The window is open; winter air seeps through the gap, bringing with it the promise of ice and snow. It carries the faintest taste of gasoline, but for the moment, the cold sears the air so that the room stops smelling of sickness and death.
Sitting in the chair by the window, Ichigo glances outside, then looks at the woman in the bed.
"You sure you want that open? It's freezing in here," he says.
She smiles, faintly, and shakes her head. "Please."
Mikishima Keiko is 39, divorced, and a mother of two. She hasn't seen her sons in five months, when she gave her ex-husband full custody over them so they wouldn't have to watch their mother die. The doctors gave her three months then; she's held on better than they thought she would, but it's still not long enough.
She is dying.
Ichigo is still in the first year of his residency. He was posted here in September, and in four months, he's made mistakes and survived them, not killed Isshin despite his old man's idea of "helpful advice" and even begun to think he might be learning how to save lives after all. Lives, not just deaths.
Mikishima will be the first patient he loses. He's been watching it come for months now - the gradual decay of her flesh, her spirit losing anchor. Was there anyone she wanted him to call, she wanted to see, he'd asked last night. No, she'd breathed, quiet.
So he sits here, waiting, with her. She drifts in and out of consciousness with the passing hours but now, dawn is coming and she is all too lucid.
"Do you believe in gods?" she asks him.
Ichigo blinks, and looks at her. "Gods?"
She smiles (she smiles easily at him; he's so young, her smiles seem to say. She tells him she hopes her sons grow up to be like him. Ichigo doesn't really know what to say to that.)
"So you don't believe in them, then."
"Ah." Maybe he doesn't, maybe he's just never let himself think about it. He's seen life and death; he has not seen anything he would call a god. "I... don't know."
"That makes two of us, then," she says. Her eyes slide past him to the window, where the leaden sky is only beginning to pale. "I wish I could," she murmurs.
Ichigo opens his mouth, shifts in the chair and wonders if he should get her more blankets. Wonders if there's a way to tell someone something without actually telling them - Oh hell. How do you tell someone death is really like life, only without indoor plumbing?
"I think... it'll be okay," he says, even though he's not really sure of that.
She looks at him. "It'll be okay?" she echoes.
"It'll be okay," he says again, like some kind of idiot. "That's what I believe," he says. He knows nothing about gods, about divine truth, about eternity, but death, he knows. "Try not to be be afraid," he says, almost gentle.
"I hope you're right, then," she says. Her eyes return to the window. "Do you think it'll snow?" she asks.
Ichigo glances at the window. "The weather forecast said it was coming yesterday," he says.
"It must be snowing in Hokkaido already," she says, dreamy. "Mi-chan loves the snow..."
Her eyes close and the silence in the room is suddenly deafening. Ichigo studies her still face and lets out a breath. It mists in the air; turning, he slides the window carefully shut.
"Mikishima-san?" he asks.
Her spirit opens her eyes and looks at him. "Oh, I'm sorry, I just closed my eyes for a mi--" she sits up, then stops and looks around her. "Oh my," she says.
"It's okay, Mikishima-san," he says. "It's just..."
She starts and looks at him. "Kurosaki-sensei? You can see me? But--"
"I can see... people who've passed on," he says. "That... that's what I meant when I said... it'd be okay."
"Oh." Her eyes are wide and dark and just a little dazed. "Ah... what do I do now?" she asks.
He looks around the hospital room. "Someone... should be coming soon. To show you the way," he says. He could even send her himself, but that might confuse her even more than she already is, and anyway--
A black-robed figure steps through the glass of the window to land by the bed.
"Mikishima Keiko?" Rukia says to the woman, flakes of snow still caught in her ink-dark hair.
Mikishima nods, mute with wonder. Rukia smiles at her. "I'm here to make sure you're safe," she tells her.
"Where... where are you taking me?" Mikishima asks.
"To Soul Society. Where all spirits go, when their time here is over."
The woman looks at Ichigo. "Will I see my boys again, do you think?" she asks.
He knows what Rukia would say. He also knows that it is rarely true. He cannot, he finds, bring himself to lie. "You might not. I don't know," he says.
She smiles, resigned, then crosses the room to him, leans up to kiss his cheek. "Thank you," she says, and draws back again. "There's too much left here for them to see. I will wait for them," she says.
He does not hear Rukia draw her blade from its scabbard, only watches as she brings it lightly to Mikishima's temple. Incandescence, filling the room, and then she is gone.
Ichigo looses the hands he hadn't realised he'd clenched into fists.
"Thanks," he says.
Rukia studies him. "There was nothing else you could do," she tells him.
Life. Death. Inevitability.
He does not need her to tell him these things.
"I know," he says, and thinks of two boys who do not yet know their mother is dead.
The look she gives him is long and considering. He meets her eyes and manages a glower. He's too tired to deal with kicks in the head right now. "I'm fine," he says.
Her eyebrows rise. "Is that so."
She leaves the same way she came in, gliding through the window to vanish in a swirl of black. He watches her, and grimaces, and thinks of coffee and sleep and dying.
Outside, it begins to snow.