Last Man Standing

Summary:

Here she was spoiling his last moments of peace on earth with her zeal for all things shinigami related. He can't honestly say that he minds. The Gotei 13 has sent their best recruiter.

A/N: Gift for BA's IR FC. Happy birthday!

Warnings: AU-ish, creative liberties, er, character death? (Sort of...)

Standard Disclaimer:

Bleach is solely the property of Kubo Tite, and I am merely borrowing his playground.


At the end.

There is a tingling at the tips of his fingers and toes. Out of habit, Ichigo self-diagnoses. Peripheral neuropathy- not uncommon, given his state. Outside his hospital room, he hears his young doctor talk to the charge nurse. The words 'dialysis' and 'congestive heart failure' float through the insubstantial material of the door. He hears pretty well, considering his age. His senses have only sharpened over the last couple of decades, even as his body and reflexes have dulled.

The nurse bustles in and he immediately drops his head to his pillow, pretends to be asleep. She's a smart little thing, not really intimidated by his surly looks. This is their morning routine.

"Good morning, Dr. Kurosaki! I know you're not asleep," she says brightly if a little bit too loud. He's reminded of both Orihime and Yuzu and their sunny personalities.

"Yeah, yeah, can't give a dying man a break, can you?" he grouses.

"Of course not, and you're not dying yet Dr. Kurosaki!"

"You're a good liar, and it's just Kurosaki. I'm retired, you know." His brows fall into a perpetual frown.

"Now you're the one not giving me a break, Dr. Kurosaki," she says with a sad smile.

"Whatever," he sighs sinking his body deeper into the mattress, "let's get this over with."

She slaps on her professional nurse face and they continue on with the routine. She checks his vitals, notes changes in her charts, replaces a bag of saline. He takes the medication she hands him, but not without bitterly complaining about the dosage and the amount.

She auscultates his heart and he breathes deeply for her, trying hard not to choke on a cough on the exhale.

"There's a bit of fluid in your lungs," she says absently.

"I know," Ichigo replies. "Dr. Fujihara will need to put me on diuretics."

She leaves with a worried look on her face that she tries her hardest to hide. He sees it just the same.

End of the line old man, he thinks to himself. Death is right around the corner ready to reap his soul and he can't help but be immensely comforted by that thought.

oOooOooOo

I knew we would one day meet again.

He's hardly surprised when she arrives, he was expecting her after all. He's pretending to be asleep, but he keeps his slitted eyes fixed on the window. The only warning he has is a slight whisper of her reiatsu against his, and then she's there on the window sill, outlined by the light of the moon.

"Never use a door, when there's a window, eh Rukia," he says, hating how raspy his voice sounds. His eyes are fully open now and he drinks in the sight of her.

"Ichigo," she greets, hopping nimbly off the window. The sleeves of her shihakusho flutter like black wings. She lands in a square of light. "It has been awhile." Her lovely eyes are as full of lively mischief as they've ever been.

She gives him an inscrutable look as she walks toward the edge of his bed. He wonders if she sees him as he is now, old and broken with rough papery skin and brittle bones, or whether she sees him as he used to be, vibrant and strong, standing tall with an unbent back, full of power and the will to protect.

Looking at her, Ichigo feels as if he had barely blinked, as if it was only yesterday that he was running around in Sereitei, around Hueco Mundo, fighting impossible odds. She's the same now as she was then, over half a century ago, not a hair out of place. Same pale skin, dark hair, long delicate neck and graceful limbs, the same ridiculously young face. She looks like she should still be in high school. The eyes though, they give her away. They're old, old eyes, with a wealth of experience. Though Rukia is more than a century older than him, he's the one who now feels ancient.

"I've seen day old corpses that look better than you," she says bluntly. "Smell better, too," she adds after a delicate sniff. "Are you ready to go yet?" she asks, drawing her soul cutter.

Yes nothing has changed.

oOooOooOo

Even if it were a thousand years.

"What? How could you say that to a dying man? What kind of shitty soul reaper are you?" he yells.

Her left eyebrow twitches in irritation. "The kind that has been waiting for you to die for the last decade!" she yells back. It's a good thing she's a spirit, or else they would be waking up the whole floor. "You're the last one left, everyone has gone on! What's the holdup Ichigo?"

"Ever heard of easing the transition?"

"Bend over idiot, and I'll show you how I'll ease your transition," she says darkly.

He's warming up to this, he misses it, the yelling bickering that they used to do, to see who could out-curse or outwit the other.

"What makes you think I'm going to go with a harpy like you, anyway?" He is crossing his arms. It's difficult because he's tired and there are IV lines running in and out of his body, but he manages somehow without pulling anything out.

"Why you..." she mutters under her breath. She stamps her foot in a temper and hops up onto one of those visitor chairs beside the bed. She strikes a pose with one foot on the armrest, her blade drawn, konso hilt pointed down at his head.

"Kurosaki Ichigo," she intones in a deep voice. "I have been sent by the Gotei 13 to formally offer you a captain's position."

oOooOooOo

I would have waited.

Oh. Well. That's why she's here. He's disappointed. And then he's disappointed in himself for feeling disappointed.

Here she was spoiling his last moments of peace on earth with her zeal for all things shinigami related. He can't honestly say that he minds, because it's Rukia. The Gotei 13 has sent their best recruiter. He supposes he should feel flattered, but he doesn't. He doesn't particularly care what Soul Society wants.

"Well?" she asks, jumping back down from the chair and sheathing her zanpakuto.

"What?" he scowls. The craggy lines of his face emphasize his displeasure.

"Are you senile? Or just plain deaf? They want to make you a captain, no questions asked. Do you know what an honor that is? This is why I'm here, to bring you to Seretei."

"Why would I want an honor like that? I've had enough trouble in my life, thanks." His eyes gleam in the dark, full of unspoken things, forbidden territory, things that they need to straighten out. Because no one should die with unfinished business.

Rukia is silent and still, thoughtfully she gazes at him. Her lips are pursed into a thin line and he knows that she is reevaluating the direction this conversation. She has the look of someone treading dangerous waters, afraid of disappearing under the surface.

They're suddenly on different pages, and Ichigo wonders if time created a distance between them that might not be so easily breached. Both of them are unaccustomed to opening their hearts. That's why non-verbal communication has always worked best for them. And then there's their unspoken rule of waiting for the other party to speak first. They're at an impasse, have been for a long time now.

Exhaustion suddenly hits him like a ton of bricks. Or maybe it's the meds. Either way, his lids feel like they're made of lead.

"I'll think about it," he slurs deeply. "Come back tomorrow...Rukia."

The last thing he sees is her eyes that tell him how pleased she is to see him again. The last thing he feels is an extra blanket added on top of his sheets, and a cool hand caressing his cheek.

The last might be wishful thinking, but he leans his head into it anyway.

oOooOooOo

Just to hear you say.

When he first met her, he thought she had the biggest, bluest, most melancholy eyes he had ever seen. At the time, he thought that the melancholy was because there was a giant soul eating monster thrashing down the street towards their delicious souls, but he eventually came to find out that was not the case.

When he closes his eyes and reaches for the memory, he can almost feel the keen tip of her blade poised over his breastbone, the rush of adrenalin surging through his veins, and the wild pounding of his heart in his chest.

She's at his window again, and he's peering at her intently. Is the melancholy still there? Does she have unhappiness in her life still? He hopes not, but he can't be sure. He wishes he were sure. Ichigo allows himself to wonder if she felt loneliness as sharply as he did.

She knows all there is to know about him, or most of it anyway. The rest she guesses with the bloody accuracy of a blade that once plunged into his heart.

What he knows about her is only a drop in the deep, deep ocean of her life. Ichigo wonders if he will ever get to learn the whole ocean, if she will ever let him immerse himself fully beneath the waves.

Today, he's stronger, and he can tell this both vexes and relieves her. Ichigo gives her his best smirk.

"Not dead yet," he sing-songs. He's in a good mood. The tingling pins-and-needles feeling has yet to abate in his extremities and his knobby old joints ache something fierce, but today it doesn't bother him.

"I can tell," she huffs as she slouches into the bedside seat. "Why can't you go quietly like Ishida or Orihime? Chad was glad to see me. Even Tatsuki...oh, and did you know Mizuiro and Keigo joined Unohana's division? They worship the the ground she walks on."

As she rattles off the names, Ichigo realizes that she has succeeded in recruiting all of the Karakura group. Friends and family, Rukia has gotten them all. She has gone out of her way to find them and to ensure their safe passage to Soul Society when he couldn't. Ichigo is more than grateful; what he feels towards her extend beyond the boundaries of gratitude and is more than words can adequately express. Rukia is a shinigami with unparalleled skill in saving people. She has always selflessly put the needs and safety of others before her own. He truly believes that she has the most beautiful soul in all of Soul Society.

Now he is the only one left. It almost makes him want to just give in, almost.

"So captain, huh? The Gotei 13 must be pretty desperate," he muses aloud, scratching his chin.

Rukia stops fiddling with the remote and fires him a sly smile that somehow manages to warm his crumbling insides. "That's exactly what I said."

He catches on moments too late that he's insulted himself and groaning, he palms his face.

"Ichigo," she laughs, "are you slipping in your old age?"

He looks at her from the side with one eye. "Yeah, I guess I am."

Her expression is suddenly serious. "We're in dire straits, Ichigo. The Gotei 13 is still a mess."

"That's not my problem," he says slowly shaking his head. They have had years- more than half a century to fix the mess that Aizen's betrayal had left behind. He knows that shinigami time is different than human time, but still, he finds it unbelievable that they haven't tied up loose ends.

"How could you say that?" Rukia cries. Her hands are fisted at her sides. "Gotei 13 needs strong people like you. There are two empty captain seats still waiting to be filled."

"What do I care? Soul Society left me, not the other way around. Now you're saying they want me again after my powers have returned, now that I'm useful? How nice. How convenient. Get real, Rukia. They screwed us over. I don't owe them anything!" The twisted line of his lips convey bitterness in a way his voice doesn't.

"That may be true, but your friends never left you, Renji never left you, I never left you. You were always on our minds and in our hearts and we were always by your side, whether you could see us or not."

He knows that now. But for a while, he was lonely and bitter and blind.

"Yet you're here on behalf of the Gotei 13?" he asks looking at her with hooded eyes, head rested on his pillow.

"Forget about the Gotei, then. Don't you still want to protect people? Ichigo, are you shinigami or not?" she asks as her eyes search his.

She looks like she has more to say, so he waits to see if it's something he really wants to hear.

"You belong in Soul Society, with us," she says haltingly, tripping over her words. Can't I say that I'm here on behalf of all who miss you? Aren't we...precious friends?" She's smiling softly at him and remembering each and every one of their bitter partings.

You're getting hotter, Ichigo thinks as he gives her a warm smile. He doesn't answer her question, though.

oOooOooOo

What you want and what I want are still the same.

After a brief period of comfortable quiet, she asks, "Have you lived a good life, Ichigo?" Her dark head is cocked to the side, bangs falling between her eyes as she assesses him intently.

He knows immediately what she is about. It's a question that is appropriate for a konso. He knows because she once threw the book at him and made him memorize the rituals and rites on how to properly send off a soul. He's never really done a konso properly, and so far as he's ever seen her, she hasn't either. They both did only what was necessary to get the job done without any wasted effort.

Rukia was never really heavy on the rituals and there were always more hollows to kill, homework to do, a girl shinigami to hide in the bedroom closet. There just wasn't time, but those were the days. Now he has all the time in the world to contemplate his own death.

"Are we really doing this now? You sure are confident that I'll be going soon."

"Just answer the damn question," she snaps.

"I guess it was an ok life. I saved a lot of people. It used to be interesting," he gives her a meaningful look.

"Too interesting, some would say," she says severely, glaring.

"And the rest was not interesting at all," he answers. They're having the same argument in a new way.

"And whose fault is that?" she asks.

"Yours," he answers, but only half-jokingly. It's the end of the line and he feels like there's no point to censorship now.

"That's not funny, Ichigo." Her head is bowed and her whisper is laced with heavy guilt.

"I'm sorry, it's not," he admits. But it's true. She changed his world.

"Do you have any regrets?" she continues as protocol dictates.

"Just one," he says and the look he gives her can only be described as wistful.

She merely nods, but he doesn't think she understands at all.

oOooOooOo

If words only get in the way.

Rukia comes back the next night. It has been a rough day for him. He finds it hard to breathe; congestive heart failure pushes fluid into his lungs. Diuretics can only do so much. His bones ache arthritically but he can't even find a more comfortable spot because everything hurts.

"Fool. How long do you think you can hold on like this?" she asks, beyond annoyed at the stubbornest man she's ever had the misfortune to meet. Her caustic words hide the worry in her soft tone.

"As long as you keep coming back," Ichigo replies lightly. He is starting to forget the hazy concepts that made him hold out in the first place. The pain makes it hard to remember.

She turns her nose up haughtily. "Fine, I'll just leave and-"

"Don't," he says. The word rasps up his tender throat and hangs between them like glass. It's very close to begging and he is not ashamed at all.

"Alright," she says very, very softly. Her eyelids are lowered half-mast and her lashes cast long inky shadows against her cheeks.

oOooOooOo

Then just hold me close.

"There's no reason that I can't enter the soul cycle," he says. At some point in the night Ichigo fell asleep and when he woke up, Rukia was still by his bedside, keeping vigil.

She stirs in her seat. "What are you talking about? What do you know about the soul cycle?"

"I know it's possible to be reborn. Start anew. Live a normal life." This is an empty threat and he wonders if she knows it. It takes a strength and a willpower that far exceeds his own to let go of all earthly desire and regret, to let go and enter the reincarnation cycle.

He pauses, wondering if it is wise to push her. "My dad did it, so I should be able to do it too. Signing up for a permanent position in the Gotei 13 doesn't sound appealing to me. It's not worth it."

Her face pales. "You wouldn't, you can't-"

Ichigo struggles to push himself up on his elbows. "All my life, I've been told what I can and can't do. I'll do what I want. It's the end of my life and this is my show!" he yells, jabbing a thumb in his chest.

Rukia looks lost. "But we need you."

"Who needs me?" he asks softly, looking at her. There is a long pause before she looks away.

"The Gotei 13," she supplies.

"Not a good answer," he warns her. "Not for me."

"What about your friends, your family?" she shoots at him.

Ichigo smiles gently and shakes his head. "They can protect themselves now, they don't need me."

"Then what is it? What more do you want?" she asks, searching his eyes desperately. Her hands are clenched in her lap in anger and frustration.

"I don't need to tell you that do I? You should already know." He pauses.

"Do you know, Rukia?"

oOooOooOo

Together, we can stand against heaven and earth.

It's time to lay all the cards on the table. He thinks grimly, this is what he should have done years ago. They have danced around this topic for most of his life and he's tired of the subterfuge, the denial. He doesn't want to put up with it for the next hundred years, and being human has made him impatient.

He concentrates and pushes his reiatsu up and out, like letting air out of a balloon. Ribbons of spirit energy spill out and unfurl around him, rich and red. By sense alone, he reaches out for the one ribbon that is subtly different, slightly cooler, silkier than the rest.

Triumphantly, he holds the ribbon up and nods to it, and to the other end where he always knew it would be.

With impossibly wide eyes, Rukia is looking at her own spirit ribbons, blooming and billowing out around her in response to his. There is one ribbon that twists and arcs between them. Startled out of her usual grace, she jumps and bumps into his food tray. It rolls off into the wall with a thump.

"Red string of fate," she breathes. They stare at each other across the distance of a few feet. The ribbon shimmers between them with an inner fire, intangible one second and opaque the next, finer than spider's silk and stronger than steel. It's the red string, the unbreakable bond. Ichigo tugs on it gently and Rukia brings her hand up to her sternum in response.

Slowly she approaches the bed and sits down heavily. With a light touch, she fingers the ribbon and delight dances up and down his spirit at this contact. Ichigo wishes he has the strength to pull her close, but doesn't so he settles with touching her hand. She doesn't seem to mind bony hands and wrinkled skin. His old heart races arrhythmically, and he wonders if it is because of the feel of her skin under his, or if it's because he's on his way out.

Since she's an unpredictable and sometimes violent person, he waits warily for her to speak first.

"How did this happen..." she begins.

"I went to see Urahara about it when my powers started returning." He didn't add that he had stumbled upon it when he was trying to see if he could sense her spirit in Soul Society- to check if she was safe. That was a very lonely time for him and he doesn't like to think about it.

"He said that the night you gave me your powers was the night that this link was formed."

She's quiet for a long time, but her hand grips his. When she finally speaks, her voice is low and calm, but her eyes are filled with anxiety and anguish.

"I'm not going to ask for your forgiveness. I did the only thing I could that night."

"Good," he says. "I won't accept your apologies. I'll never forgive you for that because there is nothing to forgive."

"If I could sever it, I would," she says in a cool voice.

"Why?" he demands, feeling unaccountably hurt.

"It's a burden that you were forced to bear. It brought you nothing but trouble in your life. It complicated things." Her face is like marble, pale, smooth, and impossibly cold. In her eyes, though, he sees her fear.

"We both took part in weaving this, thread by thread," he says, sliding his fingers under the ribbon. He sees her ruthlessly suppress a shiver. "A burden, you say? Maybe for one person, but you bore it as well, so what can we call it but a bond? You can't force something like this, it just doesn't work."

"But Urahara said-"

"Urahara said that two souls who share power are irrevocably linked. Those bonds can easily be abused. That's part of the reason why it's a grave crime in Soul Society to transfer power like we did. But how does he know that we weren't tied to each other before then?"

"Don't interrupt me," she says imperiously, crossing her arms.

His eyes gleam with good humor. "Go on."

"Aizen said that our meeting was manufactured from the start," she says, moving on to her second point. "So none of this is natural."

He gives her an incredulous look. "And you actually believe that madman? Furthermore, does it matter?" he asks her.

Rukia looks up with large eyes, so liquid and dark, they're nearly unreadable in the shadows of his room. She still has a hold of her side of the ribbon. "It doesn't matter, but..." she says unsteadily.

"What are you afraid of, Rukia? Don't give me some bullshit answer, tell me the truth." And for god's sake, please don't tell me you don't feel the same, Ichigo thinks. At his age, he doesn't think his human heart can take the rejection. It might just stop all together.

"You were so young, Ichigo. All your choices were taken away from you. You should have had the right to choose, but you didn't. All for some mad man's experiment." "This," she says tugging on the ribbon gently, "should not have been an accident, or happenstance, or a contrivance. It should have been fate."

"Don't you understand?" he asks barking a short laugh as he feels an answering pull within him. "The moment you stepped into my life, all other choices ceased to exist for me. There was no other choice I wanted. That's fate."

There's a pause as he considers her. She looks serene and composed, but her reiatsu tells a different story. "Did you want a different choice, Rukia?" he asks quietly. He doesn't want to think about whether he would be strong enough to let her go again.

Her eyes snap up to his. In the moonlight, they're an inky indigo with an unearthly inner fire. "I can't even imagine it," she says fiercely.

He feels palpable relief. The pressure on his chest eases somewhat. It's a really good feeling.

"So, you going to keep me around?" he asks trying to keep from sounding too pathetically hopeful. Despite his light, playful tone, his eyes are serious; he is offering up a promise. His warm eyes tell her to consider her answer carefully because it will completely redefine them, and that if her answer is yes then she'll be stuck with him until he dies for real.

She shrugs elegantly. "I guess so. You're useful to have around, sometimes." Her voice teases, but she meets the weight of his gaze full on, telling him that this is not a decision she takes lightly. She will not take it back, ever. A million painful deaths await him if he ever thinks about backing out.

"Hmph. Thanks alot. I feel wanted." he replies sarcastically. Inwardly, he's throwing himself a party. They grin at each other, and then suddenly bashful, they both turn away to hide their laughs.

After a moment, she looks down at their joined hands and sighs. "I don't think you really understand the gravity of this situation. Byakuya, my esteemed brother, will not be pleased."

"I thought I told you years ago that I don't give a damn what your brother thinks," there's a hint of young and cocky in his raspy voice.

"You should!" Rukia warns. "He's only gotten crabbier in recent years," she says, leaning back with her palms flat on the hospital bed, legs outstretched and crossed in front of her. There is a smile in her voice, though none of it shows on her face.

Ichigo scoffs. "I can still beat him in a fair fight."

Rukia looks him over and raises one thin black brow skeptically. She is apparently not impressed. "Not by a long shot."

"I'll get there," he says confidently.

"I'm older than you." The irony is not lost on him when she says this. "What would people say?"

"Who cares, screw them," he says with his usual irreverent disregard for social rules.

"Besides," he adds with a little leer, "they'll just say you're taking advantage of me, which I hope will be entirely true anyway!" He has been an utter saint his whole life, so it's ok to let his inner letch out in these final moments.

"Ichigo!" she exclaims, shocked into laughing. "I think your father has finally rubbed off on you!"

He feels glad to hear her strong laugh, to see no melancholy sadness in her eyes. This is his Rukia, fully realized, without ghosts of regret to weigh her spirit down. She is the strongest, bravest, stubbornest, bossiest, most steadfast and kindhearted person he has ever met, and he loves her for it. He'll never say that aloud because he knows that voicing such a thing would appall her. They don't say those kinds of things to each other, and besides, Ichigo thinks that she already knows, so there's no need for words. Speaking is not communication after all.

"Any more objections?" Ichigo gives her an unimpressed and bored look.

Rukia opens her mouth, and before she utters a single word, Ichigo says, "I reject your opinions."

In retaliation, she drives her sharp little fist into his shoulder.

"Dammit Rukia, I'm dying here! I'm really, seriously dying!" he howls in pain.

oOooOooOo

And everything in between.

She's in his lap, looking like what he imagines every dying man's last wish ought to look. He barely feels her insubstantial weight. He barely feels anything, but he's glad he can still see. He would have never dreamt of doing this in his youth, and if he did, it would have brought blood rushing to his face, but he's old and fearless now. He too, has shed the weights holding his spirit down.

She seems to glow in his eyes, brighter and brighter, her skin takes on a luminous sheen. When he tells her this, she strokes his cheek gently. "Your spirit sight is kicking in, you don't have very long."

"Good," he says. He's tired of being here and besides, it's just an interlude to the rest of his not-life.

He can barely move, he feels so heavy and tired and old, so he settles for wrapping his arms loosely around her small frame as she runs strong nimble fingers through his brittle white hair, across his old craggy jawline, across a lifetime of hidden scars.

If someone were to see this, it would look like a million shades of wrong. It's a young girl sitting on an old man's lap. Tilt the picture and it's a dead girl on a dying man's lap. Tilt the picture again, and it's an old death god come to reap a young man's soul. Ichigo smiles at that one, who exactly is robbing the cradle here?

The picture keeps tilting, or maybe it's just the room. Ichigo thinks to himself that what they have between them is deep and complex, defying definition. It will always tilt and change and grow. He hopes that they will be able to discard any remaining despair and step forward together, that they'll abandon their fears and never pull back.

"I told you I had one regret," he says, leaning into her touch like a giant cat. There's little else he has the energy to do. "It's more like a request."

"Name it," she says without hesitation. "If it is within my power, I will carry it out."

He looks into her eyes, and he sees such utter trust, loyalty, and faith. All the sparse visits, the bittersweet reunions, all their long years of separation, of loneliness is worth it. What's a lifetime to pay for an eternity?

"Lady Death, if I could have but one kiss from you, I would die a happy man," he says looking at her steadily. "Will you grant me this one wish?"

Rukia peers at him through her bangs and lightly touches their spirit ribbon. There's trepidation and shyness there, but also determination and deep affection. "In light of all this, I suppose it's only appropriate."

She unsheathes her sword in one smooth motion and presses the konso hilt against his temple. She draws close and her breath tickles the shell of his ear. Her warm scent surrounds him. He uses the last of his energy to bring his hand up and brush the pad of his thumb against her soft cheek.

"See you on the other side. Don't keep me waiting, Ichigo," she whispers. His eyes are closed, as he nods. This time there will be no more waiting, no more rain for either of them. It's a promise he makes deep in his soul.

There's a whisper of movement and then her soft lips press gently against his. Bright light explodes behind his eyelids, and the sweet shock of it sends his spirit flying out of his body. As the light carries him onward, he thinks, this is not a bad ending for an interlude.

At the end.

I knew we would one day meet again.

Even if it were a thousand years.

I would have waited.

Just to hear you say.

What you want and what I want are still the same.

If words only get in the way.

Then just hold me close.

Together, we can stand against heaven and earth.

And everything in between.

The End (is just another beginning)