Summary: “Now, will you show me who you are?”
Spoilers: Makes a very, very vague mention of recent manga events; no spoilers, really
Original story: Of Secrets, Scars, and Some Other Things by tenebris
They had warned Rukia that this was to be expected—Urahara and Yoruichi, and even Kurosaki Isshin, shinigami who understood the human world more than she—than most Soul Society inhabitants—could hope to. University was different from high school, they had warned her, different even from the Academy. It changed people. It would change Ichigo. It would make him think, make him see different paths, make him reconsider what he wanted from his life.
She could understand that. She had already seen him change, after all—from their first meeting, through Soul Society and the winter war—the demons he had struggled with, the sacrifices he’d made. She had seen it all. The living don’t have the dedication of the dead, Yoruichi had said, except that wasn’t really right, was it? Dedication, he had that. Oh yes.
One could, however, wish for a little courtesy. This was the second week that he had not answered any Hollow alert.
* * *
Rukia understood about university, but there were some problems that needed addressing, and his absence from Hollow patrol was one of them. She went to see him the first week he didn’t answer alerts, intruding through his window while he was studying one warm autumn evening.
He looked up from his books with an expression that was resigned if not precisely unwelcoming. She scowled at him, and waved her pager in the air.
“Have you not heard the alerts?”
His expression turned slightly shifty, slightly guilty. “Now’s not a good time.”
“Too bad, because we are going to have this conversation now. You are neglecting your duties, Ichigo. I did not take the assignment to this district with the expectation that I would be fulfilling it all by myself.”
A shift toward irritability. “I didn’t ask you to take it.”
She had to bite her tongue to hold back a sharp reply. What did he think he would be doing if she hadn’t taken the assignment? Did he think he could shirk his duty, leave Karakura unprotected, if no one else was around to pick it up for him? Would he want to? No, not him. Never him.
But there was something about this argument that was different from their usual bickering. She had the sense that she was treading unfamiliar territory—that she needed to tread cautiously.
“Then shall I go back to Soul Society?” she asked, keeping her voice calm, quiet. “Shall I leave you to it alone?”
Ichigo looked down at his books and mumbled, “Maybe you should.”
She couldn’t ignore the way that answer pained her. He had been her student, her protégé. He was her partner. She took pride in the way he had grown, his skill and his efficiency, even the way he had handled himself in the wake of the winter war. It had been difficult for all of them, but she thought he had recovered; had she been wrong? Maybe that was why she had came. Maybe she wanted to see for herself the way he had changed, the way he was changing.
Or maybe she had just wanted to see him.
“Will you do your duty if I leave this district alone?” she asked, her voice still calm.
Ichigo glared. It was a quick glare, a glance if anything, but she saw it.
“Ichigo,” she said sharply.
“Now’s not the time, all right?” he burst out abruptly. “Why can’t you just leave it alone for awhile? Soul Society should get off your back and mine! They owe me!”
Rukia stared at him, amazed.
“Soul Society is aware of the debt it owes to you, Ichigo,” she said in a low tone at last. “But it is not a currency you can trade on forever.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said irritably. “Can’t even get you guys to leave me alone for a month. Can’t even try for a…” He stopped and shook his head.
How could she make him understand? How could she make him see that she understood, or that she wanted to, at least? Tell me how your life is changing, Ichigo, she thought.
Rukia paused, considered her next course of action.
“How long do you want?” she asked him at last.
Ichigo glanced at her quickly, as though surprised, though his voice was still at a mumble when he answered. “A week, I guess?”
“A week,” she echoed. It was not the answer she wanted; she had not achieved anything she’d desired in coming here, but at least it was something. A compromise. A new way of dealing with a problem.
“Very well. I will remain in Karakura, but…” I will stay away from you was how that sentence was supposed to end, but Rukia couldn’t bring herself to finish it.
She went to the window, and before she leaped out she looked back over her shoulder and spoke in a gentle tone. “Ichigo, you can confide in me.”
Ichigo didn’t look at her. “This is personal.”
Rukia nodded, and stepped out the window.
She had a feeling she knew what the problem might be now.
* * *
Her name was Akiko, and she should not have surprised Rukia. She was a girl, and girls were regular companions of Ichigo these days. Rukia was accustomed to ignoring them; there seemed to be a new girl on Ichigo’s arm every week, and it was pointless to learn anything about them (names included) when they were gone as quickly as they came. They were easy to ignore, and if she didn’t like them, she told herself it was for the way they seemed unable to keep themselves from hanging onto his arm and could not speak without giggling—clingy, giggling girls hardly seemed like the right sort for Ichigo.
Akiko was different. Rukia knew her name. She was harder to ignore because she had been around longer—much longer—than the others. She was tall, she had long black hair, she was studying literature and biology, and she did not cling, and these were all things that Rukia could approve of. And there was no reason why Rukia should not approve of a sensible female for Ichigo, a human woman, a girlfriend, who could perhaps provide the companionship that Rukia herself could not…
Only now she was causing Ichigo to shirk his duties, and that Rukia could and did disapprove of. She knew what that tone meant when Ichigo told her something was personal.
It wasn’t Akiko’s fault, of course. It was Ichigo’s, and he had been absent from Hollow patrols a week longer than he had said he would now, and he was going to hear about it. And she did not intend to be gentle.
What had caused this turn of events, she wondered as she went to his apartment at an unhurried pace—when had Ichigo forgotten everything she had thought important to him? Perhaps she was being unfair. Ichigo was never flippant about being a shinigami, and he had paid the price of it again and again, and would continue paying it for as long as he was alive, and probably as long as he was dead. If it seemed that he was flippant, it was only because his priorities were changing, and she had been warned…
Did it provoke her that he (occasionally) shirked patrol?
She missed him, she realized.
Perhaps she would not be too harsh.
She landed on top of the lamppost outside of his second-floor apartment, and looked at the window. It was dark, and she could not see within, but it was open a crack and she could hear. There was a murmur from inside that sounded like Ichigo’s voice. Did he have company? Was it Akiko? There was no light on, and that was strange, that he should have company and no light…
A woman’s low, breathless moan reached her ears.
Rukia quite abruptly forgot what she had come here for. The shock of realization was like a lightning flash, galvanizing her where she stood. Of course, she thought weakly. This was what he had meant by personal…
She stayed where she was a moment or two longer until feeling came back into her limbs, and then she leapt quietly down to the sidewalk and walked away.
It was not such a shock, truly. Ichigo was male, and young, and human, and subject to the desires and needs that ruled human behavior.
And there was nothing wrong with it, insofar as it did not distract him from his duties. Why had he felt the need to neglect it for this? One of her less inhibited Academy teachers had actually recommended sexual activity as an antidote for stressful missions…
Rukia shook her head in an attempt to clear them of such thoughts. She was not going to speculate on Ichigo’s reasons. It had nothing to do with her, after all. It was between him and his girlfriend; she was merely a partner, a fellow shinigami, perhaps an annoyance. Her only concern was ensuring he followed orders.
She found herself in the children’s playground, not far from the high school she had once attended as a pretend student, and sat on the swings.
Rejection was not a pleasant feeling.
Not that she had been rejected from anything, really. Shuffled aside, perhaps. Replaced. No, not replaced, either, because it wasn’t as though she had ever occupied Akiko’s position. She had thought she knew what her role was in Ichigo’s life—partner, mentor, confidant…friend. There was no need to begrudge him, or Akiko, if she was still those things.
And she would not begrudge them. It was not her place. Ichigo was a human. His mate should be a human too, his age, someone who understood modern society, someone concerned with the things he was concerned with.
She would have to confront him still, of course, about those concerns. But that could wait until tomorrow evening.
Or perhaps tomorrow afternoon.
* * *
The night was quiet; there was one Hollow disturbance across town to take care of, and when she was finished with that she returned to the playground and sat on the swings again. It was getting close to morning when a familiar reiatsu made her sit up, then stand. It was Ichigo, of course, unmistakably—she saw him passing by the playground on the sidewalk, and went hesitantly forward. He stopped as she approached and waited for her to catch up, undoubtedly sensing her reiatsu as well, but he didn’t look at her until she was standing right in front of him.
“Ichigo,” she said, knowing that a hint of her surprise at seeing him was audible in her voice. “What are you doing here?”
“Walking,” he answered, looking as though he’d much rather be doing that—or anything else, really—than talking to her.
None of this made sense to her. His blank expression, the flatness of his tone of voice, the fact that he was out wandering the streets before the sun was up—what in the world was going on? She may not keep up with modern trends but even she was quite sure it was still not fashionable to leave one’s lover in the middle of the night.
“Where is Akiko?” she asked, and then she could have hit herself. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She had just given herself away entirely. “That is,” she added weakly, in a lame attempt to save her dignity, “I merely assume—”
Ichigo gave her a sardonic look. “Cut the crap, Rukia. I know you came by, when we were…” He flushed, his own composure clearly beginning to fade.
“How?” Rukia asked, mortified, having no idea why she prolonged this topic of conversation. It should have been a comfort that he looked as embarrassed as she felt, but it wasn’t.
“Felt you.” He shifted his weight from foot to foot. “Felt your reiatsu.”
The pause that followed was exceedingly awkward. Rukia felt almost certain that she should leave him alone in this, and yet…
“Did something happen between you two?” she asked, not knowing whether it was concern for him or concern for duty or simply her own selfishness that led her to continue pursuing the topic.
Ichigo’s mouth twisted sardonically. “Something happened, all right,” he said, and she felt foolish for asking. She pressed on anyway.
“Did you have a fight?”
“Did you break up?”
He sighed. “No…I don’t think so.”
“Then why are you not…” Rukia hesitated. “With her?”
“I really don’t want to talk about this, Rukia.”
I really don’t want to talk about this with you, she heard.
“Very well.” She could hear the acid that was beginning to lace her own voice. “Shall we talk about your duties, then?”
“Don’t start, Rukia.” There was a warning tone to his voice, but she didn’t care.
“Regardless of the personal relationships that you choose to conduct in your own time, you obligation as a substitute shinigami is act as a substitute shinigami, just as my obligation is to answer for you to Soul Society. I allotted you the week that you asked to—to—” To conduct your personal relationship, she thought bitterly, “—to gather yourself, and yet you continued to shirk patrol for a week afterwards—” She grabbed his arm as he began to turn away. “Ichigo!”
“Fuck off!” he snapped, shaking his arm loose. “I don’t want to hear it, Rukia!”
“So you intend to simply sulk your way out of this conversation without doing me the courtesy of explaining what is going on with you?” she snapped back.
“I don’t fucking want to be having this conversation to start with! I’m not supposed to be here listening to this shit! I’m supposed to—”
He broke off and turned his face away, breathing heavily. Rukia waited.
“Ichigo,” she said firmly at last, when she judged the moment to be right. “What happened?”
She could see the fight drain out of him. His shoulders slumped, and he sighed, anger replaced by weariness.
“Akiko and I…we…” He shifted his weight from foot to foot, as though at a loss for words. To spare him from saying it would mean acknowledging it herself, and before she could work up the nerve to do so, he blurted it out: “We had sex.”
She nodded, not bothering to say that she had gathered as much. Spoken aloud, it felt like—not like a punch in the gut, but enough of a nudge to make her catch her breath.
“We were…I mean, we’ve been together for a while and all, and she’s a great girl, and we both wanted to, so…”
Rukia wished she had somewhere else to look.
“Well, anyway, we were going to sometime this week, or last week—”
“Which is why you told me to stay away,” she supplied, relieved to hear that her voice was even, if perhaps a little cool.
He had the decency to look—if not ashamed, at least uncomfortable about it. “Yeah. I wanted to be…I don’t know, available, I guess.” He looked away from her as he said it. “So tonight she came over, and we…we did it.”
“And you left her because…?”
Ichigo looked at her mulishly. “I didn’t leave. She left.”
Rukia blinked. “She left.”
“Yeah. Ran out, really, would be the more accurate way of putting it.” Again that sardonic twist of his mouth.
Angry color burned in his face. “After.” He turned his face away from her again, and his shoulders hunched slightly. “So here I am,” he added bitterly. “And that’s why I don’t want to talk about this now, so if you wouldn’t mind getting off my back for one freaking night longer…”
He spoke as though he expected her to understand why Akiko had left so soon after their…copulation, but Rukia had no idea at all. It made no sense to her. She could understand why Ichigo would be upset about such a thing. To open himself to that—that kind of relationship would require a measure of trust, the breaking of which he would not take lightly—but as to why his girlfriend should run from him…she could not imagine Ichigo doing anything to harm her or cause her distress.
“But why?” she asked blankly at last. “Why did she flee?”
Ichigo looked at her as though amazed that she didn’t understand. “She saw me, didn’t she?” His voice rose an octave; she thought she heard something that was close to despair in it. “She touched me, didn’t she?”
“I—I would assume so,” Rukia answered, still blankly.
“It didn’t seem like she cared, during…but when it was—when we were—afterwards, when I held her, she just—she pulled away suddenly, and she said she couldn’t do this anymore, and she had her clothes on and was gone before I even—” He broke off, shaking his head. “And that…that was it.”
Rukia stared at him, still at a loss. “Ichigo, I don’t…”
Ichigo looked as though he were torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to throttle her. “You’ve seen me, haven’t you?” he demanded, his voice rising another octave. “Without a shirt, at least. You’ve seen them—can you imagine touching them?”
Them? For a moment she had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, and then abruptly she realized.
“Yeah.” His breathing seemed to have roughened slightly. “The scars.”
Rukia looked at him as though trying to see through the fabric of his shirt, recreating in her mind’s eye the tapestry of scars that covered his body as best as she could recall them. To her mind, she could not understand what must have been so terrible, so frightening about them. She frowned. “Every shinigami has scars, Ichigo.”
“Well she doesn’t fucking know I’m a shinigami, does she?” he exploded. “Now she must think I’m some fucking gang miscreant, some freak, some—some—I don’t what! I thought it’d be okay, I thought—she seemed startled at first, but we went on with it anyway, and I thought it was okay, but she—the look on her face after—she looked so goddamn disgusted—”
“Ichigo,” Rukia said sharply to stop him. She was aware of a tightness in her chest, of anger for him. She could not allow him to continue thinking this way.
“Ichigo,” she said again, her tone softened slightly, but only slightly. “You are a shinigami. Those scars are a part of your life. The life you chose,” she added pointedly, in case he needed reminding. “They are a part of you. They do not make you a freak or a miscreant.”
He laughed bitterly. “In your eyes, maybe…not in hers.”
“Her eyes are not the ones you should be looking through,” Rukia said, and she could hear the coldness in her own voice. “She has lost that right. No one who cared for you would look at you and be disgusted.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re a shinigami too—”
“And what are you?” Rukia demanded.
Ichigo glared at her. “Human, Rukia! I’m a fucking human! Is this the kind of shit I’m supposed to go through all my life? Scaring girls away and shit because I can’t be fucking normal—”
“Do you want them gone?” Rukia was glad her voice was level now. To be normal was to be something he never had been; to be normal would mean she would never have known him. “Is that it?”
“Your scars, do you want them gone?” she pressed. “Everything that they represent? Do you want the stories each of them tell gone? The battles? The memories? Do you want never to have saved the world, Ichigo? Never to have come to Soul Society? Never to have known Renji or Hanatarou or the others? Or me?”
He shifted, he looked away. Guilty and, perhaps, uncertain.
“A shinigami never wishes his or her scars away,” Rukia told him, and her voice was hard now. “We take pride in them. Every scar is a battle fought, a soul purified, a life saved. Is this something to be ashamed of? Is this something to wish away? Are you ashamed of saving me and Inoue? Of facing Aizen and my brother?”
He looked at her quickly. “No!”
“Your words and your actions say otherwise,” Rukia snapped. “You are ashamed of those scars. You are ashamed of yourself! They are you, Ichigo! They are what you have done, what you have fought for! You have earned every last one of them!”
“I know that. I know, dammit! So I’m a fucking shinigami—I know that, Rukia! And I wouldn’t trade it back!” He was breathing harder than usual, his face dark and angry as he glared at her. “But I still have to contend with—I still have to—I’m not fucking ready for Soul Society yet! This is my life! With people who are gonna see me, and touch me, and they won’t know—”
“Look,” Rukia snapped, seized by a sudden and powerful recklessness. “Look, then.” Her hands went to the front of her uniform. “Look at me. I have a human shape. I am something you can see and touch.”
Ichigo leapt backward as though he had just come in contact with boiling water. “R-Rukia!”
“Do I repulse you? Are you afraid to look at me?” Undaunted by the bright red color spreading rapidly across his face, Rukia drew the edges of her uniform apart and shrugged her arms out of the sleeves. There was nothing obscene about this, not really; her breasts were wrapped, and he was the only one in the vicinity who could see her, the only one here to see her, but she felt the gooseflesh raising on her arms nonetheless. “Look, Ichigo. I am not obscene.”
He turned his face towards her reluctantly. She watched his eyes as they settled somewhere in the vicinity of her collarbone, then moved slowly downward, past her bound breasts to her midriff, back up to her arms, one after the other. He looked, and he saw: each of her own scars, the white lines and puckered circles, pink skin and dents filled by unhealed scar tissue. They marred her white flesh; many of them were blatantly ugly. She was proud of them.
She wished she could impart some of that pride to him.
“Do I disgust you?” she asked.
His face was red, his eyes bright. He hesitated, then shook his head.
“Do you think that I would care about the opinion of someone who looked at me and saw ugliness?” she asked him. “I know what shame is, Ichigo. I am not immune to it because I am shinigami. This is something I choose not to take shame in. No one could convince me otherwise. No one should convince you.”
He hesitated again. “Akiko is—”
“A human girl,” Rukia supplied. A stupid human girl. “You have human friends. Do they flinch away from you? Do they run?”
“They know me.” He was still mulish, still not convinced. “They know that I…”
“Yes. They know you, Ichigo. They know who you are! She didn’t! She has no idea who you are—can her actions tonight tell you anything otherwise?”
His eyes lifted to hers. “What am I, then?”
“Not what,” she said impatiently. “The question those scars answer is not what, it is who.” The rising sun was touching the treetops in the park with light. “Touch me, Ichigo. Tell me who I am.”
He took a step back, eyes bulging slightly. “Rukia!”
She rolled her eyes. “Ichigo.”
“Fuck,” he muttered, and stepped forward again. Another moment’s hesitation, and he lifted his hand, brushing his fingers against her forearm gingerly.
She waited. His hand slid up, slowly enough that she could feel the fine hairs rising to his touch. They hesitated over kidou slices on her upper arm, and she wondered what he meant to do. Would he touch them all, map out her body’s scars with his fingers? There was a tightness in her chest suddenly.
His fingers stopped on her left shoulder, his thumb tentatively stroking the faded, jagged scar there. Her heart seemed abruptly to be beating faster than normal.
“Well?” Her voice, thankfully, was still even. “Tell me who I am, Ichigo.”
“A shinigami.” Was it her imagination, or did his voice sound a little hoarse? “The first I ever met.”
She nodded. Waited.
“You stepped in front of a Hollow to save me.” His hand on her shoulder tightened slightly, as though remembering the panic of that moment. “Could’ve died.”
His expression had eased; the anger was gone. “You made me a shinigami.”
“Yes,” she said again, quietly. She waited until his hand had fallen away from her shoulder. “Now, will you show me who you are, Ichigo?”
He hesitated, raising a hand to rub at the back of his head. “Not now,” he said finally, letting his hand fall.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
“Very well.” She resettled her clothes, tucked her uniform into place. “I expect to see you tonight for Hollow patrol.”
He gave her that sardonic look again. “You’re going already?”
“I will be waiting for you,” she told him, returning the look with a pointed one of her own. “Don’t keep me at it much longer.”