Pairings: Rukia/Kaien and with all the implications this would have on Rukia/Everyone Else.
Summary: “Drown not thyself to save a drowning man.” An AU wherein Aaroniero really was Kaien. Rukia comes to terms with what it would have meant for Kaien to be alive.
“Aw, what do you mean he isn’t coming back?” Kiyone whines.
“He isn’t ready,” Captain explains. “He still needs time to readjust.”
Ukitake has made several visits to the Shiba house since they have returned to Soul Society, while Rukia has been much too busy so far to make the trip. Some days, he comes back looking troubled.
Sentarou makes a rude comment, which provokes Kiyone to start beating on him. Ukitake sighs, but Rukia has never had better cause to be grateful for their ridiculous behavior. It’s better if they’re too distracted to ask the more complicated questions.
Because what Captain doesn’t tell them is that Soul Society doesn’t know what to do with Kaien. He can’t just pick up where he left off. Technically, he isn’t a shinigami anymore. Kaien has tenuous control of the body he shares with the hollow that devoured him, but the argument could be made that the body isn’t even his. His reiatsu reads like Kaien’s, but Mayuri insists that it’s hollow.
Rukia knows all this because she spends hours the previous day being drilled during an emergency captains’ meeting. She has to recount everything that happened both on the night when Kaien first became possessed by the hollow, Metastasia, and then later during the Aaroniero fight— multiple times. As far as she can tell, this painful exercise leads to absolutely no answers, leaving them right back where they started.
“I need more data,” Mayuri insists shrilly. “Just let me study him for a while longer and then I can give you answers!” The barely contained fervor in his eyes makes Rukia cringe as images of Kaien being strapped to a table in his demonic lab assault her.
“If he is hollow, then Captain Mayuri should study him,” Soi Fon interjects dispassionately.
Hollows aren’t allowed in Soul Society, but Kaien isn’t… Well, he isn’t technically…
Thankfully, Ukitake comes to Kaien’s defense. “Shiba Kaien has been through enough,” he says with a firmness Rukia has rarely seen from him. Shunsui pats his shoulder sympathetically. “We should make sure of his psychological recovery before we force him to submit to invasive tests.”
“But is it safe to let him wander around?” Hitsugaya wants to know.
Several sets of eyes turn back to her.
Shunsui at least looks apologetic when he says, “Maybe if Rukia-chan could tell us just once more…?”
Rukia rubs tiredly at her temples to ward off the impending headache.
The issue of coming back to work is the least of Kaien’s problems.
* * *
Kaien has been home for a week, and Rukia hasn’t slept a full night since. Every time she starts to drift off, she feels the sting of Nejibana piercing her abdomen. Or she hears Aaroniero’s cruel laughter.
After he catches her nodding off at her desk, Ukitake finally orders her home for some proper rest. Embarrassed, she complies. The sky has been dark for hours, and her shift has technically ended, but Rukia doesn’t want to go home. Home means staring up at the ceiling above her bed and praying for dreamless sleep.
She takes the long way back home, and her path eventually detours her down by the river. A familiar patch of grass gives her pause.
You probably won’t tell me if I ask you why you look so troubled, but… Remember that as long as you’re in my division, I will stand by you even if I die.
Her eyes slide shut as a familiar wave of pain rolls over her. Knowing what she does now doesn’t erase all the years she suffered in ignorance while he has been much closer than she ever knew. She won’t ever get those years back. Kaien is alive, but standing here now and casting her mind backwards, Rukia can still feel the rain that poured on them while his blood, hot and sticky, spread between them.
Kill it! Kuchiki, kill it!
Her hands clench into fists at her sides as Ukitake’s voice rings unbearably clear in her mind.
Kill it! Kill it!
Rukia’s eyes snap open at the unexpected voice, and she sees a dark figure standing near the mouth of the woods. She instinctively tenses as she realizes that she never sensed any reiatsu. But almost as soon as she has the thought, a familiar spirit pressure washes over her.
She squints into the darkness. “Kaien-dono?”
The figure comes forward slowly, lumbering strangely. The shadows cast by the trees hide him from view, but the moon is bright tonight. He hesitates at the edge of the shadows, not coming any closer. Even from several feet away, she can see that he’s panting and holding his right side protectively. Rukia feels a spike of alarm at the thought of him being injured.
“Are you all right, Kaien-dono?” she asks, rushing forward.
“Don’t,” he snaps, holding out a hand to ward her off.
She freezes, not because of his words, but because she’s seen something that turns her legs to lead.
There’s blood on his hands.
The hand he holds out toward her is stained red. Bloody knuckles grip an unnaturally crimson sword. Rukia stares in horror as her worst nightmare comes staggering toward her.
“Kaien… dono?” she whispers.
“Don’t… go back there.”
Eyes trained on his bloody hands, she hears her own voice as if someone else is speaking from far away. “Why not, Kaien-dono?”
“I… killed a hollow back there.”
Realizing that she isn’t coming closer, he visibly relaxes and takes a stab at levity. “Yeah, the bastard almost got the better of me.” He laughs uneasily and rubs the back of his head, which should feel reminiscent of his old self except the image is ruined by the fact that he’s getting blood in his hair.
“It was pretty gruesome, but not too much for me, of course,” he says with false bravado belied by his lack of breath and anxious expression. “You really don’t want to see what’s left of it, Kuchiki.”
The combination of thick trees and shadowed darkness conceals the hollow’s body from her, but she isn’t so much concerned with the hollow as she is by Kaien’s visible distress. “You’re hurt,” she says.
He glances down at his stained hands with some surprise. “Ah, no. It looks worse than it is.”
She shakes her head in disbelief. Even back when she first meets him, he never worries about himself, too concerned with other people first. They will only find out about broken bones and lacerations after everyone else has already been healed. This reckless behavior drives her crazy then, and apparently it still drives her crazy now.
Rukia ignores him when he tenses at her sudden approach. She grabs his hand.
“Just let me see, Kaien-dono,” she murmurs, but when she tries to examine his injuries, she sees that there’s too much blood for her to be able to tell where or how he’s hurt. “We should go to the fourth division.”
Her words provoke an unexpectedly violent response. Wrenching away from her, Kaien yells, “No!”
Shocked, she stares at him. “But…”
“I’m sick and tired of being examined like some kind of insect!”
She’s suddenly grateful he doesn’t know about Mayuri’s eagerness to study him. “Kaien-dono, you are hurt,” she says firmly.
“I don’t care!”
Frustrated, she says, “Will you at least let me heal you, Kaien-dono? Please?”
He sighs at the stubborn look on her face. “Fine, fine. Whatever.”
She does some quick thinking and decides that she’ll need some basic supplies from division headquarters. “Will you wait here?” she asks, suddenly worried that he won’t be here when she gets back. “While I get some things?”
“Geez, all right, I’m not going anywhere,” he mutters. “Just go.”
Not taking any chances, Rukia darts into shunpo. She goes directly to the emergency medical supplies cupboard, gathering up as many things as she can carry. Since carrying a bowl of water while in shunpo would be impractical, she wets several washcloths before rushing back to the clearing.
True to his word, Kaien is still there, waiting. He’s sitting, cross-legged, with Nejibana stabbed into the ground near his side. Kaien’s head hangs low on his chest, but his neck snaps up at her approach.
He rolls his eyes at her when he sees all the supplies. “Kuchiki, I told you—”
“I know, Kaien-dono,” she soothes even as she takes his hand for cleaning. Careful not to hurt him, she runs the wet cloth gently over each digit, down to his palm and back up again. She’ll use kidou on the wounds once she finds them. Kaien watches her work, silent for once.
Strange, she thinks when she realizes that none of the blood on his hands seems to be his. She wonders if the blood all over his civilian clothing— so strange to see on him— is his or not. However, there are clear claw marks on his bicep, though they appear much smaller than she would expect from a hollow capable of causing this much trouble for him.
She glances up to ask him about it, but the words disappear when she sees the intense expression he has trained on her. His eyes, even greener than she remembers, are bright with suppressed emotion, and their effect is all the more startling due to their close proximity. Rukia suddenly realizes how close they’re sitting to one another. If she were only to lean a bit more forward, their noses would graze. She flushes before she can stop herself.
Her voice breaks whatever spell he’s under, and he drops his eyes to their joined hands. She feels an improper urge to trace that unhappy mouth with her fingers, curling the corners up into a smile. A man like Kaien-dono should never look so despondent. She wishes she were the type to tell jokes, but cheesy humor has always been his staple.
“I haven’t seen you since we first got here,” he says suddenly.
Surprised that he’s noticed with so many people around him, she says, “Yes. It has been a very… busy few days.” Just saying this reminds her of how tired she really feels.
“Where have you been?” he demands. She would call his tone accusing except… Why?
“Meetings,” she says, baffled. “Work. Why do you ask?”
Kaien laughs bitterly. “Work, huh? Me, too,” he says, indicating to his blood-stained clothes. He’s angry, but she doesn’t know why.
Wary of his mood, she focuses on summoning up her kidou to heal the marks on his arm. “You should not be fighting hollows alone, Kaien-dono,” she says, failing to sound as if she’s not lecturing him. But what is he thinking, coming out here alone, at night, to challenge hollows without any backup? Especially now, when he is still… as he is. If she had done the same thing, he would have beaten her over the head for behaving so foolishly.
“You giving me orders now?”
“Of course not,” she says easily. “Please lie back, Kaien-dono.” It would be easier to heal him if he were bare-chested, but she doesn’t ask him to disrobe. Technically, he should be healed professionally by the fourth division, but since he won’t go, he’s going to have to settle for her mediocre kidou skills.
With a long-suffering sigh, he obeys. Rukia raises her hands over the cut in his side but gets no further as she’s struck by a sickening wave of déjà vu. The slash in his side is worse than he let on. Through the tatters of his yukata, she can see torn flesh. And blood. His blood.
Realizing that she’s shaking, she lowers her hands and stares at them in dismay. She knows now in this moment that she will never be free of that night. Her hands will never be clean. No, not even now, with Kaien before her. In a strange way, it’s kind of a relief to know.
I am Shiba Kaien… My spirit body merged with a hollow and now I’m in Hueco Mundo. And you… you’re Kuchiki Rukia. The woman that killed me with her own hands.
She looks at Kaien, and he looks back. He knows. Somehow, he knows exactly what she’s thinking.
He smiles without humor. “There’s blood between us, Kuchiki Rukia. Don’t you think that’s romantic?”
Stricken, she gapes at him. Is he… can he be…?
Is there something strange about me wanting to kill you? You haven’t forgotten, have you?
The horrible things Aaroniero said— she could blame those on the hollow. But this is Kaien-dono. Is he admitting that he blames her?
He sits up so suddenly that Rukia instinctively lurches back, but he catches her arms and roughly tugs her forward. He forces one of her hands onto his torn side and then holds the bloody hand up before her face. “Nostalgic, isn’t it?” he says cheerfully. His mouth stretches into a horrible grin. A familiar grin.
Rukia screams— she can’t help it.
Her worst nightmare laughs— a shrill, hideous sound. “Did you miss me, little girl?”
No, no, no, she thinks as her hysteria mounts. This can’t be right! Kaien-dono came back! This isn’t—
The monster with Kaien’s face licks a slick trail up her neck, and Rukia shudders through her whole body. She struggles to get away, but his grip only tightens on her wrists. She can’t reach her sword or perform incantations like this. She’s about to head-butt him out of desperation when, just as suddenly, she’s shoved back.
Panting with fear and adrenaline, she watches him scramble away from her. When he disappears back into the darkness, there’s only a second of hesitation and then Rukia leaps to her feet and follows. She can’t explain why she follows him, but something tells her she shouldn’t allow him out of her sight. Thankfully, he hasn’t gone far. She finds him beneath a tree, curled in on himself like a wounded animal.
She’s still terribly, shamefully afraid when she whispers, “Kaien-dono?”
“Stay away from me, Kuchiki!” At least he sounds frightened, too, and she gains some courage from this.
“You have to fight the hollow,” she says with more confidence. “Kaien-dono, fight!”
He giggles somewhat hysterically, and for a terrifying moment she thinks he’s receded into the hollow again. But when he raises his face toward her, she sees that the laughter comes from pain.
She would have given anything for him not to say what he did next. “Kuchiki, I am the hollow!” he exclaims, arms spread wide. “Fuck, I’m all the hollows I’ve eaten!”
No, that wouldn’t be fair. For him to come back only to… No. She can’t accept that. “But… You remember your life as Kaien-dono!”
“I remember you!”
Someone opens up a hole in the world, and Rukia feels herself begin to drain away.
“But… Your family…”
Kaien looks so miserable as he says, “Strangers. Sometimes. I don’t know. I don’t know! I recognize them, but I don’t feel… They want— and I can’t— I just… And you left me with them!”
What should she do? Should she apologize for returning him to his family, the people who have missed him most? Should she apologize for underestimating his discomfort the night of his impromptu coming home celebration? Should she apologize for both killing and not killing him?
Kaien tugs at his hair with evident frustration. “It’s all so mixed up! The memories are all mixed up.”
He told her he had consumed thousands of hollows. Thousands. Rukia’s legs give up on her, and she crumbles to her knees. Strangely detached, she watches Kaien crawl toward her through a veil of encroaching numbness. Her big, valiant vice-captain tugs at her sleeve with his bloody hands like a child pleading with his mother.
“Who am I? Kuchiki, please! Tell me who I am! I need to know who I am!”
Kaien’s head drops into her lap, and he sobs. Her hands run comforting patterns through his hair, but Rukia’s mind is a thousand miles away as she stares out into the darkness.
* * *