Title : A Winter's Tale

Contest Theme: "Tempest", glimmers of "fury" (originally written for the Year 2007 Fanworks Contest at the IchiRuki community on LJ)

Disclaimer: Kubo Tite's sandbox. Profit neither sought nor made.

Rating: Teen/PG-13 (language, a bit of blood)

Category/Genre: one-shot; angst, romance, crack; IchigoxRukia, also Renji+Rukia since Renji makes the best girlfriend one could wish for..

Timeline/Spoiler Warning: Set after the winter war. Possible future. Some spoilers for the manga so far (ch. 292 being the latest at the time of posting this).

Summary: In the end, Ichigo breaks. Rukia tries to pick up the pieces. (11,475 words)

N.B.: There's a tiny reference to my story, Holes in the Rain. Never mind that. A scene in the first part of this fic was inspired by an excellent fan art by ellescene, here: ichiruki. livejournal 246318. html, so credit where credit is due.

x x

Now my charms are all o'erthrown
And what strength I have's mine own.

- William Shakespeare, The Tempest

x x

I.

Five days from winter solstice, on the Soukyoku hill, Kurosaki Ichigo killed Aizen Sousuke.

Spirit pressure crackled upwards, shaking the trees along the trail to the execution site. Rukia slashed through the mask of a lesser Hollow; the things were everywhere, scrabbling among the army that Aizen had brought to Seireitei itself. She hazarded a look uphill. She'd fought beside Ichigo since the first skirmishes, but today, he had gone alone. She let him, and followed close behind with the others. As he'd known they would.

She staggered as the spirit pressure roared down in a shattering rush. Someone screamed in warning, and Rukia dove down. The withered trees around her were riven into flying splinters. She tucked herself into a ball as they clattered down. A heavy sliver glanced off Shirayuki's hilt, pressed to her head. Yelping, she rolled away.

The thickness in the air began spreading out over the city. Knots of fighting still dotted Seireitei as shinigami and Hollows hunted each other among the ruin wrought by weeks of guerrilla war. A few wild vortices of reiatsu still spun where Arrancar stood against the strongest of the Gotei Thirteen.

Through the dust, Rukia saw someone rise: Sado, shielding Tatsuki, his arm over her head and shoulders. A hoarse call of her name and she gasped. She'd lost sight of Renji a while ago.

"Here, Renji!" She almost dared to relax, as other familiar voices rose from among the wreckage. Even though some shouts went unanswered, the atmosphere had changed. The buckling tension, drawn when the sky had folded away to announce Aizen's arrival, was lifting. Orihime dashed by towards someone screaming, rough and breathless.

Reiatsu collided all around her, seeking to fill the gap left by the absence of... of Aizen's power. It was done. The torn landscape was proof enough. She'd felt a vast presence unravel. Her spirit sight was only just clearing as the pressure eased.

Then something hit her.

Ichigo. She could not feel him. There was Renji, raw in his relief, further away Ishida...

Heedless, she dove into shunpo: the impact of the air emptied her lungs as she emerged. Once at the top, she clutched at Shirayuki and her side, trying to absorb the sight before her. Ichigo was curled onto his side. Zangetsu's hilt lay in his hand, his bankai dissipated. Blood drew ribbons down his face and neck. She was sure his uniform concealed the worst damage.

His aura was diffusing like ink in water. She ran her fingers along his cheek; the skin was dry and brittle. His power, sustaining the spirit-body in which he'd come to Soul Society, broke away in violent whorls. To a shinigami, the complete loss of their power would have meant death, but Ichigo had a living soul.

Rukia gripped his face. "Ichigo? Listen to me. You need to wake up. You're..."

He did not stir. In truth, she had little idea what was happening. Her array of healing kidou had no remedy for anything like this. Her fingers caught a pulse on his neck; she leaned close and held her breath until she could feel his on her face.

"Ichigo," she whispered fiercely. "Come on, you idiot, you can't-can't just..."

The world wrenched out of its socket.

x x

Everything was rust and copper and washed-out blue: a sunset sky. Wind billowed against her as Rukia flinched onto her feet. Shirayuki lay beside her. She snatched the sword up. She perched on the glass-and-steel face of a building, such as she had seen rising into the sky in the living world. A streamlined aircraft hovered above her: a helicopter, the name came to her. Then a single step resounded behind her.

She whirled around. A dark, gaunt man loomed next to her, his coat whipping around him. His arms were crossed over his chest, his sunglasses reflecting the sky.

"Kuchiki Rukia," he said in gravelly tones, "I have a task for you."

"Who are you?" she barked. "What happened to Ichigo?"

The man turned to watch as the helicopter landed.

"What my soft-spoken friend wants to say," a clear female voice said, "we have a favour to ask of you, Rukia."

Rukia let her sword tip drop. The speaker eased herself out of the pilot seat in a slow drift of many-hued silk robes. "Shirayuki."

Shirayuki smoothed Rukia's matted hair with one strong, brown hand. The caprice in her blue eyes was tempered by concern. "We are needed again, Rukia. Your young man is in danger. Zangetsu asks for our aid."

"Oh." Rukia dipped into a bow. "I apologise for my rudeness. I didn't know." For a zanpakutou to manifest to anyone but their bearer was a very rare honour.

"No offense meant, none taken," Zangetsu said. Did it only seem to Rukia that he was shivering? "We have more important things to worry about."

"Yes. If there's any help I can give, only tell me what to do."

Shirayuki gestured to the helicopter. "Shall we get underway? Time is of the essence. He will tell you while we fly."

"In that?" Rukia's eyes widened.

"It is the mode of transportation the boy's mind deems most suitable for a rescue," Shirayuki said as she climbed back into the pilot seat. "You may sit in the back."

Zangetsu offered Rukia a hand. She was dazed enough to take it as she got on. Forget the infraction of touching Ichigo's zanpakutou: she stood on the ground of his soul! Or ascended rapidly into the sky of it, in any case.

The sides of the helicopter were open. Zangetsu sat opposite her, straight-backed and square-shouldered.

"Zangetsu-san?" she ventured.

"I am dying," he said evenly. "Every part of Ichigo's spirit was pierced by the traitor. His power bleeds away without restraint."

"What does that mean?" Her throat constricted. "If he loses his power, what happens to his soul?"

"I'm not certain. His world is on the brink of collapsing." Tension rippled through Zangetsu, breaking his stoic facade for an instant. "He has the power of a shinigami, but he's alive."

"What must I do?"

"You have a deep hold on him," he said. "Where I failed, you may succeed. You may find him in his soul, and bring him back. He's needed to stabilise this world."

"I, and thus you, are connected to the boy." Shirayuki's eyes were trained ahead at the fiery sky and glass swimming past. "I resided in this world once."

Rukia couldn't suppress a start. They had never spoken of that aloud. Once, she had lent Ichigo more than a fighting chance. He'd drained her of spiritual strength, and ended up with her sword as well.

"He's withdrawn to the centre." Zangetsu's voice was firmer again. "At this rate, it cannot hold. He spent himself against the traitor."

"Up ahead," Shirayuki said. The skyscrapers were spinning, majestically, inevitably, around an unseen epicentre. Glass panes whirled free as the metal and concrete shackling them twisted and tore off. Shirayuki held their course.

"There?" Rukia asked in a small voice. Immediately, she berated herself. Her heart had no business constricting like that.

"I will go with you," Shirayuki said. "Always."

That was what Ichigo was losing, what Rukia had once lost as well: the presence of a companion so twined into you that their absence was a rip in your very being. "How do I get there?"

"I'll be able to get close enough."

"Rukia," Zangetsu cut in. "Ichigo will hear you. Go into the heart of the storm. Don't stop for anything." He held himself steady; she could sense the cost of it in the heavy movement as he took off his sunglasses. "Here."

He placed the shades in her extended hand. "You will see better."

Before she could ask, the helicopter swerved to the left. A patch of warped steel frame spun soundlessly past them.

"Come here," Shirayuki told her. "You have to jump. We can't linger."

Her heart hammered as she drew herself up beside Shirayuki, clinging to the pilot seat. This was the death of a world.

Shirayuki laid a hand on her cheek; Rukia closed her eyes at the touch. "Be brave." Then she kissed Rukia on the brow, leaving a cool mark on her skin, and turned away.

Rukia gave Zangetsu a look as she inched out to hang over the side. The reflection of the helicopter surged along the glass beneath them. He held her eyes, then solemnly bowed his head.

She leapt away.

x x

Rukia landed on her feet. The building she stood on seemed intact, though slow destruction was splayed out across the sky above.

Into the heart of the storm. There were no apparent openings in the wall, but as she knelt down, the sunset pierced the windows into rooms behind them. She peered into the interior. The rooms hung still and sideways. She groped for the sunglasses under her robe, and put them on. They were somewhat loose on her head.

The building flared as if illuminated from within, while all around her, the sky faded into darkness. This building was the one solid point amid the ruin.

"Here?" she murmured. Still, You will see better. She considered shunpo and eschewed it. This entire world was dissolving. Getting caught in an unstable patch would be fatal. She drew Shirayuki, sheathed, from her sash.

"I'm sorry, Ichigo." His world was tearing apart, but she was still loath to do it willful damage. She stepped off the window and brought the sword's hilt down on the glass.

Instead of breaking under her strike, the window rippled like a sheet of water. She set her foot on the glass and it yielded. She slipped through; in an instant of vertigo, things tipped the right side up again. The door to the room was open, the corridor flooded with dusty light through the shades on her nose.

She broke into a run.

x x

Every now and then, soundless tremors shook the structure. Rukia tried to pick the corridors that shone brightest through Zangetsu's glasses. Without them, the building was empty and eerie, darkness winding through the echoing spaces.

Sometimes she called out. Mostly, she ran.

She came into rooms littered with life: a school uniform jacket on a chair; a carpet with small, muddy footprints across its face; a familiar window in one wall through which she climbed into the next room. It had tiled walls and dirty cardboard boxes strewn on the asphalt floor.

She sped through a door and onto the bridge that swept to the Tower of the Condemned in Soul Society. Her eyes flicked to the sky, as if madly expecting someone to come soaring down to her.

Bits and pieces of a life. Karakura alleys and backyards, flashes of a childhood. It was all crushed together. The bridge rattled as she hurried on; no time to stop for what was past. She had to find him in the now.

At the end of the bridge, darkness unfurled from the doorway there. Through it, someone spoke, in a familiar voice. Stepping lightly, Rukia darted closer.

Through the doorway was a room, bathed in warm blue twilight. It was bare save for a heap of assorted furniture in the middle. Someone was hoisting a green, worn-looking sofa on top of it.

"Ichigo?" Rukia lowered the shades. The curse from behind the heap was just off enough to prickle her alarm. The blue dusk remained; the midnight black had only shown through the glasses.

He landed on the sofa, leaning forward with one elbow on his knee. Her name hissed out in a rasping pitch. "Rukia."

Her stomach turned over. The Hollow scoffed as she shrank back, tapping a fingernail on its cheek. Its languid, face-splitting leer was alien as a nightmare. "Rukia, Rukia."

She yanked her sword free. "Ichigo. Where is he?"

"Marvellous." The Hollow craned its head back, oozing gleeful sarcasm. "Priceless. You can't hear him."

"What have you done?" She willed herself to hold Shirayuki light and level.

"I haven't done a thing." The note of wounded dignity was astounding. "It's a brave new world out there, but I ain't invited." Its face cracked in a beatific smile. "The difference is, he'll survive it... so it can break him."

Serpentine, the Hollow slid to the floor. She surged forward, only to be brought short by its iron grip on her blade. "Tsk, tsk. I'd hate to snuff his last hope."

"Stop toying with me!"

"Brave, sweet Rukia." It let go to stoop and pick up a canister from the floor. "She wouldn't grant the poor, abused Hollow his last amusement. What would Ichigo think of such a heartless thing?"

"One more word of this charade," she snarled, "and I'll cut your throat."

The Hollow sighed stoically and began slopping clear liquid over the furniture. "I could still kill you without effort. This is our place of power."

With a whiplash stroke, she knocked the canister away, its contents splattering the floor. "Ichigo. Now." Fury and anxiety entangled her, but she needed her head about her.

"Hah! The dainty sylph has fangs of ice." Was it laughing? "He calls you so loud he can't even hear himself. Rukia! Rukia!"

Her hands trembled. She could not help it.

"Not that he really thinks you'll come for him." The Hollow vaulted up to slouch onto the sofa, head over the armrest. "He thinks many things of you, but not that." It paused, as if for effect, and smirked. "I could show you. He's me, after all."

"Where is he?" she demanded, hating the way her voice shook.

"No, then?" it said silkily. "Not a last, pleasant diversion on the crumbling throne of the king? It's the comfiest couch he ever knew."

The walls shuddered again. The chairs creaked, the pile almost folding. Rukia threw one hand wide to keep her balance.

"You've missed your chance, delicate Rukia," the Hollow crooned. "It's with regret, but I must away." It reached out to trace her face with one clammy finger. To her horror, she could not draw away. She watched mutely as it produced a cigarette lighter.

"Farewell, world-changer," the Hollow whispered, fire-seeds filling its eyes as the small flame glinted off them. "Don't slip in the lighter fluid. Follow the smoke."

It dropped the lighter.

x x

Half-blinded and choking, Rukia stumbled into another corridor. The smoke rushed along the ceiling, a bitter victory banner. The room was ablaze, the heat of the pyre stroking her back.

Follow the smoke. She didn't know what else to do. The light was failing inside the building, the glasses dimmer with each door she opened. The structure swayed in shortening intervals: one tremor forced her to crouch down and wait for the floor to stop wobbling.

"Ichigo!" she shouted again as she scrambled up a flight of stairs, suspiciously like those that went to the roof of Karakura High School. The next heave rent the staircase free: she leaped desperately for the door at the high end. "Ichigo-stop-I'm coming!"

She fell headlong into deep summer grass. The sky overhead held the last tint of dusk. The ground sloped down into a river, a breeze stirring ripples into the water. She spat leaves from her mouth.

He sat knees drawn up, head resting on his crossed arms, motionless as she went to him.

"I can't stop it," Ichigo said flatly. "It's all falling apart." His bare feet were balled so tight the legs of his threadbare jeans almost hid them.

Rukia steeled herself. "You must save this place. No one else can."

"Dammit, I can't!" he yelled, rounding on her. "I don't have the power!"

"I don't know what Aizen did to you." She had to stand her ground, as gently as she could. "But you have to stabilise your world, Ichigo."

"How are you even here?" He stared, suddenly bemused, vulnerable. "I thought I... felt you close."

"Zangetsu sent me. With Shirayuki. He helped me find you."

"The old man?"

"Yes. Ichigo, he's almost gone. I... ran into your Hollow, too." How absurd was this topic? "I think it..."

"Already gone. I know. Send-off for a fucking hero." Ichigo tapped his temple, his face sardonic.

The shadows were lengthening. Her chest tightened with worry. "There isn't much time."

"What's your hurry?" He set his chin. She summoned patience.

"Ichigo..."

"It is no use, Rukia. Let go. Go."

She squashed his cheeks with the force of her grip, ignoring his dismayed shout. "I walked through damned fire to get here, so you don't get to quit on me! What is wrong with you? You never give up!" Her voice crested to a strained note. "You dive off the deep end and we all have to come haul you back!"

"Ow, ow, knock it off!" He tugged on her wrists. With a sigh, she loosened her grasp of his face. "I'm done. It's over."

"I am not leaving you here."

"Who ever asked you to fuckin' follow me everywhere?!" She had never seen his face so intense. "Just. Stop it."

"I cannot, Ichigo." Her throat thick with anguish and sympathy, she soldiered on. "There's some fire left in you. That's good. Now make use of it and save this place."

He dragged a hand across his eyes. "Okay. Fine." The look he gave her had a gravity she thought more fitting for his zanpakutou. "Pull the world together? So Aizen's dead then?"

"Yes. And yes, the war is over. We did it."

He tensed, as if bracing himself for pain. "Let's do it." He clutched her wrists, head bent against her palms. Without quite knowing why, she felt a terrible sadness well within her.

"I'm here." It was all she could think of to say.

"I know. That's why I'm doing this." Above them, the sun died in the endless sky.

He set the world straight.

x x

Ichigo jerked in her arms. She smelled snow and wind: the winter day in Soul Society crashed back around them. Somehow, his head was in her lap. He was clad in the same clothes in which she'd found him on the riverbank. Blood soaked them now.

His uniform was gone. Zangetsu was gone. His aura fluttered pale, without a trace of the vivid red of a shinigami.

He convulsed again. She cast a frantic look around; someone was coming up the hill. How long had she been gone? A second? A minute? Did it matter?

"Healer!" Her voice rose with inexplicable, budding panic. "Someone, help me!

"Help me," she mumbled to Ichigo, taking his wrists to keep him from flailing.

"Kuchiki-san?" Someone spoke beside her, a tall woman with a vice-captain's badge on her arm.

Rukia's brain kicked into gear. "Vice-Captain Kotetsu. He, he's badly hurt. His reiatsu..."

"Please step back," Isane said matter-of-factly. "Let me see him."

"Yes," she replied. All of a sudden, she shivered with exhaustion. She folded her outer robe and tucked it under his head.

His fingers clamped on her hand. His eyes slit open, glassy and drifting. "Rukia."

"I'm here," she said again. Isane had knelt beside Ichigo, keeping a bit of distance. Rukia was thankful for that.

"When she's done," he mumbled, "then, home. Home."

She folded her fingers through his and made a hushed vow. "I'll take you myself."

x x

Karakura was covered in snow. They plodded through the streets from Urahara Shouten, Ichigo with hunched shoulders, Rukia balancing between solicitude and irritation.

He threw the door shut and fell onto his back on his bed. Rukia picked up the lion plushie and took out the mod-soul candy. Strictly speaking, Ichigo had no need of Kon now. Without his shinigami power, stepping out of his body served no practical purpose. He retained some of his ability to sense spirits, but that had been present even before he'd first borrowed her power. Even it seemed to have weakened.

He glanced askance at the candy in her hand. "If you want more of his greeting routine, do it somewhere else."

"Nothing agrees with you today, does it?" She slipped the candy into his desk drawer.

"Shut it."

"You know we had to use his gate. Karakura suffered damage, too: it's the only stable passage here. Don't mind Urahara, he..."

"I don't, if you didn't notice." He shaded his eyes, as if the ceiling lamp was too bright. "Spare me the lecture."

He'd been this way for days, snappy and impassive. She knew all too well why. He thought his loss meant his detachment from Soul Society and everything that came with it, including her. Every time she tried to put it into words, he warded her off. Perhaps he had the right.

"Are you all right?"

"No. We had a deal. You did your part." His bland tone was yet another stab at her.

"Yes, you're home now." The Fourth Division would have liked to keep him for a bit more, even though his physical injuries had been remarkably light. He'd only repeated his request to get home. The only course that had seemed open to her was to back him up. "Should I go, then? Let you spend time with your family? Captain Unohana said to take all the time you-"

"I'm not that dumb! I remember!" He glowered at her.

"I'll let you know if-if there's anything new," she said inanely. "Or Orihime-or Sado-kun, I'm sure they wouldn't mind coming by-"

"'Anything new', Rukia? Anything I need to know anymore?" His rancour could have rusted steel. "Why not, sure. Now, fucking go." He slumped over onto his side. She hugged herself, her chin wavering. They were all safe. He'd paid a price. She was paying her own.

"I'll let myself out," she told his back.

She had come in a gigai, so she sneaked out through the door. The staircase was familiar enough that she evaded the creaking ones, steps sure, but leaden. Her heart pounded sore against her ribs.

She was fumbling for her boot in the hall when the kitchen door cracked open. Ichigo's father leaned on the doorjamb, the sleeves of his lab coat rolled up; he had a steaming mug in his hand.

Rukia snapped on her most charming smile. "Good evening, Kurosaki-san! I was just leaving, but I, um, seem to have lost my shoe. How silly of me!" Good, the surprise shrilled her voice just right.

"Rukia-chan." Isshin beamed, if far short of his usual effusiveness. "You are visiting my foolish son at a late hour! How has your new life been? We've missed your company!"

Was that dark lump there her boot? "Oh, I'm very well, thank you! I-I came by to borrow a book from Ichigo. He's upstairs, and I'm afraid I-"

"Of course, Ichigo didn't offer you any refreshment, did he?" He grinned. "Don't be in such a hurry. I've just made more tea."

"I couldn't possibly impose." She reached her shoe.

"Now you are being silly, Rukia-chan. And right, for in this house, you indeed can't impose. I insist." Inescapably, she was propelled into the kitchen. She let her boot drop furtively on the floor as he seated her at the end of the table. One corner of it was overrun by what looked like clinic paperwork.

Isshin poured tea into a blue mug with a chip in the rim and set it before her with a flourish. "Here we are."

"Thank you." She turned the mug. "This is Ichigo's."

"It is! For years, it was the only mug he would drink from." He lounged back into his chair. "Masaki gave it to him on his birthday."

"His mother, yes. He told me. It was raining, and we sat here..." It had been in the summer she'd stayed in his cupboard. It seemed to have happened to someone else. The tea was balmy with some fruit she didn't know.

"Ichigo told you that?" His smile was subdued, warmer and more melancholy. "My stupid son must care for you very much, Rukia-chan."

She scrambled for safe ground. "I wouldn't know, Kurosaki-san, he is just a school friend! Um, we're not... that is all, it is."

"I heard it went well," he said. "Now Ichigo's home for the New Year. The girls will be glad."

"Kurosaki-san?" Rukia let her voice fall to normal. Oh yes, the New Year. It was an important holiday in the living world. That was good, then. He had not just told her he'd known of Ichigo's absence, had he?

"You really should call me Isshin. You're more formal than my patients! It doesn't suit someone an inch away from being family."

She felt weary of pretenses. The war had been short, but bloody and brutal. These first days of peace had brought little calm, at least to her. She hadn't slept properly in days; maybe the tidy kitchen and the tea reminded her that life wasn't always so insane. Wasn't supposed to be.

"All right," she said. "Isshin-san. Ichigo is... Well, if I were in his position, I would like my family to... be there. In case I needed them." That was as much grace as she had now. "I'm certain you understand."

"That's one thing the Kurosaki are famous for, Rukia-chan! Unrelenting support is our watchword." Isshin sipped at his tea. "As are unwavering hospitality, and a cheerful disregard for the rules. Ichigo manages those parts very well."

"That he does." She flashed a weak smile. She was almost tempted to seek her bed in the girls' room instead of Soul Society, where her unattended duties piled up all the while. "Please take care of him, Isshin-san. Thank you for the tea. I do have to go now."

"You're always welcome back." He came with her to the hall and helped her into her coat.

"I may come by some day," she said. "Good night, Isshin-san." He waved from the door.

His voice sounded low behind her. "You've done well by my son, Rukia. Good night."

On the street, she glanced back over her shoulder, only to hear the lock click shut. She had to wonder if Isshin was right.

Ichigo's window was dark, but she leaned on the street lamp below for a long while. He'd acted unreasonably, but they were both exhausted. She would speak with him later, when she had her own full wits about her. The day had been strange and painful. Still, as she left, her steps seemed lighter for her detour in the Kurosaki kitchen.

Rukia walked the length of the street in the snow. At the end, she stopped to open the gate. The resumed snowfall would hide her tracks before morning, and no one would wonder who'd stepped into the air from the edge of the pavement.

On that thought, she went home.

x x

II.

On the fourteenth of January, Kuchiki Rukia realised she'd lost count of her birthdays.

She was alerted to the date only when Orihime showed up at the Thirteenth with an armload of greetings from Karakura, and disarmed Rukia's protests right at the doorstep. Human custom or no, it was a pleasant excuse to ask for an afternoon off. She'd barely got halfway through her request when Captain Ukitake nudged her towards the door.

She left before he gave her leave for tomorrow, too. He thought she worked too hard. At times, she thought it kept her sane.

They sat in the southern sitting room over tea and the cake Orihime had brought. Full of small, precious news from the living world, Orihime prattled with almost her old effluence. Rukia examined the cards and packages and made interested noises at her, both touched and bewildered.

"Kurosaki-kun is still brooding, even after Tatsuki-chan knocked him flat."

Rukia looked up. "I'm not really surprised. It may... take a while for him to come around again."

"At least he showed up at school. That is good already." Orihime smiled. "All our grades have gone down, even Ishida-kun's, and he's so smart. I thought we maybe should have a study circle to get everyone back on track."

"That is good," Rukia agreed. "I mean, about Ichigo."

"You should go see him, Rukia-san."

"I've been meaning to. There's just so much to do." She fiddled with the string of a package. "Nor do I think Ichigo wants to see me very much."

"Well," Orihime said. "He never talks about you so loudly you could hear it for miles and miles."

"He really... he told me to leave so often I think he meant it."

"You know Kurosaki-kun very well," Orihime said, earnest. "But ever since we came back, I've seen him a lot more than you have. I've got the latest facts. It really is like spy movie, you know?" She picked up her plate for another bite of cake, but never looked away.

"It's complicated." Thinking about Ichigo meant walking a thin line. On one side was safe, choking inaction, on the other a whole slew of emotions Rukia had no time to face.

"It's very simple." Something deeply sad crept in Orihime's eyes. "You should see him even if you feel uneasy about it. It's... it's not about you first, Rukia-san."

It was not about her, was it, indeed? In her head, that was all it was about, and never mind Ichigo. "Yes, I know," she breathed. She squinted at Orihime, then laid a hand on hers. "You look a little... Is something the matter?"

Orihime shook her head, moving Rukia's hand away gently. "It's about him first. You should go, because that's what is best for Kurosaki-kun now."

Rukia could not disagree.

x x

Rukia somersaulted under Renji's thrust and made for the back of his knee. The tip of her practice sword grazed its mark as he spun after her. She barely blocked his next swing, but he came in too high. She flew into a series of rapid, staccato strikes. Wood rang on wood as he tried to fend her off, greater reach offset by her burst of speed.

She veered into a circle and slammed her sword on his back. He bit back a grunt of pain. Ducking to avoid his counter, she whirled with him to stay behind him. She cut down and across and down-then slunk away as he rounded on her.

"Enough!"

She found herself panting, but didn't lower the sword.

"Rukia. Cut it out." Renji threw his weapon down. "You got this round."

Her hair was all over her face, half fallen from the bun. She swept a strand out of her eyes. "I... I did at that."

"Listen. You can bruise an' batter me all you want if it makes ya feel better, but..." He gave her a long look, then winced as he stripped off his shitagi. "It ain't your fault. About Ichigo."

"Let me see," she said, coming closer. The healing kidou rippled under her hand. "These are deep. You're either slacking or letting me hit you."

"Yeah, maybe a bit." He chuckled.

"I don't need it, you know."

"You need some sorta outlet, is what."

"So you offer yourself?" She quirked an eyebrow. He knew her too well. She had let herself be lost in the sparring. The clean immediacy of combat was a refuge, even if they were only wooden blades.

"I can take it. Stop drawing in, Rukia. You've done it enough for a coupla lifetimes."

"I was too late, Renji. That's the truth of it."

"The truth is Ichigo's being a twit." He grit his teeth as she pressed her fingers on his lower back. He might have shrugged the contusions off as minor; in principle, she didn't like leaving marks. "He lost his power and it doesn't look like it's coming back. That's gotta hurt. He still has no right to treat you like he's going for dumbass of the year."

"You think I should, what?" His words woke afresh the aches she'd been trying to quell. She did her best to ignore them. "Go for the usual kick and yell approach?"

"Better that than sittin' here like a pining pr-hey!"

She untwisted his wrist. "There. I better leave you some sores so you can suffer like a man."

"Thanks." As always, his cheek was minimal. He rolled his shoulders. "Now stop feelin' sorry for yourself 'coz you saved his skin. 'Least you don't act like he's made of air."

"Will you stop nettling me if I do?" Rukia stretched her arms above her head. "Well, you, and Captain, and Orihime. I'd be only half surprised if my brother decided to join you, too."

Renji paused for an eyeblink, but reached to muss her hair, loosening the chopsticks in it even further. "You got a deal."

She turned her cheek against his palm, sighing in silent gratitude. Then she took the sticks and poked him in the arm with them. "If it gets you out of my hair. Impossible as that seems."

"Ouch." He whipped his sword round with his fingers. "Good. You want another go at kicking my ass? No goin' easy this time, get some actual training in?"

"Of course." Scooping up her own sword, she slid into a ready stance.

x x

She stepped through the window into Ichigo's room. The snow had melted in the month since her last visit. The room was messier; it looked lived in again.

He sprang up from a stretch on the floor. And stared.

Forcing herself to calm, she returned his gaze. The angles of his face stood out more than she remembered, as if he'd lost weight. He tensed with a wary energy, like a cornered animal; barefoot, hair in spikes with sweat. She sought a neutral tone of voice. "We... haven't spoken for a time."

"Not much to talk about." His rasped a little.

"Yes, there is. I was simply..."

"Like what, Rukia?" Ichigo burst out. "I'm no use to you without my damn power. It's burned out, wrung dry, fucking gone! If you try to give me a word of that war hero shit I'll-"

"I was about to do no such thing. I came to see you."

"Oh, sure. Like last time? Guess what?" He glared. "That was the last time I saved your ass."

"I saved you." It was selfish, but he'd been ready to let go. Stopping him had been right.

"The hell you did! What for, anyway? This?" He jabbed a finger at himself. She knew what he meant: the human body, the milky shimmer of his aura, a shadow of what he'd been. At least, that must be how he thought of it.

"You were dying. I could feel it."

"Do I look dead to you? Would that be what it took to keep you the fuck out of my business?"

"Renji was right. You are a lout," she flared. He had suffered, but that was too much. "I came because I worried, you halfwit! Everyone seemed to think I should-"

"Everyone. So, you're back to takin' orders. Good for you."

"That is not fair!" Rukia advanced a step. "I spoke with Renji and Orihime. They have no authority over me, idiot. You're one to talk to me about taking orders when I was almost court-martialled for believing in you!" The desertion charges against her and Renji had been dropped in the end. Regardless of that, she had always considered their actions the only ones possible, in light of her deepest love and loyalties.

"No one asked you to follow me to Hueco Mundo, either!"

"Ichigo, listen. I know you're beyond upset. It isn't easy-"

"Don't you dare compare us. You regained your power."

"You know what Captain Unohana said. It is too early to tell for certain." She repeated the thing she kept telling herself like a prayer, even as her hands clenched. "If you'd come with me to Soul Society-"

"Rukia, don't." He averted his eyes. "Don't."

"Don't what? Try to help you? Then what the hell do you want from me?" Blood thrummed in her ears. "You won't even let me finish speaking!"

"You can go the fuck away." Anger drew the contours of his face sharp and stiff, but there was more in his hushed voice.

"You cannot be serious."

"Don't even start." Ichigo swung his narrowed eyes back to her.

"Don't you dare," she ground out. "Don't you dare tell me what to do. You've done nothing but kick and wail at your fate ever since the war, so choke in your misery for all I care!"

"How many times do I need to say it, Rukia?" He pointed at the window. "I don't want you here. Not you, not anyone. Fuck Soul Society, fuck Renji, and fuck you! Get out!"

His bed dipped under her foot as she spun and lurched through the wall. As soon as the gate appeared, she rushed through and only stopped once she reached the shaded veranda. Smashing her fists against one of the columns, she leaned her head on her clenched hands and shook with wordless rage.

x x

Renji found her on a rooftop at the edge of Seireitei. She let him wrap a haori around her, staring ahead as he slouched down next to her. It was a fine day: the snow-spangled fields of Rukongai rolled out towards the horizon like they might never end.

"Say the word and I'll wring his neck for ya," he said after a while.

"So you heard, too," she said. "Don't be a fool. That will not help anyone."

"Might make you feel better."

"That'd take something slower than snapping a neck." She curled into the haori, away from the windchill. "Preferably directed at a more sensitive body part, too."

"You okay?" Renji raised an eyebrow. "Don't give me that 'I'm fine' tone of voice either, that shit won't fool me."

"What would you like me to say, then?" She tried to laugh, managing a faint, wobbling noise.

"Whatever's on your mind."

"We would be here all day."

"If it cheers you up, Orihime got on his case something mad. Sweetest girl I know, and word is he still had trouble seein' straight the next day."

That did not surprise her too much. The war had changed them all, and Orihime had developed a core of quiet strength to her fanciful kindness. She wouldn't have broken before Ichigo's temper, Rukia mused with a pang. She'd know when to bend, to let his outrage flow past her, where Rukia herself had tried to beat back at him. It had always worked with him before. She shooed the thought away and looked at Renji again.

"You're remarkably up-to-date with living world gossip."

"Got my sources." He scanned the sky lazily. "They were pretty mute about where you've been lately."

"Here," she said, "at the division, at home."

"Beat round the bush, why don't ya. Yesterday. Day before that." He flicked a finger at her temple.

"There was somewhere I needed to go," she replied, more to the horizon.

"I ain't gonna make you talk," Renji said quietly, and with that, melted her reluctance.

x x

The Research Institute hadn't been a cheery place when Rukia had visited after her spell in Urahara's spirit-draining gigai. It had hardly improved in the interim. She smoothed out the pleats of her hakama, drew a breath, and entered the office of the Twelfth Division captain.

"Captain Kurotsuchi." She bowed. "Thank you for receiving me on such short notice."

"Get to the point, Kuchiki. I must suffer Ukitake's indulgence of you, but I'll not suffer you wasting my time."

"Kuchiki", Captain Kurotsuchi called her. Without a title, in this circumstance, it bordered on insult. A Kuchiki he would deal with then.

"I trust you are familiar with Kurosaki Ichigo's condition." Control. Indignation would win her only more mockery. She put on her best impression of her brother's impartial gaze.

His mouth formed a sneer. "I was denied access to him while he was hospitalised. I acquired some samples of him from the bumblers at the Fourth, though not nearly enough to conduct a detailed study."

She nodded. The focused lighting must be intentional; the captain stood on the rim of the lamp's circle.

"He is an intriguing anomaly. He lost his power, but maintained a presence here through sheer force of spirit. The living rarely accomplish this, but I understood he had some... inborn talent." He ran a hand along the shadowed row of cabinets by the wall. "If Unohana had given me a few hours to strap him to a rack, I'd have more precise answers for you."

"Then-" she swallowed "-then you have some knowledge of it."

"What's the purpose of this petition, again? Surely not to bore me with tautologies."

Control, Rukia. "I wish to-know if anything could be done to restore his shinigami power."

"Who sent you, Kuchiki?" he gnarred.

"This is a personal matter, Captain. My captain only arranged the audience." She rounded every syllable as perfect as possible. She knew he was goading her, and still it made her sick to her stomach.

"A residue of your power still lingers in Kurosaki. He must have been saturated with you. It'd be like inhaling you with every breath; not pleasant, I trust."

It was commonly known she'd given her power to Ichigo. Only having it thrown at her from the mouth of this man made it the blasphemy it was purported to be. Rukia forced her hands to her sides; felt her breath come quick and shallow.

"No need to worry. It will dissipate shortly. His soul chain will revert to dormancy."

"Captain Kurotsuchi." She had to press on. He'd trample any polite cues; she was inches from baring her sword and dooming her purpose. "I didn't come to ask you that."

"I assure you, it's pertinent."

How was any of this pertinent? Damn Ichigo, his immense idiocy, his unknowing grip on her heart. She had come alone, but he'd brought her here as surely as if he'd carried her himself.

"There is a procedure. It's experimental at best. The risk to both the donor and the recipient is significant."

"I see. Please continue."

"Not a word of doubt?"

"Please," she said thickly, "what does this procedure require?"

"A bond, Kuchiki." He drew out her name as if she were a specimen found to be repellently short of expectation. "Such as this blending of your power into Kurosaki's."

Bend so as not to break. She would listen and acquiesce, and at least she'd still her own heart. Rukia clasped her hands behind her back, wondering if she might first help Ichigo and then kick the living daylights out of him.

Even better, do that the other way around.

x x

Renji stayed still and watchful until she stopped speaking. "You went to see that... that creepy fuck for a captain? Are you outta your mind?"

"Renji," she admonished.

"Don't tell me he ain't that," he said roughly.

"It doesn't matter. I got what I needed."

"You'd do that for Ichigo? After what he did?"

The question hung in the air. Rukia folded and unfolded her hands in her lap.

"I think," she began, "a part of him wanted to die a hero. Now he has to live a human, no less and no more." He'll survive it... so it can break him. The Hollow had told her as much.

Renji brushed her knee with a hand as she paused, to pin down the rest of the thought. Even as she did, he looked down, too. "Can't remember what that's like."

"You can't remember what you had for breakfast. Today."

"Didn't eat. Was late already," he shot back.

Despite herself, she snapped to the occasion. "Vice-Captain Abarai! That's hardly commendable for a captain candidate." He huffed; she sobered then. "Look. Ichigo is a capital buffoon, and I'll hurt him myself, thank you. I simply understand a bit of why he's like that."

"I do get it." He was almost grave now. "Your heart's too big for your own good, you know?"

"I also thought about sending him to Kurotsuchi for further study," she said darkly.

"Where's the fun in lettin' somebody else do the work?"

She didn't reply. This wasn't a simple thing, even if she could explain it to Renji as such. What she planned on doing for Ichigo, and why, went beyond the obligations of friendship and camaraderie, ties he had already strained to the breaking point.

Renji must have sensed her mood, for he spoke softly. "So you gotta do it? I mean, I would..."

"No," she said. "It must be me. It should be me. I forced him back." She'd been selfish enough to refuse to let him go. She had wanted to save him as much as he'd needed to save her.

"I got the right to offer. He's a jackass, but he is my friend. It's not that easy to shake-you should know, eh?"

Ichigo-what was he but loud and pigheaded, a brazen human boy? A part of Rukia nursed the hurt he'd lain on her the last time. The problem was that he cut too deep into her; she saw too deep into him.

"Renji... thank you. You've done enough."

"Promise me one thing." He looked at her, very serious. "That you're doing this 'coz you want to."

"I think I need to."

He hugged her close, and breathed a sigh that shivered throughout him. "Get going."

She touched his shoulder, hand dwelling there before she slipped from his hold.

x x

Rukia rang the bell on the Kurosaki front door. Mop in hand, Yuzu whisked to open the door, her eyes going wide as she saw her. "Rukia-nee!"

"Hello, Yuzu-chan." Rukia stomped the snow from her boots. "Can I come in?"

"Of course!" The girl seemed unable to stop staring as Rukia put her coat away. "Ichi-nii isn't home just now. Daddy's still at the clinic..."

"I came to see Ichigo." She wondered how much of their row had carried outside his room. Yuzu was skittish enough that she must know some of the situation between Ichigo and her.

Yuzu apparently swallowed her first answer. "You could wait in his room. He should be back from karate practice soon."

"I don't want to get in the way, but this is important." Rukia forced a friendly smile. "I need to talk to him."

"I won't tell him," Yuzu said.

"Thank you," she breathed, and escaped up the stairs. She'd been gearing up for a clash the whole way here. To arrive to an empty room was all but anticlimactic. Not that Ichigo would be pleased to find her here. She seated herself on the edge of his bed; the alarm clock on the nightstand ticked away the minutes.

In principle, she believed in coming prepared. Only this was an encounter whose rules she couldn't quite figure out. They might only shape themselves as it took place.

A clatter from the stairway jogged her from her musing. Ichigo burst into the room, kicked his sports bag in one corner and dropped his backpack on top of it. Rukia unfurled her hands from the comforter.

"Ichigo."

He sort of froze, squinting, his jaw slack. His expression rushed from incredulity to what she swore was guilt to settle in too-familiar annoyance.

"Wh-" he stuttered for a second only "-what d'you want?"

She could handle belligerence. "To talk to you. Yes, there are things to say. If you so much as twitch towards that door I'll kidou you so hard you couldn't pick your nose for a week."

He blinked, then closed his mouth.

She slid to her feet and stepped forward. For now she had the upper hand. He might have been too frazzled by her arrival, or maybe something really moved in that head of his.

"You-" she poked him in the chest "-are the biggest idiot I've ever met. I wish I had words for how asinine you are. I rob you of a hero moment and you go and turn off everyone who cares about you just to salve your wounded ego! How does your mind work?"

"Rukia." He grit his teeth. "Shit, stop it! You actually got somethin' to say? Then stop parroting Inoue, for fuck's sake!"

"It doesn't seem to sink in!" She snagged the collar of his shirt and yanked. "I'm sure she wouldn't waste her breath if you actually got a clue!"

"Ow! If you wanna scream at me, get it over with and go."

"I will not. Not either of those."

"You're loud enough," he humphed.

"Yelling to be heard over you hardly counts." She crossed her arms. This was strangely easy; Ichigo's reactions fell short of what she'd expected.

"You came here to go 'did not! did too!' at me?" He arched a brow. His stance was rigidly controlled.

"You are so juvenile."

"I ain't the one trying to start a playground fight."

"I was not! I'm trying to have a discussion on why you are an outrageous oaf."

"Sounds a hell of a lot more like a tongue-lashing to me! You march in here all high an' mighty-"

"It is the only way you'll listen!" Her fingers itched to fire off a binding. One that'd lock his jaw, too. "You're damn lucky I haven't already cut you into ten-pound pieces."

"I told you to quit," Ichigo said fiercely. "Over and over. What's so hard about it?"

She gaped for a second. "You truly thought I would?"

"I've got fuck-all to do with Soul Society, Rukia!" He grimaced. "I... even the old man's gone."

"No," she said under her breath. "Not just yet."

"Why d'you have to make everything so damn difficult?"

"I?" Her incredulity was every bit genuine. "Excuse me? Who/ has fought back at every turn? You're unbelievable. Or no. You're a navel-gazing, selfish bastard, and so help me if I know why I bother with you!"

"Will you stop harping on? I just wanna be left alone!"

"You damn well do not get that. You aren't one bit more of a bleeding heart hero than anyone else! We all fought. We all suffered." She seized handfuls of his shirt and shook him as hard as she could. "Your loss doesn't make you special, and I am so sick of your martyr act!"

"Hey!" He stumbled, ending up bent over her, eyes about ready to drop from their sockets. "Rukia..."

"We aren't going anywhere." She ran on the flush of her anger, justified by his inanity. "Not Renji, nor I. Did you ever stop to think how insulting that is? That because you don't have your power we would leave you?" The words spouted out by themselves now. She had no plan, no device, only the disbelief and hurt mixing with her temper.

He'd gone still. Belatedly, she let go, allowing him to step back. Her breathing was noisy in the sudden silence.

"I ain't ever gonna be rid of you, hm?" he muttered.

Rukia sat back on the bed. Ichigo seemed disinclined to bolt anymore. "You were making excellent headway. I'm not a saint, either."

"Much as you give yourself airs."

"Watch your mouth."

"Sorry." He turned uneasy eyes to her. "Force of habit, I guess."

In a far corner of her mind, shed missed that. He had a mouth to match hers, and that kept her on her toes. Renji took her jabs with far too good grace. She put her hands in her lap to keep from fidgeting. "You haven't quite driven me off yet. Even though you would deserve it. This-shouting match could be a sign."

"Don't think you've ever yelled at me that much."

"I'm prepared to give it another go. Don't give me a reason."

He didn't look away. "Seriously though. Can you do me a favour? You... you lost your power, too. You said it wasn't coming back like it should've. So maybe... you have a clue." His hands fisted on his knees; he'd sunk down to sit on the floor.

"I imagine I do."

"How'd you live with that?" he asked suddenly. "Don't tell me you didn't feel like less than you used to be."

She made a pensive face. "It was frustrating. I kept thinking I was capable of more than I truly was."

"Yeah."

"Still, I... I didn't think I was diminished. I was still myself."

"That's not really what I mean. Just that some part of you is tied up with being a shinigami."

"Yes," she said. "Of course it is. I still didn't treat any of you like dirt."

"Most of the time," he said a little tersely. "I ain't proud of being like that, Rukia." It cost him to say that, she could tell; his shoulder muscles wound up, the tension palpable.

"Maybe it was hard to be different. Different from you all, and from what I was used to being."

"Haven't changed that much, have I?" Ichigo glanced at her oddly.

Rukia paused. "Perhaps not, now that you are pulling your head out of your backside."

"Can't let that rest, can-" He interrupted himself, hiding his face in a hand. She stayed quiet as he dwelt on something. Expectation leaped along her nerves.

"You're right," he said then. "It was a shitty thing to do."

She let out a breathy sound. "I was given an open offer of breaking your neck for me if you didn't come to your senses. I guess I won't need it."

"It was Renji, wasn't it? I'm gonna kill that bastard." He peered out over his fingers.

"I'll have to interfere with that plan."

"Rukia, look... what I'm trying to say..." He fixed his eyes on her with sheer stubbornness. "Sorry. For what I said last time... and the other stuff, too. For what happened in my world."

She waited until the words faded, the silence lingering. Apprehension flickered at the edges of his expression, but it was painfully honest.

"I will forgive you," she said, "in time. You say here that time heals all. It may mend this, too."

Ichigo's chin dipped. "Guess I can't ask for more."

"Not right now. You already have a chance. I think that is plenty."

"I'll have to take it, then." He raised his head to look at her. "But... we're clear? For now?"

"As clear as we can be," she said with finality. He had a way of slipping under her skin, mostly when he wasn't even trying. What he had done couldn't be undone; the only thing to do was to try and live with the consequences.

She cleared her throat to continue. "Ichigo. There's another thing I need to speak to you about. I..." She gestured quickly, starting again. "I found out something. There may be a way to restore your power."

He gave her a wild look, animating with too many emotions. "But the guys at the Fourth-"

"Did not know about this procedure. It's not officially approved."

"Then how do you know?"

"I went to the Research Institute and asked Captain Kurotsuchi." She sat up straighter, covertly digging her nails into her palm. The memory was still raw.

"The mask-wearing weirdo, huh? You better start from the beginning."

"Not much of a story to it."

"Don't bullshit me. Never worked before," he said sharply. He saw her unease; not that she was hiding it very well. "You ain't making this easy, Rukia. You know I'd, hell, I'd do almost anything for a chance like this. Only this isn't so simple, right? Tell me."

"All right then," she acquiesced. Perhaps she did owe it to him. "Captain Kurotsuchi took an interest in your... condition. Captain Unohana kept him far away from you, but based on what he knew... He was able to suggest a method of power transfer." She kept her voice steady. She did not owe Ichigo the details of her conversation with the captain: the biased delight he'd taken in outlining to her the perversion her saw in her sharing power with Ichigo; how, finally, he'd given her facts for the plain value of seeing his theory tested in action.

Urahara had rechecked the theoretical groundwork. She did not trust him as far as she could throw him, but believed he had no reason to do Ichigo harm. In the very least, he stood strides further on her side than the Captain of the Twelfth.

"Power transfer?" Ichigo startled her back to the present. She was too enmeshed in this entire affair; better to get it over with.

"In theory, it's possible for any shinigami to give power to a willing recipient, if their own power is a compatible kind."

"That's what you did when we met."

"Well, yes, but I wasn't prepared for the pull of your latent talent." It had been a snap decision: she'd had a solid idea of how the transfer was supposed to work.

With Ichigo, nothing was ever so simple.

"Anyway," she went on. "This is a variation. It's meant for mending reiatsu that has become blocked or damaged."

He was scarcely breathing from devouring her every word. "What do I need to do?"

"The principle is straightforward." She made herself look straight at him. "However, it's only a theory, based on a reiatsu link between two people. The transfer has to be voluntary on both sides. The slightest hesitation could cause lasting harm to both of us. I'll use my sword as a-"

"Whoa, hold on!" he barked out. "You? You'll give me your power again? Rukia..."

"Oh, no. Only for a while. I will be temporarily weakened, but my reiatsu will only work to reawaken yours."

"You mean like jumper cables?" Ichigo frowned, but the hope in him shone like a beacon.

Her brow knit, too. "I do not know what these jumping cables do, but..."

"They're used to give a power surge to-never mind." He gestured impatiently. "Anything else?"

"You could lose the rest of your spiritual ability. There could be worse consequences. You held my power for a time, so we have... a bond, if you like." She had to taste the word. They had been close, in a good and simple way. She went on. "So, the connection makes your soul more receptive to my power. The idea is indeed based on a controlled surge of power... Not unlike your reiatsu drawing out Sado-kun's or Orihime's power, but vastly more concentrated."

"Okay, I get it. We better get this right the first time, then?"

"If you would like to live to tell the tale."

"I gotta do this," he said, surprisingly levelly. "If there's a chance... to change things, I have to take it. I'm not done yet."

She closed her eyes and nodded. He feared weakness, even when it was only perceived.

"Uh, I don't mean to sound rude," he cut into her thought, "but when, do you think-?"

"You're hopeless. Right now is fine."

He stood up slowly, collecting himself. "Sorry. I'm jumpy. It's hard to hold back, when..."

"We are friends, Ichigo. We help each other." She had to swallow at the look on his face. It mostly made up for his bumbling manner.

"Sure," he said softly.

Drawing one's sword was somewhat tricky in a gigai. Holding out a hand, she focused until her fingers closed around Shirayuki's hilt. She flashed a smile. "I will have to stab you again."

"Heh. Didn't hurt much last time."

"You may want to hold on to something, though."

He backed up against the bed, grabbing the headboard. "Work for you?" A cocky edge was back in him, in the affected ease of his stance. His eyes betrayed more, as he followed her every move. Hand on his shoulder, she nodded.

"I will be as quick as I can."

"Might be a bit late to ask," he muttered, as he took hold of her shoulder, "but you're sure this will work?" Rukia touched Shirayuki's tip to his chest.

"Unlike the Kurosaki"-she smiled, thin and flinty-"Kuchiki play by the rules."

Then she kissed him hard on the mouth as she stabbed him clean through the heart.

Shirayuki, keen and wise, found her mark. Ichigo gasped into her mouth but didn't resist, only drew her closer. She pulled away, to set her head against his shoulder, as a tugging sensation welled inside her.

She was far more conscious of the flow of power this time, a quicksilver current between them. The proximity helped. As she leaned into him, reversing her grip on the sword to get closer, they both breathed easier. His shuddering abated, although his fingers still dug into her arms. She could better focus on Shirayuki and the flicker of Ichigo's power.

He staggered and she with him. They ended up kneeling, Ichigo holding her up as she turned even deeper inward. It was not sense she had a name for, but more an intuition shared by her sword, that told her what to do.

All considered, he was doing well; it had to take a lot of trust to allow her so far so freely. She let everything else float past her and concentrated on the spark, the core of his power, as it slowly kindled, nourished by hers.

They might have stayed there for heartbeats or hours; she flinched at his whisper. "Rukia. It's working."

She exhaled. Her hand shook with the effort as she dared to withdraw her sword. He ground his teeth together in a spasm of pain as the blade slid out. She pressed a hand to his chest to knit the wound; let herself revel in relief. His heart beat very fast, but steady. Shirayuki had struck true, to open and not to hurt any more than necessary, hardly damaging his physical body. The air was thick with their reiatsu, tinges of red spreading through his from the crimson of hers.

"You're all right?" she asked, once the healing was done.

"Fine. A bit woozy."

"So am I, but it will pass." She returned the smile that lit his face.

"Sit down." He nudged her back to sit on his bed. "You don't look so good."

"Said he, not walking straight. I'll be fine."

"I look as stoned as you, eh?" Ichigo grinned, flopping down next to her. "It does feel funny. Last time somethin' like this happened, I was pretty busy not dying."

"We aren't in battle now. I suppose I can report the success of the captain's theory." She drew out the last sentence.

"Seems so. I can... feel Zangetsu again. Faintly, but he's there." His hand closed, firmly grasping something unseen.

Soft, windy words brushed her mind. "Shirayuki suggests you give him some time," she said. "He may be out of sorts, too."

"Couldn't blame him."

"It seems to have worked. Unless you start convulsing or, say, growing any interesting extra appendages."

"Don't say shit like that, Rukia." He chortled; she shook her head and peeled her eyes away from him. She didn't think she had ever seen him quite like this, so unawarely happy, without a front of any sort. It flushed her with warmth.

She got to her feet. They seemed in agreement with her. "That is that, then. Spontaneous body parts aside."

"You're going already?" His face fell.

"I did what I came to do. I do feel a bit unsteady. Of course, I'll come back to check on you, and..." She held up a hand for emphasis. "One more thing, Ichigo. I did this willingly. You do not owe me. Is that clear?"

"Huh?" He stood up, too, turning to her. "Sure. If you say so."

She cut off the questions she could see coming. "Very well. I'll see you later."

"Uh, yeah. See you. Rukia."

His eyes felt glued to her back as she exited the room. With decisive steps, she descended the stairs. It'd been bad enough to plant a kiss on him like that-although he appeared to have missed it. She didn't even know if she should feel lucky or slighted.

She did know she might repeat the misstep if she saw him grin like that again. It was better to remove the risk, she resolved as she marched out the front door. Friends. She had promised him that. She had to be able to keep her word.

It was snowing again, a last show of bravery from the old winter. For several deep breaths, Rukia drew in the bracing chill in the air. The hour was late, the street drowsy and quiet.

She would walk to clear her head and then go home.

x x

Drifting along the street, she was almost a block away when a shout echoed behind her. "Rukia!"

Oh, for... Turning, she glimpsed the Kurosaki porch light switched on. The door was open; Ichigo was shoving a shoe onto his foot on the threshold. "Rukia, hold on!"

A coat was tossed onto his head. Isshin's voice boomed out, "At least act like a man, you delinquent son!" The door shut with a bang.

She waited while Ichigo trudged the length of the street. Snowflakes caught in his hair and melted on his cheeks. When he caught up with her, his languid gait was back in place and his hands in his pockets, even though a spooked air lingered.

"What is it? Did your father want something?"

"Don't mind goat-chin, he-"

"He appeared to throw you out," she said. So much for an efficient withdrawal.

"'S nothin'." He shook his head, stepping up to her. "I forgot somethin'."

Rukia was used to people looming over her; Ichigo leaning closer shouldn't have made her breath catch. It could have been a trick of the twilight, but his cheeks seemed dark. "What was that, then?"

"You left so fast. A lot just happened, I should..."

Tilting her head at him, she smiled a little. "Then tell me now. I have that long."

"You said not to repay you this one." He set a hand on the side of her neck.

"Someone needs to break the cycle," she snapped, though her heart leaped at the touch. "I doubt you'd have the guts to-"

"Rukia," Ichigo said low, "shut up for once."

With that, his mouth brushed hers. Clumsy, him with the newness and her with the cold, they came together. Wrapping his free arm around her, he lifted her onto her toes. She grasped his face and coaxed the lead from him as the kiss deepened hesitantly.

"That was it?" she said into his collar, a moment later.

"Quit with the cheek for one damn minute, okay?" He nodded his face against the top of her head. "I... thought I'd say thanks."

"There was none, Ichigo. You're also welcome."

"I kinda wanted to... ask if you'd stay. We could... go together. To Soul Society."

"It will take a few days for your power to fully return."

"That a problem?"

"I'm still here." Her hands again on his cheeks, she caught his eye.

He made an exasperated noise, but his eyes softened. "Yeah."

Rukia closed her eyes and, gentler this time, kissed him again.

x x

Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

-The Tempest by William Shakespeare

x x

The Bottom Line: It happens every time: Jaina, Tenebris and Raynos are explosive awesome. Much love, for canny beta and for mutual support. Thanks to Ten for letting pass the unintentional theft of a fine line; she has some of the best ones. My hat is off to W. Shakespeare for a lot of intertext.

That's it.