Absence: Chapter Four

Disclaimer: Nope, don't own any Bleach here.

No matter how hard Rukia tried, she couldn't get more than a shallow breath into her lungs. Her chest burned with the lack of oxygen, and a slow, steady fear leeched into her stomach. She had wanted to save her baby from him, and in the end, she couldn't even do that. The Hollow's mouth was nearly touching hers and she knew that she didn't have enough air to scream. The Hollow was making her arms and legs feel like lead, and black spots were blinking before her eyes.

Suddenly, with a snarled hiss, the Hollow was gone from her chest. She gulped in air, greedily, the Hollow hidden in the shadows of the alley.

"—and stay there!" a woman said before erupting from the darkness, her purple hair blending in with the wall.

"I knew you were still alive," Yoruichi said, smiling. "Where have you been? And what was that thing I just killed?"

"How'd…you…find…me?" Rukia gasped.

"I heard something at the shop. Followed your scent." She shrugged. "What is going on? Who was with you?"

"Ichimaru…Gin," Rukia responded, still short of breath. She was suddenly aware that she was sitting in something wet. A sharp pain ripped through her stomach. "Oh!" she said, startled. "Ow!"

"Rukia?" Yoruichi sounded concerned.

"Yoruichi-san," Rukia said, strangely calm. "I think you need to get me to the hospital."

"Where are you hurt?" Yoruichi asked, at her side in a second.

"I think my baby's coming. Ow!"

Ichigo was on his way to the site of a Hollow, dragging his feet. Why did Hollows always appear in the middle of the night? His phone was ringing a constant reminder that he needed to be across town in time to vanquish the Hollow before anything happened, but right now he could care less. Taking a shortcut through the park, he was thinking about how much he wanted to be back in his bed when he heard it.

Rukia had chosen probably the most annoying ringtone for Hollow alerts. Ichigo had used to gripe about it nonstop. It was a series of high pitched notes that formed something that sounded like a cat being tortured—Rukia claimed to like it. It gave Ichigo a headache. He hadn't heard it since she'd vanished.

Now, he did. The steady ring was coming in the same intervals as his was, alerting the carrier to the threat of a Hollow. He tried to locate the source of the noise, and it didn't take long for him to spot a figure, running on the sidewalk just outside of the park. Ichigo forgot about the Hollow, letting his phone fall to the ground. He charged after the figure, using his flash-stepping technique to gain ground. He phased five feet in front of the figure, intent on asking him where he'd found Rukia's phone, but the words caught in his throat as he saw who he'd cornered.

"Kurosaki," Gin snarled. "I should've known my luck would've run out."

"Gin," Ichigo said in disbelief.

Gin struggled out of his gigai, his spirit form unfurling like smoke. "I was hoping that I wouldn't have to kill anyone tonight," he said. "Tough luck, eh, ginger?"

Ichigo drew his zanpaktou. "What are you doing here," he said, leveling the sword at Gin. "Where did you get a gigai? And what are you doing with Rukia's phone?"

Gin laughed at him, drawing his own sword with a fancy flourish. "Missed your little wife, have you? Maybe you ought've taken better care of her, hmm?"

"What did you do to her," Ichigo snarled.

"She wasn't too hard to kill," Gin said off-hand. "I sliced your spawn out of her with one stroke."

Ichigo could feel his spirit energy crackling out of his body, out of control, but he couldn't care. "Ban. Kai," he growled.

"You never told me she was such a spitfire in bed," Gin laughed, dancing back a few steps. "We did have a bit of fun before I slit her navel to nostril. Shoot to kill, Shinso!" Gin came at him in a flurry of speed and thrusting; Ichigo barely had time to raise Zangetsu to dodge the blows. Gin was coming at him with what seemed to be twenty swords, moving so quickly, that Ichigo was having trouble keeping up, even with his enhanced speed.

Gin's sword swung into the flesh of Ichigo's shoulder. He ripped it out with a shout of laughter. "Not so tough, are you?" Gin said, smiling. "I thought you would've become a better fighter."

Ichigo snarled wordlessly and came on the offensive, swinging Zangetsu with enough force to cause his entire arm to vibrate with each clash of the swords. He didn't notice the pain in his shoulder as he attacked, but even as hard as he was trying, Gin blocked each swing with ease. "You're going to have to be better than that," he sing-songed.

He killed her! Ichigo's Hollow was howling in his head. He killed our bitch! Let me out, damn you. I'm going to kill him. Let me out.

Gin ducked under Ichigo's swing, his sword ripping a shallow gash in Ichigo's stomach. "Too easy," he chuckled.

I'm the only one crazy enough to deal with him, the Hollow was shrieking. Let me fight!

Gin's last parry caused Ichigo to fly back several feet. Shaking with rage, he felt himself acquiesce to the Hollow, letting it take over. The half-mask grew over his face, and he felt himself sink into the recesses of his mind as the Hollow took control.

"I'm gonna fuck you up," the Hollow said, charging at Gin. Gin's grin slipped off his face as he raised his zanpaktou. Ichigo's Hollow had been right about one thing—he was just crazy enough to match Gin. Ichigo dimly realized that his Hollow was gaining the upper hand. Zangetsu glanced off of Shinso, and dug deeply into Gin's upper thigh. Gin made a noise like a battle shriek, his eyes opening wide, red pupils glinting wildly. He came at Ichigo faster than before, thrusting Shinso almost too quickly, but Ichigo's Hollow was prepared and ducked under the sword, pushing Zangetsu through the soft flesh of Gin's abdomen, ripping it out savagely.

Blood was trickling from Gin's mouth, and he wiped it with the back of his hand. Ichigo's Hollow allowed Gin no time to compose himself; he charged with an insane laugh. Gin raised Shinso, but must have not had a tight grip, because the Hollow used Zangetsu to whip it away. It fell to the ground with a metallic thunk, twenty meters from them. Ichigo took this as his cue to rip off his mask.

"Going to kill me, Ichigo?" Gin asked, smirking for some reason.

"No," Ichigo said shortly, bringing up the hilt of Zangetsu so he could knock Gin unconscious. "I'm going to take you back to the Soul Society and let Byakuya deal with you." Ichigo wanted nothing more than to rip Gin's intestines out in the most painful way possible, but something kept him from it. Instead, he brought Zangetsu down hard on the crown of Gin's head, catching the errant Shinigami as he slumped. Moving slowly due to his wounds, Ichigo started the trek to Urahara's shop.

His thoughts a swirl of pain and anger, the trip to Urahara's felt shorter than it was. Ichigo was fully ready to have to wake up the shopkeeper, so he was fairly surprised when he entered the courtyard in front of Urahara's shop and found it well-lit. He rapped on the wood of the door, shifting the dead weight that was Gin. He could see Urahara's silhouette approach, and he stepped backwards. The door slid open, and Urahara stepped onto the step.

"Kurosaki-san," he said. He was about to say something else, but Ichigo cut him off.

"I found Gin," he said.

Urahara's eyes widened. "It looks like you did more than find him. Come inside."

Ichigo stepped over the threshold, dropping Gin on the floor. "He had a gigai," Ichigo explained. "I saw him trying to run away. He had…" The words stuck in Ichigo's throat. "He had Rukia's phone."

"Well, I certainly didn't expect Gin to be captured so quickly." Urahara said.

"Wait," Ichigo said confusedly. "You knew that Gin was around?"

"Yoruichi called me an hour ago," he said, "and I've been trying to get a hold of you ever since."

"So I could find him?" Ichigo asked dully.

"No," Urahara said. "Yoruichi found Rukia. She's alive."

Ichigo felt his stomach drop to his toes. "Where?" he asked.

"Karakura General," Urahara said, and Ichigo was instantly out of the door.

Ichigo sailed through the doors of the emergency room, looking around wildly for a sign of Rukia's whereabouts. Still in his Shinigami form, he was attracting no attention from the doctors or nurses.

"Over here," someone hissed, and he turned to see Yoruichi seated uncomfortably on a waiting room chair. He trotted over, and his worry must've been apparent on his face, because Yoruichi overrode his next statement. "Where have you been? They had to take her into an operating room for a C-something or other."

"I ran into Gin," Ichigo said. "Is she okay?"

"Wait—you ran into Gin?"

"Is she okay?"

Yoruichi held out her hands in a placatory gesture. "She's a little malnourished, the doctor said. They were worried that she wouldn't be able to deliver naturally because her hips are so narrow."

"I'm going to find her," he said, but she grabbed his wrist.

"Oh, just sit down," she hissed. "Don't go creating trouble. Tell me what happened with Gin."

It was a tense half-hour before the doctor came out, addressing Yoruichi. "She's fine," he said. "The procedure went perfectly, and we've hooked her up to an IV to replenish her body with nutrients."

"What room?" Yoruichi asked.

"Three-thirteen," the doctor said, "but do you mind telling me how she became so malnourished? If I have to involve the police—" Ichigo was already halfway down the hallway, angling towards the elevator, by the time the doctor trapped Yoruichi into an explanation.

Ichigo navigated his way through the nearly-empty hospital hallways, reading off room numbers as he went along.

"Three oh three," he muttered. "Three oh nine. Three thirteen." He paused outside of the door, nervous because Rukia was alive. She was alive, not a Hollow, and he was about to see her for the first time in months. He pushed the door open and stepped inside, his heart thrumming in his throat.

The first thought that ran through her mind was that she was tinier than usual, swallowed up by the white of the hospital sheets. She was asleep, her face pale, dark smudges underneath her eyes. He approached the bed, slowly, pausing only to grab a chair that was sitting in the corner of the room. Pulling the chair as close to her as possible, he sat down, his eyes never leaving her face.

Her hair was longer than he'd ever seen it, spilling over her shoulders, lank and lifeless. Extending his hand, he gently allowed his fingers to encircle her wrist—had her arm always been this thin? She made a little noise in her sleep, and that was the same; he couldn't count the number of times she'd made that sleepy little groan and rolled over into his shoulder during the night. Greedily, his eyes roved over her, cataloguing all of the quirks, making sure that this Rukia was his Rukia.

He didn't know how long he'd been sitting there when Yoruichi came in, closely followed by Urahara and his body, which was currently occupied by Kon.

"Man, you two make one odd couple," Kon commented. "You both look like famine victims."

"Shut up," Yoruichi hissed. "And you can get out of his body now." She fished around for the mod soul, pulling it out and shoving it back into the stuffed lion.

"We just came to get you your body," Urahara said. "I need to go back and make sure that Gin hasn't managed to escape from the guard that the Soul Society sent over to retrieve him."

"The doctor thinks that Rukia's been missing," Yoruichi said. "I hope they don't check to see if we filed a police report." True to their word, Urahara, Yoruichi, and Kon stayed long enough to see that Rukia was okay. Ichigo barely noticed them leave, settling into his body and sitting back in the chair. However, Ichigo wasn't alone for long. Barely twenty minutes after the three had left, a nurse came in to check Rukia's vitals.

"Oh!" she said, as soon as she spotted Ichigo. "I didn't know that anyone else was in here! Is she your wife?"

"Yes," Ichigo said, the word choking in his mouth. Just ten hours earlier, he didn't think he would ever have a wife again.

"I suspect you want to meet your daughter," she said with a wink. "I'll go get her."

"Wait—" Ichigo stammered. "A daughter?" In all the excitement of discovering that Rukia was still alive, he'd almost forgotten that she was in the hospital because she'd had a baby. Their baby.

The nurse beamed. "Yes," she said. "I took her down to the nursery myself, not two hours ago. She has your hair." She wrote something down on the clipboard at the base of Rukia's bed before leaving. She wasn't gone for long, and Ichigo heard her rolling something down the hallway before he saw her. She pushed a bassinet into their room.

"Here she is," she said. "Do you know how to hold her? Here, I'll help." She arranged Ichigo's arms, picked the baby up, and tenderly gave her to Ichigo.

"Babies are usually born with blue eyes," she said. "It's unusual that hers aren't." She waited for a reaction, but Ichigo was too absorbed in the tiny bundle in his arms to pay any more attention to the woman. She smiled softly and left the room again; Ichigo didn't notice.

Even though it was late, the baby was awake. Her indigo eyes (Rukia's, Ichigo thought) stared into his face with a slightly unfocused gaze. She waved her arm around, as if she was trying to say hello.

Back before Rukia had disappeared, Ichigo had wondered what it would be like to look at his daughter. When she had been an abstract idea, a bump in Rukia's stomach, he'd think about what she'd look like, who'd she take after. Nothing could've prepared him for the rush of emotion that he was feeling, looking at his daughter for the first time.

"Hello," he said softly, stroking her cheek with one finger. Her lips puckered into a pout, but she didn't start to cry. She was red, and wrinkled, and perfect, and Ichigo got as lost in her face as he had in Rukia's.

He held her, even as she fell asleep, pulling her impossibly small body to his chest. Eventually, the nurse came in to take her back to the nursery, and only then did Ichigo realize how tired he was. Eyelids heavy, he contemplated padding his head on the edge of Rukia's bed and falling asleep in the chair. The nurse, busybody that she was, grasped his shoulder.

"She looks cold," she said, gesturing towards Rukia. "As long as you're careful, I don't see any harm in you sharing the bed with her." Ichigo stared at her back as she left, and after a minute or two of thought, he carefully got on top of the bed, staying on top of the sheets. Pillowing her head on his shoulder, he stayed awake long enough to hear her make a sleepy noise of content before the events of the day caught up with him and he fell asleep.

Before she opened her eyes, Rukia noted two things. First, she was very warm, and second, her pillow was moving. Groaning discontentedly, she threw an arm over her eyes as someone rearranged her onto a less squirmy pillow. Vaguely, she heard something move next to her, but she wasn't yet ready to open her eyes. Lying there in a half-awake state, she tried to use her other senses to figure out where she was. When that didn't work (just why was she so drowsy anyway?), she moved her arm and opened her eyes, immediately shutting them against the over-bright light. A hospital? Squinting, she tried to sit up, but was distracted by a sharp pain in her stomach.

"You're going to pull your stitches. Just—hold on." Someone—Ichigo?—was supporting her back, and when he let go, the bed had been adjusted so she was able to sit up. Opening her eyes fully, she looked over her surroundings, trying to remember what had happened the night before. It all came back in a rush, and she turned to look at whoever was sitting next to her bed. Her first instinct had been right; it was Ichigo, and he was looking at her stonily.

"The baby?" she asked, desperate for news.

"She's fine," he said emotionlessly. "I've seen her."


"In custody."

"Oh," she sighed. "Good." In the rare times when she'd been awake in Hueco Mundo (had she really been there for three months?) she had thought about what she would say to Ichigo if she ever saw him again. What came out of her mouth didn't match anything she'd thought she'd say.

"You look terrible. Did you forget how to eat after I disappeared?"

Ichigo looked at her hardly for a long moment before his mouth upturned in a small smile. "You should talk," he said. "I didn't think it could happen, but you're tinier than you used to be."

Rukia's mouth curved into a smile as well. "Can I see her? The baby?"

"I'll go get the nurse."Ichigo stood, and turned to the door but didn't move. Suddenly he whipped around, his hands on either side of her face in a second, boxing her in.

"Don't you ever do that to me again," he said. "Don't you dare. When I thought you were dead…" She could read the emotions in his eyes—the hurt, the relief, the anger, the love. Instead of saying the first thing that came into her mind about him and his tendency to underestimate her, she curled an arm around his neck and brought his lips down to hers. He kissed her desperately, as though he was making sure that she still existed. When he pulled back, she was surprised to note that there were tears running down her face.

"I'm sorry," she mouthed, and he turned to get the nurse.

Later, as she cradled their daughter and he cradled her, Ichigo voiced something that she'd been thinking about. "She needs a name," he said.

"Yumeko," she replied.

"Dream child?" he asked.

"When I was in Hueco Mundo," she said, "she was the only thing that kept me sane, through all those twisted nightmares. Whenever I'd dream of her, things would seem a little brighter."

He laughed. "At least you don't want to name her Usagi."

"That's for the next one," she said, giggling as Ichigo's eyes went wide.


A/N: Thank you to all that read and reviewed! On a slightly different note, I want to acknowledge some concrit I received about Gin's less-than-stellar plot. I knew from the beginning that it was the weakest part of this story, and I tried to work it into something plausible. My reasoning is that Gin's never used a gigai, and doesn't know where to find them, and he needed Rukia's help. I didn't want to commit to a grander plot with him, because I've not yet watched the Hueco Mundo arc, and I didn't want to turn this fully AU (I know--I'm a horrible Bleach fan ;;). Anyways, that's why I had Gin do what he did.

Reviews and concrit are greatly appreciated! Thanks for reading!