A/N: It's Ichigo's birthday and I'm giving him angst lmao

Thanks to xenojorddd on Twitter for sending me that kind message. I appreciated it very much, so this chapter goes out to you.

Ichigo wasn't as big a fool as others seemed to think. After he revealed he was a Shiba, Rukia's expression had shifted from her usual, gentle pride to a rigid panic she quickly tried to hide.

It was no use. That deep well of sorrow in her eyes could not be easily forgotten. Ichigo knew better than anyone that it would do no good to ask about it, no matter how much it gnawed painfully at his heart. Not until Rukia herself felt ready.

Neither of them spoke a word as they headed towards the West Gate of the Seireitei. When they skidded to a stop, he sucked in a sharp breath and yelled, "Hey! Jidanbo! It's me, Ichigo! Open the gate!"

Two very large hands hefted it up a few moments later. Rukia marveled at the absolutely massive Shinigami gatekeeper looming over them. Once they got a good distance away, he let the gate tumble back in place. Ichigo immediately stepped in front of her to take the brunt of the dust this kicked up.

"I'd recognize that spiky head anywhere. You're Kurosaki Ichigo! Not a ryoka anymore, I see!" a rumbling voice above them teased.

"Hey, it's been a while, Jidanbo. How've you been?" Ichigo said.

"I'm fine. Mostly sitting around bored since no one ever uses these gates. Not since you and your friends tried to storm through." Jidanbo blinked when he saw Rukia beside him. "Oh, pardon me, lieutenant! I didn't see you there, ma'am."

The ground shook as he forced himself to stand at attention and bow.

"At ease, Jidanbo-san," she said. "Now, what were you saying about Ichigo breaking through these gates?"

Ichigo's face grew pinker. Right. He never told her any of this. "It was...my first attempt at trying to get into the Seireitei."

Jidanbo's mighty laugh nearly deafened him. "Thought he was some kid who wanted to act tough, at first. Then he showed me that he was a true man worthy of passing, so I tried to let him in."

Rukia aimed a teasing grin at Ichigo. "Oh?"

"Yeah, but then Captain Ichimaru arrived and forced me to close the gate again." Jidanbo absently touched his left arm.

"So we had to break in another way," Ichigo cut in quickly. "The villagers showed us where Kuukaku lived, and we used her fireworks cannon to bust through the sekkiseki barrier around the Seireitei."

Jidanbo grinned. "You and your friends made quite the flashy entrance."

Ichigo's eyes soon fell to the large weapons at the gatekeeper's hips. "You got new axes!"

"Oh yeah, I've had these for a while. I had to get new ones made after you broke the old pair."

Ichigo scratched the back of his head. "Sorry."

"No, no, if I knew what kind of man you were, I probably would've let you in sooner!" Jidanbo put a finger to his chin. "Oh, but then you'd have to face Captain Ichimaru by yourself, so I guess it was a good thing you had to fight me first."

"If it wasn't for you, I don't think we'd have met the Shiba clan that day. I'm grateful for that."

He wouldn't mention that he was related to them. Not until he told the Shibas first, at least. "Anyway, do you know where Kuukaku lives nowadays? I know she likes moving around a lot, but I figure you'd know."

Jidanbo scratched his chin. "Hm, she's moved around a lot in just the past few months. I'll give you directions to the last place I saw her, if you want. You might wanna try your luck waiting for Ganju and his boys to come around, though."

Childish rage sparked in his chest. Ganju would definitely tease him about needing directions. Maybe he'd even offer Ichigo a ride on the back of his stupid hog to rub it in.

"Like hell I'm asking that stupid pig straddler for directions."

Rukia poked his arm. "I thought you wanted to talk to him."

"Well, yeah, but that's different. I don't want him bossing me around."

The image of Ganju's smug face made him grit his teeth.

"He won't," she said, so resolute that he frowned at her. "Not if you explain how important this is to you."

"I…." Ichigo paused. Here he was making a big deal out of nothing and Rukia still had that terrible sorrow lingering in her eyes.

"You think so?" he asked.

Rukia nodded. "I know so. Besides, he's our best shot at finding their home."

At that very moment, a familiar energy clamored over to where they stood. Several other, much weaker reiatsu and a roaming dust cloud followed suit.

Jidanbo raised a hand in greeting when the pigs skidded to a stop. "Hey, Ganju! It's been a while."

Rukia gasped. "Oh! I didn't know you meant pig straddler so...literally."

"Why else would I call him that? It's the best name for a guy like him," Ichigo said, squeezing her hand a little tighter. He wasn't sure why the Shiba clan made Rukia so tense, but he'd be there to protect her no matter what.

Ganju and Jidanbo quickly exchanged pleasantries before the smug bastard finally turned to him. "Well, well, if it isn't Kurosaki Ichigo. Back in Soul Society, huh? Or did you end up dying and now you're an actual spirit?"

Ichigo gritted his teeth. "I'm still alive. I see you haven't changed much since we rescued Rukia."

"What? I've changed plenty! I got a whole lot stronger since then, too!"

He gave Ganju an unimpressed look but didn't goad him further. The look alone seemed to set him off.

Once Ganju stepped off his pig and noticed Rukia beside him, however, the mocking words died in his throat. "It's been a while, Rukia" he said instead.

She bowed her head. "Yes, hello."

"You don't need to bow to me," Ganju muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. "You're a lieutenant."

"No, I do. Ichigo and I need to ask you for a favor."

He frowned down at their intertwined hands. "Uh, you guys trying to invite me to your wedding or something?"

A warm flush immediately crossed over Ichigo's face. "What? No!"

When Rukia threw him a look, he hastily added, "I-I mean, I'm not opposed to it or anything! But that's just—"

"I knew there had to be a reason you fought so hard for her!" Ganju covered his chuckling behind his hand. "You liked her, huh?"

"I did it because I owed her!" Ichigo protested.

"Owed her a kiss, maybe."

"Good one, boss!" one of his friends called out.

Much to everyone's surprise, Rukia started to laugh along with everyone else. The tension immediately sloughed off Ichigo's shoulders at the noise.

"Hey, Ganju, I need to talk to you and Kuukaku," he began again. Before Ganju cut in with another joke, Ichigo said, "It's important."

At this, Ganju and his friends' grins all fell. They all exchanged glances with one another before he cleared his throat. "Fine, but you two better be able to keep up."

Ichigo slung his bag over his shoulder. "That won't be a problem. Lead the way."

After they said their goodbyes to Jidanbo, the group were on the move.

The new Shiba residence wasn't all that far from the West Gate. It still sat in a secluded field away from the other homes. Large, obnoxious peace sign statues hoisted the banner far above the squat house this time around.

Ichigo snorted as they all came to a stop. "Gotta admit, your sister really commits to this stuff whenever you guys move."

"Hey! The hands were my idea this time!" Ganju protested.

They sensed two large figures on each pillar ahead. Both of them leapt from their posts, somersaulting gracefully until they landed in front of their group.

"Ichigo-sama!" one of the men shouted.

"And Rukia-sama, too!" the other said. "It's been such a long time."

Ichigo blinked. He remembered that they were Kuukaku's assistants or something, but as usual, their names escaped him. "You're…Shimabukuro, right?"

The twin wearing black gasped. "What? I'm Shiroganehiko! How could you have forgotten, Ichigo-sama?"

"Huh? Then you're...Kuroganehiko?" Ichigo tried again with the other twin.

"I'm Koganehiko!"

The twins clasped each other's hands and started to cry. "Ichigo-sama, you're so cold! We helped you train so hard to enter the Seireitei and you've forgotten our names!"

"Um, if it's any consolation, I'm like that with everybody," he said, waving at them dismissively.

"Really? Then I hope you haven't forgotten my name, Ichigo," a low voice said from behind the crying twins.

They stood at attention immediately. "Kuukaku-sama!"

Kuukaku whacked the twins in their stomachs. "You idiots! He was supposed to figure it out himself!"

Right as she turned back to them, she said, "Ah, Rukia, too, huh?"

"H-Hello again!" Rukia greeted stiffly.

Kuukaku's eyes fell to her lieutenant badge and her expression softened. "So you've taken up the mantle, huh?"

Rukia paled like she had been caught doing something wrong. "I...I'm sorry."

"How many times do I have to tell you to stop apologizing? Lighten up. Geez." Kuukaku tapped the ashes from her pipe onto the grass. "He would've been proud of you."

Ichigo looked to Rukia for an explanation. She made a point of avoiding everyone's eyes as she absently patted the badge on her arm.

He reluctantly turned back to Kuukaku. "Can we take this inside? I…We need to speak to you and Ganju. Alone."

One glance from Kuukaku and the twins bowed and left them be. She jerked a thumb behind her. "They're going to make you both dinner, so I hope you didn't eat anything before this."

Ichigo blinked. "This won't take too long."

"Doesn't matter how long it'll take. You're staying over tonight. The both of you." And with that, Kuukaku turned away as if the matter had already been decided.

"What? But I have class tomorrow! And Rukia's a lieutenant, so—"

"Are you turning down my warm hospitality?"

Her reiatsu spiked and Ichigo immediately stood at attention. "No, ma'am. Of course not, ma'am."

"Good. Now get in here and tell me whatever you need to tell me."

She slid the front door open to reveal a winding staircase leading down into the dark. They followed behind her single-file down the steps, past a narrow hallway, to a well-lit room on the right. A squat desk with several papers and ashtrays strewn about, an inkstone and brush, and several calligraphy posters on the wall were the only things in it.

A makeshift office then. Ganju handed out several cushions for them to sit on from a small closet behind the desk. Ichigo looked over at Rukia once more. She nodded once. It was enough. She was here. She would not leave.

He fished the scroll from his bag and explained everything: his history, who his father was and where he was, and that the Shiba name had been cleared from whatever scars marred their record in the first place.

Ichigo suspected it had to do with his father ditching everything to save his mother. His status as a captain. As a noble. As an uncle. He was sure his father didn't think about any of that at the time.

Now Ichigo would make it right again. After their part in uncovering Aizen's plan, this was the least the Soul Society could do for the Shiba family.

Kuukaku smoked her pipe in complete silence. Ganju, on the other hand, couldn't stop laughing. "You mean all this time, we were cousins? No way! You gotta be pranking us, right? I mean, I guess you look a lot like my—"

Kuukaku kicked him in the stomach. "Shut up, Ganju. I'm trying to think."

Her green eyes flashed back up to Ichigo. Suddenly, she too barked out a laugh and slapped Ganju on the back. "We should've figured this out sooner! You look a lot like your dad!"

Ichigo made a face at this, which only made her laugh even harder. "How is that old man doing anyway? It's been such a long time since I've seen him."

"He's well. If really annoying counts as well, I guess. He's always loud and trying to suckerpunch me in the face, even when I'm sleeping."

Kuukaku snorted. "Sounds like he hasn't changed much. He used to do that to my older brother way back when."

Ganju's eyes immediately flickered to Rukia at this short mention, but before Ichigo could say something about it, Kuukaku added, "So we're officially nobles again, huh? It's been so long, I think we've shaken the nobility out of our systems."

Ganju's eyes lit up. "Wait, if we're nobles, does that mean we're rich?"

"The bastards at the Seireitei probably used our inheritance up after they revoked our noble status. I'd be surprised if we even still had the mansion in Seireitei after all this time," Kuukaku grumbled.

"We had a mansion?"

"Anyway, I appreciate that you went all the way out here to tell us this in-person." She stashed the official scroll away in a drawer. "But unfortunately for the Shinigami, we're perfectly happy out here. It's not every day you get to shoot a bunch of ryoka directly into the Seireitei through a cannon you invented, y'know."

Ichigo smirked despite himself. "You planning to be an outlaw forever?"

"I plan to live as I please." She sat up straighter. "Besides, a little law-breaking every now and then keeps things from being boring around here."

The twins announced that dinner was ready soon enough. Before Ichigo even got up from his spot, they suddenly scooped him and Rukia up and carried them off to the dining area.

Ichigo kicked out at the twin holding him over his shoulder. "Hey! Is this really necessary? Let go of me!"

"I can walk on my own!" Rukia protested, to no avail.

Both Kuukaku and Ganju's spirited laughter followed close behind. An entire feast had been laid out on the long table before them. Enticing savory steam wafted in the air. Though Ichigo had eaten plenty of desserts earlier, the display made his mouth water.

"Uh, isn't this a bit much for just the four of us?" he asked right as one of the twins set him down by Kuukaku.

Kuukaku smacked him on the back with enough force for him to plant face-first into his rice bowl. "C'mon, it's a celebration! We're nobles again! And we got our long-lost cousin with us today. What other reason do we need to break out the fancy food and alcohol?"

"Oh, I can't drink. I'm still underage."

"Is that so? Well, I won't tell anyone if you won't," she said, immediately pouring a whole glass of sake for Ichigo to drink.

Much of the night went this way, with Kuukaku being so generous with piling food and cups of alcohol towards him that it bordered on harassment. Still, with Rukia smiling and laughing at his ordeal despite her tension around the Shiba clan, he wouldn't dare ruin that for her. The gloom hadn't left her completely, but this ridiculous atmosphere seemed to improve her mood.

Even Kuukaku's teasing that the two lovebirds could share a room as long as they stayed quiet was met with genuine, if somewhat embarrassed laughter on her end.

At the end of the night, much of the food was left uneaten, and so, the twin servants wrapped everything up for tomorrow. The alcohol had been tucked away, most of it drunk by Kuukaku and a now-sleeping Ganju.

The twin servants of theirs quietly escorted the Shiba siblings, Ichigo, and Rukia to their respective rooms. Despite all Kuukaku's bold talk, even she thought it more appropriate to give them each their own space for the night.

Ichigo had sipped a bit of alcohol purely out of curiosity. It was enough to whittle at his focus as he reread his assignment's instructions over and over again. He tossed everything back in his bag with a sigh. Cramming was never fun, but he couldn't really do much in this state but feel his mind float away.

Right as he thought about blowing out his candles and calling it a night, Rukia's soft voice poked through the screen. "Ichigo, can I come in?"

He forced himself to sit back up, feeling a bit woozy still. "Yeah, come in."

She slid the door open to reveal she was wearing a dark blue jinbei that hung down past her knees. Dizzying wave patterns dotted across the fabric. "Kuukaku-san let me borrow this," she said. "It was the smallest one she had."

"It looks nice on you. Mine's a bit big on me, too." He tugged at the dark fabric. The only pattern was the Shiba winds rolling down the arms and legs.

Rukia stared at him for a moment, taking it in before she gave a small smile. "It suits you. I suppose it's Kuukaku-san's way of welcoming you to the family."

"Maybe. I think it might've been my dad's. There's a faint trace of his reiryoku still left on it."

"I see."

There was that awful despair in her eyes again. It tugged a chord in his chest, drawing him forth to take her hands in his. He did not ask her what was wrong. Rukia had probably ran this talk through her mind over and over. If she felt ready to talk, then he wouldn't deny her that.

Her eyes fell to the futon. "Can we lie down?"

Ichigo scooted to the edge of his futon to allow her enough room. "Do you want me to blow out the candles?"

"Yes. And could you turn around after?"

He did as she asked without question. Her forehead pressed into his back when she settled against him.

At first, Rukia remained silent. The only sound was their soft breathing.

"I am glad you told me about your mother today," she began suddenly, her hands gripping the looser fabric of his jinbei. "I am glad you trusted me enough to tell me. And to allow me to come with you to the Shiba home."

Ichigo never did ask her what she was doing here that last day he spent in Soul Society after rescuing her. All he knew was that Kuukaku and Ganju had made a big deal over the both of them and Inoue staying over for the night, much like today.

"I knew the eldest brother of the Shiba family. Back when I was first conscripted into Squad Thirteen, he was the lieutenant before me." Her grip on his jinbei tightened. "Shiba Kaien-dono was very much like you, you know. Strong and brash and kind in his own way. While everyone treated me differently because I was a Kuchiki, he treated me like any other squad member. It was...nice. I'd always wanted something like that."

Rukia blew out a sigh and her breath was warm along his back. "I grew up outside the Seireitei. For a long time, I had no one. I had learned to steal out of necessity. I did not even learn my own name until a merchant who caught me saw it on my kimono's lapel and read it out loud. Just another forgotten child who died too soon, only to make a nuisance of themselves in this world.

"I only met Renji and a few other boys when we were both about to steal from the same, shifty merchant. If not for that, I'd have been alone much longer. I may have even died not knowing why I starved to nothing. We protected each other, us five. As much as a group of kids could in this world, anyway. We had promised to always stick by each other. So even as Renji and I developed spiritual powers and they remained as they were, we would not leave them behind. But slowly, our group's numbers dwindled until it was only Renji and I. So we did what we swore never to do: we became Shinigami."

Ichigo inhaled sharply. So Rukia never wanted to be a Shinigami. She may have become strong through rigorous training, but had she had the choice then, what else had she wanted? Could there be any life for someone with high spirit energy outside the Seireitei's protected walls?

"Renji quickly advanced in the courses at Shinō," she continued. "I did not. The only course I excelled at was Kido, and even then, it was not strong enough to even be considered for the Corps. Nii-sama adopted me not long after. Because of his influence, I graduated right away and was placed in Squad Thirteen despite my lack of talent.

"They assumed my nobility gave me an inherent advantage over them. They weren't wrong, and yet, I did not want them to treat me any differently from any other new recruit. It was not until Kaien-dono took me under his wing that they started treating me normally. He swore to always have my back whenever I needed it. Other than Renji and the few friends I used to have, no one had ever promised me such a thing."

Rukia took in a slow deep breath. "Kaien-dono had a wife."

Ichigo heard the catch in her voice, that deliberate detachment she emphasized in her tone.

She loved Kaien. She tried her best to sound unaffected, but even so.

He knew. He'd acted the same way during those seventeen months she had been gone.

"She was my idol. I looked up to her so much. Then she was sent on what was supposed to be an ordinary recon mission. Her whole team was vanquished, and her body was the only one that was recovered.

"Kaien-dono took me and Captain Ukitake to track down the Hollow that killed her. I...I wished I had done everything I could to stop him that night. I wish I had been the one to face it first. If I wasn't such a coward, maybe...Kaien-dono wouldn't have died."

And there it was. Her awful truth. The very pit of despair driving her every waking moment.

"The Hollow had so many strange powers. It could shatter the zanpakuto of any Shinigami who touched its tentacles. It was far stronger than any non-Menos had a right to be. And...it had the power to possess a soul and eat it from the inside-out.

"Kaien-dono was one of the strongest men I knew. Captain Ukitake convinced me that this battle was for his pride. That I should allow him to seek out vengeance for his wife. Either way, I could not interfere. I was not strong enough to step in and help him, and it cost him his life.

"The Hollow took over Kaien-dono's body. I was helpless. I could not do anything but run away. Then I thought he might be suffering, and I could not bear to run if I could help ease it. I was selfish to think I could do anything when I returned. I was weak. And so, I killed him."

Her breath hitched, and he waited with a heavy heart for her to continue.

"Kaien-dono had entrusted his heart to me as he died, and so, no matter how much I loathed myself, I would continue living. As penance for what I had done, I would stretch out my agony for as long as I could. It seemed only fitting. But I had to atone for my sin sooner or later. And it did indeed come soon after Inoue-san was taken to Hueco Mundo.

"The Hollow that had possessed Kaien-dono was made so that its body would always return to Hueco Mundo when destroyed. Kaien-dono's soul was still intertwined with it. And...an Espada ate it and took his form.

"I wanted so badly to be absolved of the blood on my hands that I fooled myself into thinking that he had returned. That I could be redeemed for what I'd done. But it was only a facade. It knew how to mimic him down to the marrow, and still, it made the fundamental mistake of forgetting his heart. It could never act as if it had a heart at all.

"And I had to kill him once more. As much as I wanted to believe that this was not Kaien-dono, it was. One part of it was. And I had killed him again. I was weak and I lost him and then I had damned him to an existence as another soul fed to an even worse power. Kuukaku-san and Ganju-san may say they have forgiven me, but I am not someone to be forgiven for the things I have done."

Ichigo immediately turned over to face her. Her eyes had misted over, and in her panic at meeting his gaze, a few tears slid down her cheeks.

"I told you not to look at me, you fool!" Rukia punched him halfheartedly against his chest. "I told you…."

He tucked her hair behind her ear. "You only told me to turn around. You never forbade me from looking back at you again."

It was such a petty nitpick. Honestly, how could she expect him to lie there and do nothing to ease her pain?

Rukia wiped furiously at her face, humiliated at being found out. "I didn't mean to cry."

"It's fine."

"I must be weaker than I thought."

"You think I didn't want to cry after telling you about my mother?" he asked. "I almost did when you thanked me for telling you everything. You have no idea how light my shoulders have felt since."

After hesitating for just a moment, he pulled her closer to his chest. "So go on. Cry as much as you want. Hit me and call me an idiot. I'll still be here for you when you're ready. I'll still forgive you. You're someone worthy of it."


Rukia fell apart. Her shoulders wracked with horrible, horrible sobs. Even then, she could not stop. "Ichigo...when you told me you were also a Shiba, I thought I was cursed. I realized you've nearly died so many times because of me. That one way or another, you would die by my hand like Kaien-dono."

She trembled, with shame, with self-loathing he recognized all too well.

A mirror. She was his mirror.

"I lost all my friends in Rukongai. Then Renji left and never spoke to me again until he brought me back from the World of the Living to be executed. Then Kaien-dono. And I truly believed when you lost against Nii-sama, that I had killed you, too. Over and over again, you've shed blood for me, and for what? I'm nothing but a burden to you. Everything I've done, everything I am hurts you. You would not have been dragged into this world at all if not for me. Kaien-dono would still be here if not for me. I do not have the right to love you. Not now. Not in this house. Not after the war."

Her eyes were wild, searching, begging for his hatred to make sense of her own spiraling dread.

Ichigo couldn't take it any longer. He pulled her to him once more and buried his nose in her hair. Rukia had no need to apologize. It wasn't her fault, couldn't she see?

How could she ever think she meant that little to him? How could she think he would not ever want her?

"No," he whispered, throat strangled with everything he did not know how to say. "I chose this life. I chose you."

"And what have I done to you?"

Everything. You have given me everything.

"Who would I be without you?" he refuted. "If we never met, my family and I would have died that night. Inoue and Tatsuki and Chad would've died. Urahara-san and Yoruichi and Tessai and my dad would never have been redeemed in the eyes of the Soul Society. Aizen would have found some other way to get the Hogyoku and he would've won anyway. Without you, the Soul Society would have never known the peace it knows now."

"That's not true."

"It is. Without you, I wouldn't have grown so strong. I wouldn't have had a reason. Do you honestly think I'd be content to live a normal human life? Do you know how powerless I was before I met you?"

Rukia said nothing, and it was the silence that broke his heart.

"That rain won't ever go away," Ichigo said, his voice cracking. "I know. But neither will I. No matter what. Because my heart is with you, Rukia. It's always been with you."

"And you have mine."

Tears still streamed down her face. But her own rain had begun to pass. Her heart was not fully mended, but there was a light, a hint of hope waiting to pierce through.

Ichigo pressed his forehead to hers. "Kaien forgave you as soon as he entrusted his heart to you. That's why Kuukaku and Ganju don't hold a grudge against you. That's why now he can finally rest. Because you deserve forgiveness, Rukia. You deserve to be loved."

She smiled and cupped his face in her hand. "Ichigo, thank you. For today. For listening. For everything."

"It's fine. You don't need to…." He trailed off, realizing his mistake. "You're welcome. I'm so grateful that you told me this."

Rukia hummed as she wiped at her lingering tears. After letting Ichigo continuously run his hand through her hair, slow and steady and calming, she asked, "Can I sleep here tonight?"

He snorted. "You never need to ask to stay by my side. Of course you can."


It was such a small sound, a choked whisper that barely got through.

Ichigo held her tighter. It wasn't easy to clear away the rain. When you held onto despair so long, it became an old friend. To let it go now would be to lose a piece of herself.

But it was better to let it fall away than to let it grow familiar.

"I love you, Rukia."

He'd remind her every chance he got. On every date, every meeting, every breath he took because of her. And now. Especially now in this tender exchange of hearts.

"I love you, too."

A/N: I'm sorry for getting this out so late! I had a lot of work to do in June, so I had very little time to write when I wanted to. That, and I wanted this chapter to turn out really good for you guys.

Now that I've officially finished my work for Ichiruki Week, it's time to crack down on Ichiruki Month fics! I have a lot of fun stuff planned, so stay tuned for that! Until next time! Thanks for reading!