Part Two of a two-part fic co-authored with Ninx.

Disclaimer: I don't own them. This story has been jossed to hell by now anyway.

Not a Victory March

"I think I can walk now."

Ichigo sighs. "No, you can't, Rukia," he growls. "You couldn't when we left, you can't now." He shifts slightly, tightening his grip on her legs as he adjusts her weight. She squirms, and he squeezes tighter, trying to keep her steady. "Cut that shit out, Rukia," he mutters, not that it matters. She's done this every block so far.

"Just put me down," she says. "I'm sure I can walk now." She leans back and her forearm crushes his neck. "Zangetsu-san is very uncomfortable, and the bones of your hips keep digging into my –"

"LOOK. Rukia. Hitsugaya said to let me help you home. He's your boss. So –"

"Captain Ukitake is my 'boss'," she says, an odd inflection on the last word. "Captain Hitsugaya merely outranks me."

"Yeah, well, you still have to do what he says, right?"

She sniffs. "He only said to let you help so you'd feel better."

"He said it to shut you up. And I don't think Renji was just trying to make me feel better, either." His voice is tense.

"Renji," she puts a slight emphasis on the name, "looked like he was about to pass out. You should've carried him home."

"Rukia," he says stubbornly. "Everyone wanted you to take it easy. Inoue said you're still delicate." He knows she can't argue with that.

Rukia does go quiet, but only for a minute. Then, "Why is this taking so long?"

"What?"

"Getting back to your house."

"Because Inoue lives in a different neighborhood."

"I know that," she says, punctuating it by squeezing his neck. "Why are you going so slow?"

"Because I'm tired and you're heavy," he snaps, and immediately winces. Way to go, genius. That'll get her to stop –

"So put me down then!"

Doing that. "Shut it, Rukia."

She takes a breath. A big one, a gearing-up-for-a-lecture breath. He doesn't think he can take a lecture right now.

"Just...shut up," he says, voice weary. "I'm not puttin' you down, no matter how much you ask."

That quiets her for another block. Unfortunately, Ichigo realizes, without her bitching in his ear, his thoughts rush in to fill the silence. All he can hear in their whispers are the echoes of his failure.

He knows he failed. If he'd won, Rukia'd be carrying him home. Instead, he has her warm weight on his back reminding him of his inability to protect the people he cares about. He has an itch at the back of his left eye like a tiny scratch, reminding him of his inability to win… and of what he was unwilling to sacrifice for the sake of winning.

First Chad, then Inoue, now Rukia. One by one, he had failed them all.

"Ichigo."

Chad had nearly lost his arm. Had lost his arm, and had it back now only because Inoue had spent all her energy for days on healing him. Inoue, who still wore her cast. And Rukia...no matter how much she bitched about being all right, Grimmjow had stuck his hand clean through her, lifted her up, and tossed her to the ground. He can't get the image of her falling, her limp body striking the ground, out of his mind. He can't stop seeing Grimmjow flicking her blood off his hand like something distasteful. There had been a lot of blood. And more than that, it had knocked her out.

He's seen Rukia get knocked around. He's seen bombs set off on her. He has never seen her pass out. It had never occurred to him that she even could.

"ICHI-go."

Sometimes he'd suspected she didn't even sleep. The idea that she could just get knocked out, especially after she'd gotten back her powers – which were apparently far more substantial than he'd ever guessed – was just unthinkable. But it had happened, and he'd seen what happened when he couldn't...

There's a sudden, bright pain in his ears. "GAH!" He rears back, hands coming up automatically to slap at the sharp little fingers pinching him; too late he realizes he's let go of Rukia, and she drops off his back.

He spins to see her sitting on the ground, glaring at her knees. "That didn't work," she says.

"Rukia! Are you..." he stops, catching himself before he touches her. He doesn't need to get punched again. He's left in an awkward position, half-kneeling, half-reaching.

She glares up at him. "I'm fine," she says. "Just surprised." She pushes off the ground and manages to stand for a second, then abruptly crouches. "I'm fine, Ichigo," she says, as if anticipating his response.

He crouches down in front of her. She seems so small now. "Yeah, you look great, Rukia," he says, voice rough. "You can't even stand."

She meets his eyes. "I will," she says. "In a minute."

He looks down. "I'm going to strangle you," he says, voice low.

"Ichi –"

"Why… the hell… won't you just admit," he pauses as the frustration builds in his voice, "that you are not fine?"

"Why won't you stop being an idiot about this?"

"Rukia!" He looks up at her. "It was so bad Inoue couldn't completely heal you!"

"Inoue was exhausted," she says, "or didn't you notice."

"RUKIA. You almost DIED!"

Her mouth drops. "I did not," she says, as if he'd just mortally offended her.

"Rukia. You were unconscious. You have no idea whether you were dying." Of course, Inoue didn't actually say anything, so Ichigo doesn't technically know either, but…

In his mind, he sees Grimmjow flicking her blood off his hand again.

"It takes a good deal more than one little hole in the torso to kill a shinigami," she sniffs. "You should know that, you've been impaled enough."

"Rukia, it shouldn't have happened in the first place! I should have stopped him before –" he swallows. "I should have protected you."

"You sh – Ichigo. You idiot."

He just stares at her. She's shaking her head, knuckles braced on the pavement.

"You think this happened because you couldn't protect me? You moron! It's not your job to protect me! It's my job to protect you!"

His brain screeches to a halt. "Rukia...what?"

Her fists clench tighter. "I am back here," she says, "so that I can protect you."

"But… I'm stronger than you."

She looks up at him and rolls her eyes. "And stupider," she says. "And inexperienced. I've been a shinigami for decades now, not just a few months."

"That makes no sense," he says. "I'm still stronger than you."

"So what?" she counters. "What good is strength if you have no sense? You should've gotten out of there when I told you to!"

"He put a HOLE in you!" he says. "Did you expect me to just run away after that?"

"He was too strong for both of us," she says. "You should've left before you got injured."

"And leave you there?"

"He wasn't interested in me." It comes out grudgingly. "And he was too much for you, wasn't he?"

"Yes," he admits. "If it hadn't been for..." He stops, shakes his head. "That's not the point, Rukia!"

"Then what is the point?" she replies. "That you should rush recklessly into battles you can't win?" She shakes her head. "You can't protect anyone if you're dead, Ichigo." She glances away. "And I did not come here just to watch you die."

"Rukia..."

She points at him fiercely. "Chad, Inoue...they want to fight beside you. I am here to fight beside you. Because we believe in you, but alsobecause you cannot do this alone, Ichigo. You can't."

He closes his eyes for moment. He remembers Chad's arm, shattered. Inoue struggling to stand. Rukia… calling to him. Trying to protect him. Grimmjow flicks her blood again, and grins. Ichigo opens his eyes, and he knows there's more in them than he should let her see, but he has to look at her now, here in front of him, injured but alive.

"Helping me," he says, "has never done anything but get everybody hurt!"

"What? Ichigo!"

"It's the truth, Rukia!" he yells. "I'm not going to let Chad, or Inoue, or YOU, sacrifice yourselves for me! Because you believe in a fucking idiot!" He leans forward, knees hitting the ground, and grabs her shoulders. "I failed tonight, Rukia," he says. "Completely. I couldn't protect you, I couldn't win… Is that something to believe in? Is that someone worthy of fighting next to?" His head falls. "I LOST. How can I be..." He shakes his head, unable to finish.

Rukia is quiet for a moment. Then, she puts both hands on his face and lifts his head. He averts his eyes.

"Idiot," she says, "look at me."

Reluctantly, he does.

Her face is composed. "Idiot," she says, "you're ALIVE."

He grimaces. "You all keep saying that," he mumbles.

"Because it's important," she says.

He frowns at her. "Why?"

Her eyes narrow, and she shakes her head slowly. Then, with a gentle tug, she pulls his head closer to hers. He tenses, but she lowers her head, so that his forehead bumps against the crown of her hair.

"Idiot," she says. "Listen to me."

"I have," he says. This close, he can smell the blood on her clothes. The smell lodges in his chest somewhere, knotting itself around the failures he feels with every breath.

"No," she says, "You haven't. No one is sacrificingthemselves for your sorry ass. I did not die tonight, and I have no intention of dying. I intend to fight. That is my choice to make, not yours."

"But…"

She pulls his hair a little, warningly. "You're listening now, idiot." He shuts his mouth. "You did not defeat Grimmjow tonight, but you didn't lose, because being alive means you can get stronger. My brother left you alive the first time you fought him, because he believed he had won. But, being too stupid to know you could never hope to beat him, you became stronger, and then you defeated him. You will do it again."

He's quiet for the space of a heartbeat. Then, "I can't get stronger without that THING, Rukia." He pulls his hands off her shoulders, and they fall limp into his lap. He'd pull back further, but her hands on his face are like iron.

"That thing?" Her voice shifts. "The Hollow."

He hates hearing her say that.

"Grimmjow... tonight..."

"Ichigo, you can't trust –"

"He said I can't fight without him," he says, quiet voice overriding hers. "He said I couldn't beat him without that power."

"Ichigo," she says sharply. "Grimmjow is the enemy. He'll say whatever he can to throw you off balance!"

His hands clench.

"You can get stronger without that power. Without IT. You can..."

"I CAN'T," he cries. "I couldn't before and I can't now!"

He sags against her, forehead brushing roughly over her hair.

"I didn't beat Byakuya just by getting stronger," he says, voice low. "I beat Byakuya with… that guy. If he hadn't..." He bites off those words, eyes clenching tight. "I couldn't...save you...without him."

Her thumbs skate along the dried blood on his face, wiping it from under his eyes. She takes a breath as if to say something, then doesn't.

"And every time I fight now, he's waiting. If I fight him, people get hurt. If I let him out..." His eyes shut tight. "More people will get hurt. And..."

He doesn't say what they both know: if the Hollow comes out, then that's the end of him, one way or another.

Rukia's thumbs move against his cheekbones. It's not a gesture of comfort; he wishes she wasn't still touching him. He wants to pull away, and shut up, and go home.

Except he can't leave without her.

She lets out a sigh. "Idiot," she says, bumping his head with hers. "You didn't finish the fight with my brother wearing that mask. You finished that fight as you."

She pushes his head away from hers, and meets his eyes. "You're stronger than it, Ichigo. You ARE." She shakes her head, eyes down. "You may not believe it, but I do."

She drops her hands to his shoulders, pushes on them, and stands up. She wobbles for a moment, and as she steadies herself on his neck, his hands find her waist. He pulls them back quickly, abashedly, but her hands stay on his neck a moment longer.

"I can't not believe that," she says, voice soft as if speaking to herself.

His eyes go wide. She steps gingerly around him, and walks off for a few halting steps. After a moment she sneers, "I'm the injured one and yet, you're not moving."

"Need help?" he says as he stands. Then he staggers a little, lightheaded.

"No, I do not need help. But it looks like maybe you do."

He scowls, and walks over to her. Slowly. "I don't think so."

"I can do a little healing spell…" she raises a hand, starts doing those motions that accompany the incantations.

"I see the slightest glow of kidou over there and I'm gonna knock you out and carry you home like a sack of potatoes," he says, pushing her wrist down.

"You look like you couldn't knock out a… something very easy to knock out," she says, and slings an arm around his waist. He's not sure whether she thinks she's supporting or leaning on him, and he's not sure he cares.

"'A something very easy to knock out'?" he repeats, gingerly wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

"I am too tired to remember human jokes," she says, and takes a step. He follows awkwardly.

"You too tired to remember how to walk?" He halts and yanks her back a step. "Now. Try this again."

They do.

End