Already Dead

Part II

For five days he did not leave his apartment, he spent those days alone and mostly in bed. The hospital called three times, his friends six times, his father thirty-eight times, but he only picked up once to tell his employer that he was sick.

As a doctor in training, Ichigo had witnessed his share of humans dying before their time. There were exceptions, of course, but most patients took the news of their mortality the same way: Shock, sadness, perhaps helplessness with a dash of anger, then eventually, acceptance.

Staring blankly at the ceiling, Ichigo wondered if acceptance would come soon enough for him.

The only question Ichigo asked that day was why he was kept in the dark for so long. Urahara never did anything without a reason, he knew.

"I was going to tell you when you came back," Urahara admitted, "But your father stopped me."

Forty minutes after the truth, Ichigo went to his father's clinic unannounced and punched him. He didn't explain why but from the way his father widened his eyes and opened his mouth, he knew he understood.

His father remained on the ground where he fell. "When I felt you have changed, I told him not to tell you because..." he tried to explain but broke off and looked away.

Ichigo growled, his frustration and anger rising every moment. "Because what?" Ichigo asked, pulled his father up by his shirt and shook him. "Because you were a coward? Because you were a liar? Because you were selfish?"

"No, no," his father answered quietly, tears brimming in his eyes, "Your sisters... they can't lose you too."

Ichigo remembered a time when he lost his stuffed sheep during a trip to Hawaii with his family. He was young then, his mother was still alive. His father bought him a stuffed bear as a replacement but the new toy simply wasn't the same.

In the same way, a gigai could never compare with a real body. As Urahara said, "you can live in a gigai forever, but you will also look fifteen forever."

At the dawn of the seventh day of his self imposed exile, he was awoken by knocking on his window. When he found the source, he quickly opened the window for her and helped her in. Rukia's hands were ice cold and she wasted no time to wrap his blanket around herself. He wondered how long she had stood out there before she knocked. "You should know better than to stand outside in a gigai," he scolded as he handed her a cup of hot tea.

She shrugged without looking his way. It didn't take a genius to guess why she came and why she was so quiet. So he added, more gently this time, "You don't need to worry about me."

She said nothing.

He sighed and took a seat next to her on the floor, "I am fine, you know."

She did not believe him. "I heard from your father that you haven't been to work the last few days," she said as she stared at the cup in her hand. When he did not deny the fact and she took that as confirmation. "You should go outside, Ichigo, get some fresh air to clear your mind. That's why I am in the gigai today."

"I am not going anywhere," he told her, making sure the finality was clear. He folded his arms behind his head and added as an afterthought, "It doesn't matter anyway."

She frowned, the bitterness in his voice surprised her. Through the many trials thrown at him during their acquaintance, he had never come off as bitter. Melancholic yes, angry sometimes, resigned maybe, but never bitter. "It matters if you want to live here," she reminded him.

Ichigo snorted dryly. "I can't live anymore. I am dead."

"Your father managed to live on Earth for decades!" she pointed out, "If you really want to, you can still live here, Ichigo. You just have to be a little more careful and-"

"I died when I was fifteen, Rukia, I can't even grow a beard," Ichigo deadpanned, "People can suspend their disbelief for now, but what about three years from now, five years, ten years? They will realize something is up. They will start questioning."

"Soul society will always welcome you."

"Fuck Soul Society." Rukia flinched at his words. Ichigo ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "It must have been easy for you, not remembering what it was like to live," he said, sharp and merciless, "You make it sound like I can just disappear and no one will miss me. Well, unlike you, I remember that I have friends, that I have family. I need to explain if I leave. But how can you explain this? How..." his voice trembled as he finished, "am I suppose to tell my sisters that I am dead?"

Rukia had no answer for him, and he did not expect her to. "I need to be alone. I don't need your help," he told her, harsher than needed to make a point, and nodded at the window, "You know the way out."

Hurt flashed across Rukia's determined features. He wished she would shout at him, hit him, anything to show she was angry with him, but there was only sadness and resignation as she tipped toed to place a chaste kiss on his lips, a silent farewell.

A moment later, she was gone.

"No, what I am telling you is that, technically, you are dead."

Without warning, his world changed.

Time consoles all to some extent.

That is, not entirely, but enough for him to return to work, halfheartedly socialize with his peers, and even sit through several family dinners. Though life went on around him, surrounded him, he no longer felt he was part of it. Over half a year after the truth, on the surface, Ichigo was functioning again, but more and more he felt as he really was: dead.

Winter passed, as did spring, and the seasons let up to a mild summer. On a sunny day with a light breeze Ichigo met up with his old friends, friends who once fought next to him, supported him, believed in him. He had not seen any of them for months, he had made excuses for every opportunity to meet up before that, but Orihime and Ishida were visiting Japan for the first time in a year a half, and he simply could not say no.

"Ichigo!" Orihime greeted him with a tight hug when he walked into the restaurant they had agreed upon, "You look just like I remembered!"

The comment stung, no matter how innocent. Ichigo distracted himself by returning the hug. "You too," he said mechanically, though he knew it was not true. Orihime had since changed into a rather sophisticated looking woman completed with light makeup and expensive suits. Time did not sit still for her, she had matured. Mercifully, before he could wallow in self pity, the rest of his friends came. Rukia was not here, he noted though he kept himself from dissecting the fact.

The dinner was nice and his friends were good company. For three hours they talked and laugh like they did when they were still in high school, then they said good bye, and once again went on their own separate ways. When he came home later that day, he felt worse than he had for months.

His friends had all grown up. Chad became a chef, Tatsuki opened her own dojo, Keigo took up news reporting, Mizuiro taught in their old high school, and Orhime and Ishida, two successful lawyers in the States, were engaged, their wedding set in the next summer. He wished he could live and grow old with them, experience life to the full before experiencing death, but that could never be. Unknowingly, they had left him behind, forever sixteen.

Once upon a time he aspired to be the best brain surgeon, the best brother, and the best son. He planned for his future, worked hard for a career, saved up for his future house, his future retirement, and perhaps, for his future family. Once upon a time, he dreamt of living.

For the first time in his life, Ichigo shed tears for himself.

Rukia was the first to speak that day. "When did this happen?" she asked in a hushed voice, the same voice you use in a funeral. Fitting, Ichigo thought, because in a way, this was his funeral.

"Almost ten years ago," Urahara answered, "Right before his first visit to Soul Society."

The first snow of the winter fell in mid December. Ichigo was walking home from the hospital that afternoon, he was tired after an eighteen hour shift and he was thankful that the snow had driven many people indoor, making the streets quieter than usual. He was half way home when he felt it: a familiar signature in a pool of strong spiritual pressure. Rukia, it seemed, was in the neighborhood.

He froze, unsure what to do. It had been a year since he had last seen her. True to her silent promise, Rukia had left him alone as he had requested. There were times when he was close to seeking her out, but fear of awkwardness (what could he say after his last outburst?) had always stopped him.

The pressure grew stronger, and soon, not only could he sense them, he could hear them too. It was a rowdy group, five or six people, mostly men, they were laughing and congratulating each other rather loudly before they suddenly quieted. "Wait here," he heard Rukia command. There were no place to hide and no point to run, so Ichigo simply waited for the inevitable.

Ahead, Rukia stepped out from a hidden corner, she found him, hesitated, then walked toward him. He could hear her muffled footsteps, see her take each step, but she left no footprints. It was the first time he noticed this eerie phenomenon, death had opened his eyes to some things.

He spoke first. "Training session?"

"Yeah, need to prepare these kids for the final test," she told him, her voice steady, if she was nervous she hid it well.

Silence hung as he considered his options. "It's been a long time," he finally said, having made up his mind, "Are you free tonight?" It was an invitation to more than just a night out, they both knew. He wondered if he still had the rights to ask her back into his life after what he had said last year.

She nodded without hesitation. When she met up with him in her gigai later that night, she argued, laughed, and teased like she always had. She acted like their year apart never happened, like he had not shut her out so cruelly during their last meeting. He could not stand it, "How can you act like this?"

"What do you mean?" she looked up from the hot cocoa he had bought for her and genuinely looked surprise.

Ichigo stopped in his track, a little exasperated (how, how could she not know?), and more than a little remorseful. "I pushed you away."

"You needed some time to yourself," she said in an even voice, stirring her already well stirred cocoa, "I understood that."

He could not believe she was still making excuses for him. "I said horrible things!"

"Well, I deserved them, Ichigo. I killed you," she said sharply, silencing him. "If it wasn't for me, if I didn't need saving, you would still be alive."

The revelation was startling. For a moment, he could not understand why she would blame herself for a circumstance not of her making, then, recalling his mother and how he felt when she died, he understood. "It was never your fault," he told her, even though he knew he could not completely convince her, he had to try. "Urahara told me there would be consequences. When I told him I would do anything, I meant what I said. And even if you didn't need saving, I would still find myself in this position sooner or later because all I want is to..." A sudden realization came to him; it was the answer he had been searching for the whole time. He could not believe how obvious it really was: He was a protector, down to his name, down to his core. "All I want is to keep protecting everyone."

Rukia began to weep. Warn, earnest tears began to flow down her cheeks unchecked. Ichigo was taken aback. He had seen her shed lone tears here and there, but he had never seen her cry before. Rukia had always been, in his mind, too strong and perhaps too stubborn for tears, yet there she was, crying for him.

"You sacrificed too much," she said between her sobs.

He shook his head and gently wiped her tears away with his thumb. "No, Rukia, I didn't lose my life, I gained power to protect those I love," he corrected her and believed every word.

"You are suffering because of that."

"I am still hurting now," he admitted because he could not lie to her, "But I am healing, and soon I will be well again."

He bent down to place a chaste kiss on her lips. Unlike last time, this was not good bye, this was a promise.

Urahara was always one with the final words.

At the end of the meeting he stood up and looked at Ichigo in the eyes. "Either you accept your death and join Soul Society or you stay on Earth and continue to live your life in a gigai. The choice is yours."

He would keep living in this world, because Urahara was wrong – he did not really have a choice.

He had promised himself all those years ago at his mother's grave that he would never lose anyone ever again, that he would protect his friends and family at any cost. If protecting those he loved meant he must stay in a world he no longer belong for another sixty, seventy years? So be it. He would spend his eternal days masquerading around the truth, moving from city to city, changing from one job to another, anything so that he could watch over them until they too pass into the next world – because they are his world and through their smiles he would live.

A/N: First thing, I went back and edited the first part. Nothing major, but there were some mistakes there that really annoyed me.

Second thing, to be very honest, originally I meant Already Dead to be a one shot. Somehow you guys (those who have left reviews) convinced me otherwise, so now it's a two parter. That said, this is really the end. I am happy with the ending and I hope you are too.

If I get encouraged enough *wink* I may just write another story (something happier though, I am not sure how much more angst I can stand).