A/N: This was originally supposed to be uploaded during Ichiruki Month in August, but life stuff got in the way, so I couldn't finish it until now.
This was for Day 30 with the prompt: Dress up/dress down. It takes place directly after Ichigo's second fight with Grimmjow in Karakura.
After the Garganta zipped shut behind the blue-haired Arrancar and his pale companion, Shinji turned to face both Ichigo and the Shinigami girl who saved him.
"Do you know why I let you fight that Arrancar, Ichigo?"
Like a child, Ichigo didn't seem to understand. "What?"
"You've been training for, what, a month now? And the longest you could fight with your mask on was around eleven seconds, if that. You managed to hold onto that power for just a little longer through sheer willpower, but even that wasn't enough to save you this time, was it?"
Shinji held up a finger. "You don't have the right to argue with me, Ichigo. Not after being so thoroughly defeated. I only let you fight him to prove that you aren't ready to use your Hollow powers in battle."
A million concerned questions were woven right into the small furrow of the Shinigami girl's eyebrows. Ichigo refused to look back at her. No doubt that look overwhelmed him with shame.
"You, Shinigami," he said, pointing at her. "You don't seem all that weirded-out by this. What's your name?"
She seemed wary for a moment, then she took a deep breath and said, "Kuchiki Rukia."
His eye twitched. Since when did a snot-nosed brat like Ichigo become friends with a member of the illustrious Kuchiki clan?
"Hm, for a Kuchiki, you seem awfully lax about Ichigo's powers. Isn't merging Shinigami and Hollow powers against the laws of the Soul Society?"
As if he didn't already know the answer. He'd revealed his hand to her and all the other Shinigami in the area by putting his mask on like that. Maybe Aizen's betrayal woke them all up to the reality of their situation. Not that he was about to place his trust in any of them.
"I've known about his Hollow side for a while now," she replied. "I know how hard he's struggled against it. You're one of the people teaching Ichigo how to control that inner Hollow of his."
It wasn't a question, nor did she sound all that surprised by that fact.
"Oh, so you knew about that. Ichigo made a big deal over not telling anyone where he was going. Like isolating himself was heroic or something."
Ichigo scowled. "Hey!"
"All he's done is make his friends worry about him," Shinji continued as if he wasn't there. He turned to stare up at the spot where the Garganta once was. "I'm glad you came in time to save him, though. Guess I'm not as fast as I used to be."
His jaw almost dropped when he looked back over his shoulder at her. A Shinigami—a Kuchiki nonetheless—was bowing to him.
"Thank you. If it weren't for you, Ichigo and I would be dead."
The words clogged up in his throat. Fancy that. A member of a noble family actually acting noble for once.
There was nothing else he could think to say.
Ichigo laid a firm hand on her shoulder. "Rukia, are you okay?"
"You fool," she scolded, stepping back. "You're in worse shape than I am."
His right hand trembled, struggling to keep a firm grip on his sword. It had transformed back into its shikai form. "Don't worry about it."
"Don't tell me what I should and shouldn't be worried about," she snapped. Then her expression softened. "You've been gone for a while, Ichigo. And now I find you in this state. How could I not worry?"
His eyes fell to the cracked pavement. "I'm sorry."
Zangetsu clattered to the ground the moment she touched his wounded arm. The sheer amount of blood soaking through to her fingertips was alarming in itself yet the Kuchiki girl did not waver. "I don't know if my Kido will be enough to heal you fully. But I'll try."
At this, Shinji finally stirred. "No offense, but I think a member of my own might be better at this sort of Kido than you."
"But if we don't staunch the blood flow now, he might lose a lot by the time your man reaches him." She gestured at the drops of Ichigo's blood spattering the concrete. "At least let me take a few precautionary measures."
Shinji had to admit, he wasn't all that great with healing Kido himself. The Kuchiki girl might as well help him as best she could for now.
"Fine. Just enough to stop him from bleeding out on the street."
She bowed her head again. To him. This Kuchiki girl was an odd one for sure.
"Ichigo, I will need to take off your gi." Her small hands hovered just over the folds.
"If you have the energy to be embarrassed, then shut up and save it for healing, you dumbass," Shinji said, exasperated.
Ichigo opened his mouth to protest once more, but one concerned look from the Kuchiki girl made him slowly shut it again.
Oh, so Kurosaki was whipped for her.
The Kuchiki girl was careful in taking his gi off. After taking note of all his injuries, she dragged Zangetsu to her and unraveled some of the cloth surrounding the hilt. Ichigo didn't object when she ripped some of it away.
A thin sheet of ice glimmered along the folded cloth when she ran a slow hand over it. It only took a moment for enough water to soak in.
She remained diligent in cleaning out his wounds, pausing every now and then when Ichigo winced. As it turned out, attempting to heal him with Kido afterwards was no use. His own twisted Hollow energy was much too intertwined with his regular reiryoku for it to work properly.
Her face fell. The moment Ichigo looked up at her, however, she quickly wiped this into a more stern expression. "It's not the best job I've done," she admitted, extending a hand out to help him up. "But you won't bleed out before we get you to someone better at this than I am, at least."
Ichigo's breathing sounded strained, but he managed a nod all the same. "Thanks, Rukia."
Shinji frowned. "You can come with us if you want, Shinigami, but you'll have to wait outside. The other Vizards won't take kindly to your presence, no matter how close you are to Ichigo."
She looked as if she wanted to protest. Instead, she pressed her lips together and nodded.
So off they went.
Ichigo collapsed right when they arrived, though not before begging Shinji to heal the Kuchiki girl first. Naturally, she was there to catch him. The other Vizards poured out to help, taking Ichigo from her arms and inside to safety.
The Kuchiki girl did not dare follow, reluctant as she was to let him go. It was almost heartbreaking to leave her there. If Shinji had the heart left to care about such matters, anyway.
Turned out Hachi had just as difficult a time restoring Ichigo's reiryoku as the Kuchiki girl did. The most he could do was more thoroughly clean out his wounds, change his bandages, and explain why he could not fully heal him to the Kuchiki girl after. Despite the Vizards' initial distrust of her, the fact that she only had eyes for Ichigo's safety lessened that feeling enough for them to come out and speak with her on civil terms. Even Hiyori didn't have a snarky, backhanded thing to say this time.
Kuchiki Rukia soon bowed to them all and took him back home to rest.
Rukia stayed by his side long after Karin and Yuzu had fallen asleep at the foot of his bed. They came in earlier to have dinner in his room and simply never left.
With the dishes washed, and Ichigo's family thoroughly convinced that he was beaten up by mere delinquents, she should have gone off to Inoue's to check if she was alright.
Should have, yet didn't.
She'd dealt with spiritual interferences or delays to her Soul Pager before. Maybe Inoue's human phone simply wasn't compatible with the system Shinigami used.
Ichigo's groan snapped her out of her thoughts, and she got up from his desk chair.
"...Rukia? Where…." His voice rasped painfully against his throat.
Rukia reached for the glass of water she kept on his bedside table. "Here, drink this first."
She helped him sit up, propping his pillows behind him for support. "I'm turning on your desk light, okay?"
They both squinted in the sudden light. When his eyes adjusted, he sat up a little straighter. "When did Yuzu and Karin get here?"
Rukia glanced at his alarm clock. "About an hour or so ago. Should I get them pillows, too?"
"No, that'll just wake them up. I don't want them fussing over me."
"Is that what you think I'm doing?" she teased.
"I've had worse injuries."
At this, her light smile fell. "Pain is pain, Ichigo. Wounds should not be a competition."
His eyes were on her when she took his glass back, but she paid this no mind. Not until he reached out to brush her hair back, anyway.
The calluses on his fingertips traced along the side of her face, scraping a little against her skin. "You're in better shape than I am, at least," he said, and let her hair flow back down again.
Rukia absently patted her head. That fleeting touch left small tingles lingering in its wake.
"The blond Vizard who rescued us wanted me healed first," she muttered after a while.
Ichigo settled against his pillows, heaving a relieved sigh. "Shinji actually listened to me for once. I swear, I can't figure that guy out half the time."
The two looked over when his doorknob jiggled. Was his dad about to check on him?
Light poured in from the hallway, but the figure at the door wasn't anyone they were expecting.
"A-ha! I was wondering where everybody was!" Kon yelled, turning to shut the door behind him again. "You guys didn't tell me you were having an invalid party in Ichigo's room!"
"Keep it down, Kon," Ichigo said. "My sisters are asleep."
Kon slapped his hands over his mouth then crept over to his bed. "Oh, now you wanna play the big bro card, huh?" he asked in a shout-like whisper.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean? I am their big brother."
"By blood maybe! But not in spirit! I mean, while you were off rescuing Nee-san in the Soul Society, I had to play big bro for you. It was exhausting, let me tell you! Your dad jumping me at random times and Karin always ragging on me..."
Kon sighed and absently patted Karin's head.
"Then one night, Yuzu had a nightmare. Karin was sleeping over at her friend's place, and your dad was still downstairs working. She asked if she could sleep in my, er, your room. So I let her. She cried a lot and tried to talk to you about your mom. I didn't know how to handle it. But I swore to myself that if you died in Soul Society, Ichigo, I would never forgive you. Then you go off for a whole month without telling anyone where you went! You're a horrible older brother, you know that?"
Ichigo shot up as if to kick him for such an insult. His wounds split back open and he fell back against his pillow with a gasp.
Rukia went to him instantly. He placed a firm hand on her wrist, and she paused.
"I left to control my Hollow." He sucked in a shaky breath. "So it doesn't get in my way or hurt anyone ever again."
Kon scowled. "So typical of you to give such a flaky answer like that. 'Oooh, I'm Ichigo, and I wanna be the lone wolf hero!' Grow up! If you keep rushing headfirst into battle without even a second thought about who you're protecting, is it even worth it anymore?"
Ichigo looked as if Kon slapped him.
Kon then shoved himself under the crook of Yuzu's arm. "I've decided that I'm gonna support your family any way I can. Even if your sister makes embarrassing outfits for me and treats me like a baby. At least it makes her happy, y'know?"
His snores soon joined the much quieter chorus his sisters kicked up. At last, his needling tirade was done.
Ichigo grunted when Rukia pressed a cold towel to his forehead. "He's right, you know," she muttered, wiping his sweat away.
"Your wounds won't heal if you keep tensing like that. Try to relax."
He only tensed up more. Maybe the pain finally started to register.
"Should I go get your father?" she asked.
"No, it's okay. Just heal me with Kido."
It's not that simple, Rukia wanted to explain. All the sweat beading on his forehead and his strained breathing made her pause.
"I would have done that already if I could. Until Inoue picks up her phone, you're going to have to endure it for now." She lifted the towel from his head and went to work removing his stained bandages. "Your father must have some painkillers down in the clinic."
Ichigo clenched his jaw. "Yeah, he does."
Right when she turned away, he grabbed her wrist again. "Don't go. I wanna talk to you."
"What could you possibly need to talk to me about without taking any painkillers first, fool?" Her tone was soft, the insult half-hearted.
Desperation flickered in his eyes. It was stupid of him to refuse medicine at a time like this. He had to have known that. Even so, it seemed he couldn't bear for her to leave.
Rukia looked away. There was a chance he might slip away again in the time she went to search for the medicine. What good would it do for him then?
She pulled his desk chair closer to his bed, repressing a sigh. He let his hand fall slack.
The steady, clean noise of the towel swirling and trickling water back into the bowl seemed to distract him from the pain for the moment. If only she could do more to help.
"Knowing you, I bet you're thinking Kon was spouting off nonsense," she began again.
Ichigo squinted at her. "Of course he was. Thinking I just throw myself into battle for the sake of it. I'm doing it to protect people, idiot."
Rukia's smile was more exasperated than pleased. "And what of today's battle? Did you really fight that Arrancar to protect anyone? Or was it because you lost to him and you thought your Hollow powers might redeem you?"
He winced when she cleaned the slash across his chest. She'd put a little more pressure on the wound than necessary. A petty way to teach a lesson, to be sure, but he couldn't keep charging headlong into battles for foolish reasons over and over again.
It was just like the two months he helped her with her Shinigami work, only with far deadlier enemies.
"It's okay to fight for personal reasons," she continued. "But when you fight just to prove your own strength, or to brag about winning later, it's not so much a battle anymore than it is a petty grudge match."
"What was I supposed to do? Wait around and let Karakura be destroyed?"
She smiled once more. "No, I know you wouldn't stand for that. But this war shouldn't be yours to fight, Ichigo. Not you nor Inoue nor Chad nor Ishida should have to fight Soul Society's battles for us. That's why all the captain-class officers are here."
"It became my war to fight once Aizen targeted my friends and my home. I can't just let him and the Arrancars wipe Karakura off the map and hundreds of thousands of souls along with it. And for what, a key? To see the Soul King and take his place? Screw that."
Rukia laughed softly despite herself. He really had no idea what the true gravity of killing the Soul King could do to the worlds.
"How many more of your wounds will I have to patch up for you, then, would you say? Aren't you worried about all the scars you'll get from this?" She lightly smacked him on the shoulder. It was already laced with too many hastily-healed wounds.
His own wavering hesitance made her pause. Her fingers still lingered over his new bandages.
"Do you remember...after I rescued you...when I fought your brother?" he whispered.
She did remember. How could she ever forget that immense clash of reiatsu carving through the very air of the Seireitei? No matter how far Renji ran with her in his arms, he could never escape that terrible pressure hanging over the both of them like a noose.
"He didn't make it easy for me, that Byakuya," Ichigo sighed. "But all the wounds I sustained meant something to me. They hurt a lot, and I bled way too much, but…."
His face scrunched up at the mere memory of all the pain he endured. "Is it weird to say that I wish I still had the scars from that battle?"
"As a badge of honor?"
"As a reminder."
She frowned. "Reminder? Of what?"
"Of what I went through. Of how hard I fought. That it was all worth it. I appreciate Inoue healing me, but I kinda wish it left a scar behind. Ugly as it is…."
"Your scars aren't ugly." Rukia ran admiring fingertips over one of the scars on his shoulder. It was a jagged, silver gash that almost glowed. "But you shouldn't have to bear them."
"Don't tell me you're still mad at me about saving you." His eyes brightened then, alight with that same gritty determination he had when he first met her again on the bridge to the Senzaikyū. "Look, I fought because I wanted to. No matter how many times you would tell me to go away or scold me, I would fight. I already decided before I left for Soul Society that I wouldn't listen to you about abandoning you. You didn't deserve to be killed for saving me and my family, Rukia."
She stared at him, unsure of what to say. How many more times could she even thank him without rendering her gratitude meaningless?
"I may not get any of the political stuff behind this war. But it's about more than how Aizen betrayed Soul Society." He sat up straighter, the pain somehow less important than what he had to say to her right here, right now. And she would listen. She had to listen. She could not abandon him when he looked at her with such steady resolve.
"I can't forgive him for what he put you through to get the Hōgyoku. I can't forgive him for trying to kill you for it. I can't forgive Grimmjow punching a hole through your stomach and laughing about it like it was all some game. I hate them for what they did to you, Rukia. It's selfish thinking this way when everyone else wants to save the balance of the worlds. But they need to pay, and I'm fighting to make sure of that."
Rukia finally, finally turned away. "Why do you fight so hard for someone like me?" Her voice barely rose above a disbelieving whisper.
His drive to fight, his unshakable resolve….
She was at the center of it all.
She wasn't worth it. She wasn't worth all that pain and suffering and the scars he'd endured and will continue to endure.
Ichigo placed a steady hand over hers. "I can fight because of you. Because you were brave enough to lend me your power and protect me. So I'll fight like hell to protect you, no matter what. Rukia...I—"
Her hand fell away.
It was terrifying how happy his words made her. Even so….
"You could stand to be even more selfish sometimes," she whispered. "You said to me once that I should learn to worry about myself. The same could be said for you, too, you fool."
Much to her surprise, Ichigo grinned. "I forgot I said that. I guess I'm a bit of a hypocrite, huh?"
His quiet laugh was cut short by a grunt of pain, and his muscles tensed up again.
Rukia put a gentle hand against his forehead. "Rest, Ichigo. I'll go ask your dad for some painkillers."
As she turned, she felt a weak tug on her sleeve. Ichigo did not look at her, but she could tell from the way his hand trembled that this was important.
"I almost lost you again today. To Grimmjow." He took a few heaving breaths. "You want me to be selfish for once? Then stay."
"But your wounds—"
"Rukia." His hand slid down to hold her own.
It was such a simple thing, his hand in hers. Such a simple thing for him to squeeze it and wish she would not leave him.
It was not so simple for her to let go.
"I'll stay," she whispered.
How odd a mere brush of hands could do this to her. How odd that the image of all those scars lacing through his body refused to leave her mind.
Odder still that she would listen to the ramblings of such a fool in this state.
Rukia quickly cast these troubling thoughts away. "In your closet, for old time's sake."
He settled back down, his relief so palpable it nearly made her smile.
"Thank you, Rukia."
At this, she did smile.
"Go to sleep already, you fool."
A/N: Real Rukia appreciation hours. She deserves the world. And I guess "Everyone roasts Ichigo" hours because why not lol.
Not exactly what a lot of people had in mind when hearing "dress up/down" ig, but I really like writing reflective stuff like this idk.
*Crossposted to AO3.