A/N: This story picks up where episode 108 leaves off, so please beware of spoilers for this episode! Ichigo's fight with Kariya certain seemed to strike Rukia deeply -- this story is meant to explore some of her thoughts further. I had really hoped to see a conversation between Ichigo and Rukia after Ichigo had defeated Kariya, but of course, I was once again disappointed in the lack of Ichigo/Rukia moments. So this story is my take on what conversation may have happened, had they been given the chance. Please review and let me know what you think!
Disclaimer: I definitely don't own Bleach, or else there would be a lot more IchiRuki goodness abound!
Now on to the story…
"Why are you avoiding me?"
Rukia did not turn around to face the person that had asked this question; instead, she continued to gaze out at Seireitei from her stance at the edge of Soukyoukou Hill as she answered him.
"I'm not avoiding you. You were being healed; I did not want to interfere."
It was this one angry word that had her turning around to finally face Ichigo. But before she could let loose the heated retort that was at the tip of her tongue, he continued, his own anger flaring and just slightly more reckless than usual.
"You rushed out here, in your weakened condition, not caring that you could make your injuries worse. And now that you're here, you won't say barely two words to me. I want to know why, Rukia."
Her violet eyes flashed at him.
"I already told you, I'm not avoiding you."
His voice lowered, a clear warning to her that his temper was proportionally rising.
"And I already told you, that's bullshit."
"What do you want from me, Ichigo?" she demanded, moving to turn away from him again. But he stopped her with a quick hand, catching her shoulder and firmly holding her in place.
"I want to know what's going through that thick head of yours, you idiot. You've clearly got something on your mind, so spit it out."
Rukia jerked her shoulder away from his grasp angrily, turning her back to him.
"What's on my mind is none of your concern."
"Is this about what Kariya said?" And suddenly, the anger was gone from Ichigo's voice, replaced by an emptiness that was much worse. "Does my power frighten you, Rukia? When you see me, do you see a freak?"
It was the eerie hollowness, the uncharacteristic uncertainty in his voice that had her whirling around again.
"No!" she cried, shaking her head so hard that even more unruly strands of ebony hair fell across her face. Then she shoved him, hard, so hard that he was knocked a full step back before he regained his balance. "How can you even think such a thing, you idiot?!"
"Watch it, Inoue just healed these injuries!" Ichigo shouted, fully tempted to shove her right back. The fact that she was standing at the edge of the cliff and that he'd probably have to be the one to go get her if she fell was the only thing that stopped him. "What the hell am I supposed to think if you won't Tell. Me. What's. Bothering. You?!" He bit each word off angrily, his temper causing his breath to hitch irregularly. There was no one, not in this world, not in his own, that could infuriate him more than this tiny woman. It was amazing, really, that someone so little could incite a rage so big.
"What's bothering me is that Kariya was right!" she exploded, surprising him enough to nearly cause him to take another step back. Hurt flashed briefly in his wide brown eyes before he attempted to hide it behind anger again.
"But you just said…"
"Baka," she snapped. "What I meant is that Kariya was right about you and he being so similar."
The hurt was back in his eyes, stronger this time, and she sighed, trying to find a way to explain herself better without inflicting more pain on him.
"While I was watching your battle with Kariya, I had time to reflect on the similarity of your situations. And I realized," her breath caught, as this was the hard part, "I realized that I was responsible for this. I'm the one who set you on this path, Ichigo. I'm the one who has put the weight of both worlds, the real world and Soul Society, on your shoulders, and I can do nothing to relieve the burden for you."
His look became one of understanding, as he gazed down at her bowed head and heard the sorrow in her words.
"Let me ask you something, Rukia." He paused, waiting until she lifted her gaze back up to his.
"Did you make me come to Soul Society to fight Kariya?"
The question was so ludicrous that she just stared at him. Since when had she been able to make him do anything he didn't want to do?
Ichigo nodded cockily, taking her silence for an answer.
"No. It was my choice to do so. Everything I have done to this point has been my choice, my will. My resolve, as Urahara-san said. That is why I will not walk the path that Kariya walked. You call this a burden. I see it as a responsibility."
"It is not a responsibility that you should have, Ichigo," Rukia responded softly. "Protecting Soul Society, protecting innocent souls from hollows -- it is the responsibility of the Shinigami. It was my responsibility. I gave this responsibility away to you, and it seems that I have never been able to get it fully back. Instead, I have only added to your burdens."
Ichigo merely shook his head. "You just don't get it, do you? Protecting the people that you care about is a responsibility that everyone has, not just the Shingami. All you did was merely give me the power to fulfill that responsibility."
Rukia opened her mouth to reply, but Ichigo cut her off with a smirk on his face. "Besides, I'm gonna need these powers if I'm going to have to keep getting you out of trouble."
Whatever she had been about to say turned into an indignant sputter instead. "Why, you…"
In pure reflex, her hand was already balled into a fist and swinging up towards his jaw. But she had not accounted for the miniscule energy that had sustained her thus far finally giving out on her, and instead of making the desired contact with his jaw, she felt herself begin to fall forward with the momentum.
Strong hands grabbed her forearms, steadying her.
"You idiot," Ichigo muttered, but the words were soft and not insulting at all. "You really know how to push yourself to the limit, don't you?"
Despite the weakness that was now threatening to have her legs give out from under her, Rukia managed to scoff and crane her neck up to look at him. "You're hardly one to talk about pushing limits, Ichigo."
His wry look acknowledged her point. Then, without any sort of warning, he released his grip on her arms. She felt herself begin to fall, not realizing that she had been allowing him to support all of her diminutive weight. Just then, though, his arm swept behind her knees, and the other one wrapped around her back. Before she even knew what was happening, she was up in his arms, and he was taking long strides in Inoue's direction, where the young girl was busy healing Uryuu's injuries.
"Ichigo!" Rukia struggled, not that it did any good, considering the tight grip that he had on her. "Put me down! I'm perfectly capable of walking on my own."
"No, you're not," he countered easily. "And as much pleasure as I'd get from watching you fall flat on your face, I don't want to make Inoue's job harder by letting you get yet another injury for her to heal."
Rukia's eyes narrowed dangerously. "So this is for Inoue's benefit, is it?"
It was a testament to how oblivious the two were that neither caught the undertones of jealousy in her question. Instead, Ichigo just shook his head.
"You're such a fool, Rukia."
He said it quietly, meaning it as an end to, in his mind, this pointless argument. But Rukia was not to be deterred, instead choosing a different tact.
"I thought I told you I don't want you carrying my burdens for me anymore. This," she gestured to each of them and the position they were in, "certainly qualifies."
Ichigo stopped mid-stride, the sun glinting off his bright orange hair as he looked down at her, an inscrutable look on his face.
"You're hardly a burden, Rukia."
It made her breath hitch, that tone in his voice, the soft, deep quality of it that seemed to express something undefined and intangible. But before she could think any further on it, his lips curved once more into a smirk.
"Now quit arguing with me before I drop you on your ass and let Renji carry you the rest of the way."
This time, her fist didn't miss his jaw.