"I am going to school now, nii-sama." Kuchiki Rukia stands, grabbing her bag from the chair next to her and smoothing the already immaculate skirt of her uniform one more time. Her brother barely looks up long enough from his newspaper to give her a curt nod.

She hesitates for a moment, but by then the maid is already moving in to clear their plates, and she only murmurs a quiet goodbye before letting herself out of the house.

It's February, and the cherry blossom trees lining the driveway are just beginning to bloom. The Kuchiki mansion rises up behind her, beautiful and stately, and for the hundredth time Rukia feels small and out of place in its shadow. It's a reminder of every expectation that she's ever failed to meet, and somewhere inside her brother still sits, and she knows that she must be a disappointment to him, too.

There is nothing special about Kuchiki Rukia, nothing at all except for—

"Hello." Rukia smiles at the pigtailed girl kneeling in front of her, and reaches into her bag for a small bunch of brightly colored flowers wrapped in bunny-printed paper. "I brought you new flowers today; I'll drop them off on my way to school."

The girl's one remaining eye widens in pleasure, and she rasps out a soft, bloody thank you.

Rukia shakes her head in reply, and girl and ghost wait in silence. By the time the Kuchiki limousine rounds the curve of the drive, the ghost is already gone.

at the beginning again

Rukia's been able to see ghosts ever since she can remember, and before Renji and Byakuya and the adoption, they were her only friends. She remembers asking them where they came from, where they went, and that one morning when the boy with no legs wasn't where he always used to be. Ghosts came and went, almost as fickle as human beings.

Growing up, Rukia came to look forward to the days when a ghost disappeared for good, because it meant they'd done whatever they needed to do and that they'd gone on. It must be terrible, she thinks, to be stuck in between life and death, unable to reach either.

"Kuchiki-sama, we have arrived at school."

Byakuya's father—before he'd died—had turned his nose up when his son revealed that instead of going to an expensive private school out of town, Rukia would be attending the public Karakura High School. She'd been surprised too, because she thought for sure Byakuya would have jumped at any excuse to send her away. He'd adopted her out of the blue when she was twelve, and then had barely ever looked at her again. Rukia still doesn't know why.

She has a roof over her head now, and a warm bed and a hot meal every night, but it'd cost her her only friend.

She's never stopped being grateful to Byakuya for pulling her out of the system, but sometimes she wonders if the trade had been worth it.

"Ahhh, Kuchiki-san, how glorious to see your beautiful face every morning!"

Rukia gives Keigo a strained smile and pretends to rummage in her bag for some books so she isn't drawn into the conversation. The people here are too loud, too exuberant, and she's too used to the self-imposed silence of her brother's house.

"Kuchiki-san."

Ishida Uryuu sits down at his desk next to her; gives her a long, calculating look. Rukia returns the greeting and as always pretends that she doesn't notice.

Classes will end at exactly three fifteen, the limo will pick her up at three twenty, she'll finish her homework by five, have dinner with Byakuya at six, and then she'll be left alone until everything begins again.

So much of the same.

A single swallowtail butterfly drifts toward the Kuchiki mansion.

"Why the fuck are hell butterflies so girly?"

And so the blade swings down.

"W—who are you?"

Ichigo can't freaking believe it; he'd just been minding his own business, doing his duty by following the hollow's faintly pulsating trail to some rich snob's house when this human slammed a foot into his side.

Needless to say, no one was gonna hear about this when he got back to Soul Society; Ikkaku would laugh him out of the Eleventh Division.

Wait a sec…

"You can see me?"

The girl stares at him, pale and wide-eyed. Ichigo almost gives her up for a lost cause when she speaks again. "I hope you are not planning on robbing us, asshole, because my brother has the best security system that money can buy."

Ichigo splutters, and as the girl moves aside he catches a few faint flickers of spirit energy—there.

To her credit, the human doesn't scream, even as his zanpakutou lands an inch away from her head.

The ghost of the young child behind her vanishes, dissolving into a bright flash of light.

"Don't worry," Ichigo reassures the spirit gruffly, "Soul Society's not a bad place."

Not exactly the truth, but it's still a whole lot better than Hell.

"What happened to her?"

He looks down at her—this human's short—and shrugs. "I sent her to Soul Society. Your version of 'heaven', I guess. I'm a shinigami, it's my job to perform konso on pluses."

The girl looks skeptical, but before she can start mouthing off to him again Ichigo waves her off; she's just a human—ability to see him notwithstanding—and he'll wipe her memory before he leaves. The plus isn't the reason he came, but the hollow's trail has gone completely cold.

"Hey—I am speaking to you! Can't you hear that noise?"

Ichigo glares at her and is about to snap back when he stills, what's undoubtedly a hollow's roar reverberating through his bones. He doesn't know how he'd missed it until he feels the static undercurrent of reiatsu from the girl—from the human.

"That's a hollow, the bad kind of ghosts," Ichigo says by way of reply. "They're big, they're nasty, and they like to snack on tasty souls like yours. So stay back while I go take care of it—"

A scream rings through the house before he can finish, and the girl's up and out of her room in a flash.

"That's one of the maids!"

"Oi—come back here! You can't just—"

He runs after her, out of her room and down a long hallway. When he finally finds her again at the base of some stairs, she's standing stock-still, staring down at the prone and bloody bodies of a dark haired man and a woman who must be the maid.

In the distance, beyond a crumbled wall, the hollow howls.

"Don't worry, their souls are still intact."

The girl looks up at him, and her face is bone-white under the flickering lights; she almost seems translucent, even less substantial than Ichigo himself.

"Why is the hollow here?"

Her voice is quiet and it doesn't tremble; in fact, she's unbelievably still, eyes dark and large in her face.

"Hollows are attracted to people with a lot of spiritual energy. You've got way too much for a normal human, so it's probably—"

"Me," she finishes for him, head dipped down and face shadowed. "It's here because of me."

"Yeah, so you better stay out of the way 'cause it's going to head right back here for your soul."

She shakes her head, the movement so imperceptible that Ichigo almost doesn't notice at first, and then she's running, slipping through the new hole in the wall and sprinting after the hollow. He catches a glimpse of her expression before she turns away, and she looks shattered, lost.

Idiot, Ichigo thinks as he chases her.

"—you're after me, correct? Then take my soul and leave!"

Idiot, idiot, idiot, Ichigo repeats as her voice echoes through the empty driveway, and he doesn't take his eyes off of the hollow or the girl for a single second; he uses shunpo, forgets about kidou because he's shit at it anyways, doesn't use Zangetsu, doesn't think, and screws up as royally as possible.

There's a brief flash of memory, of rain and blood and mud squelching underneath his bare feet, and he sees the fear cross the human's face right before the hollow's jaws close around him.

Stupid, now you're afraid?

Then: No way in hell you're going to die— at least not on my watch.

Rukia had stared down at the blood and the mess that was Byakuya and she'd thought not again not again not again and her brother might still be breathing but Kaien, Kaien was dead and she'd ran without thinking and left the strange boy behind because it's her fault—it's always her fault and Kaien's funeral and the one time she remembers Byakuya touching her, his hand on her shoulder and he'd never said anything but there it was and there were no rumors about her teacher's death afterwards and no one stared at her in school and finding him at the bottom of those stairs and the way he'd looked up at her and tried to say run

She can vaguely feel her mouth opening, the words hurtling from her throat and the hollow turning its horrible eyes on her, then there is an orange blur and this strange, stupid boy has just saved her life.

"You idiot!" Rukia kneels next to him, watching the blood spreads and pools on the pavement.

"F-funny, that's exactly what I was about to say." He winces, picks his sword up and cradles it in his lap. Behind them, the hollow lumbers closer.

"Listen…what would you do to save your family?"

Rukia looks the boy in the eye and says, "Anything."

Ichigo knows he's going to get into so much trouble for this, but he's never played by the rules before and the way this girl is looking at him right now just reaffirms his decision that no matter what, she's going to make it out alive tonight.

"You're going to have to become a shinigami—I have to pierce your heart with my zanpakutou. It'll—it'll give you half of my powers for a while, at least until you defeat the hollow."

Pierce her heart? Rukia eyes the very real looking edge of the blade, and there's a moment's hesitation before she remembers her brother again and the blood on her hands.

"I will do it."

The shinigami doesn't miss a beat, and motions for her to come closer, raising his sw—his zanpakutou and resting the tip gently against her chest. She can feel the cold point through her clothes, and she thinks that this is it, that it nearly feels inevitable, the ghosts and her strangeness and every one of her years all leading up to this single moment.

"Ready?"

"Just do it already, shinigami."

The girl looks so small, framed by the night sky and the hollow behind her. Watching her face, the cool resoluteness that settles there, Ichigo feels something inside of him shift.

"It's not shinigami, it's Kurosaki Ichigo."

A wisp of a smile, and then: "Kuchiki Rukia."

Ichigo pushes.

tbc


note: A thousand thank-you's to fading ink for betaing!

Just a little brain spasm that I had the other day. Might or might not be a series, but I definitely have a few more scenes that I want to try and write for this AU. Thanks for reading, and feedback's always appreciated!