Summary: He was her second chance.
Disclaimer: All monsters in this story -- dead, alive and deluded -- belong to Kubo Tite.
A Debt Unpaid
Blood made the ground slippery. Rukia heaved herself up, gritting her teeth against the pain, and stepped over to where Ichigo knelt. The dead Vastrode lay with its empty clown's face half-turned to them, a broken toy. A discarded pawn. That should have been a bond between the monster and her, perhaps, but Rukia was moving in a greater game now, and she had not the strength for pity.
"Ichigo," she said. He had a hand over one eye. His breathing was laboured, each breath an effort.
Rukia kicked him in the ribs.
"Ow! What the hell, Rukia?"
"Get up, fool," she said. "We have no time to lie around. There will be more coming."
"You never take a break, do you?" he grumbled, but he got up. She turned, impatient to go, to do something instead of standing by and watching. She'd already known Ichigo was beyond her help by now, but it was still bitter, the necessity of letting him fight alone. She had felt every blow on her own borrowed skin.
She was halfway down the road when she realised Ichigo wasn't following. She whirled around and stomped back, sharp words on the tip of her tongue. He was leaning on his sword, head down.
"Ichigo -- "
"Rukia." He looked up. "You'd kill me, right?"
The world was suddenly very quiet.
"What did you say?"
How steady, her voice. How strange.
"You'd kill me," said Ichigo. One of his eyes was black, the white and the iris swallowed by darkness. "If you had to. If it happened."
"How dare you."
"You." It was cold. Why was it so cold? She clutched her arms so her hands would not shake. "You have no right to ask this of me."
"No," he said. "Except you've already done it once before."
"Killed you?" she said, and surely that wasn't true. He was alive, he was strong enough, he'd won, he'd forgiven her, he had said so --
"Saved me," he said.
"No," she said, as she should have said long ago. "No. No."
"You have to -- "
"I don't have to do anything," she spat. "And not this. You can't ask me to promise this."
"Can't make you promise," said Ichigo quietly. He took her hand. "But I'm asking."
Then he smiled, the expression surprisingly sweet. The kind of smile you can only keep if your hands are clean.
"Save me," he said. "The Rukia I know would do it."
"I hope you never know me that well," said Rukia, her voice bitter in her mouth, unfamiliar. She ripped her hand out of his grasp and turned away, but she could feel his warmth still.
"Is that a yes?" said Ichigo. And she'd said she would help, wouldn't she? Here she was, with what she wanted in the hollow of her hands. A chance to bear his burdens. A chance to make him free.
"Very well," she said. Because it was her job.
"Don't you dare give me an opportunity to regret saying this," she said.
Ichigo laughed. It turned into a cough, and she went to help him. He smelt a little of blood and smoke, but mostly of unwashed teenage boy, and his arm was inconsiderately heavy on her back. He'd already forgotten that she was hurt as well: her hero, her protegé, they called him in Soul Society, not knowing what it meant. He was her second chance.
"You could handle it," said Ichigo.
"Don't you dare make me."
He gave her that dazzling, cocky grin, but said nothing. He was grown too old for promises.