A/N: In response to Vincent-and-Yuffie-FOREVER's comment: "PS At least Hichi didn't write a poem xD"

I picture this being crumpled up in the trashcan:

"Blood is red, your eyes are blue . . .

Please don't get creeped out

when I say I love you!"

Chapter 14: Choice

Rukia was trying to get a read on the hollow's emotions, but it wasn't easy. She could sense a feel of conflict, but she thought that was probably just the effect of Ichigo relinquishing control somewhat against his will. She wished there was a different way she could go about this, but she had to know, and this was what Urahara had suggested.

After he'd invited her in and offered her some tea, she'd shown him the letter. She wasn't able to look at him as he took far too long to read it, and when he finally handed it back, his eyes were serious.

"Do you know if anything like this has ever happened before?" she asked, carefully folding the letter up again and slipping it into her sleeve.

"I don't," Urahara said. "It's not something I've ever heard of before, no."

Rukia swallowed. She'd hoped he had some past experience that could help her decide what to do. Without that, she wasn't sure what to add to the silence in the wake of his answer.

"The people I sent him to, to help with his hollow problem," Urahara said suddenly, making Rukia look up from her tea, "mentioned that his battle with the hollow had been different. Specifically, that Ichigo said he and his hollow had made a bargain instead of fighting."

"A bargain?" Rukia said, touching her sleeve but not needing to unfold the note to remember the hollow's mention of a deal. Urahara seemed to understand her thoughts.

"Yes, as the hollow wrote. Did Ichigo mention any sort of a deal to you?"

Rukia thought about their interactions since Ichigo had returned, but she already knew the answer. "No, he just said he had it under control."

"Hmm," Urahara said, removing his hat and setting it beside his tea cup. He took a sip of tea, then set the cup down again. "The strange thing is, all of this is lending credence to what the hollow said."

Rukia smoothed the note in her sleeve again. She'd been thinking the same thing, but it disturbed her a bit to have it laid out in the open like that.

He paused thoughtfully, then gave her a level stare. "It's certainly a strange situation. The only sense I can make of it is by considering that hollows are driven primarily by instinct."

"An instinct to kill," Rukia said quietly. Urahara grimaced slightly.

"Yes, most hollows are driven by that basic drive, to bury their despair and loneliness in the deaths of those they'd loved in life."

Rukia's brow furrowed. "But Ichigo's hollow never was alive."

"Precisely," Urahara said. "His hollow has always been something of an anomaly. The only others like it I've seen were forced into being with the desire to kill and cause chaos."

He paused, maddeningly, to take another sip of tea. Rukia's mostly full cup lay on the table before her, but she didn't feel compelled to touch it.

"Ichigo's hollow came about during much different circumstances," he continued after replacing his empty cup on the table. "At the moment of its birth, Ichigo's most pressing desire was to fight and become more powerful, so it shows that combativeness. But perhaps more important to this situation is the reason Ichigo was at that time compelled to fight."

Rukia met his eyes, shocked. "Me," she said. "He was trying to get stronger so he could break into Soul Society and rescue me."

Urahara nodded. "I believe that fact is the main reason why his hollow is different, and why it is now acting this way toward you. From its first resurgence, it has been solely focused on you."

Rukia blushed, wondering just how closely Urahara had been monitoring this development. Since he was responsible for the hollow's creation in the first place, and seeing as he definitely owed her some favors after the hougyouku incident, probably very closely.

"If that's the case," she began, then paused, trying to organize her thoughts. "If that's the case, then how should I proceed?"

Urahara's expression became serious again.

"As I see it, you have two options. You should confront the hollow directly about this letter. See how it responds, and judge for yourself whether its intentions are true. After that, it's up to you to decide whether you will consider its offer, or whether you will ask Ichigo to conquer it for good. Because as long as you exist near Ichigo, it will continue to trouble him for your attention."

Rukia nodded, not particularly liking either of the choices that lay before her, but knowing something had to be done, and soon. She nodded and came to her feet, bowing at Urahara, who remained seated.

"Thank you," she said, turning to leave.

"Kuchiki-san?" he said as as he reached the door. She looked back at him. "Whatever you decide, come back to me after, and bring Ichigo. Either way, I'm sure I can be of service to you both."

Rukia had nodded again, not feeling like speaking, and made her way out of the store, sliding the front door shut behind her. Rather than using shunpo, she'd taken the time as she walked home to weigh her feelings on the subject, stopping by a small park that Yuzu sometimes played at and sitting on top of one of the slides, lost in thought.

While she wasn't very optimistic about giving the hollow a chance to express the feelings it claimed it had for her, she found that the idea of Ichigo conquering it made her feel slightly sick. It wasn't like other hollows- -she knew when she cut them down that she was actually freeing their souls to go to Soul Society, cleansing them of the loneliness and despair that had driven them to become hollows in the first place. If Ichigo defeated his hollow, she knew it would only increase its suffering and loneliness.

On the other hand, Ichigo had a right to his own body. If he was the one to decide to put an end to his inner hollow, she wouldn't protest his decision. But could she live with herself is she was the one to tell him to crush the thing that had told her it loved her? What if that emotion was true, and she paid back its courage in writing that letter by ordering it bound?

She still hadn't been sure which choice to make by the time the sun had started to lighten the horizon. All she'd known by that point was that she should get home before Ichigo woke up. She'd been exhausted at school, but hadn't dared stay home, knowing that would only make Ichigo worry. But now, with what she was confronting his hollow with, perhaps it would have been better to have gotten some sleep. Tired or not, she just hoped she would know what to do once she got her answers.


"What you said in the letter- -was it true?"

Hichigo's eyes widened. He couldn't believe this- -was she actually giving him a chance? Ichigo was clamoring in the back of his head, but Hichi ignored him. The King had nothing to do with this right now; this was between him and Rukia.

"Yes. Every word," he said, staring at her intently. He wasn't using Ichigo as a shield anymore- -his eyes were fully his own. He tried to let the truth shine in them, to show her that she could believe him. He only hoped it was enoguh. She was all that mattered anymore.

She considered him for a long moment. He had no desire to break the silence again. When she decided what to do next, she could do that. His fate rested in her hands.

Rukia closed her eyes, and Hichigo could see for the first time just how exhausted she was. He was sorry to be putting her through this struggle, but he had to know, and apparently, so did she.

"Can you let Ichigo have control again?" she asked quietly, her eyes still closed. Hichi clenched his teeth against crying out "No!"- -if this was what she wanted, he would do it. He sank back into his inner world, his hated home, and wished he could properly throw himself off one of the buildings.

"Ichigo?" Hichi could hear her say.

"Yeah," Ichigo said gruffly. "It's me." Almost against his will, Hichi watched her from within the King's mind.

She opened her eyes again, and met Ichigo's. She looked relieved to see the familiar brown, and Hichi turned away, despair eating a hole in his stomach, befitting of his hollow nature.

"Ichigo, could you sense his emotions?"

Hichi looked up again, as surprised as the King.

"Yeah," Ichigo said hesitantly. Rukia swallowed.

"What did he feel, when I asked him about the letter?"

Ichigo shook his head, looking down. Hichi felt a sudden hope begin inside him again, shining faintly in the black of his despair.

"It . . . I don't know, Rukia." Ichigo looked up at her again. "It was hopeful, I guess. Hopeful, and afraid."

Before Rukia could react, Ichigo took a step forward, his arms still bound behind his back. "But Rukia, I don't want you to trust it. For all you know, it's hopeful that you'll let your guard down, afraid that it won't get the chance to hurt you!"

"He's had that chance before," Rukia said quietly, and Hichi could have sworn she was speaking to him, not Ichigo.

"Rukia," Ichigo said pleadingly, "what is this letter?"

"He wrote me a letter," Rukia said. "I found it yesterday."

Ichigo's brow knotted in anger. "I told it to stay away from you," he growled. Rukia's eyes flashed with a surprising anger.

"After you made a deal with him to share control? When were you going to tell me about that? He told me, easily enough."

"I didn't want you to worry," Ichigo started, but Rukia cut him off.

"Do I have reason to worry? Do you not have him under control?"

This turn of the conversation threatened to extinguish Hichi's small spark of hope- -that was, until Ichigo brought something to both of their attention.

"It," he said. "I have it under control."

Rukia stared at him a moment longer, then turned away. She flicked a finger at her side, and the bakudou holding Ichigo released. Ichigo massaged his sore wrists and took another step forward until he stood quite near Rukia.

"Rukia," he said quietly, "what else did it say in the letter? Did it threaten you?"

She scoffed quietly. "Far from it," she whispered. Hichigo wished he could take control and wrap her in his arms.

Rukia let out a breath through her teeth, then turned back toward Ichigo, her eyes bright.

"He said that he loved me, and I believe him. But I don't have the slightest clue what to do about that."

A/N: You and me both, Rukia! :)