A/N: Spoilers for the current manga arc. This is an IchiRuki drabble (or rather, a set of four vignettes) centered around a "what-if": specifically, what if, in order to become a full shinigami, Ichigo dies in the Living World? I wanted to explore what that might be like and what Ichigo means to everyone around him; guest appearances by Yuzu, Isshin, and Urahara. This one's a little bittersweet, but I'm also working on a fluffy IchiRuki date!fic, and hopefully my first full M IchiRuki one-shot, Cor Cordium.

Hope you enjoy!

Rukia wakes to a crack of thunder that rattles the shoji.

For long moments she stares at the ceiling with wide eyes and a hammering heart, reaching out blindly for Sode no Shirayuki at her side. Her small hand curls around the hilt of the blade as she tenses and listens, with devout attention, for sounds of alarm or distress.

Rain, as always, leaves her uneasy.

Only the periodic rumble of thunder disturbs the ceaseless patter of raindrops; Rukia sighs after a moment and sheepishly loosens her grip on her zanpakuto. Nothing's wrong. It's just a storm. But rainy nights like these always summon the fragmented memories she tries, even now, to forget: the slick squish of mud beneath her feet, the damp roughness of her sodden shihakusho against her skin, Kaien-dono's body heavy in her arms and the rain streaking his pale face like tears.

Rukia closes her eyes for a moment against recollection and then opens them to intermittent flashes of lightning that throw her small, warm room into sharp relief. Her gaze strays to the stacks of books and sketchbooks revealed by the periodic illumination; she reaches tentatively for her last manga purchase from the Living World. The cover is glossy under fingers, comforting.

Nii-sama reads when he can't sleep. Maybe I should do the same.

She tries. But the thunder cracks loudly and violently enough to make her stiffen, and the howl of the wind outside beckons her to lift her head and listen. Focus eludes her. She traces the words with blind, unseeing eyes; soon enough the book falls aside unnoticed as she thinks instead of stormy nights in Inuzuri: the rain that dripped through the shoddy roof of their makeshift dwelling and splashed on her face while she slept, Renji's gentle snoring in the dark, the damp that chilled her to the bone and the hunger that cramped her stomach. She thinks those memories should be sadder than they are, but she cannot make herself regret them.

We were together then, and that's all that mattered.

Suddenly uneasy, she sits up and throws the blanket off in one lithe twist. Reading promises no comfort, and thinking of those precious bonds in Inuzuri only brings to mind another bond she cherishes with far greater care. In only moments she slips into her shihakusho; Sode no Shirayuki hums quiet acquiescence as she steps resolutely out into the damp wind and the scent of rich, wet earth.

Despite the weather, the night feels precariously calm. Rain soaks Rukia's hair and drips down the back of her neck; in the distance she spies the familiar silhouettes of shinigami on patrol. Nearby, laughter and pleasant conversation spill from Ukitake-taichou's quarters. The sound makes her smile faintly, but she turns away from the beckoning wash of golden light and instead focuses her attention instead on the intimately-familiar reiatsu that glows fierce and radiant in the distance, an ember constantly at the edge of her awareness.

She knows that Ichigo hates the rain, too.

Yuzu works math problems in her head.

Tomorrow's her first real exam and she's nervous; the thought of blank answer sheets, crisp and waiting to be filled, intimidates her and make it hard to sleep. She's good at math, but worries maybe she's not good enough, and so instead of closing her eyes she pulls the blankets up to her chin, furrows her brow and calculates and recalculates all the problems she can think of.

She wishes, briefly, that Ichi-nii could help.

Her brother's always been good at helping people, after all, and he's especially good at math. Yuzu forgets to calculate for a moment, thinks back instead to the many, many evenings she came to his door clutching her homework in small hands. Even though he scowled and complained all the time, he never kicked her out or refused her, not even when he was so tired she could see the shadows under his eyes and hear the exhaustion in his tone.

She misses it.

She misses, too, the comfort of filling his plate for breakfast or dinner, the way he'd scowl at Karin when they argued, the way he scratched his head and apologized, sheepishly, for coming home late. She misses all of these things, misses them so very much, and her brow wrinkles as she tries valiantly to fend off tears.

She can't concentrate on math any more. And so, keeping a wary eye to Karin's sleeping frame, Yuzu slips free of her blankets and then darts to the room down the hall with the plaque on the door, the shiny 1-5 that means this is my brother's room and nobody else's. She hesitates outside for a beat and even thinks of maybe going back to bed—Karin won't like this, won't like it at all—but then need overwhelms worry and she pushes her way boldly past the door.

Ichigo's room looks exactly the same as he left it.

The bed's still unmade, the sheets askew and the blanket crumpled carelessly in one corner. Against the wall, Yuzu can just barely make out the silhouette of the guitar; she tiptoes to the closet and peers inside at stacks of manga and video games. Rukia's half-crumpled drawings litter the floor; Yuzu picks one up and smoothes it out with her hands, gazes at the bunnies and bears. I wonder why Ichi-nii kept these?

A clap of thunder makes her flinch and she leaps back from the closet as though she's been burned, glancing around furtively before she can catch herself. And for one disconcerting moment she's half-afraid that Ichigo will find her here, will scowl and yell at her for coming into his room without permission.

He doesn't, of course. And somehow, that makes it all worse.

Yuzu's a little too old for Bostov now—or at least that's what Karin says—but since she's alone she grabs the threadbare plush lion anyway and clutches it tightly to her chest. The softness comforts her, and she tells herself that, just for tonight, it's okay. Hesitantly, she crawls into the bed and tugs the blankets up around her, then curls herself into a ball around her favorite stuffed animal. I need to go to sleep, she thinks, because I have my test tomorrow. And she has to be up early to make breakfast too, for Daddy and Karin and—

—for Daddy and Karin.

Warmth pools in her eyes; she pulls the blankets over her head and sets her jaw with fierce determination. She will not cry. She will not cry. She's older now, she's growing up, and she thinks it's not good to cry all the time, and so—with a finality that she hopes will ease the ache in her heart and stop the wetness from spilling onto her cheeks—she makes a wish, instead:

I hope someone's taking care of Ichi-nii.

Ichigo sits alone in the rain.

From her vantage point between two trees, Rukia watches him silently. The rain soaks his brilliant orange hair, drips down the back of his neck and off Zangetsu's hilt. His shihakusho is sodden, plastered to his lean-muscled body; he doesn't stir in response to the peals of thunder or glance up to watch the wicked forked lightning dance in the sky.

She can tell, from his bowed head and the tension in his shoulders, that he's sad.

She walks forward resolutely. The rain transforms Mt. Koifushi: proud branches hang heavily now, dripping with water, and swollen blossoms sway precariously on fragile stems. Thick, wet mud squelches beneath her feet with every step as she comes to stand behind him. "Ichigo," she says quietly to remind him that he's not alone, and rests her small hand on his shoulder.

Ichigo doesn't turn to look at her. Maybe he knows she'll read his feelings in his honest dark eyes; maybe he doesn't know what to say. But he relaxes imperceptibly beneath the touch anyway, and the tension in his jaw eases as she watches the clouds roiling against the night sky and idly traces the shape of his shoulder through the rough, rain-soaked cloth of his shihakusho.

Are you lonely, Ichigo? Are you missing home?

He belongs here, yes. She knows this, knows he knows it, sees it in the way the shihakusho fits his lean-muscled frame precisely, the way his calloused hand tightens around Zangetsu, the peace in his eyes now that he has the power to be the protector he's always wanted to be. But knowing doesn't ease the ache, and it doesn't always dull the sorrow of goodbyes.

Gently, she strokes her other hand through his hair, twines wet strands between her fingers and aches as she thinks of how much he's lost, how much he's willingly given, this once-human boy who taught her how to drink juice boxes and forced his way into Soul Society just to find her, this boy whose body became Sode no Shirayuki's sheath. I'm here for you, always, she thinks, and tries to convey the promise through the tenderness of each small caress.

Ichigo leans into the touch, just barely, and closes his eyes. "Rukia," he says, husky-quiet, and she hears the relief and gratitude in the way he speaks her name, the unspoken evidence of the understanding they share. She slides her hand down to cradle the side of his face and strokes his cheek with her thumb; she doesn't know if the dampness on her fingertip comes from the rain or his tears.

She does not tell him that it will get better. She does not ask if he wants to discuss the matter. Kuchiki Rukia thinks that, often, words come cheaply; some pain will not resolve itself through discussion or confession, through sharing, through ceaseless examination. Grief, she believes, must sometimes simply be endured until time refines it into strength. And so she remains silent, trusting that her touch and her presence will express all the fullness of her heart.

Ichigo. When you want to talk, I'm here. It's not my place to ask anything of you or to dirty your heart with my curiosity. Until you wish to tell me, I'll wait. I'll be here.

So that you know you're not alone.

At length, Ichigo stirs, tilts his head back to look at her with weary, shadowed dark eyes. A tired frown tugs at the corners of his mouth; his brow furrows in a faint scowl. But boyish affection softens the unhappiness on his face as he searches her violet gaze. "You'll get wet," he says, and doesn't seem to notice or care that rain already drips from his own hair, trickles down his cheeks.

"I'm already wet," Rukia replies, and knows that a smile is playing at the corners of her mouth. "Idiot." The comfort of their banter brings warmth to his gaze; when he shifts, just so—a subtle invitation—she settles down on the wet ground beside him, heedless of the damp that seeps through her shihakusho.

The trees above them keep away the worst of the storm; after a small interlude of silence, she coaxes him to rest his head in her lap. He complies, closing his eyes against the raindrops that catch in his lashes, and she rests her palm on his chest, over his heart, as she watches the silhouettes of Koifushi's slim trees sway dangerously in the storm.

I'll always be here with you.

Isshin exhales a cloud of smoke.

His cigarette glows comfortingly in the darkness; he flicks ash away absently into the cool, wet breeze and turns his gaze to the gray curtain of rain that hides the rest of the street from view. Despite being outside, he can sense Yuzu's troubled reiatsu; he thinks to himself that she's about due for Daddy's Super-Special Exam Day Dance Extravaganza.

He's good at making her laugh.

For now, though, he allows himself to stand and watch the rain from the scant protection of an awning. Thunder growls quietly above; the elder Kurosaki closes his eyes and leans against the wall of the clinic, enjoying the last few drags on his cigarette and the habit that, since Ichigo's departure, has become a necessity far beyond the yearly indulgence he once allowed himself. Slowly, he exhales and then, after a beat of silence, addresses the darkness: "Something wrong?"

Urahara does not bother to feign surprise as he steps silently out of the shadows in the alley. Rain drips steadily from the brim of his hat. "Not particularly," he replies easily, and though Isshin knows that's a damn lie he decides to keep his mouth shut for the time being.

They share the comfortable trust of two men who know all each other's secrets.

"How are the children?" Urahara asks quietly as he comes to stand nearby. The shopkeeper doesn't bother with pretense during what has become, over the years, one long and continuous conversation between them: he drops the affected politeness, the blithe sing-song tones. But the concern in his tone for Yuzu and Karin remains, and that, Isshin thinks, is what makes Urahara Kisuke a decent man.

With a sigh, he finishes the cigarette and then drops it into a puddle. "They'll be fine," he replies, and it's true. Losing Masaki taught them all that life goes on regardless of wish or will and he suspects, moreover, that Karin at least can sense and take comfort in her brother's presence. As for Yuzu…

…well. That'll come in time, too.

"And how are you?" Urahara's dark gaze is sorrowful, penetrating, altogether too knowing for Isshin's liking.

Isshin grunts in a way that either means fine or don't ask any more questions. He toys briefly with the idea of asking Urahara for information; Soul Society's most notorious exile knows everything about what goes on in Seireitei, after all, and Isshin has a lot of questions that range from the trivial to the mundane: Is Ichigo okay? Does Rukia have the presence of mind to kick that boy through a door if he needs it? Has Kuchiki Byakuya managed to get that stick out of his ass so that he can look after both of them?

But he doesn't.

Instead, he runs a hand over his stubbled jaw and smiles faintly at nothing. Ichigo's not a boy any more; he's a man. Any doubts Isshin has about the matter are summarily dispelled by the memory of his shinigami son standing proud and strong and wearing a shihakusho like it was made for him, wielding Zangetsu as though it was an extension of his own body.

Urahara makes a quiet hum of understanding or acquiescence, and then folds his hands over Benihime as he turns his gaze back to the rainstorm. "You'll see him again," he says with quiet conviction.

Isshin chuckles. Still an idealist after all this time? But he respects the confidence in those knowing dark eyes, the certainty that accompanies the haunted sadness and grim despair, and so he allows himself to believe it at least for a little while. Comforted, he taps another cigarette out of the pack with strong, calloused hands and lights it, then inhales deeply before his chest can constrict, before the ache takes root.

He could think about nights arguing over Korean barbeque. He could think about Ichigo's scowl and furrowed brow in every family photograph, the stubbornness and the temper they share, the dangerous force of Getsuga Tenshou unleashed. He could think of the small joyful boy who lived for his mother's hugs.

He could think of all those things, but he doesn't.

Instead, after a nod of farewell to Urahara, he turns away and walks back to the Kurosaki Clinic, to his daughter's troubled reiatsu and Karin fast asleep in bed. He pauses by the poster of his wife on the downstairs wall, lifts a hand to touch the curve of her smile. And for just a moment, he allows himself to feel intensely proud of his son.

We did a damn good job, didn't we?


The savior of Soul Society does not stir and Rukia smiles faintly, bemused. Ichigo's a gentle weight against her, his eyes closed and his breathing even and, though she didn't really think it was possible for anyone to fall asleep in the middle of a rainstorm, she also knows he's probably endured several sleepless nights prior to this, knows that sometimes nightmares and the memories of Aizen Sosuke, of Gin Ichimaru crumpled and dying among all the debris, haunt him still.

He needs the rest.

She glances around with tired eyes. The rain's stopped; the last few drops cling to the vibrant green leaves of Koifushi's trees. Discomfort reasserts itself quickly: dampness soaks her shihakusho through and through, and the warm breeze that sweeps away the clouds makes her shiver.

Soon, she'll have to head back; Ukitake-taichou depends on her and work begins at dawn. But for now…

She turns her gaze back down to the sleeping shinigami curled up with his head in her lap. He's beautiful when he sleeps, his lips slightly parted and his boyish features serene despite the faint furrow in his brow. Her violet eyes warm at the sight; she reaches down and strokes a hand through his hair, still damp and disheveled from the rain. "Ichigo," she says again, gently.

"Rukia?" His voice is thick with sleepiness; he glances up at her with unguarded, heavy-lidded dark eyes, momentarily bewildered, and then frowns down at his wet, rumpled shihakusho. "I guess I fell asleep."

A stubborn bit of wet grass sticks to his cheek and she wipes it away, bemused. "Yeah," she says easily. "You did."

With casual grace Ichigo sits up and she almost envies it for a moment, the control he has over his own body, the strength and careless self-possession. You really are a shinigami, Ichigo. He reaches absently for Zangetsu only moments later, his fingers closing with intimate familiarity over the hilt of his blade,and for a moment he looks troubled still, his brow furrowed as he scowls; a haunted, knowing sadness lingers in those tired dark eyes.

And then his gaze clears.

He turns to her, blinks, and then reaches up with one strong, calloused hand, awkwardly smoothing the damp raven strands away from her face. "You got all wet," he says, quietly, but the furrow in his brow eases and his features soften when it becomes plain she doesn't mind.

When he looks at her that way, his dark eyes alight and hopeful and a near-smile curving his lips, Rukia always smiles reflexively in return. Satisfied that he's feeling better, she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath of clean air that smells like damp earth and growing things and can't help but imagine in elusive fragments how they might weather future storms together: the comforting tangle of bodies under warm blankets as their sodden shihakusho hang outside to dry, her small hands learning the feel of him, the taste of his skin when she presses a kiss to the graceful line of his bare back .

Ichigo interrupts the reverie with a warm hand on the back of her neck; Rukia opens her eyes to find herself the focus of a resolutely tender gaze. She opens her mouth to speak and can't find words that might express everything going on in her heart, then falls silent with relief that they've never needed such words, anyway. Not for moments like these. Across from her, he hesitates—still boyish, still awkward, still Ichigo—but the warmth and tenderness in his eyes mingle with a new, quiet confidence that means his spirit is calm, his heart settled.

She doesn't resist when he draws her into a kiss.

And Rukia loves tasting him like this, loves that his mouth is warm and demanding and that Ichigo kisses like he fights like he lives: passionately and with all of his will and his heart. The hands cradling her face warm away the pre-dawn chill of the wet air; she inhales the scent of rain and wet earth and traces the flat planes of his chest through the sodden fabric of the shihakusho that clings damply to his body.

She knows this won't entirely ease his pain, and that's okay.

The moment is enough, more than enough for both of them; Ichigo breaks the kiss to breathe, to gaze down into her violet eyes, and then his arms tighten around her in a fierce hug. Rukia smiles against his chest and closes her eyes. Sometimes just the knowledge that they're together means everything, gives them both the strength to keep fighting. Even if they can't always ease each other's pain, after all, they can lessen its sting with shared warmth, shared affection, with the depth of their cherished, unbreakable bond.

They linger in the embrace until the sky begins to lighten.

And then Rukia punches him—a good solid punch to the arm that makes him curse and firmly lightens the mood. Ichigo responds with a well-placed kick that nearly sweeps her feet out from under her; they tussle like children until he gains the upper hand and, in recompense for the brief struggle, ruffles the sleek lines of her raven hair with both hands.

"Hey," he comments as he glances up and she tries in vain to smooth her hair, "the sun's coming up."

And it is. Warm golden light filters through the dark clouds, touches Ichigo's face as he turns it to the sky; Rukia pauses in her ministrations to watch him and can't help a smile. He looks so natural like this: handsome and strong in his shihakusho with Zangetsu at his side, his honest gaze clear and his reiatsu bright and blazing.

The set of his mouth is soft and serious as he she comes up to stand beside him. He's thinking of the Living World, she knows, of Yuzu and Karin setting off to school, of his father and Keigo and Mizuiro and Orihime and Ishida and the bedroom he's left behind. "You can protect them now," she reminds him gently, and hopes the word will be balm to a wound that still aches. "All of them."

He turns dark eyes to her, tightens his fingers on Zangetsu. And then smiles. "Yeah," he replies softly, and then, with quiet, unbreakable resolution, "Yeah. I will." Wordlessly he turns his gaze back to the sky, peaceful for now, and wraps his arm around her to keep her close for a precious few more moments before the day begins.

Together, they watch the sun rise, and Rukia smiles.

Welcome home, Ichigo.