Warning: Spoilers for the manga up to the end of the Shinigami arc. This story takes place at all instances in the manga up until that point; I guess it would be best to take it as a series of one-shots. Beware of jumping timeframes. :D
Skeletons in the Closet
Rukia sleeps with her knees curled up against her chest and her arms crossed, like a baby rabbit freezing in winter. She sleeps facing the closet door, with the celphone next to her head, and a folded dress at her side, ready to leap out with a single beep. She sleeps without making the slightest noise, hardly breathing, which is surprising because the space is so small, and there's little oxygen. It's because of this silence that Ichigo forgets she sleeps there, sometimes. He opens the door to search for a spare pillow or some blanket to gag Kon with, and then he sees Rukia shaking like it's snowing in there, with could-have-been-imagined tears seeping out of her eyelids. He stares dumbfounded for a moment, then slides the door shut, walks back to his bed, and looks at the ceiling until the sun comes up.
"Good mor--ning!" She comes out of the closet with a bang, already in her uniform, with that eerily false smile that she has learned to enchant all their classmates with.
Maybe he should ask her if she's sleeping okay, because even if he never invited her in, she's still his guest. Maybe he should ask her if she'd not rather have a futon across the room from his bed, because it's more comfortable, and he can lock the door anyways. Maybe – but she already has one foot out the window. "Don't you want breakfast?" He grumbles instead, because that seems to be the only logical thing he can say so early in the morning, without confessing anything.
"Don't feel like it," she grumbles back, false good mood peeling off like some ugly scab, and then she disappears without saying goodbye.
Small spaces are nothing new to a little girl from the 78th district of South Rukongai. She has slept all over the city, like a cat, and like a cat she has learned to curl up to save as much space as possible, because if the owner of the fish-store sees her toes poking out from under his sink he'll surely chop them off. She sleeps in empty storage rooms, behind crates, learning how to quiet her breathing in case someone comes in to rummage for supplies. She sleeps in abandoned market stalls so that she can be the first to steal fresh produce come morning. She sleeps sitting down with her head tucked into her knees like a little black-haired ball of dead leaves, up in the branch of a giant tree, where murderers and rapists can't find her, and dreams shy, brittle dreams about things like houses and warmth and safety, and then a scream cuts through the air and she's awake again.
She never asks why Byakuya did not put her into his own division; perhaps it is protocol, some other sacred law that she has never learned, an order buried deep in the fibers of this old wooden house that can only take steps with her oniisan's two feet. She bows her head and informs him that she will be under the command of Captain Ukitake, that she starts tomorrow, that she has already received the necessary uniform. That she doesn't have a seat.
The silver Kenseikan are brilliant in the moonlight. It's the authority they possess that speaks to her when he tells her, coldly, "I see." And she knows that the conversation is done for that night, and forever.
It's because Rukia knows how to keep a cool head that she gets easily bothered by hot-tempered people who talk faster than they think. Like Renji. And Kaien. And Ichigo. She can't understand how it must feel to shoot your mouth off like that without worrying about the consequences. Sure, she yells out her fair share of curses when the situation calls for it, and she's no stranger to scolding or taunting where battle is involved; she wouldn't be an active shinigami otherwise. But she never bluffs or talks big to that extent, and she doesn't say what's on her mind half the time. Not if she can help it, at least.
It could be the influence of the Kuchiki name, because despite being adopted, the title still affords her a certain amount of pride, and with it, certain boundaries. A Kuchiki never says the wrong things. A Kuchiki never loses his temper. A Kuchiki never gives in to emotions.
Sometimes she wonders how much she would say otherwise. She's pretty sure that 'otherwise' would mean her death.
"Perhaps I should help with the laundry," she offers one day, out of the blue. Ichigo looks at her as if she has finally confessed to liking Kon. She is rather offended, and mutters, "I mean, since I can't cook or do the dishes or anything helpful like that." Rent is a relatively foreign concept to Shinigami, but gratitude is not.
"Nah, it's no trouble," he says, and she knows he means it.
"I borrowed your sister's dress," she announces again, randomly.
"Oh, well, if you're only borrowing it, that's good, then."
He goes back to his notes; for a punk, the kid is a surprisingly good student. She flops on her belly and returns to doodling bunnies and bears, always one getting killed by the other.
Kaien always laughs at those drawings. It makes her feel rather embarrassed, but she knows he isn't doing it to purposely offend her. It just happens, and the fact that she thought they were quite good is what stings. "Please don't look over my shoulder without warning," is what she would like to say, but she's not sure if she can say that to a vice-captain, given her low position; it might sound like a threat, because she's a Kuchiki pet and everyone's afraid of getting in trouble with her niisama.
"I'm sorry," he gasps after a while, still clutching his side. "It's not like I can draw either, anyway. But you should see your third captain draw, she's really very good at it."
Some strange feelings bubble up in the pit of her stomach, and she hopes faintly that it's admiration, because she knows the third captain is wonderful, beautiful, and talented. (And is the vice captain's wife.) She always greets the rookie in the hallway with a gentle smile, telling her not to worry about the gossip and the pressure, and to keep up the good work.
"Yes ma'am," she always answers, too awkward to manage anything else.
In that house, everywhere she walks, she feels the dust of the Kuchiki who have stepped there before her, and she thinks, I am not worthy. The expensive tatami seems to trail whispers about betrayal and shame, a peasant in my room, how unseemly; even the walls appear to glare back at her in disdain, with their elaborate paintings and finely-woven screens. She spends most of her time outdoors, still haunted by the chill in her bones, the little voice that tells her she will never belong.
She has no idea what she is doing there, really. At night she sleeps curled up in her expensive sheets, unable to shake off the habit, as if stretching out in comfort might cost her her life. She dreams about dusty roads and the stench of fish, about Renji's red hair and the rough feel of rocks against her skin, and wonders when her idea of home changed so drastically.
His eyes are milky star-torn daggers in the moonlight, his tongue curving like a crazed frog, and he's diving for her with curled fingers and murder on his mind; and she's a rabbit grabbed by the ears, too stunned to even struggle to safety. Her captain's order rings loud in her ears, but her mind doesn't register his words quite as fast as her hands do. They move of their own will, striking forward in this pitch-black night until they meet their mark – and then her hands are warm all over and he's sagging against her and whispering words into her ear, and he's never been this close before, she thinks, dimly. He's dying, isn't he? Why is he dying?
Whatever he says, she doesn't hear it; her world has gone silent, and nothing he can force out of his bleeding lips can change that.
When there isn't any work to do, she practices, somewhere out of the way where people won't hear her chanting and think her insane. She whispers the spells quickly, flawlessly reciting the incantations, like the good student she was, or would have been, if she could have graduated normally, anyway. She puts her fingers into position and concentrates all of her spiritual energy on the tree.
It still doesn't explode.
She can't help it; she kicks at the ground with one very ticked-off foot and badmouths the sky for keeping her powers away from her. If there is one thing she hates to be, it's useless.
She doesn't like being in a gigai; her limbs feel stiff and lumbering most of the time, and if she doesn't stretch them they ache like hell. She doesn't like the restriction of space and magic, and she hates the loss of her zanpaku-to. When she doesn't get enough sleep she feels like fainting; when she oversleeps she feels like kicking herself. She hates the fact that she feels so much, too; little things like stinging at the corner of her eyes, or smiling like she actually means it, makes her cringe with self-disgust. It's unbecoming, all these friendships and ties that humans like to build; it's unnecessary and tiresome and totally not in the field of capable shinigami such as herself.
She doesn't know how they find her when they ask her to have lunch with them. She doesn't know how to politely say 'no.'
So she ends up having lunch with them. Again.
The one consolation of having human skin and bones is that meals might actually be more fulfilling in this form than as a spirit; Ichigo's sister is a very capable cook, and for some reason the food tastes much more solid on her tongue, and in her belly.
She slips out of Yuzu and Karin's room past midnight, stepping lightly even on boards that she knows won't creak. Modern homes are different. They have showers instead of tubs, lights instead of lanterns, and the doors are made of wood, not paper. She prays the door won't creak when she opens it; it doesn't. She climbs into the closet and arranges the pillow and blankets that she carried in from the other room; she settles herself down facing the doorway, and clutches the celphone in one hand. In that little space, with hardly any oxygen, she dreams about waking up to Yuzu's cooking and another day at school, another day spent bickering with people who listen, another day to train for the battles ahead.
She stops dreaming of home; of the dust underfoot, of the silver clips in her niisama's hair, and the blood on her hands. Maybe it's because she doesn't need to sleep to imagine it anymore. More likely it's because the day is much more welcoming, and exciting besides.
A/N: Well, that was broken up oddly, and not at all what I initially intended. The pieces are all over the place. ToT Still, thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoyed. Comments would be greatly appreciated.