xD
She feels tall.
She only stands about four foot eight, and by no means over them. But she feels tall nonetheless. Something in her posture, something in her bearing, and she feels like she could knock them all out.
"What're you doin' here, you runt? D'ya wanna get your head busted? Get your nose broken?"
"Play with us?" another suggests, with a lewd chortle to follow.
"She's too young!" another shouts in.
"Nah, she goes to my school," the first one, the leader, says. "That is, on the days I go."
His voice betrays the rumble of a laugh that's rising in his throat. It's ominous – the rumble of thunder before a storm.
His voice is low, and he's big, partially with fat but mostly with muscle. His skin is dark with a wannabe-tough tan, his eyes are slits, and he wears a tattoo too proudly on his neck. Something about the way he displays that petty mark disgusts her, reminds her of something faint and far-away, someone who wore tattoos with far more dignity.
He steps to her, puts two pudgy fingers around her tiny jaw. He studies her with amusement, like a cruel child about to squish a bug out of spite. She stares back defiantly, but doesn't fight his grip.
A malicious smile spreads across those lips, and they part to reveal exactly two black spots – the top-left canine and one front tooth - where teeth used to be. Ichigo did that, Rukia realizes. A muted shiver goes down her spine with what it means for her.
"Kurosaki Rukia, is it?"
The name sounds strange, as it always does, but she doesn't have time to think. She makes her move.
She throws a punch, something makes a nasty, wrenching pop sound. He cries out, of surprise more than pain. He brings a hand to his mouth, touch almost delicate, as if to examine the damage.
"She punched me," he says, his voice disbelieving. In a second, one of the others grabs her right arm and another restrains her by binding between his forearms, none-too-gently. "She punched me," he repeats, and this time there's a hint of amusement in her hollow threat.
"Little – bitch – " one of the boys restraining her mumbles loudly. His flow of speech is punctuated by his ragged breathing, the side effects of restraining a girl as determined to get free as Rukia is. She is squirming, kicking, screaming, even biting in the attempt.
"Spitfire," the leader laughs again. The blood is trickling down his lower lip.
Rukia goes limp, a last attempt to get free.
(She doesn't feel so tall anymore. Realism kicks in to remind her that she's petite, has only the faintest grasp of the martial arts, and is about to be hurt very badly.)
The one holding her waist loosens his grip, but the one holding her right arm only tightens his, so much as to cut off her circulation.
"I think it's time to extinguish her, you know what I'm saying?" He leers again, and she catches the first sign that her punch angered him more than he is willing to let on.
Her lips purse. Her face goes white. She'll return home tonight bloody, limping, cut and bruised, once they are done with her.
(Yuzu will cry, Karin will be disappointed - )
He delivers a punch to her face. Her nose cracks. Blood flows. His fist is harder than hers. Chance was what knocked another two of his teeth out, she reminds herself, not any kind of skill. The thought doesn't quite ring true, but it's no condolence.
"Hey, Ru – hey!"
She recognizes the voice immediately, but she's too ashamed to raise her head. She stares on the pavement and concentrates on the way the blood drips there from her nose, leaving little droplets on the asphalt. It's already stained her white dress. She ignores the throbs of pain.
Promptly, she hears the soft thump of fists in their guts, their groans as they crumple to their knees, and the crack of at least three noses breaking – three for her one. She keeps her eyes open, but continues to stare at the drops of blood, until the goons holding onto her get scared and run. She is pushed abruptly to the ground.
"Thank you," she says simply, reaching up to her nose in a vain attempt to stop the blood. She's too stubborn to say 'I'm sorry', but too realistic to scorn his assistance. She can't look him in the eyes so she looks down at his graphic tee, something in English and probably rebellious. His eyes are too gentle. Most people consider him a bit of a wild card, a delinquent, but his eyes are always so soft when he looks at one of those he loves. Like his sisters, she tells herself uncertainly.
"Why'd you take them on? There were seven of them, and one of you. Not to mention every one of them had a foot and about a hundred pounds of muscle on you –"
She lets him go on. She doesn't listen. She's feeling a little bit dizzy from the sight of her blood and the break of her nose.
He takes her by the shoulders, almost jerkily, and forces her to look him in the eyes. "Rukia."
"Ichi-niii," she replies, a bit dry with sarcasm.
"Don't get into any fights anymore. You can't take them on and – "
She meets his eyes. "Where were you last week?"
He's quiet. "Rukia," he says, his voice too husky to be that of a brother, and that intuition – something is not right – slips through her thoughts. "Don't ask." He lets her go abruptly.
He walks, and she follows. Only, she's not content with walking behind him, so she catches up and walks beside him. The sun is setting.
"People are staring at you," he tells her.
"I don't care."
Ichigo steals a glance at her. She looks like a demon with her white dress, black hair, and ivory face, wet with blood. (Ironically, he knows they're not far off from the truth.)
One person rudely points, and he shoots a glare their way.
They walk all the way home like that, and it's only when the Kurosaki clinic is in sight that she finally says what she wants to say.
"Where are you going this time?"
She knows. He's been off visiting that strange shop again. He's been minimally more skittish about his private plans, just that little bit more affectionate toward Yuzu, Karin, even his father. And her.
He doesn't reply, only scowls.
"Say something," she demands.
"You're wearing white." He isn't looking at her anymore.
"If you were planning on getting in a fight, you shouldn't have worn white. Those bloodstains are going to be hell to get out."
"Hmph." She crosses her arms. "Well, if you're not going to answer my questions, at least stop leaving your stuffed animal in my room."
He goes pale, but looks almost angry. She smiles.
"I- I haven't been leaving any stuffed animals –"
"You should have known that I would realize that stuffed lion wasn't mine, nii-san. I buy Chappy items exclusively."
Ignoring how wrong the form of address feels on her tongue, she walks all the way into the clinic. He is stunned, stymied, and stays in place, muttering something angry she can't hear.
She goes straight to her bedroom and plops down on the bed. The blood on her clothes has soaked in, and will probably never come out. She reaches and fingers her nose gently, disappointed to find that it is still throbbing and feels a bit crooked. She sinks back on the bed.
Something is wrong.
She knows she can fight, but she can't. Maybe she was a fighter in her past life. She knows how to throw a punch, how to put her weight in it and then swing steady. How to execute a perfect kick, leg straight, shoulders back. How can she explain that? How can she explain how much she wants Ichigo – to call her adopted brother Ichigo instead of nii-san?
She suddenly sits back up, realizing that someone else is in the room. Her eyes dart around. They rest on Karin, sitting on her bed and reading some manga. Well, she had been, anyway. She was now looking (curiously, by Karin's standards) at Rukia.
"Oh, Karin," she beams, with her usual good-actress smile, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you with my sulking."
Karin just shakes her head. "You didn't. Although you might've worried me with those clothes."
Rukia looks down at her clothing. "Oh… yes."
Karin shrugs and turns back to her manga. Rukia takes off the dress and stands in her underwear. She stares at herself for a moment in the mirror, looks critically for evidence of the scuffle. She knows that Karin has no interest in looking up. There's the sticky residue of blood around her nose, even though she wiped most of it off with her sleeve.
As she slips on a new dress, lets the bloody one fall to the floor, she hears Karin from behind her weekly manga serial: "Were you out with Ichi-nii?"
"Yeah," she says.
Karin looks up and eyes her thoroughly, objectively. "Something's different."
Rukia laughs without meaning it. "I don't know what you mean by that."
"Nothing. You may want to find a way to get rid of that dress, though. If Dad finds out, he'll go crazy. Crazier than he already is, that is. And Yuzu will be upset if finds it in the laundry pile."
Rukia leaves the room and, after a quick clean up in the bathroom, enters the kitchen, where Ichigo is drinking a glass of orange juice and Yuzu is blending some kind of smoothie.
"Rukia-" Ichigo says, but she ignores him and gives the same sunny smile to Yuzu that she gave to Karin.
"Rukia-nee-chan!" Yuzu leaves the blender on as she stares at her adopted older sister with admiration sparkling in her eyes. Ichigo snorts. Yuzu is cheerfully ignorant. "Oh, do you want something to drink? Some of my smoothie, maybe?" She frowns. "What's wrong with your nose?"
"A smoothie would be great, Yuzu-chan! I just fell and I think it cracked a little. Don't worry, it doesn't hurt." The second part is a lie, and Ichigo glares over at her with full knowledge that it is. When Yuzu turns her back to give her attention to the blender, she gives him a quick withering stare in repayment.
She slides into a seat to drink her smoothie.
"What were you down there for, anyway? Why did you decide to fight them?" He's annoyed, but Yuzu doesn't hear because he speaks low.
She turns her nose up. "They were defacing that statue. You know. It was dedicated to that woman down the street who died."
Ichigo gives her a funny look, and Rukia won't admit that it was because she caught, out of the corner of her eye, that same old woman weeping at the destruction. (But that would be crazy, and Rukia's not crazy. Just really, seriously confused.)
Karin's words stick in her mind.
There is something different, and, painfully, she cannot remember what.
He's not here.
There's a strange person in his place, a person who calls himself her 'brother', but often fumbles and acts more like a perverted (but harmless) teenaged boy (which Ichigo is not) or a perverted-but-harmless old shopkeeper (a comparison that springs to mind and doesn't let go even though she doesn't know any perverted old shopkeepers).
It annoys her a lot, and when Ichigo walks in the door a few days later, downs a jug of juice straight from the bottle (he's usually more courteous, when Yuzu is looking), and collapses on the couch – well.
She kicks him in the side, not too hard. He grunts, glares up at her for a moment, and then puts one of the cushions over his head.
"Get up," she demands, kicking him again in the gut.
"Shut up, I'm tired."
"What do you want?"
"Where were you?"
"I was at home the whole time."
"At least it stopped you from leaving your stuffed animal in my room." She turns her nose up just that little bit, to annoy him, and walks coolly off to her room, leaving him in a flurry of panic. For some reason, the subject of his plushies seems to be a touchy one, one that makes him very grumpy and rather weary (almost toward the stuffed animal). Rukia wants to get to the bottom of why.
She watches the teacher, but out of the corner of her eye she studies the girl beside her. Inoue Orihime. She doesn't know her very well, but she's bright and kind, cheerful and beautiful. Rukia likes Inoue, even though she's sometimes puzzled by the nervous chit-chat Inoue tries to make each morning, like she wants them to be close. But at the same time, like she's trying to hide some secret that Rukia never even realized Inoue had. She will babble about sewing and school, weekends and lunches, but there's a look in Orihime's eyes that tells Rukia none of it is what she wants to talk about.
Rukia catches Inoue staring at Ichigo through the corner of her eye, and Rukia grips her pencil a bit tighter. She knows that they talk and hang out. She knows that Inoue cares for Ichigo. But there's something about the picture of them together that's so wrong to her that she can't stand it. Rukia has determined that the topic Orihime skirts around may just be Ichigo, although that still doesn't add up.
This is one 'why' that she has (partially) gotten to the bottom of.
She has noticed: there are times when Ichigo will rush out of class. At first, she wondered if he had a bladder control issue. If he really did, she vowed to find proof (i.e. blackmail material) at home. But something told her it wasn't that – especially when Inoue seemed to race out after him fifty percent of the time. Rukia had never heard of synchronized bladder control problems, and if such a thing existed she was willing to cut off the ears of her Chappy plushie.
Was Ichigo – oblivious, inexperienced, Ichigo – really dodging classes for makeout sessions with the hottest girl in the class?
Not that Rukia in any way had a problem with that, per se.
Rukia didn't follow them, because, she told herself, she was no voyeur. And also (on the surface, anyway) she doubted Ichigo would ever pick up on Inoue's affections, no matter how overt.
But, slowly, she noticed that it wasn't as it seemed. Ishida Uryuu – a quiet boy in class she otherwise would have paid no mind to – sometimes took a bathroom pass at that time, as well. Yasutora Sado was large and looming, but somehow, his presence also went undetected until he began joining Ichigo in the synchronized bladder routines.
Unless they were having some kind of orgy (God forbid), there was nothing to worry about. So Rukia leaned back, content that something was up, but that it was in not romantic in the slightest.
(Unless, you know, they really were having an orgy… Oh, God…)
Now Ichigo is dashing out of the bathroom and Inoue is raising her hand to be excused. Rukia's hand is already up, and she dashes out to follow Ichigo – but by the time she catches a glimpse of his carrot-red hair, he's already running out the school doors.
While Isshin jumps around like a lunatic (or just someone lacking a few IQ points, which both concerns and amuses Rukia) she plays her regular game of picking around her corn. She doesn't like corn. Not one bit. In fact, she can't even recall trying it, but it seems like something one fed to cows and chickens and not to people. She had once discussed this with Ichigo - Ichigo said that was an archaic point of view. Rukia would reply that she was only sixteen, wasn't she, so how could she have archaic thinking? Here she would smirk, triumphant. Ichigo, almost melancholy, would screw up his eyebrows into his general expression of irritation and say no more.
Ichigo is a Clean Plate Ranger, Rukia notes sarcastically. He eats every speck of food Yuzu prepares, while Rukia has to make up stories on corn nights in order not to hurt Yuzu's feelings. Tonight she says she is sick, so (being the dedicated actress she is) she tries her hardest to look pale and tired. She stares at Ichigo's shoe, and dares herself not to blink.
While Isshin talks - of Masaki, and if Ichigo has yet picked up a decent girlfriend, and, hey, is Rukia's nose looking a little crooked or is that just him? - Rukia thinks she sees something taking shape near Ichigo's feet.
Floating red ribbons.
She blinks and they disappear.
Rukia figures she may well actually be sick and turns in early for the night. But then the dreams (or nightmares, perhaps they should be called; it's hard to tell, really) wake her, and she creeps down to the kitchen for a glass of water and the sleeping pills that Isshin keeps tucked away.
Isshin is talking to Ichigo.
Rukia is a very good eavesdropper. Eagerly, she presses her ear to the closed door and tries to soak up every word she can, a plant desperate for sun. Her heart races, and she feels the beat reverberate through her body. She knows they're talking about her past (what else would they talk about at this time of night except for the taboo?).
She catches snippets, enough to piece together a story she doesn't understand:
"I don't think she's getting better," Ichigo says, both exasperated and desperate.
"She will," Isshin reassures him. He doesn't really sound happy about it. Rukia is startled to find that he is actually solemn, a tone she has never, never heard in his voice. "Kisuke assured me that-"
They start talking of things Rukia has no knowledge of – a man named Aizen, another named Urahara (Kisuke), a 'hogyoku, a 'Seireitei'.
Ichigo's voice rises. "Was it really worth taking all her memories like that?"
Rukia drops her train of thought, drops her questions, and clings to the question Ichigo has asked.
She's lost her memories, that much is true.
But... it was just amnesia, right?
Is it even possible to take them?
Is her family crazy?
(No, she reminds herself, she's the one who's crazy. Or else they're all crazy.)
"She's in our house – she'll be safe for now. She's safer this way, at least. She won't be fighting. She won't be hurt. Isn't that a good thing?"
There is an even longer silence. Isshin is testing Ichigo. All Rukia hears is the electronic drone of the kitchen appliances, but she also senses tension.
There is the light scuffle of a chair as one of them stands up. Isshin speaks again. "She'll get better."
Rukia runs upstairs before they notice her presence. She is unable to sleep all that night long.
It is nights after the incident, and all she can think of is all the things she has forgotten.
She can't sleep again. In the dark, she can hear Karin tossing and turning in her bed, and Yuzu's sweet, breathy snores.
She tries to hear Ichigo in the next room over, imagines him topless and sprawled in his bed. He kicks the sheets off of himself in his sleep, she knows, although how she knows she can't describe. She feels perverted. She flushes, rolls on her side, and clutches the stuffed animal tighter to her. She shuts her eyes tight.
She wants to sleep, but at the same time she doesn't.
She wants to know, but then again, maybe not.
She opens her eyes again. They're adjusted to the darkness, and they settle on the stuffed animal that she holds.
"You're really not so ugly," she mumbles to the stuffed lion, hoping not to wake up Karin – who's a light sleeper.
The stuffed animal doesn't reply (because it can't, just like it can't have seen her blush a moment ago), but she conjures sympathy in its beady button eyes.
"Kon," she says with a frown, "Ichigo said your name was Kon, right? Why does he keep leaving you in my room? It's not like you walk in here by yourself."
She doesn't actually remember Ichigo saying what the lion's name was, but she knows it to be true, just as well as she knows that Ichigo sleeps without a shirt on. Kon isn't a very good name for a stuffed lion, though; his name should be something more like… Roary. Or something. Ichigo would probably make a crack about how her lack of creativity didn't only apply to her drawing, but he obviously couldn't come up with any better. Kon?
She hugs Kon tighter, because she needs something to hug.
(She does. She wants to know. She's Rukia after all, isn't she? And that's not going to change.)
Her eyelids finally, absently, shut over – and unfortunately for Rukia, it is time for dreaming. The same dream she has had many, many nights before.
He looks just like Ichigo.
That is always her first thought in dreaming.
It's like watching a movie of some actress with an uncanny resemblance to her – although she feels closer to the character each time. She's talking to a man who looks like Ichigo, but older and with darker hair. She loves him, Rukia can see – she knows, because she would act the same way if she were in love (but she isn't, and doesn't think she ever has been). The film is muted and grainy, drowned out by the crick-crackling sound of age. It was a long time ago. She can't hear what's going on anymore.
(There are some vivid, sharp flashes in the grainy film –mostly white, and more vivid than anything else, so short they could be subliminal.)
She feels sad, like she's seen this movie and it has a tragic ending, even though whatever the ending was doesn't quite register. Clips go by. There's blood and death. A word that goes beyond sadness – sorrow. She has blood on her hands, and it is his.
The film is broken now – random clips sputter out at her. A man with white hair and a gentle smile. A man with silky, long black hair, a cold expression; she feels the need to be loved and approved of. There's a man with red hair, a scowl, tenderness in his eyes; all this mixed with a vague feeling of fondness and regret. Life in the streets. She's a baby. There's a random scatter of clips that feature a woman, just like her, with love in her hardened face.
(The subliminal flash lingers, and she can see a tiny dancer, dressed in white. Ribbons attached to her ankles and her wrists, whirling. Her lips are moving, but Rukia can't hear what she's saying.)
Rukia thinks she's crying. She realizes she's dreaming, but she feels tears falling down her face, her real face, left back in reality. In her dream, she feels a presence next to hers. It's so warm that, for a moment, she wonders if it is really part of her dream. In her real body, tingles go up her spine. She feels warm all of a sudden, like maybe she wants to pull away.
This part is new. This has never happened before. Sitting next to her is Ichigo.
He has never been in her dreams before. Suddenly, she hears sound again. She can hear what the woman in white is saying now, she can hear it in a whisper that's like a melody:
She bolts upright and finds that she is awake, and disoriented, but she knows one thing:
She is not Kurosaki Rukia.
In her pajamas (Yuzu's, actually), she makes a mad, stealthy dash into Ichigo's room. Power is running through her again. Incantations run, sped up, through her mind, as if she is re-memorizing every bit of knowledge she's learned in the past century. Sword stances tickle her feet.
When she enters, every urge in her body goes on hold, and she stares. He is just like she imagined, and somehow – remembering the way he felt in her dream – she is embarrassed all the more. She isn't tempted to blush now, though, because in the flesh he is Ichigo, and she feels more toward him than a simple sense of longing. If that's what it was.
"Ichigo," she hisses, with a rough shake of his shoulders "wake up."
Her groans and opens his eyes.
"Rukia? What is it it? Is there a-" he sits up, but quickly cuts himself off. "What are you doing in my room?" She feels a weird sense of déjà vu, like they've done this before.
She opens her mouth to speak. It feels like the words aren't going to come out, but they do.
He stares at her for a moment.
Her tongue is tied. She has no idea what comes next, but she doesn't need to find the words because they come to her in explanation:
"Sode no Shirayuki."
She registers shock in his eyes, and in no time he's crushing her to him– his arms around her are even stronger than she expected. His warmth is better than in her dream. She stands there, and wonders what exactly is going on, and is he going to kiss her?
"Ichigo... you're crushing me…"
"No more nii-san, then?" And she can hear the grin in his voice, cocky, but only to hide how happy he is.
"Byakuya will be glad to hear that."
And now, she thinks, now he will kiss her. But he doesn't: his grip only tightens, like he has just gotten a second grip on something precious he thought was lost (he has). "So you remember now?"
"Not everything," she admits. She can't remember much, but she knows how safe she feels in her arms and knows how much she owes to him. That he must owe equally to her. They owe each other their lives.
There is a long silence – there's something a bit awkward in it, in their closeness (she doesn't remember everything, but she knows he has never held her like this before; she does remember that he is easily embarrassed) before he speaks again:
"I don't think Byakuya will like our, um, current position, though."
"I assure you, he won't," she mumbles into his shoulder. Which makes Ichigo tense for one second before he realizes she's smiling.
Three days later, she walks into her room and plops down on his bed. He looks up, startled from the homework he was doing. He's been avoiding her these last three days, avoiding telling her the truth.
"So," she begins, "Apparently my lost memories have something to do with Urahara placing some 'hogyoku' in my body."
She has remembered Urahara – the shady shopkeeper who'd kept so many secrets from them – but recollection of the hogyoku comes much less clearly.
She can tell from Ichigo's expression that he doesn't want to explain.
"Okay, so Aizen…?"
Her lips purse down in a tight line, and she nods yes.
"He took you prisoner." He turned back to his homework, but only so he doesn't have to look at her. "Urahara said…" He trails off. His voice comes out resolute, but only to cover out how weak it is. "Because he had the hogyoku, and it was once inside of you…"
She watches. The pen he holds is trembling.
"You were a puppet, and Aizen held the string. "
She remembers vividly, and, suddenly, she wraps her arms around herself to make warmth that won't come.
She remembers feeling violated, so close to raped. The corners of her mind had been his.
The regret of leaving, betraying Renji, her only true family for so many years, the first person she'd ever consciously loved. The constant feeling of inadequacy, the hopes for a family that Byakuya crushed with every cold ounce of his cold body. The memory of guilt over Kaien-dono's death, but also the guilt of wanting so badly another woman's husband.
Even the memories she didn't remember having – the calloused softness of Hisana's hands and smile, memories so tender and young and precious that no stranger had the right to them.
Even the memories that she had just formed – memories of her first female friend, memories of her new nakama, a perverted plush toy, memories of victory and sunshine and happiness – and memories of him.
(Aizen would have certainly found the last ones the most useful.)
Rukia feels close to crying, but tries to stave off tears because Ichigo is right there and if she stars crying he will have no idea what to do, being the inexperienced and insensitive person that he is.
When she looks up, she finds that he has put his hands on her shoulders, and is looking in her eyes - not nearly as nervously as she thought he would. Steadily.
"Are you okay?"
She nods her head 'yes', but it comes out 'no'.
"You were shaking for a whole minute. I said your name five times and you didn't even look up."
"I'm okay now."
It's sort of true, even though she absently thinks it would have been nice if he could have gone and gotten her Chappy plushie for her.
She puts her arms around him instead. He'll have to do.
He didn't expect to see her back so soon.
It was like nothing had ever happened – she was back to being the same Rukia he had always known. And hated. And kind of loved. Rukia hated to be left out of the fight to protect her nakama and all she held dear.
So here she was. She was tiny, but she had always been so graceful . She was wearing black again, wielding (dancing alongside) her snow-white weapon.
No matter how much he loved to protect people, Ichigo couldn't stand the sight of her in white.
("My zanpakutou wears white," she'd told him, half-offended. He didn't care.)
In white, she was powerless. A prisoner of her own limitations. He hated to see her that way – hated, too, to see her without the memories that so shaped her.
(He can only remember, with guilt, the captivity that he had forced on her.)
And now, here he is. With her. He stands back (although his hands, as always, are ready around the sword – no matter how much she will hate him for it, he refuses to stand back if there is a sign of serious danger) and lets her take care of beast before them.
"Dance," she orders, her whisper a melody, "Sode no Shirayuki."