Kon does a masterful imitation of Ichigo.
She thinks that maybe she’s never given him enough credit.
After all, she’s never seen him in action before, not really. But when he puts his mind to it, the resemblance is uncanny. The scowl, the slouch, the cocky walk. He even answers questions and takes notes competently in class. Usually, though, the most telling difference has always been Ichigo’s enormous reiatsu filling the room like a presence itself, pressing between her shoulder blades—a constant, steady hum. But aside from that, Kon is nearly indistinguishable from Ichigo.
In fact, his imitation is so perfect that she doesn’t even notice it’s him until third period when he passes her a worksheet and whispers, “Welcome back, nee-san.”
From the way Urahara explains it, the power of the Hogyoku is primarily to grant wishes.
It is pure reiatsu, with no direction or purpose of its own, but its unfiltered, unmatchable power gives it the ability to grant practically any wish its holder desires. The power of gods, the power to manipulate reality, the power to transcend death.
She presses a hand to her chest, feeling the roughness of the scar where the orb had been ripped from her breast, and wonders how she could’ve gone so long so powerless and weak when she had something that could achieve miracles nested beside her heart.
But Urahara explains that the Hyogoku had been slumbering inside her as it grew. Once it was done incubating—incubating, he said, as if it were an egg and she a hen warming it with her feathers, and not a parasitic larvae growing stronger as she grew weaker, stealing her reiatsu, chewing away at the edges of her soul—it would emerge matured and powerful. Ready to change the world.
Well, it had certainly done that.
She wonders what is left of her now that the Hogyoku has hollowed out her soul like a termite through a rotting log. What is a Shinigami without their reiatsu? It’s the very power that gives them form, shape, life. What is she but a pale, cobbled-together shadow of her former self? It seems like a terrible reality, a nightmare to know she will never again walk the streets of Seireitei. Never again run free through the sky.
Never again feel the cool hilt of Sode no Shirayuki in her hands.
Ichigo is shouting at Urahara—all righteous fury and anguish on her behalf—but the sound seems muffled and distant beneath the curious buzzing that fills her ears.
She watches the blue veins and thin bones shift under the skin of her wrist. She’s never felt so delicate—so breakable—before, and wonders if this is how it’s always going to be. Urahara assured her that the gigai was top-of-the-line and nearly indestructible, but she feels as if she’s falling apart, crumbling away. She feels so translucent, only half-there, as if she’s watching the world through a thick, opaque window.
This must be what dying feels like, she thinks. This slow, gradual decline. The weakening of the senses and spirit and vitality until she’s whittled away to nothing. The last bit of her reiatsu little more than smoke in the wind.
And that would be it. No Soul Society for the ashes of Kuchiki Rukia. No reincarnation. All that would be left of her would be the tiny—huge—fragment of herself trapped in the Hogyoku, nurturing the hubris of men who would be gods.
It is much more difficult to pretend to be human knowing that any mistakes she makes can’t be erased, that they’ll remember every misstep even long after she’s gone. It had been so easy the first time—she hadn’t cared at all. In the end, she’d just clean up afterwards, wiping any trace of her presence from their memories. Like she was never there. But now she is here and she’ll be here forever (or well, for as long as it takes to wither away and die, because ‘forever’ doesn’t mean the same thing anymore).
Byakuya pays for a high-class penthouse apartment for her in the human world. An expensive apology. That’s just like him, she thinks. Believing her can buy her forgiveness—her affection—with big fancy houses and pretty dresses and gourmet food. The apartment feels as empty and cold as her private wing in the Kuchiki manor.
Urahara outfits her with a top-of-the-line gigai, his own version of an apology. It does all the disgusting things that humans do like sweat and cry and age and she hates him a little bit for his stupid realism.
She attends Karakura High School, because that is where Ichigo and Inoue and Ishida and Sado go to school. She cannot decide if this is a kindness or not. Maybe it would be better to go somewhere where no one knows her. But she is still awkward and ignorant of much of the human world and she has nowhere else to go. She does not affect a persona this time around. She introduces herself as herself because that’s all she’ll ever be anymore.
It is a fairly unremarkable introduction. She says her name and makes no effort to share anything more nor speak to anyone in class. She is quiet and still and easily forgotten. There are no rumors about her and Ichigo because there are no sudden disappearances during class, no barging in unannounced and dragging him away, and no sightings of her going to and from his house. Orihime makes a few tentative attempts to draw her into her circle of friends, but Rukia has little to say and hard time bringing herself to care what these young, silly girls think of her.
Class is tedious, but she has nothing better to do. No training. No paperwork. No patrolling. No Hollows. According to Urahara, attending high school will teach her a number of important things about the human world and society, which she needs to know if she’s ever going to find a place among them.
But there are moments when she doesn’t feel fully there. Moments where she feels as if she’s floated up out of her gigai like she used to, leaving the heavy, fleshy shell behind. But then the teacher calls her name once, twice, three times, and slams his hand on her desk, snapping her back to reality and of course she doesn’t know the answer—her education revolved entirely around the theory of reiatsu manipulation and swordsmanship and what point was there in knowing any of this boring human nonsense about who conquered what in 1709?
Ichigo looks at her with those sad heavy eyes, and Orihime gives her an encouraging smile, but she turns her face to the window and pretends not to be embarrassed at how poorly she plays human. She’s reminded of those days at the Academy, friendless and uncertain and disappointed.
It’s strangely jarring to realize that the rest of the world isn’t hovering in some sort of nebulous limbo like she is. The world keeps turning and there are always new souls needing guidance to the afterlife and new Hollows that need killing.
Still, it takes her by surprise when Ichigo bursts out of class during third period, disrupting the quiet monotony of the day. From the window, she spies him running across the courtyard, head turned slightly, lips moving. She cannot see or hear whatever phantom he is speaking to. Perhaps there is a Shinigami running alongside him—her replacement as Karakura’s protector. She suddenly feels ill and asks to go to the nurse’s office.
While there, she lays in one of the beds, curtains drawn tight around her, and looks inside herself, in the place where Sode no Shirayuki once lived, searching out for one sliver or shard of the unimaginable power she’d temporarily hosted. If even one crumb of the Hogyoku had been left behind, surely she could use it to gain her powers back? It granted wishes, and there was nothing she wished for more than that.
She spends an hour with her eyes closed, probing what feels like an open wound in her soul, pouring every bit of her heart into a desperate prayer.
But nothing happens and after lunch she returns to class. Ichigo is still missing.
She’s taken to eating lunch on the rooftop. Mostly because no one bothers her there, though Ichigo and his friends still occupy a corner of it themselves. It seems that she’s too aloof this time around for Mizuiro or Keigo to casually invite her to join them as they did in the past, though she often feels Ichigo’s gaze on her as she eats alone. She scowls at him when she catches him at it, annoyed by the guilt and pity in his eyes.
He has no right to be walking around with such a hangdog expression, as if he’s the one who’s lost something. He’s always tiptoeing around her, only responding when she speaks to him, respecting her privacy and giving her space and showing a level of sensitivity for her feelings that she’d never in a million years thought him capable of.
But she hates how he treats her like she’s fragile now.
It’s that, more than anything, that makes her determined to thrive in this new reality.
She decides to join the Art Club, despite Ichigo’s implications that she’s a horrible artist, because she’d never been the sort to brood before. She doesn’t dwell on the bad things in life, but carefully tucks them away in some back corner of her mind until she’s ready to look at them again (which is usually never). However, after several weeks of kindly suggestions from the teacher that she maybe might want to draw the subject as it actually appears, Rukia decides to give up on art. Chappy doesn’t exist in the living world, and trying to explain her “obsession with rabbits” would only serve to earn her more strange looks.
She bounces between several clubs for a while. The tea ceremony club ends up reminding her too much of her brother—all stillness and elegance and silence. Kendo she drops after only attending one session. The reminder of how weak and slow she’s become is too much, and the bamboo sword feels heavy and dead in her hands. Literature has never been her forte—growing up on the streets doesn’t really help one develop a love for reading, and she’s never heard of most human novels anyway… and while she’d enjoyed reading manga in Ichigo’s closet, it seems like the members of the anime club are speaking an entirely different language half the time.
Eventually, she finds her way to the photography club.
She doesn’t understand how the boxes work, nor how to they produce paintings that look as if they’ve been lifted straight from a mirror. After several hours of trying to explain what all the little buttons and knobs do, the club president finally decides that it’s safer to give her a “Polaroid camera” to start with, rather than one of their fancy, expensive “digital” ones. Rukia likes its simplicity—she points it at something, pushes the button, and out comes a picture.
She ends up spending hours each day walking about, capturing scenes with the camera. There is something satisfying about seeing each moment immortalized in ink, rising from the milky white film.
The club’s supervisor loves her work. She claims that Rukia’s got vision, that her style and view of the world is so unique and mature for her age. Rukia resists the urge to explain that of course everything looks different when you’ve been dead for over a hundred years.
They insist on entering her work into a contest.
A month later they tell her she’s won.
It’s a national contest, they say. Very prestigious. Perhaps she’ll have a career as a professional photographer in the future.
The last is a bit of a relief. She’s failing almost all her classes, and even if she’ll always have a steady stipend from her brother and compensation from the Soul Society, it would be nice to have some kind of foothold in the human world. A little bit of independence, so that she isn’t forever reminded of where the money for each meal comes from.
Prints of her photos are displayed along the corridor of the arts wing, along with a framed newspaper clipping of the article detailing her win. The local paper had tried to interview her, but she’d refused. There would be too many questions she doesn’t have answers for.
She doesn’t like to look at her own photographs. She takes them cathartically, each snapshot another memory she’s letting go, an ache she puts to rest. She keeps her head down on the way to art class, intentionally late so halls are mostly empty and she doesn’t have to encounter any questions or congratulations on the way there.
However, her steps slow as she finds Ichigo standing stock-still in the middle of the hallway. She can see his eyes roaming over the photos—a shot of a late-blooming sakura tree surrounded by its bare-branched neighbors, a close-up on the veins of a red maple leaf, a white ribbon tied around a fence post in a dead field, a line of bone-white paper masks at a festival, a tattered black curtain hiding the sun.
Rukia flushes, suddenly embarrassed to have him seeing into all the secret parts of her—it makes her feel vulnerable in a way that judging, contemplative eyes of strangers did not. They would never be able to guess what they meant, no matter how many stupid scholarly essays they wrote, but Ichigo would know at a glance. She resists the urge to try to hide the photos, to rush up and rip them from the walls. What would be the point? He’d already seen them—peered into the sad, empty parts she pretended to fill and pretended didn’t exist.
“Kurosaki-kun?” she says, fixing a smile on her face, her tone neutral, polite. They are not Ichigo and Rukia anymore. They are not partners. They’re little more than classmates now, almost strangers. “You’re going to be late for class if you don’t hurry.”
“You don’t belong here.” He says abruptly, not taking his gaze from the photographs.
She looks at him, smile fading, then at her gallery—little bits of her soul lined up along the wall. She barks a harsh, bitter laugh, shaking her head.
“I don’t belong anywhere. Not anymore.”
She leaves him to brood over that, brushing past into the classroom.
Rukia pushes the bags of groceries onto the too-high counter, knocking a pile of papers onto the ground.
Her new collection—titled Ghosts—is scattered across the floor. Her teacher gushes over how she manages to perfectly capture the feeling of emptiness and loneliness. They’re pictures of nothing—a blank sky, a dry riverbed, an empty can. Rukia isn’t sure what she’s trying to capture in any of these photos, but she’s pretty sure that whatever it is, she can’t see it.
I don’t know what I’m doing, she’d confessed. I don’t even know what I’m trying to find in these photos. If I don’t know what they’re about, how can anyone else think they do?
When she’d said as much to her teacher, the woman laughed. That’s what art is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you think.
Rukia doesn’t try to explain to her that when she’s taking pictures, that’s the very last thing she’s doing.
She sighs and bends down to clean them up, looking at each image and wondering if there’s still some sliver of power in her that saw something in that moment. She wonders if Ichigo would see anything in the photos.
Suddenly, there’s a furious pounding at her door. She pauses, staring stupidly at it. No one ever knocks at her door. She never has visitors.
“Rukia!” Ichigo’s muffled shout breaks through the walls. “Rukia! Open up!”
She stands slowly, cautious and off-balance at the urgency in his voice because there is nothing urgent about her life anymore. Each day is as leisurely and predictable as the next, measured in careful segments between classes. The pounding on the door stops and after several heartbeats of tense silence, she opens the door.
Ichigo freezes, Shinigami Badge in hand, clearly about to shed his body and enter her apartment in soul form. She presses her lips in a flat line, while appreciative that Ichigo respected her privacy enough to knock first, the reminder that a Shinigami could be spying on her or monitoring her movements at any time gives her an unpleasant feeling. Hell, for all she’d know, there could be one sitting in her apartment right now.
Ichigo drops his badge with a clatter, relief easing the tense line between his brows and hunched shoulders. She frowns at him uncertainly. If there’s something wrong, she finds it hard to imagine she’d be any help.
“Ichigo, what are you doing here?”
“I—” he starts, flustered as he tries to regain his bearings. He runs a hand through his hair, which looks a bit damp from sweat. He takes a breath and starts again. “Aizen took Inoue.”
Rukia tilts her head, brow wrinkling. She most certainly cannot help with that.
“So, what are you doing here?” she repeats. Shouldn’t he be off to save her?
“I was—we were worried when you didn’t answer your phone.”
Her gaze flicks over to her purse, where her phone had probably run out of battery overnight. Her old phone charged itself automatically by picking up reishi from the air. She was always forgetting to charge this one, but hardly anyone contacted her on it, so it rarely mattered.
“You thought he might have come for me, too?”
“I—we—yeah. Maybe. You didn’t answer your phone so…” he shifts, looking embarrassed now.
She shakes her head. She can imagine the fuss he caused, running off to check on her when there’s a million more important things. She’s nothing more than a regular human now—maybe even less than that. Aizen has no use for her. No one does.
Suddenly, she notices his eyes have dropped to the handful of photos she’d picked up off the ground. Her fingers curl around the edges, feeling oddly exposed as his gaze flicks behind her towards the others scattered across the floor—each of them a testament to her brokenness, loneliness, weakness.
“You disappointed your damsel in distress is fine?” she snaps suddenly, furious with him for barging in here and disturbing the peaceful life she’s built, for stirring up feelings of shame and regret. For reminding her again of what she used to be.
“Wh—” He jerks back, as if she’s hit him. “Rukia, you’ve saved my ass more times than I can count—”
“Well, it’s never happening again. I can never repay you for what you did for me. Not like this,” she hisses, with a frustrated gesture the useless shell she’ll be trapped in for the rest of her too-short life.
He’s silent and looking at her in such a way that it seems as if his heart is breaking. She wants to scream at him again. It’s not his fault she ended up like this and if he could just get over that stupid irrational guilt—if he could stop looking at her like she’s his greatest failure—then maybe they could go back to being... friends? Partners? Anything but whatever they are now. She takes a deep breath and squares her shoulders. At least there’s one thing she can do.
“What are you still doing here, Ichigo?”
“Inoue’s been kidnapped, hasn’t she? You need to go save her.”
“But you—” he begins, gaze skimming over the photographs.
She shoves him hard in the chest with both hands, putting all her frustration and anger into it, causing him to stumble back. “No buts, Ichigo. Go.”
“She needs you. The Ichigo I know wouldn’t turn his back on a friend like that.”
“You’re my friend too, Rukia.”
Am I? she wants to ask, because she isn’t sure anymore these days. They don’t talk much, though that’s her own fault, but she’s hardly sure about anything since she lost her powers—from her place in the world to relearning how to speak to him.
“You’ve done more than enough for me already, Ichigo.”
“I didn’t save you so you could be miserable like this—”
“Well not everything in life always goes the way you want it to, Ichigo!” she explodes, an angry rush of tears obscuring her vision suddenly. Goddamn Urahara and his stupid hyper-realistic gigai. She turns away so he can’t see her face. “Just—just go, Ichigo. Inoue needs you. Go play hero for her. That isn’t my fight—my world anymore. I’ll be here when you get back.”
There’s a silence so long that she wonders if he’d actually listened to her and left without a word—gone running after Aizen to save Inoue because there really isn’t any reason to keep wasting time here.
“I’m going to fix this,” he says finally.
She shakes her head slowly and turns back towards him, having mastered her tears.
“Even you can’t fix everything, Ichigo.”
She’s a little relieved when it’s Kon who shows up to school the next day. She isn’t sure what to say to Ichigo just yet.
She doesn’t dream anymore.
Well, technically the dead never dream, but those with spiritual power could interact with their zanpakuto’s consciousness and their inner world while sleeping—a semblance of a dream, a peek into an unreality.
Her dreams had always been full of ice and snow, but they had beautiful. She’d always woken with a sense of wonder and awe.
Nowadays she only has waking dreams. Moments in the day when her mind floats away and she sees—something. Human-like Hollows in white, with half-formed masks. Ichigo, bleeding and broken. Inoue, in tears. An endless desert in the night.
She wonders if this is what the other half (more than half) of her soul is seeing—the piece of her that is still trapped in the Hogyoku. She wonders if that part of her is lending power to Ichigo’s enemies. If there’s a part of her out there that is learning to destroy the things that were once important to her.
Please, she tries to say, but she has no mouth, no lips, no tongue, in this form. Please, come back to me.
Even though she’s long given up hope that the Hogyoku might hear her prayers.
There is something strange going on in Karakura. She can almost tell.
The sense of it hovers at the edge of her vision, but when she turns her head, nothing is there. Like a sneeze that just won’t come, tickling her nose for hours. The air is thick, as if awaiting a storm, though the skies are clear.
She watches Takatsuki and the others run from invisible enemies and wishes there was something she could do besides get in the way.
She wonders if Ichigo is here somewhere, fighting a war that she’ll never see.
“Ichigo?” she whispers, uncertain. He looks… different. There’s something off about him. He seems older somehow.
His face is solemn but soft, something unreadable in his gaze as he takes her in, as if he’s trying to drink her up and commit every breath to memory. As if this is goodbye. Finally, he holds out a fist, uncurling his fingers slowly to reveal a smooth black orb, pulsing with power, its surface milky and writhing like faraway, inky galaxies, each trapped soul a pinpoint of light.
The Hogyoku hums a familiar song.
“Make a wish, Rukia.”