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.
One | Two | Three | Four | Five
The first time Kaien took her out to Mt. Koifushi for one-on-one training, Rukia was too distracted by her own feelings of inadequacy to truly appreciate the experience.
Later, she would come to understand how good a mentor he really was. Alternately hard and gentle and instinctively knowing when to be each, he was as natural a teacher as he was a soldier and vice-captain.
Still new to the thirteenth division, Rukia also failed to appreciate how much of a novelty it truly was for a vice-captain to devote so much of his time to one-on-one training with a new, unseated recruit. There were unkind whispers, and she suspects they would have been louder if it had been anyone other than Kaien-dono, but she didn’t listen. She didn’t care why he was spending so much time with her so long as he did.
But after he died, she wondered why.
She wishes she were brave enough to ask him now that she has the chance. Maybe if he hadn’t bothered to build a bond between them, then it would have been someone else there with him and their captain that night, someone stronger or smarter.
A sudden crack of something loud and ominous like thunder erupts above in the sky.
“This was a horrible idea,” Renji grumbles as he kicks at a stray rock. “What were you think— Ow!”
Rukia waits until he picks himself up off the ground, spitting dirt, before she says, “I don’t recall asking for your opinion.”
Brushing himself off, he gives her a resentful look. “Look at them, Rukia! This isn’t training. It’s—”
“What?” she demands, daring him to say it. “What is it then, Renji?”
Before he can answer, a blast of furious reiatsu from high above almost knocks them both over. As she waits for the wave to pass, Rukia can only grit her teeth and dig her feet into the ground to keep from flying backwards.
Their reiatsu does eventually blast in another direction, but Kaien and Ichigo’s antics have kicked up a dust storm. The wind whips her hair against her face and reminds her of the dream she’s been trying very hard not to think about. Even squinting, her eyes are watering too much to tell what they’re doing up there.
She hears Renji yelling something over the roar of the dust storm that sounds like, “Idiots!”
They are idiots, and Rukia’s suddenly very grateful that Urahara offered his basement training area for this exercise because they would have destroyed any other space she chose. Kaien isn’t holding back, and either is Ichigo. They shouldn’t hold back, not if Ichigo is going to get stronger. And he has to get stronger if he’s going to defeat Aizen.
But she can see just as well as Renji can that this isn’t just friendly sparring. She can’t hear what they’re saying, but there’s an obvious lack of finesse in their movements that she can see even from several yards away. Too much blind aggression and not enough strategy. This is—
“A complete waste of time,” Renji says, unconsciously finishing her thought for her. He shakes himself as a dog would, but a thick layer of dust still remains over his bright red hair.
Her hands clench at her sides at his serious expression. She already knows what he’s thinking, but she still asks, “What?”
“That reiatsu. Did you feel—?”
“It felt like…”
Hollow. That’s what he’s thinking, and she knows because she felt it, too. The hollow taint is familiar in Ichigo’s reiatsu, but this is Renji’s first time experiencing Kaien’s unleashed energy. And at this range, it’s impossible to miss.
Both of them… tainted. And because of her. She feels sick.
“Don’t,” she snaps. She already knows. He doesn’t have to say it.
Rukia knew this would be a risk, but she did it anyway. There was a time when Kaien somehow managed to bring out the best in her. She figured Ichigo would benefit from training with such a great teacher. Also, she needed a reason to justify Kaien’s coming on this mission so he wouldn’t feel like a burden.
However, Kaien doesn’t seem particularly interested in teaching Ichigo anything at the moment other than the feeling of being blasted against solid rock.
Rukia squeezes her eyes shut. “Renji, don’t.”
He scowls and shakes his head, but what does he want her to do? She can’t jump between them now, not after the way they looked at her after laying eyes on each other for the first time.
It must have been like looking into a mirror, she thinks. Much like how she felt when Niisama finally showed her Hisana’s shrine, meaning an inexplicable mixture of shock, vertigo, fascination, and betrayal.
She’ll never forget the hurt look on Ichigo’s face.
The sound of clashing swords abruptly stops, and she glances up just as Ichigo drops down before her. He’s panting, and his kosode is in tatters. Rukia instinctively catalogs all his wounds, searching for ones he’ll need to heal immediately.
“Are you all right?” she asks, already reaching for him with kidou burning at her fingertips.
However, Ichigo instantly jerks away from her. Drawing back, she lets the kidou dissipate and does her best to seem unaffected by this rejection.
Renji glances between them with a grim expression and then sighs. “Couldn’t take him, huh?” he says, attempting something close to smug levity, even though it’s clearly the wrong thing to say.
“Shut up,” Ichigo snarls.
He isn’t looking at her.
Rukia’s heart squeezes painfully in her chest. She wishes they were alone so she could explain, but…
Kaien suddenly drops down beside her. She frowns when she realizes he’s in just as bad of shape as Ichigo.
“Kid needs work,” he grunts, wiping sweat from his brow.
Rukia nods, accepting this, as she eyes him cautiously. Kaien’s reaction upon meeting his doppelganger was inscrutable beyond the initial surprise, and his expression is still inscrutable now. But at least he’s still speaking to her and looking her in the eye.
Ichigo looks between them with an incredulous expression. “Are you kidding me?”
“It’s like he’s never been trained before,” Kaien tells her, ignoring him. “His stances are a mess.”
“His initial training was… unconventional,” she reminds him. Kaien received the abridged version of her and Ichigo’s story before she introduced them, but she felt reluctant for some reason during the telling and there were many details left out.
“Might as well have been no training at all,” Kaien says.
“I’m standing right here!”
“He’s beat captains and espada,” Renji interjects quietly.
Kaien and Rukia both visibly tense. She could kill Renji. No one needs to be talking about espada now. Aizen is the target.
“Damn right I have!” Ichigo yells. “I’ve taken down espada with higher ranks than yours!”
There’s a horrible silence following this.
“Ichigo—” she starts angrily, but Kaien cuts her off with a hand on her shoulder.
“And what did that cost you?” he asks quietly. “Barging into Hueco Mundo before you were properly prepared?”
The color drains out of Ichigo’s face.
“That isn’t—” Renji attempts to say, but he closes his mouth at the warning look she sends him.
Kaien presses in. “Who got hurt because you couldn’t be bothered to put in the training?”
She's given a vivid reminder of the look in Ichigo’s eyes when he returned from the dome in Las Noches because he has that same look again now. She wonders-- and not for the first time-- what happened to make him look like this.
Rukia doesn’t know which of them she should be chastising now, but she hates seeing Ichigo like this. “Kaien-dono…” she says finally.
Ichigo’s shaking with repressed fury. “Fuck. You,” he whispers.
“Am I wrong?” Kaien says, and if she didn’t know better then she would think he looks smug in the knowledge that, of course, he isn’t.
Ichigo twitches as if he’s going for his sword, but Renji suddenly jumps in front of him. He half-shoves, half-drags Ichigo away from Kaien, saying, “Come on, Kurosaki. Fight me. Let’s see how tough you are.”
Ichigo makes angry, sputtering noises, but he allows Renji to move him away.
Frustrated, Rukia rubs some of the tension from her forehead. How could she have ever thought this was a good idea?
She looks up in surprise when Kaien brushes some of the dirt from her hair.
“That’s some temper on your protégé,” he says. He’s smiling but with more bitterness than mirth.
Rukia drops her eyes. She wishes Kaien wouldn’t look at her that way. She has many regrets, but Ichigo isn’t one of them. Her protégé? In some ways, yes, but she cannot take the credit for Ichigo’s incredible power.
Kaien’s hand slips down from her hair so that he’s cupping her cheek. His face softens as he says, “You know, people used to call you my protégé.”
One day, they will be able to have a conversation when Rukia’s throat does not tighten with suppressed emotion, but it is not this day. “I remember,” she murmurs.
One of the proudest moments of her life was when she overheard Captain laughingly say in response to his excited praise of a newly released Sodeno no Shirayuki, “All right, Kaien, all right! Go get your protégé, and we’ll see what she’s learned.”
Another proud moment came later when she watched Ichigo, barely sixteen, walk back through the gate to the living world after having successfully laid out Soul Society at his feet. Protégé or not, she couldn’t be more proud of him than she was at that moment— not that she would ever tell him, of course.
“Yo! Are we fighting here or what?” she hears Renji yell.
She turns her head and sees Ichigo staring back at her.
As if their positions were psychically reversed, she knows what he sees in this moment as she and Kaien stand so close together, with Kaien’s hand on her face. Without thinking, she steps away from him, but then realizes that this is a mistake as well when Kaien’s face clouds over and Ichigo still says, “Fuck this,” and storms off.
She goes after him.
By the time she catches him, Ichigo has already climbed up the ladder and gone through Urahara’s kitchen. She grabs his arm before he can get any further. “Ichigo! Stop!”
He does, but he keeps his face averted from hers.
Her fingers tighten on his sleeve. “Ichigo, look at me.”
After a moment, he finally turns his face and meets her gaze. The pain she sees there before he pulls down his sullen mask hurts more than she expected. Here, right before her, is another reason she didn’t want to bring Kaien to the living world.
“What do you want?” he demands, voice harsh.
What should be an easy question is not. “I want… you to talk to me.”
He snorts, and Rukia’s hand slips from his sleeve.
“Why did you bring him here?”
She knew this question was coming, so she’s ready with a practiced response. “I told you. He’s here to train with—”
“I don’t need training,” he mutters. “Not from him.”
“You cannot afford to turn down help when it—”
“I don’t need his help!”
He’s wrong. Maybe more than anyone, Kaien understands what Ichigo is going through with his hollow. Who better to help train him? She doesn’t trust those vaizards. “Ichigo,” she says more firmly, “you should listen to him. He has experience with—”
It’s too much for Ichigo at the moment, and Rukia goes very still when he suddenly snaps and yells loud enough for the whole street to hear. “Rukia, he has my face!”
Frozen, she stares at him.
He’s still yelling at her. “Why does he have my face? Huh, Rukia?”
That’s not really what Ichigo’s asking, she knows. She saw on his face all the questions and doubts that rose in him upon meeting Kaien and seeing his own visage reflected back at him, including the one question she never wanted him to ask: is this the real reason why you saved me?
“Who cares what he looks like?” she says, throat gone dry. “It doesn’t matter.”
She doesn’t blame him for his disbelieving expression, but she says, “Put it from your mind. You need to focus.”
“How can I—?”
“Ichigo,” she snaps, and he pauses at the desperation in her voice. She can’t bear the idea that he’s questioning a bond he never needed to question before, and that’s why she tells him, “What Kaien-dono looks like… has nothing to do with you. Or us.”
He stares at her in amazement.
She would be embarrassed at the candidness of this conversation, but it’s more important that he understand. “I don’t care what you or he looks like,” she tells him. “You’re you, and Kaien-dono is Kaien-dono. I won’t apologize for saving you the night we met, and I won’t apologize for bringing him back. End of story.”
He swallows. “Moron, I saved you.”
She smiles sadly. “If that’s what you choose to tell yourself.”
Ichigo sighs and wipes a bloody hand across his forehead. He flinches but doesn’t move away this time when she reaches up and wipes some of the blood away with her sleeve. “Rukia…”
He doesn’t seem to know what he wants to say. They share a long stare. Rukia somehow manages not to look away.
She surprises him by placing a kidou-warm hand against his torn stomach. “Hey!”
“Hold still, fool,” Rukia says, already pressing her reiatsu into the wound.
Ichigo flushes pink, probably due to where she’s touching him, but he finally shuts his mouth and does what he’s told for once.
Rukia purposely doesn’t think about the fact that— in the absence of available kidou— they would now have matching scars in the same place from Nejibana. She doesn’t think about that because she can’t.
“Nothing’s changed,” she tells him. Nothing has to change if she doesn’t let it. She can have them both in their respective roles in her life if they’ll just let her, if everyone will just play along.
But to say that nothing’s changed is a lie, and they both know it.
Rukia does eventually manage to coax Ichigo back down to the basement but, sadly, her endeavor does not prove worth the effort.
If she thought they were behaving foolishly before, then their fighting during the next round is twice as ridiculous. And twice as dangerous. She finally throws up her hands and calls it a day.
Afterward, as she taxes all her spare energy reserves to heal the worst of their wounds, she makes a mental note to invite Inoue next time. There should always be a healer around, especially a healer who doesn’t suffer the recurring temptation to kick her own patients.
Ichigo doesn’t stick around after he’s healed. Rukia isn’t terribly surprised. She’s just finishing up with Kaien when Ururu pops her head out of the sky and calls them in for dinner.
She’s too exhausted to eat. After almost falling asleep in her bowl of rice, Rukia officially gives up and retires early. Kaien’s eyes follow her as she crosses to her room, and it’s with more than a little relief that she slides the shoji closed between them.
Unohana’s sleeping pills wait for her on Tessai’s dresser.
Picking up the bottle, she stares at it as one might stare down a snake. She didn’t have time before she left to pay Unohana another visit, but surely horrible dreams are one of the side effects of the pills she was warned against. Just thinking about that last one makes her heart pound painfully in her chest, and so she places the pills at the back of one of Tessai’s drawers and quickly slams it shut.
But without the pills, she finds herself rolling back and forth, unable to fall asleep despite her exhaustion.
She misses Ichigo’s closet.
She wasn’t lying when she told Ichigo that it was the only place she could sleep. Sleep comfortably at any rate. The Kurosaki house is one of the few places she always felt safe.
Maybe what Rukia really misses is a simpler time. A time when all she had to worry about was kicking the fool boy until he agreed to let her copy his homework. A time when she and Ichigo were still getting used to each other as partners and their relationship was no more complicated than that.
And if she’s honest with herself, then maybe it’s not just the closet she misses.
She hears a scratching sound as the shoji slides open.
Rukia sits up as someone slips into her room. For a split second, because she was just thinking about him, she thinks it’s Ichigo. When she realizes it’s actually Kaien, she instantly feels guilty, though why should she?
“Kaien-dono?” she whispers, squinting through the darkness. “What are you doing?”
He doesn’t answer, and she feels a spark of alarm. He comes to the edge of her bed and stops. A feeling of unease creeps up on her as he stands there, watching her.
Something’s wrong. Kicking the sheets aside, Rukia struggles to her feet only to have Kaien catch her by the shoulders. Her breath catches. Even though his face is half-concealed by shadow, she can see that his eyes are hard.
She’s cut off as Kaien pulls her into a punishing kiss. Rukia, unprepared, sputters and gasps for air. What is he doing?
Just as suddenly, she can breathe again, but then he shoves her. Rukia gasps as her back hits the mattress. Stunned, she stares as he falls to his knees and tugs her by the legs to the edge of the bed.
Panic surges upward in her throat. Aaroniero, she thinks— for all the hollows are Aaroniero to her. Is it him? Even if she could move, her sword is all the way across the room. But she can’t move. Fear-- and not for herself-- paralyzes her.
His hands slide up her legs and tug at her flannel pajama bottoms. Rukia shudders and grips her pants to keep him from removing them.
She tries once more. “Kaien-dono?” Please, please. “Are you all right?”
He looks up as if surprised. “Of course,” he says in his normal, Kaien-dono voice. “What’s with that face?”
The relief burns in its stark purity, and without thinking, Rukia instantly throws off her paralysis and embraces him. Kaien chokes on a surprised noise as her arms squeeze around his neck. “Kuchiki!”
She doesn’t care that she’s behaving foolishly because he’s still here. He’s still Kaien-dono, and for a horrifying second there his eyes were not his own and she thought—
Why… do you call my name so many times? Are you that worried for my safety, little girl? Do you care about me that much?
She fails to notice that she’s actually cutting off his air until Kaien, coughing, pries her arms from his neck. “Geez! What’s wrong with you?”
Even his annoyance relieves her because it's familiar. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.
She doesn’t realize she’s shaking until Kaien takes hold of her trembling hands. Frowning, he stares at them in a way she assumes to be reproachful. Ashamed, she pulls them back.
“You thought I—?”
He shakes his head, and she knows he’s disappointed in her. She told him she could forget, but that’s easier said than done. Every twitch he makes that she identifies as out of character for the man she knew is cause for anxiety.
But he can’t really blame her for that, can he? Not after he… And he was so rough when he kissed her just now. If that wasn’t Aaroniero, then who? Why?
At a loss for what else to say, she repeats, “I’m sorry.”
Kaien sighs and pulls her back into an embrace. This time, his roughness feels comforting and she goes without protest. Her arms circle his waist, and she buries her face in his chest.
He's so warm he's almost burning beneath her cheek. “Yes?”
“Did you think of me when you stabbed him?”
A cold hand touches her spine, and she stills. Certain she must have heard him wrong, she asks, “What did you say?”
His voice is much too steady and impassive for what he’s asking her. “When you gave that boy your powers,” he repeats patiently, “when you stabbed him, did you think of me?”
She pulls back and stares at him. In this lighting, his blue-green eyes are dark and sharp, and they remind her of the obsidian walls of the cave from her dreams.
For no logical reason whatsoever, she decides to tell the truth. “Yes.”
Kaien crushes his mouth against hers, and this time, Rukia kisses him back. Matching his desperation, she puts everything into it. He presses her until she falls back against the bed. His movements are near frantic, and she only has a moment to enjoy the press of his weight on top of her before his mouth moves down to her neck and then to her collarbone. His fingers are clumsy in their haste as he undoes the buttons of her borrowed pajama shirt. Not all the buttons will survive the night.
When he mouths her breast through the fabric, Rukia catches herself mid-moan. The walls are so paper-thin here that she can hear Renji snoring next door—
They can’t do this here.
“Wait, wait,” she gasps. “They’ll hear—”
Raising his face, Kaien gives her a smirk that makes her breath quicken. Sliding back to his knees on the side of the bed, he pulls down her pajama bottoms in a swift move before she can protest.
She glances nervously at the wall. “Kaien-dono…”
Kaien’s hands are entirely too warm as he rubs them up her thighs. Rukia’s eyes start to slide closed at the pleasant sensation, but a particularly loud snore from Renji startles her out of her fugue.
“They will hear us,” she hisses.
“I don’t care,” he counters with the perfectly obvious. “Do you really think we’re fooling anyone, Kuchiki?”
Yes. No. Maybe.
More importantly, does he even know why they need to remain discreet? In his fractured, damaged mind, does he think she’s only worried about getting in trouble for inappropriate superior/subordinate relations? He isn’t even technically her superior officer anymore.
For the first time, Rukia feels genuine frustration instead of compassion for his current state. It’s so easy for him to flaunt what they’re doing to the whole world. There’s so much at stake, and for once she’d like to know she’s not alone in carrying the burden of whatever they are.
No. Not “burden.” He could never be a burden. But…
“Please—” She’s going to say “stop,” but Kaien bites the inside of her thigh and her thought instantly evaporates. His tongue traces the mark, and she shivers with her whole body. With another tug, he brings her to the very edge of the bed, and Rukia suddenly realizes she’s about to lose this argument, if she hasn’t already lost it.
But Kaien pauses, and she sees another shift in his expression.
“Did he ever touch you like this?”
Horror grips her as her mind crashes up against a mental wall. Why, why in the world, would he bring Ichigo into the bedroom with them?
Before she can say, no, never, and please stop talking about Ichigo, he’s there with his mouth and his tongue between her thighs. Lost, Rukia’s head falls back on the mattress. He works her so thoroughly that she has to cover her mouth with both hands to muffle her cries. Kaien performs a specific curve of his tongue, and her back bows from the shock of it. His tight grip keeps her in place, and when she chokes on a particularly lewd moan, he pulls her in even closer.
She will never stop feeling amazed that they could be here like this.
Kaien leaves her on the precipice, drawing back just when she’s about to fall off the edge. “Kaien-dono,” she groans loudly, temporarily forgetting herself.
He climbs over her, and Rukia spreads her legs to accommodate him, ready for this despite her protests. Kaien doesn’t waste any time. He presses inside her, and they’re both panting so noisily that Rukia strains her ears to make sure she can still hear the snoring. But she can’t hear anything above Kaien’s moans.
To her surprise, Kaien suddenly grabs her arms and stretches them over her head. When she tugs at his grip, he presses her wrists further into the mattress. “What,” she gasps. “What… are you doing?”
“Tell me,” he demands. His grip is tight enough to hurt. “Did he—?”
“No,” she snaps. She won’t think about Ichigo now, she won’t, but if he doesn’t stop—
Kaien’s hips jut forward just so, and she cries out. His passion and his anger are one and the same now. Without her hands to balance her, Rukia has only the grip of her legs around Kaien’s waist to keep them connected and from falling over. He’s moving so fast and erratically, and she’s so close…
His command turns desperate at the end of the stretch. “Say it!”
She doesn’t know what she’s supposed to say, but as she comes and pleasure coats all her senses, Rukia cries out what must be his name. Kaien makes a sound reminiscent of despair as he follows her.
In the aftermath of their frenzied coupling, the shoten is conspicuously silent.
Note: I maintain that writing smut is the most mortifying thing in the world, and the only thing more mortifying is writing smut while well-intentioned people keep interrupting you.