Absence

Chapter One

Disclaimer: Nope, don't own it.




Ichigo sometimes thought that his life would've been a lot less complicated if he had forbidden Rukia from doing dishes. In fact, if he had just kept her from the sink in the first place, he would still be Ichigo, the newlywed medical student. Now, he was Ichigo, medical student, clinic aide, Shinigami, husband, and impending father. And it was all Rukia's fault—or, rather, her inability to do dishes without getting herself completely wet. How she managed to soak through her shirt with only the water from the faucet, Ichigo would never know, but as long as she was standing there, clothes clinging wetly to her slight curves, the words "condom" or "birth control" would never cross Ichigo's mind.

Case in point: minutes prior to entering their apartment, Ichigo had been wholly preoccupied with his upcoming midterm exams, but as soon as he stepped over the threshold and saw Rukia in their tiny kitchen, scrubbing the bottom of a pan, everything but her faded from his mind. A dish towel was slung carelessly over the swell of her stomach, but it hadn't prevented her dress from getting completely drenched.

"I'm home," Ichigo called softly, and Rukia turned towards him, pan still in her hand, dripping onto the floor.

"You're late," she said, but there was no real annoyance in her voice. "I already ate; if you want dinner, it's on the table." He spared a glance to the plate—katsudon again—before bypassing the table and approaching the sink.

"I'll eat later," he said, resting his hand on the curve of Rukia's hip.

"Don't come crying to me when it's congealed," she said, a slight smile tugging at her lips. He smirked back at her and stooped down to kiss her, sweeping his fingers across her belly. He could taste the breaded pork on her lips and beneath it the slight tang that was Rukia: cherries and something warmer, sweeter. He pressed his tongue against hers, deepening the kiss, drawing her as close as he could, given that she had become decidedly concave. He was about to do something that would hopefully move them from the kitchen into the bedroom when the annoying chirp of Rukia's cell phone brought everything to a screeching halt. Sighing deeply, Ichigo moved his lips from hers and rested his cheek against her right shoulder.

"Don't get it," he said, half-serious, but Rukia swatted him playfully.

"It's a Hollow. Get off so I can answer it." Ichigo slowly pushed himself away from her, settling against the counter wearily. He watched Rukia waddle over to her phone, massaging his temple to try and stave off his headache when she began pressing buttons.

"Where is it?" he asked tiredly, using his badge to release his Shinigami form.

"About fifteen blocks away," she responded. "We should get going."

"We," Ichigo said tersely, "are not going anywhere. You think I'm letting you get anywhere near a Hollow after what happened last time? I'll go and you'll stay here."

Rukia half-turned so she could look Ichigo in the eye. "Excuse me?" she said.

"Rukia, last time I let you go, you nearly got smashed into a wall. You're getting too big—you're not fast enough to dodge them anymore.Rukia's face was turning an alarming shade of red. Ichigo had a sudden urge to jump out the window and run away as fast as he could. "I mean," he said, desperately trying to backtrack, "it's dangerous, especially in your condition."

"My condition?" she said, her voice dangerously low. "I've been doing this a lot longer than you have. Just because I'm pregnant doesn't mean that I can't still deal with Hollows."

"It just makes you slower, unable to use your zanpaktou, or evade attacks. The only thing you can still do is your fire spell, and that doesn't always work." Rukia's hand was beginning to tremble with anger, but after the last time she'd come along with him to fight a Hollow, Ichigo was damned if he was letting her get within a twenty-kilometer radius of one. "You're not coming, even if I have to tie you to the sofa."

"I'd like to see you stop me," she hissed, bluffing, as both knew full well that Ichigo was taller, stronger, and more than able to subdue her. Instantly, Ichigo was by her side, using his flash-stepping technique to surprise her. He took the phone from her hand and pushed her gently towards the couch.

"Stop being stubborn," he said. "Just…stay here. I'll be back." She scowled deeply at him, a foreshadowing that he would most likely be banned from their bedroom for at least a week. "Don't follow me," he said, leaving the apartment before she could say something in return.


Two hours had passed before Ichigo was climbing the stairs to get home. The Hollow hadn't been a very versatile foe, but it was quick and cunning; Ichigo had had to chase it around the park for at least a half an hour before he got close enough to get rid of it. Cursing life in general and spider-like Hollows in particular, Ichigo approached the door to his apartment, hoping that Rukia hadn't been angry enough to lock him out—Shinigami clothes didn't have any pockets for house keys. The door knob turned easily in his hand, and he pushed the door open, bracing himself for Rukia's inevitable retribution. He was readying himself for a low, scathing comment, or maybe even a thrown object if she was feeling particularly hormonal and when nothing came, he couldn't help but be slightly surprised. A soft rustling noise alerted him to where she was—she had fallen asleep in the armchair, her arms crossed in a way that made Ichigo certain that she had nodded off when she was still angry. Even though he knew he was going to catch hell from her in the morning, Ichigo couldn't stop a small smile from crossing his face.

Walking into the kitchen, Ichigo entered his body, which was still slumped on the floor, stuck Rukia's phone into his pants pocket and snagged a piece of cold pork from the plate that was still on the table. Chewing, he walked over to Rukia. "Idiot," he said affectionately, slipping her shoes off. He slid one of his hands under her knees and maneuvered his other arm behind her back. She made no indication of waking up, even when he hoisted her up and carried her into the bedroom. Instead, she curled one of her hands into his shirt and buried her face in his left shoulder. He set her down on the bed and uncurled her fist from his sleeve before slowly removing her dress so he could get her in her pajamas.

"You'd better appreciate this tomorrow morning," he told her quietly. He moved her sleep-pliant body into a lying position and pulled the blankets around her. As much as he wanted nothing more than to climb into bed next to her, he had to catch up on his behavioral medicine material if he had any chance of keeping up in lecture tomorrow. Two lectures, one lab, and two hours helping his dad at the clinic—Ichigo wanted to hit his head against the wall in frustration thinking about how much he had to do. If his father wasn't footing the rent ("A wedding present," he had said. "Just until you finish school"), Ichigo didn't know how he and Rukia would be surviving financially, besides living at home, which was obviously not an option. Ichigo's dad paid him modestly for doing basic jobs and Rukia had talked Urahara into employing her at his shop—between food and Rukia's obsession with stuffed rabbits for the nursery, their money intake was pitifully small. Pulling his textbook out of his backpack, Ichigo sighed deeply and got to work, wishing that he had chosen an easier profession to pursue.

Rukia woke on the earlier side of five in the morning with a desperate need to pee. It took her a few seconds to realize why she felt disoriented—when, exactly, had she ended up in bed? The last thing she remembered was falling into the armchair, seething about Ichigo's complete lack of confidence in her ability to get rid of a Hollow. She had gotten into a little trouble the last time she had actually made it to the site of a Hollow attack before Ichigo was able to destroy it (the extra twenty-three pounds of baby made her walking speed somewhere between turtle and sloth), but it had ended well enough, hadn't it? She was still alive, and there had been no ill effects. She was still angry at Ichigo's slight against her, and even though he had apparently brought her from the chair and into bed, she was nowhere near forgiving him. She narrowed her eyes at his sleeping form, right next to her even though he must've known that she was still entirely pissed off. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she walked to the bathroom, making as much unnecessary noise as possible. It was an indication of how exhausted her husband was that nothing seemed to rouse him; normally, he was a fairly light sleeper.

She squeezed out of their tiny bathroom, flicking her wet hands in the direction of Ichigo. Debating getting back into bed and pushing at Ichigo's back until he fell off the side, she was, she jumped when a faint noise permeated the room. It was coming from the direction of the laundry basket that was next to a nightstand, and it took Rukia a second or two to realize that her cell phone, the one that Ichigo had so unceremoniously pilfered last night, was heralding another Hollow attack. She had to struggle through four different pockets before she found it, and still Ichigo had not moved from his position, which almost made Rukia want to check that he was still alive. Instead, she accessed the menu of her phone and deduced that the Hollow wasn't far—maybe a fourth of a kilometer, at that. After making sure that Ichigo was, in fact, breathing, Rukia was about to poke him between the eyes when an idea came over her.

She gave Ichigo one last look before backing away and locating the dress that she had worn the day prior. Pulling her pajamas off, she awkwardly put the dress on, leaving her discarded clothes in a pile on the floor—it was too much of an effort to bend over and pick them up. If, she reasoned, if she could prove to Ichigo that she could still fight Hollows effectively, he'd hopefully stop being so damn overprotective. Fighting Hollows and the like had been such a large part of her (after)life for such a long time that forgoing it now just because she was pregnant was laughable; the fact that her own husband was trying to keep her from such an integral part of her existence hurt more than she wished to admit. Slipping on her shoes, Rukia grabbed her keys from the hook by the door and left. She was down the stairs before her mind had really caught up with her. Loath as she was to admit, Ichigo had been right about one thing—her pregnancy prevented her from leaving her gigai, effectively wielding her zanpaktou, or moving quickly out of the way.

A small knot of worry lodged itself in the base of Rukia's stomach, and no amount of rational reasoning would dispel it. Even though she still had her magic attacks (and they had served her well in plenty of battles before) somehow she felt as though she was going into battle wholly unprepared. Even though she had her phone, which could double as a real phone as well as a Hollow detection device, and Ichigo could make the trip in two minutes flat, she had a feeling that maybe leaving without him wasn't such a great plan. However, she was too stubborn to turn back now and simply pressed on.




The Hollow wasn't hard to find at all; screeching, it had cornered the spirit of a teenage boy. It was bird-like with shadowy wings and an elongated mask, but it didn't seem to be particularly intelligent or powerful, judging from it's fragmented attempts at speech, most of which was comprised of the words "I'm going to eat you." Rukia didn't try to approach it but instead positioned herself out of the way, making sure that the spirit wasn't in range of her spell. She positioned her hand making sure that the Hollow, who was currently hovering above the ghost, poised to attack, was semi-stationary before incanting, "Destructive Art Thirty-Three: Blue Fire, Crash Down!" The blue fire was on course, but at the last moment, the hollow swooped down for the kill, avoiding the spell by sheer luck on its part. It had done one good thing, at least—the Hollow had been sufficiently distracted, enough so that it abandoned its spirit meal for something a little more Rukia-flavored. Rukia wheeled her hand around and invoked the spell again. This time it hit a little closer to home and loped off part of the Hollow's wing.

"What's this?" the Hollow hissed. "You think that that will stop me, little one? You'll do nicely to fill my empty stomach." It dived down close to her, snapping its jaws playfully. The sudden move made Rukia fall hard into a sitting position.

"Sorry," she said as it advanced, "but I'm not about to let myself get eaten by such a pathetic Hollow. Destructive Art Thirty-One: Red Flame Cannon!" The Hollow squawked in surprise but wasn't quite limber enough to avoid the blast of magic that hit him in the middle of his face. Rukia allowed herself a victorious smile as she watched the Hollow's body dissolve. Take that, Ichigo! she thought, and pulled herself up with the help of a shrub and two minutes' worth of struggling. As soon as she had righted herself, a slow noise permeated the stillness of the street. At first she thought it was the ghost she had saved, but a quick look around destroyed that idea, as it seemed as though he had disappeared as soon as the Hollow had turned towards Rukia.

"Who's there?" she said loudly. "Who's clapping?"

Someone stepped out of a nearby alley, his slow, mocking applause echoing. "Very nice, Rukia-chan. I was afraid that I was going to need to step in and save you."

Rukia's stomach twisted in a way that threatened to make her spill her half-digested dinner on the sidewalk. "Gin," she said.

"I really can't tell you how surprised I was when you appeared, Rukia-chan," he said, smiling widely. "Really, I was quite sure that your ginger-haired husband was going to dash in here, sword a flying. I can't tell you how pleased I am that you've come alone."

"What are you talking about?" she asked, slowly backing away from him, even though she knew she had no chance of outrunning him. "Don't come near me!" she snapped as he began to match her, step for step.

"Certainly you've noticed that there's been an abundance of Hollows lately?" Gin questioned lightly. "You didn't honestly think they were coincidence?"

"You mean that you—"

"Oh, yes, Rukia-chan. I've been sending Hollows down in an attempt to wear out that husband of yours."

"So you can kill him?" Rukia was seething, a bubble of white hot rage filling her chest.

"Oh, no, no, no, you misunderstand me, Rukia-chan. I've been trying to tire him out in order to get to you."

"Me? But why—"

Gin smiled at her and continued, almost conversationally. "You see, I have a need for you, and I knew that you'd be almost impossible to get at as long as that annoying strawberry of yours was in the way. He's gotten strong in the past seven years, hasn't he?"

"So you," Rukia said slowly, "you've come out of hiding for the first time in seven years to do what exactly? Spy on me? On us?"

Gin smiled wider, baring his teeth. "No, not exactly. I've come to do this." He suddenly came at her, fast as a flash of fire, and grabbed her arm. A column of purple light surrounded them, and Rukia valiantly struggled to get away as she realized he was taking her to Hueco Mundo. She felt the ground leave her feet and watched as a shoe fell back to the cement with a hollow slap.

"Let me go!" she shrieked, but Gin merely laughed and tightened his grip. A hole in the sky opened like a gaping, purple maw and terror wrapped around Rukia's spine. In a split second she was leaving Karakura Town and entering into a dark so oppressive that she had to close her eyes against it. When she opened them again, she was back on solid ground (if it could be called ground at all—it was completely insubstantial), surrounded by a maroon bubble.

"Normally," Gin was saying, "I would leave you here to deal with the Hollows alone—there are quite a lot of them, you see. However, I have come to have use of you."

"I'm not helping you," she hissed, finally wrenching her hand out of his grasp. "I don't care what you do to me."

"What about this," Gin questioned, running a hand on the swell of her stomach in a way that brought goose bumps to Rukia's forearms. "Would you mind very much if I hurt this parasite you're carrying? I seem to remember that mothers are supposed to have instinct about these things. Not allowing them to be hurt, and such?"

Bile rose in Rukia's throat. "Bastard," she spat. "You bastard."

"Now, now, don't blame me because you've gone and gotten yourself into a predicament. You certainly made things easier for me, coming after that Hollow alone. I was planning on having to quickly double-back and steal you from your bed."

"Why, though? I don't understand what use I could have for you. What—are you going to try and send me to the Soul Society to try and talk Byakuya-nii-sama out of coming after you? I don't know if you've ever met my brother, but—"

"Oh, nothing so complex, Rukia-chan. I'm in need of procuring something from Urahara's shop, and from what I've come to understand, you work there now, don't you?"

Rukia spluttered. "You've kidnapped me so I can steal something for you?"

Gin looked bored, and he twirled a strand of Rukia's hair between his fingers in an almost playful way. Rukia felt sick. "In all respects, yes. A gigai. I would like you to find me a gigai, and given that Urahara is most well-known for inventing one that is impossible to track, you understand why it must be from him."

"Why did you bring me here, then?"

"Well, of course I knew that you weren't going to just steal the gigai with no convincing beforehand. So how's about this? You stay here for an indefinite amount of time and we'll see how you feel after that."

Rukia felt as though her stomach had somehow fallen out of her body. "What?"

"This room can be…quite persuasive if you give it time."

"You wouldn't honestly leave me here?" she said, concealing the shake in her voice with great effort.

"Of course I would. It's fairly safe, as long as the Hollows don't breach the outer walls. Hmmm, I do hope I've fortified them enough. And there is that added bonus that no one will be able to sense that you're here as long as you stay within these walls. In any rate, I think a couple of months here will do nicely in convincing you to help me. Do enjoy yourself."

"You're crazy," Rukia gasped. "No, wait—" She reached out her hand in a desperate attempt to grasp Gin's sleeve but it was too late. He disappeared from the darkness with a flash of white light, leaving Rukia alone in a room, the walls of which were transparent enough to allow Rukia to see the hulking, dark shapes of the Hollows beyond.

END CHAPTER ONE

A/n: This fic will be continued in three more chapters, which are mostly written. Reviews make me happy ;D.

(Dedicated to my friend, P-sama, who's been very patient with me.)