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Growing Up Gifted

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Chapter 1: Our lives are different

April 5th.

It didn't happen right away. It was the beginning of December when Ichigo lost his spiritual pressure, and he didn't go back to school until after the New Year break. The lanky strawberry-blond initially enjoyed a bit of a honeymoon period after having his shinigami responsibilities lifted off of his shoulders. He relished hanging out in arcades with Keigo and Mizuiro after school, getting into normal fistfights with delinquents under the bridge with Chad, and going home to eat dinner and do his homework and go to bed at a reasonable hour and sleep through the night. He even would go so far as to say he didn't hate helping Ishida and Inoue when she begged him to model items they had sewn for the handicrafts club's Winter Fashion Show.

But as winter led to spring and a new school year he began to get nostalgic, remembering that come May it would be a year since he first met Rukia. Despite her abuse, he missed the ankle-biting shinigami. If he was honest, he was also starting to miss his shinigami duties. If he was really honest, he missed feeling like a hero most of all.

So when Rukia and Renji showed up in class on the first day of his second year of high school, he was conflicted. He had so many questions. Why? Why them? Why now? He was worried. He was elated. He wanted answers. Despite all that he decided to suck it up and wait until lunch to get them.

---

At lunch, Ichigo headed with Chad, Mizuiro and Keigo to the the otherwise empty classroom in which they usually ate lunch during inclement weather. He started to pick up speed as he got closer, impatient to learn what Rukia and Renji were doing at school.

"Ichigo!", the black-haired midget sung from her perch on the windowsill as he stopped short in the doorway, and the inquiring teen was about to begin his planned interrogation when he was clobbered from behind, nearly falling to his knees. He turned around to see Tatsuki offering a hand to a very out-of-breath Orihime, who was flanked by a flailing Uryuu.

"Inoue-san! Are you alright?" the wispy Quincy asked in a tone similar to a first-time mother watching her precious baby take a misstep and fall, while posturing like a disheveled hen.

"She's fine, Ishida. Sheesh," answered Tatsuki, while dragging Orihime up by the elbow. The mortified healer offered a quick bow while brushing off her now-dusty skirt and mumbling an apology before quickly bee-lining it for a desk near Rukia. Apparently Ichigo wasn't the only one anxious for answers, he thought, if Orihime's lack of self-consciousness was any indication. The others quickly found a seat.

Ichigo recovered and started the proceedings. "What are you doing here, and why can I see you?" he asked in a voice that betrayed his hopefulness. As much as he thought he wanted his normal life back; as much as he denied it himself over the preceding months, he wanted to be a shinigami again.

Renji and Rukia made eye contact, and the taller of the two smirked while the other rolled her eyes with great emphasis. "We're in gigai, brainiac," Rukia replied as she hopped off her perch and made her way over to the former Shinigami. "What, were you hoping your reiatsu had been magically restored or something?" she snipped, flicking him on the forehead.

"Oi! I never thought…" Ichigo denied. "We're here because of the recent hollow infestation in Karakura," Renji interrupted. "Didn't they tell you?" he gestured toward Uryuu, Orihime and Chad, who suddenly looked very interested in their lunches.

"What hollow infestation? Why didn't you tell me?" Ichigo looked pointedly at his three supernaturally gifted friends.

Uryuu and Chad looked to Orihime, who wilted under their pleading gazes. She took a deep breath and looked up directly into Ichigo's eyes for the first time since she left Hueco Mundo. The hurt and betrayal she saw there caused her to wince slightly before she caught herself. Suddenly the vague sense of guilt she had been holding onto came into stark focus.

"I'm so sorry Kurosaki–kun," she spoke softly - gently - like she held the trigger to an explosive. "We wanted to tell you, but we didn't want to burden you. We knew it would bother you that you couldn't help…"

Chad could see that Orihime's explanation was not having the desired effect. Ichigo had taken a step backward and was shaking his head in apparent denial before the quiet man decided to speak up. "I think what Inoue is trying to say is that we weren't trying to keep anything from you. We thought the local shinigami had it covered, and when he didn't, we thought we could deal with it. Just recently things started to get out of control".

Ichigo looked back up at Orihime with knitted brows, and although his eyes shone with pain, his voice was laced with poorly concealed anger. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was so untrustworthy and useless." he growled with humorless sarcasm.

"Watch it, Kurosaki", a sharp voice interjected, and the Quincy was suddenly in Ichigo's face, shielding Orihime from their friend's misplaced ire.

"What's it to you, Ishida?" Ichigo shot back and stood up to his full height, towering over his rival by a few inches.

"Boys, boys, boys," Rukia muttered exasperatedly as she put a small hand on either teenager's chest, pushing them apart none-too-gently. "Can I have everyone's attention, please?" She returned to the window and was joined by Renji. "I will explain everything as succinctly as possible. Renji and I are here because Soul Society has identified a sudden rise in hollow activity in Karakura. The resident shinigami was killed nine days ago. Sado, Ishida, and Inoue have been able to deal with the threat so far, but the situation is not ideal. We arrived two days ago have been staying with Urahara. We will be going to school with you again so that Sado, Ishida, and Inoue are not constantly 'on call' for hollow-slaying duty. We will be here until the further orders from Soul Society." Her tone softened slightly as she continued, "I'm happy to see you, too, Ichigo. You owe Inoue an apology; she was only trying to protect you".

"Protect me?" Ichigo spat out, eyes wildly looking from one pitying face to another. "What do you mean, protect me?!"

"Well," Orihime began, looking intently at the hem of her skirt presently clenched in her small fists, "The hollows seem to be following you, Kurosaki-kun. We don't know why, and you don't seem to notice. We have not let them get you yet, um, obviously... But every time it happens they get closer and closer", she hesitantly raised her eyes to his then, and he saw the tears that were beginning to pool there. She was clearly trying very hard to keep them at bay. He suddenly felt like an asshole.

"I'm sorry, Inoue." He said in defeat as he tore his gaze away from hers and blushed. How could he have been so oblivious? Although his friends just returned from spring break, they looked awful. Ishida and Chad looked like they hadn't slept in a week, and Inoue was looking thin and drawn. "How long has this been going on?", he wondered. "Had they been doing this since December?"

"Anyway," Renji continued where Rukia left off, "Because you seem to be the hollows' target, we thought it would be best if we stayed with you".

"Oh no, I am not having that munchkin sleep in my closet again", Ichigo answered hastily.

"Ah, you are mistaken, Ichigo. I will not be staying in your closet. Urahara and your father have agreed it would be best for both Renji and I to stay in the Kurosaki Clinic." Rukia responded in a know-it-all tone.

"Oh great," Ichigo began to whine, "You mean my old man's in on this too? How many people have been keeping this from me? Do you really think keeping all this a secret has been for my own protection?"

Orihime suddenly stood up, knocking her chair over and gaining everyone's attention in the process. However, when she spoke, she had an audience of one in mind. "Kurosaki-kun always protects everyone he cares about. He still does, even without being a shinigami", she said in a surprisingly assertive tone. Ichigo looked to her and was silenced by the intensity of her gaze as she spoke. "I also want to protect those I care about. I want to protect you, Kurosaki-kun. We all do. You sacrificed so much for all of us. We only want to do what we can to make sure Kurosaki-kun is safe and happy. We owe you our lives, Kurosaki-kun." The tears she had been holding back were finally beginning to fall as her composure began to break. She continued in a whisper, "I am so sorry I couldn't protect you from this. You died for me, Kurosaki-kun. After everything you did for me in Hueco Mundo, I am so ashamed that I can't even keep you safe from run-of-the-mill hollows…"

Ichigo was disarmed by Orihime's honesty and distressed by her raw display of emotion. He hesitantly reached out to comfort her but stalled as Tatsuki put her arm around the healer's shoulders.

"I'm sure Ichigo forgives you, Orihime", the tomboy spoke tersely while trying to soothe her tear-stricken friend. Her eyes shot daggers at Ichigo for a moment, but softened, as she appeared to remember something. "I understand how you feel, Ichigo," she spoke tentatively at first. Her resolve seemed to solidify as she pondered her next words. "When you all got your powers, I could barely even see hollows, and I felt like I was being left behind" she looked to Orihime apologetically and back to Ichigo. "Even now, although I can see them I can't really fight them with any effectiveness. We are both fighters, Ichigo. It kills me that I can't win in a fight against the hollows. I am sure it is killing you, too, to be unable to do anything against them. But there is nothing we can do about it Ichigo. Nothing except support our friends the best we can."

Ichigo knew she was right, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow. He got up and began to walk out of the room. He stopped as he reached the doorway and looked over his shoulder, "I need the rest of the day to digest this. I guess I'll see you tonight, Rukia, Renji," he said flatly. Keigo and Mizuiro followed him shortly thereafter, desperate to escape the gloomy atmosphere in the room.

"Well," said Uryuu in an upbeat tone, "that went better than I expected."

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Orihime's "Notes to Self"

March 15th.

I still dream about it every night, although it's not as traumatic as it was at first. The clash of swords, the whip-crack of tails, the snap of black, sail-like wings. Blasts of green and red interspersed with raining blue arrows. Roars and horns and murderous eyes. It used to terrify me. Now it's just sad. It was all for nothing. So much potential lost. So much innocence lost.

Other mornings it is sad viridian eyes. A pale, graceful hand reaching, reaching, further and further, so close. I am still heartbroken every time I wake up with the sense-memory of ash between my fingers.

I am sure part of this is looking at the past through rose-colored glasses, and I know if I told Tatsuki-chan about it she would think I was delusional (although I suspect she already does), but I believe with all my heart that Ulquiorra was on a path toward transformation. I first saw potential for his salvation during the dull moments we spent together in Hueco Mundo. He told me how he did not come into existence the same as other hollows; how he could not consume souls like other hollows did. He was just empty. As his emptiness grew, so did his power. I recognized there was an element of purity within him, although he would deny it.

I remember his enraged frustration when I spoke to him about the "heart". Perhaps in part because of my stubborn insistence on using only that word when so many others might have conveyed what I meant better, but at the time, under stress… it's meaningless now. But it did frustrate him that he couldn't understand, because he wanted to understand. He could have just dismissed it outright. But he was fixated.

I have repeatedly analyzed every moment of our short time together, and the evidence is overwhelming; he wanted to become something more. He wanted to feel the heart, desperately. I am sure what he was telling me in the end was that he finally understood. That is why he saved Ishida-kun and I from Kurosaki-kun. He could have just watched us become Kurosaki-kun's hollow's collateral damage; he didn't have to intervene. I'm certain if he had just had more time, he would have… I don't know. It's all for naught now, though. I pray wherever he is now, he is at peace.

I'm so sorry.

---

April 4th.

One of the benefits/detriments of living alone is the abundance of time I have to mull things over. I know everyone thinks I'm an airhead, but I certainly am not. Nor am I particularly naïve – let me tell you, I have seen and experienced some really horrible things. But you know what? It's not anyone else's baggage. It's mine. I can keep it to myself. I can hide my feelings and support my friends, even if it means covering up my inconsistencies with a "silly me". All they ever do is protect me. I don't have the guts to do more than shield and heal. I am useless when things really get bad, and they have gotten really bad in the recent past. The least I can do is cheer my friends on, let them know that I am OK, and I will do anything to help them be OK too.

When Kurosaki-kun woke up after Aizen was captured, I didn't do such a good job supporting him, though. I couldn't admit it at the time, but I was afraid. I was angry. Why had he come for me, only to get himself killed and reincarnated into the most terrifying being I have ever witnessed? His Vasto Lord hollow form was like a robot with one directive: to kill anything it deemed a threat to me. To hell with the consequences. To hell with whoever happened to be in the vicinity. He nearly killed Ishida-kun! How could I forgive that? Why would he do that if his primary goal was to protect my interests?

So I avoided him. My motivation for avoiding him was selfish, but in the end I think it was what was best for him at the time anyway. He seemed to slide back into his pre-shinigami life rather easily, and he walked with a lightness I hadn't seen in him for a long time. But over the months he began showing signs of dissatisfaction again.

I decided to reach out to him, tentatively, by asking him to help the handicrafts club by modeling for our fashion show. I thought it would be a no-pressure way to reconnect him with Ishida and me, and surprisingly, he decided to help with a lot less pleading than I expected. He even seemed to have fun. But, soon he stopped saying hello every time he passed me in the halls, and after a few weeks he went back to talking pretty exclusively with Sado-kun, Mizuiro-kun, Keigo-san, and occasionally Tatsuki-chan. I thought maybe the ball was in my court, and that I should maybe reach out again, but part of me thought maybe he wanted to go back to how it was before; before we were friends and comrades in arms. So sadly, I let him be.

I have had months to think it over, of course. I am still left with more questions than answers but I am no longer angry or afraid of Kurosaki-kun. And now I am able to recognize that either his transition back to his pre-shinigami life was an act or that the novelty has worn off. He is irritable and antsy now. He is picking fights and getting into trouble. I pity him; he lost so much, sacrificed so much, and now he is left with only the memories of his greatness. And he was great, in the scariest, most reverent definition of the word. Most days I am convinced that he did what he did because he would do anything to protect people he cares about, and that is that. I think I am probably right; Kurosaki-kun is kind and noble, as much as he acts like a punk. Still, a small part of me wonders if he did it for power. A smaller part of me wonders if he did it because he secretly loves me. I'll admit, I often still wish that was true. He is so beautiful it hurts.

It was the beginning of spring break, about ten days ago now, that the hollows in Karakura started getting out of control. The resident shinigami was killed after a day, and Ishida-kun and Sado-kun had to handle the rest that night. I spent the morning after healing their wounds, and together we decided to try to handle the outbreak ourselves while we waited for back-up from Soul Society. Tatsuki-chan noticed this time and actually helped out with a few of the smaller hollows – she can't finish them but she can hold them off until Ishida-kun or Sado-kun arrive.

The following day, Ishida-kun and I came to the realization that the hollows were honing in on Kurosaki-kun's location. I can't tell you the number of times I have had to secretly cast a shield around Kurosaki-kun over the past week. And I don't know if it's because I am sleep-deprived or what, but I swear he is starting to notice and respond. At first he would just stop what he was doing and look around after a while, like he smelled something different. Today I cast a shield around him and he stopped dead and looked at it immediately; squinting as if he were trying to see something that wasn't there. I almost dropped the shield in surprise, but the hollow was right on top of it. Ishida-kun destroyed the hollow shortly thereafter, thankfully. When I did drop my shield, I noticed Kurosaki-kun shook his head in frustration, sighed and ran off with an odd expression on his face. I spoke to Ishida-kun and Sado-kun about it but they think I am just exhausted and seeing things. I disagree. I think he really is regaining his spiritual abilities. I am not sure if that is a good or a bad thing for him, but selfishly, I want my hero back.

Now that time has passed and what happened in Hueco Mundo is only a memory, I am able to truly appreciate what he did for me; what he did for all of us. He literally saved the world. He gave up everything, even his humanity for a brief time, to get me out of Hueco Mundo and help stop Aizen. He never gave up until he had nothing left to give. And still he goes on. He hasn't given up on his studies or the friends he had before. He hasn't fallen to despair over his lost power. I admire him so much.

I love him.

P.S. My second year of high school starts tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: In the Loop, Out of the Know

A/N: I have been listening to a lot of "Wizard People, Dear Reader", which is making my writing a bit facetious in part of this chapter. If you haven't heard/watched it, look it up.

April 5th. 4:30 p.m.

Ichigo flopped onto his bed as only angsty teenagers can and pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes in a "why me?" type of position. But he knew why. He knew he was being unreasonable. It wasn't anyone's fault that things were like this, and he knew he should not have taken his frustration out on his friends. He stayed in bed for another hour contemplating how life was unfair and reasoning himself back to reality, until he was called down to dinner by Yuzu.

"Onii-chan!" Her sweet voice rang up the stairs for the second time, and he rolled out of bed with the grace of a walrus. His heavy footsteps fell upon each stair as if he carried the burden of Atlas, and he walked into the dining area followed by a cloud of gloom. He slid into his usual seat and kept his eyes downcast until he was pulled out of his brooding with a swift kick to the shin. "What the…" Ichigo yelped as he looked up across the table into the face of the Crimson Pineapple himself, Renji Abarai.

"Nice of you to join us, Ichigo", Renji replied without a hint of irony. "Would you look at what Yuzu put together for all of us? This looks great, Yooz!" he shouted the last part into the kitchen. Yuzu stuck her head into the dining room for a moment and grinned at the two of them so wide her eyes were invisible.

"Yooz? Really? The next time you say that it will be the last thing you ever say," her brother snarled, then, suddenly distracted, looked around the room and asked,"Wait a sec, where's Rukia?"

"Hollow", Renji replied with disinterest while he looked over the spread on the table in earnest. "It was just right outside; she's got it covered."

"I can't believe this." The perturbed teenager looked up and shut his mouth as Yuzu, Karin, and his dad entered the room. Rukia came in a moment later acting completely normal.

The senior Kurosaki stood at the head of the table as everyone else took their seats. "This is a special occasion," he announced. "Today, my third daughter brings to dine with us her future husband!"

Yuzu gasped and clapped her hands, looking between Renji and Rukia with glee, while Karin sighed and executed a textbook example of side-eye. "What are you talking about, Goatbeard?" she asked reluctantly.

"Ahem!" Rukia stood, clearing her throat, and looking around the table. "Thank you, Kurosaki-san, for your warm welcome and continued hospitality, but I am sure you are mistaken. Renji and I are only sleeping together, not engaged", she informed the group matter-of-factly and sat back down.

"What?!" Ichigo screamed in an undignified fashion as he stood. "Wait, What?" he tried to recover, and failed. "I mean, don't you think that is kind of inappropriate to talk about in front of Yuzu and Karin!?"

"It's not like we're babies, Ichi-ni" Karin interjected. "Besides, the only one here who is scandalized is you."

"Oh, Karin, don't tease your brother. You know he is an innocent boy", Isshin managed to say with a straight face. "Rukia and Renji's love is a beautiful thing. There is no reason to hide it."

"Auughhh! Good GOD! What is wrong with this family? Why can't you ever be normal?!" Ichigo complained, and shifted his focus to their guests. "I don't care what you two do, as long as you aren't doing it here!" he demanded with the complexion of a tomato.

Rukia and Renji displayed absolutely no shame whatsoever. "We are far too busy with our current assignment to engage in such frivolity. Your fears are unwarranted", Rukia responded in a faux offended tone.

"Can we please eat now? Poor Yuzu's hard work will go to waste if we let this feast get cold," Renji pointed out.

The Kurosaki household got to eating and the rest of the dinner conversation was much less controversial. After dinner, Ichigo was struck by the fact that after the initial awkwardness, everything felt surprisingly normal. He was finally beginning to come to terms with everything that had transpired that day and was beginning to drift off to sleep when he remembered how he had lashed out at his friends at lunch. A wave of guilt washed over him. He groaned and got up. There was no use trying to sleep now. He threw on a sweatshirt and jogging pants, went downstairs, and put his sneakers on at the door. "I'm going for a run, if anybody cares," he called into the darkness. There was no response.

He started at a moderate pace and let his mind wander. The night air was chilly, and there were few street lights in his residential neighborhood. He made his way to the main road that led to the adjoining neighborhood. Once he reached the better-lit road, he increased his speed. His mind started to clear as his breathing settled into a steady pattern, and the stress he was holding onto started to melt into the pavement.

He kept his pace for about fifteen minutes and stopped at a park with several vending machines along the bordering sidewalk. He stopped at one to get a drink and catch his breath; it had actually been awhile since he had run like that. He opened his drink and took a sip, relishing the quiet of the evening. It wasn't especially late, only a little after ten o'clock, but much of Karakura was asleep at this time on a weeknight.

His mind wandered back to the pre-dinner conversation. He wasn't particularly surprised to learn about Rukia and Renji's relationship, although the fact that he wasn't surprised did surprise him. He supposed that after all, they were potentially centuries older than him; it stood to reason that they would take part in more mature relationships than he and his peers did. It just never actually occurred to him before. He was just starting to wonder whether they were trying to get a rise out of him or if they were really that oblivious to human norms when it came to their candid admission, when he was brought out of his musings by a soft voice.

"Umm, Kurosaki-kun? What are you doing out here?" the voice asked. Ichigo turned around to see Orihime standing a small distance from him, hugging a jacket to her form that was not quite heavy enough to protect her from the chill in the air. Ichigo noted her pink cheeks and thought that she must have been outside for several minutes at least to be as cold as she appeared.

"I was taking a run," the former shinigami started, then remembered why he was out here in the first place. "Listen, Inoue, I really am sorry for how I acted this afternoon, especially toward you. There is no excuse for it. I guess I was shocked and took it poorly…" he trailed off and looked up to gauge her reaction.

Her face was not what he was expecting. Her brows were drawn up and together about as far as they could go, eyes wide, lips pursed, and cheeks a much bolder shade of pink then they were just a moment ago. She looked mortified.

"Ah, ha ha ha, d..d…don't worry about it, K…K…Kurosaki-kun" she stuttered, trying to recover by casually scratching the back of her head and grinning. "I understand it must have been a lot to absorb all at once."

He allowed a one-sided smile at her antics. "Yeah, it was. It was still no reason to take it out on you," he countered, relaxing as his confession eased his guilty conscious a bit. "I'll have to apologize to everyone else tomorrow".

"You mean you didn't see Renji-kun and Rukia-chan tonight?" the healer asked, surprised.

"No, I saw them. They nearly caused me to choke during dinner with their big announcement," Ichigo answered.

"What big announcement?" Orihme asked, innocently.

"You mean they didn't tell you? I would have thought at least Rukia would have said something to you, but I guess nothing they do is normal," he complained. "I guess I'm not the only one around here who isn't in the loop on everything".

"What are you talking about, Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime pressed. She was starting to worry. "Did something bad happen? Did they receive any news from Soul Society about the hollows?"

Ichigo shook his head and sighed. "I only wish it was something useful like that. I guess there is no harm in telling you, it's not like they were trying to be discreet or anything. Rukia and Renji are together," he watched as a dim understanding started and stalled across Orihime's features. "I mean, like, 'together' together. Rukia flat-out told us the nature of their relationship at dinner tonight."

Orihime's face lit up like a Christmas tree. "That is wonderful! Oh, I am so happy for them!" she squealed, bringing her fists to her mouth and twirling around in a small circle. Ichigo felt a small tightness in his chest, witnessing her pure joy. It had been some time since he'd seen her so genuinely happy.

"Well, that makes three of you, at least. My old man and Yuzu are practically planning their wedding"

"What?! They are engaged?! Why didn't you say so? That is even better news!" Orihime squeaked as she closed the distance between herself and Ichigo, so that they were only an arm's length apart. She looked up into his face in an attempt to read his expression; his previous statement didn't come without a dose of sarcasm.

"No, Rukia quickly informed us that that was not the case," Ichigo informed her as he looked back at her freshly disappointed face. Now that it was so much closer, he was able to observe that her teeth were chattering slightly. "What were you doing out here anyway, Inoue? You are not exactly dressed for the weather." he asked.

"Oh, that…" she began hesitantly. "I sensed a hollow just past the park before you got here. It was gone before I arrived; I only live two blocks away from here, but it seems like Renji-kun got here first". She looked up at him under her eyelashes to shield herself from any potential negative reaction .

What she found on his face, however, was only compassion. "I'm sorry you had to come out here for that, Inoue. I forgot that I am the one the hollows are supposedly after; I shouldn't have gone out without making sure Renji or Rukia knew." He paused a moment, glad to see her face relax, but bothered by her shivering. "Let's get you back home," he said, before starting off toward her apartment.

"Oh, no, Kurosaki-kun! You don't need to walk me home," the auburn-haired girl protested. "It's only a couple blocks..."

"And let a nice girl like you walk home alone at this time of night? I think not." Ichigo replied matter-of-factly. "My old man would kick my ass if he thought I was going to let you go off alone".

Orihime smiled sheepishly and fell into step beside him. "Thank you, Kurosaki-kun," she said, and added softly, but just audibly enough for him to hear, "even now, you are still protecting me".

He hoped she didn't notice the tips of his ears turning red as he made sure to walk just a step ahead of her.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Uryuu's Diary: Relative Equilibrium

July 1st

It feels like a miracle; I have slept through the night for an entire week. Seven nights in a row of uninterrupted, blissful oblivion. Well, mostly; there are the dreams, but they are not altogether unpleasant.

When I looked at myself in the mirror this morning I was impressed by said sleep's restorative power: I look like I'm sixteen again, not some haggard adult. And though I do enjoy taking down hollows, the wear and tear of constant fighting had taken its toll on me physically, and the stress of being constantly on alert had gotten to me mentally. If Inoue-san hadn't been able to heal my shoulders on the regular, I don't even know if I could raise a bow anymore. And, I know I'm not famous for my patience, but I was really getting snappy with everyone at school - and Ryuuken, but I guess that is nothing new.

Thinking of Inoue-san, it appears she is benefitting from a more balanced lifestyle. Her face glows again, and her body… no no no, I mean, her physical condition, has never been better. The unflattering weight loss she incurred after Hueco Mundo has been rectified and she looks like she has gained an inch or so of height… her legs are so long. Really, her body is a piece of art. I know she can't really afford a new school uniform on her aunt's allowance, but maybe she would let me alter hers to fit her, um, womanly figure, better. As it is her poor summer uniform's buttons can barely contain her ample… Holy hell! It appears the dreams I previously referenced are starting to creep into my waking thoughts. She gets enough unwelcome attention without me adding mine to the mix. Ok, think about anything else - Inoue-san is not an object – oh right, I was thinking about her face.

She smiles more sincerely now, though that might have something to do with that dimwit, Kurosaki, finally acting like he knows us again. His apparent new year's resolution to cut ties with us really hurt her. When the new school year started and Rukia and Renji showed up, I guess it made it difficult for him to pretend the previous year never happened. At first it really bothered me that he just went back to normal with us, as if his whole "you and Inoue don't exist" phase never happened, but it clearly makes Inoue-san happy, so I have decided to accept it. It doesn't hurt that her increase in overall happiness causes her to smile at me more often, either.

The situation beyond Inoue-san and myself has also appeared to have reached some kind of equilibrium. The hollows are still coming out in larger-than-normal numbers, but we've been able to ascertain that they only appear out of four consistent locations. It makes sensing and locating them much more efficient. One shinigami can easily keep a spiritual eye on two locations at once, so Rukia and Renji have been able to take over dealing with them most of the time. It's only when three or more portals open at once that Sado-san or I are required. We try to keep Inoue-san out of it as much as possible except when we need to be healed.

The overall effect of this is that we are all able to act like relatively normal high school students again. Although I take academics seriously, schoolwork has always come easily to me. However, my participation in the handicrafts club had been suffering, so I am glad this new period of peace came just in time for our preparations for Tanabata*. The shrine around the corner from the school holds a festival each year and many of our school's extracurricular clubs always have stands there. The handicrafts club, under my leadership, has decided to do a photo booth of sorts in collaboration with the photography club. Our booth will have a Milky Way backdrop and Orihime and Hikoboshi* costumes for guests to wear and have souvenir pictures taken. We have completed most of the decorations, and the first-year students can handle the rest, leaving Inoue-san and I free to finish up the costumes. Of course, she is going to be the model for the Orihime kimono and I'll be the model for the Hikoboshi kimono in the example picture.

We are also planning on making a yukata for Inoue-san to wear for the rest of the festival when her shift at the photo booth is over. She had one from when she was younger, but it obviously doesn't fit her anymore. I curated a selection of fabrics I thought would complement her coloring before she came into the clubroom the day we started it. To my great delight she chose the one I had hoped she would; it is lightweight cotton in a traditional indigo color with a white hydrangea pattern that I thought could grow with her for decades. She could make it look older or younger depending on how she accessorized it. It will never look cheap or gaudy; always effortlessly elegant. It will be perfect for her.

Well, now I sound like one of her many admirers. I mean, I do admire her, but not in the basic way her fanboys do. She is, honestly, my closest friend. I am aware I am distant by nature, but nobody knows me better than her, and there are things about her I know that even Arisawa-san doesn't. My second closest friend is probably Kurosaki, unfortunately, and only because he manages to push my buttons hard enough that I let what I am really thinking slip. The difference between the two as friends is that I despise Kurosaki and adore Orihime.

Now if I could only get over this little crush that I seem to have developed on her. I am certain it will pass – we are friends and comrades, after all, and only sixteen, which lends credibility to my belief that much of this is due to normal adolescent hormonal fluctuations, which also explains the dreams. As the last Quincy, it is my duty to focus my passion on mastering my skills. I don't have time for teenage romance. I am worn thin as it is. Maybe one day, when the time is right, the issue of Inoue-sand and I can be re-examined, but we'll put that away for now.

I will leave it there tonight. Tomorrow is another busy day.

* Google it if you don't know. Wikipedia's article on it is pretty good.

A/N: The slip with him referring to her as Orihime was intentional on my part and subliminal on Ishida's. Let me know if you are loving, hating or indifferent to this story!

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Tanabata

July 7th

The day had started much like any other school morning for Ichigo Kurosaki. He dodged his father's flying kick, had breakfast with his sisters, Renji, and Rukia, and left before everyone else to avoid further aggravation. It wasn't until he arrived at school that he started to suspect something different was going on.

"Inoue-san and Ishida-san?" he heard in a hushed chorus from a pack of students that seemed to be congregating at a spot in front of the student announcements board just inside the entrance past their lockers. As he approached nearer he picked up more snippets of gossip:

"Do you think they are really together?"

"They make an attractive pair, I suppose."

"There is no way someone like Inoue would ever go for a guy like Ishida…"

"It's just advertising! Sheesh, people, this is not breaking news!" Ichigo recognized that voice as Tatsuki's.

"Oi, Tatsuki," he called out over the din. She made eye contact and met him halfway. "What is all this about? Why do people think Inoue and Ishida are together?"

"Oh, you haven't seen it? Come right this way then." she replied with malicious glee and added, "Move aside, people!" strong-arming her way through the crowd. When she arrived at the announcement board and gestured to the object in question with the schmaltz of a game show assistant, Ichigo's expression dropped momentarily. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. There before him was an image of Inoue and Ishida, dressed as Orihime and Hikoboshi in front of a Milky Way backdrop. Ishida was looking at Inoue fondly while holding one of her hands in both of his as she blushed and looked up at him sideways from under her lashes, holding her other kimono-wrapped hand to her chin in a rather coy pose. Ishida looked proud. Inoue looked flattered. Ichigo looked like he was going to vomit.

"What the hell is this?!" he shouted much louder than he intended.

"You are just as bad as the rest of them, aren't you," Tatsuki sighed. "Would you look again, at the writing under the picture?"

"I'd rather not see that ever again, Thanks". Ichigo answered, having recovered his usual scowling expression.

"Wow, you really are as bad as these people" Tatsuki gestured to the dispersing group. "If you could get over whatever that reaction was, you would read that this picture is advertising the handicrafts and photography clubs' photo booth event at the Tanabata festival tonight. Ishida and Orihime are just acting as models in this picture." Ichigo visibly relaxed after hearing this, piquing Tatsuki's curiosity. "Wait a minute - were you actually worried that they were together? Why would that be?" she teased.

"Knock it off, Tatsuki," the now emotionally exhausted teenager grumbled. "I was just surprised, that's it."

"If you say so," his now-disinterested classmate replied as the first warning bell rang. "Better get to class."

"Yeah…" Ichigo lagged behind in thought for a moment. He was puzzled as to why he was so disturbed by the image of Ishida and Inoue together. He couldn't lie to himself; he did indeed think they were a couple on seeing the photograph. Then he shook his head and decided to push the idea from his mind – he had a history quiz first period to focus on.

When he entered the classroom, however, he was once again reminded. Ishida stood near Inoue's desk looking like the cat who ate the canary, while Inoue wore a more distressed expression. They were surrounded by classmates asking them questions about the picture and the photobooth.

"Yes, yes. We worked very hard on the costumes; I'm pleased you like them," Ishida boasted to one student, while Inoue answered another one, "No, no, no, it's nothing like that! We were just modeling for the photobooth advertisement! Takeda-senpai from the photography club coached us to pose like that." Ichigo observed that the two were having a very different response to the interest in their potential pairing. He was oddly satisfied by that, but as his attention redirected to Inoue, he quickly decided a rescue was in order. He put on a frown and stormed over to his newly famous friends.

"Find your seats, people! Ishida, Inoue - Chad and I were looking for you! Come out to the hall for a minute." He called over the heads of the students. Both handicraft club members hurried from their spots to the hallway after Ichigo.

"What is it Kurosaki-kun? " the healer asked, looking tremendously relieved.

"Nothing. I just thought you two were probably getting sick of the attention about now," he replied, noticing Ishida's concerned expression changing to one of irritation.

"Really, Kurosaki, that was unnecessary," the archer muttered as the first period bell rang and he turned back to the classroom, "now we'll be late for class! Come on, Inoue-san."

Orihime stalled for a moment and looked Ichigo in the eye with earnest gratitude. "Thank you, Kurosaki-kun," she breathed. "Will you come to our photobooth tonight?"

"Of course," he blurted out without thinking as a blush crossed his cheeks. Orihime nodded and smiled up at him and dashed back into the classroom. Ichigo shook his head at himself when as he walked behind her, realizing what he just agreed to do.

-—-

Members of clubs participating in the Tanabata Festival were allowed to leave school early to prepare, so the last period of the day was free study. Ichigo's classroom was short by about one-third of its students, and those remaining broke off into small groups to study and chat. Ichigo sat with Chad, Mizuiro, and Keigo, and the latter would not stop talking about the festival. "How long do we have to stay here? I want to have my picture taken with Inoue-chan!" he whined. "By the time we get there, there will be a line around the block!"

"Why would you think that? Isn't the photobooth just for couples and stuff?" Ichigo asked dubiously.

"Are you broken?" Keigo answered incredulously, oblivious to Ichigo's mounting irritation. "To answer your first question, Inoue-san is the hottest girl in school, obviously! Everyone will want a picture with the school's resident goddess Orihime. And to your second question, refer to my first answer."

"Oh yeah right," Ichigo started, before Mizuiro chimed in calmly, eyes still glued to his phone, "Actually, there seems to be quite an interest online. #tanabataphotobooth is trending right now."

"He's right, Ichigo," Tatsuki had overheard and made her way to the group of boys, flanked by Chizuru and the other girls. "My phone has been blowing up with questions about when she is going to be there." The other girls nodded in agreement and went on to talk about how lucky Orihime was, to have her choice of any of the boys and some of the girls in school.

To say Ichigo was blindsided was an understatement. He had never thought about Inoue that way before, and it was becoming apparent to him that he was in the minority. The idea that people found his friend attractive didn't bother him, but the fact that they were treating her like a celebrity did, knowing that she was uncomfortable with the attention.

The remainder of the last period went by with Ichigo's eyes flittering from his notebook to the wall clock and back, and when the final bell rang at last he was up and out of his desk without waiting for his entourage to follow. They caught up with him at the lockers as he just finished changing his shoes and was about to leave when Chad stopped him. "We're coming, just wait a minute", he said simply with one hand on Ichigo's shoulder. His best friend was very observant and had been aware of Ichigo's anxiety, even without any reiatsu fluctuations to detect. Ichigo exhaled audibly and nodded, shifting his weight from one foot to the other while his friends changed shoes as well.

The moment Keigo got his street shoes on Ichigo was out the door, and halfway through the school courtyard before anyone else had made it outside. He heard Tatsuki shout, "Hey guys, wait up!" and finally realized how eager he must look. He cringed inwardly, and decided to try to cover it somehow.

"Hurry up, I'm starving! I want to get some takoyaki before it sells out!" he called across courtyard, pleased with his lie.

"They will just make more," Tatsuki pointed out, catching up.

"But the first batch is the best batch," Ichigo countered, and was relieved when no one offered an argument to his ridiculous claim. He continued to lead the group to the festival at an expedited pace. When they arrived, he was nothing short of gobsmacked. Despite his friends' insistence, he didn't quite believe them when they said there would be a long – and growing - line for the photobooth. He took some small satisfaction that there were indeed couples and pairs of friends in line as well – not all of them wanted a picture with Inoue – but the majority were single males. And not all of them were students of Karakura High School. There were uniforms from middle schools and nearby high schools in line, but what really rubbed him the wrong way was the conspicuous presence of men without uniforms. Men who were likely college students and recent graduates were one thing, but there were men in business suits, retired men in leisure wear, and, most gallingly, guys who spent all their time loitering outside of convenience stores and hawking hostess bars in the redlight district. That was the last straw. He turned on his heel and cut to the front of the line.

"Oh, Kurosaki-kun! You came!" Orihime's high-pitched voice lifted over the line of admirers.

"Hey, get in line, pal!" a man a few people back shouted.

"Oh, don't worry everyone, he is part of the staff," Uryuu called out to the line, attempting to placate them. "Inoue-san will be taking a short break soon. After the next ten photos we will be taking only pairs; singles can wait in a separate line." A collective groan was heard. Ishida looked to Ichigo and waved him to the inside of the photobooth, to the side of the picture-taking area. "Thank god you're here. I'm embarrassed to resort to this, but I need you to stay with Inoue-san while I use the restroom".

"What the hell are you talking about, Ishida?" Ichigo demanded, grabbing the Quincy's elbow as he tried to escape.

"Can't you see? Some of these men have more than photos with Inoue-san in mind," he gestured toward the line and back to Orihime just as the middle-schooler she was posed with started to reach around toward her rear. "Hey! Hands off!" Ishida grabbed the would-be groper by the collar and hauled him away as some of the less-desirable elements of the line applauded. "See what I mean, Kurosaki? I'll take care of this one and leave the rest to you. Only nine more!" he called as he disappeared from view.

Ichigo was stunned by what he had just witnessed. "That's it, folks, break time starts now!" he called as he marched over to Orihime and said, "come on, I'll handle them."

"No, Kurosaki-kun, we promised nine more. We can't take it back now! I'll be alright," Orihime argued, turning back to the line with a plastered-on grin. "Next please."

Ichigo watched with a deeper than usual scowl as Orihime finished up with the next eight customers, who were much more wary with the surly orange-haired youth keeping such a close eye. From his vantage point, Ichigo was able to observe how kind Orihime was with each person. She asked each his name, where he went to school if in a different uniform, smiled sweetly, and wished them good luck on their Tanabata wishes. He also saw that despite her generosity of spirit and sweet smile, she was uncomfortable at best. When the promised eight were finished, he was at Orihime's side in an instant. "OK, pairs only for the next ten minutes!" he hollered as Orihime shrugged out of the 'Orihime' costume, which consisted of a single-layered, plain pink long-sleeved kimono and a turquoise false obi, which was held together in front with Velcro. She wore her school uniform underneath. As soon as she was free from the garment, Ichigo escorted her to the enclosed staging area behind the backdrop.

When they were out of sight of the line, Ichigo released a breath he didn't know he was holding and looked down at Orihime, whose expression suddenly showed her fatigue. "Thank you Kurosaki-kun; we've only been open for forty-five minutes and I am already getting a little tired," she said and then smiled at him again.

"You don't have to keep doing this, Inoue," Ichigo said, with an almost pleading edge to his voice. "You don't owe these guys anything!".

"I know, Kurosaki-kun" she responded gently. "But, this is raising a lot of money for the handicrafts and photography clubs. I can't let them down," she said determindly, grabbing some air for emphasis. She looked up, and seeing Ichigo's worried expression, added, "Don't worry about me, Kurosaki-kun. I'll be alright. I just need a snack and something to drink to replenish my energy. I really want to get some takoyaki."

"You don't say?" Ichigo replied. "I was just going to get some takoyaki myself before I got distracted by your fanclub," Orihime's cheeks blushed a pale pink at the sarcastic compliment, "let's go get some!" Ichigo stuck his head outside of the staging area and then brought it back in. "On second thought, maybe I should go get it for you. The crowd is getting impatient, and I don't want you getting harassed."

"Aw, I really wanted to walk around the festival!" Orihime said, disappointed. "I guess I'll just have to wait until the photobooth closes. We don't have the kind of lighting equipment required to take photos at night, so we are closing up at dusk."

"I'm sorry, Inoue, but it is chaos out there. I really think it's best if you stay here. I'll go get you some takoyaki. Do you like it with or without sauce?" Ichigo offered.

"With, please, and if you happen to find any wasabi packets along the way, could you grab one for me?" she asked, and was greeted with a perplexed look from Ichigo. "I know, it's a weird preference, but I once had Russian Roulette takoyaki* and I got the one with wasabi in it, and, let's just say I was pleasantly surprised."

"Ok, if you say so," Ichigo said dubiously. "Oh, what do you want to drink? Tea? Sports drink?"

"Sports drink, please, it is hot wearing that costume!" she answered as Ichigo started to walk away, "Oh wait, Kurosaki-kun, let me get you some money for it!"

"Don't worry Inoue," he interrupted, "you can give me a free picture later, how about that?" he joked.

"Ummm, OK, Kurosaki-kun. Thank you." Orihime said, as her blush deepened. She obviously didn't take his offer as a joke, Ichigo realized as he left the staging area.

When Ichigo returned a few minutes later, wasabi packet in hand, Orihime's smile could not be any brighter. "Thank you, Kurosaki-kun!" she sang as she bounced over to him to take her share. He watched with amusement as she portioned out the wasabi on the six takoyaki balls, popped one in her mouth, and crinkled her nose up as the tingling sensation hit her sinuses. "This is perfection!" she rasped out painfully while pinching the bridge of her nose, in a manner that would be unconvincing if it was anyone other than her.

Ichigo could not contain a chuckle. "I'll come back with everyone when your shift ends, OK Inoue?" he laughed as he began to walk away.

"No, wait, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime gulped and coughed on her third takoyaki. "we have to have our picture first!"

"Oh, alright," Ichigo waited as she ate one more piece, setting the last two aside for later, and taking a long drink from the bottle of sports drink he had bought. He set his own food aside for the moment and waited, unsure what to do. After Orihime wiped off her hands and face, she led the way back to the photo area. She was met with a cheer from the line, which seemed to surge forward.

"Just a moment, everyone," Orihime spoke, in a loud, clear, pleasant voice. "We will begin the line right after this picture!" She then smiled sweetly to the crowd. Ichigo was impressed by the sudden poise she displayed, and stood watching as she began to put her arms into the Orihime costume. "Aren't you going to wear the Hikoboshi costume?" she inquired to him, slightly disappointed.

"Oh, right! Sorry," Ichigo hopped over to a first-year club member holding the blue kimono with a pale green obi out for him to slip on. "I wasn't sure what to do". Orihime smiled at him as the club member Velcro-ed him up and posed him next to Orihime.

"Two pictures, please," Orihime said to the photographer and then looked at Ichigo and said to him, "Smile for the camera!"

Ichigo felt lost for a moment as Orihime sidled up next to him with her hands clasped together and grinned toward the camera. "One, two, three, cheese," he vaguely heard the photographer shout and just barely turned his head around in time to look at the camera before the first picture was snapped. He was ready for the second picture, and wore a somewhat conservative smile with relaxed eyes.

Ichigo waited at the side of the booth while the photos were being printed and watched four or five members of the line get their pictures taken. He admitted to himself that most of them were harmless: little boys with little admiring eyes and nothing more. Some of them were actually kind of sweet. That benign train of thought ended, however, when some low-level punk yakuza shoved to the front of the line and stood up beside Orihime, pushing away the student with the Hikoboshi costume. He put his arm around her shoulder and crowded her face with his.

Orihime froze, horrified. The young man reeked of stale cigarettes and unwashed hair. He eyed her suggestively and intentionally slurred his speech menacingly and fingered a strand of her hair as he asked her "What time are you finished tonight, babe? Some friends and I would love to take you out. I promise to show you a good time". Orihime tried to say something; her mouth opened but no words came out. He continued, yanking on the strand of hair in his hand despite the tears welling up in her eyes, "Hey, say something! What, do you think you're too good for us? Don't be stuck up, you little –"

He didn't finish his sentence because he was suddenly on the ground. Orihime heard a collective gasp from those in line as she looked at the space her offender's face once occupied to see the side of Ichigo's red and quickly swelling fist. She looked past it into Ichigo's face. She had never seen it so enraged, so close. His eyes were slits, a deep crease between his brows, nostrils flared, and a grimace so severe that she took a step back. As she did so, his expression started to melt.

"I'm sorry, Inoue," he said between deep breaths, willing his rage to die down, "I should have been paying closer attention." He added as his expression gentled to that of a concerned older brother.

Orihime's bottom lip started to tremble, and the tears that had been pooling in her eyes started to fall. "Kurosaki-kun!" she wailed as she buried her head into his arm as her knees buckled and sobbed. She had been absolutely terrified by the man currently at her feet. Ichigo put an arm around her back to steady her and patted her far shoulder comfortingly.

"Where the hell is Ishida," he muttered under his breath, and then looked around and roared for their overdue classmate. "ISHIDA!"

"What?!" Uryuu screamed back from down the line. He had been busy attempting to keep the line orderly while Ichigo was keeping an eye on Orihime.

"Get over here!" Ichigo barked. When Uryuu arrived and saw Orihime's state he first glared at Ichigo, who pointed at his feet and said, "Get this piece of crap out of here!"

"What happened?!" Uryuu cried, switching the focus of his ire to the passed-out man he bent over to pull underfoot, passing him off to some bicycle police who had just arrived.

"He was harassing her," Ichigo said loud enough to be heard by the police officers. They must have known the perpetrator, because they were satisfied with that and started to take the him away, with a request that Ichigo come to the police box later to give a witness report. Ichigo nodded to the officers, despite having no intention of going.

"Inoue-san, are you alright?" Uryuu asked Orihime, whose sobs were starting to die down. He didn't wait for her answer though, and announced to the crowd, "That's it, pairs only from now on!"

"No!" Inoue cried. "No, I won't have him ruining our entire event! Just give me a moment, I'll be fine," she asserted through shaky breaths.

"Inoue, you really don't have to do this!" Ichigo bent down to her eye-level to help get his point across. "Everyone will understand why you need to stop after this".

"No, thank you, Ishida-kun, Kurosaki-kun. All these people have been waiting a long time to have their photos taken, and it wouldn't be fair to them to stop now just because some jerk was being, well, a jerk!" Orihime squeaked out like a kitten that thought it was a lion. "Everyone, just let me get have a drink and wash my face and I'll be right back."

The crowd, having heard her resolution, erupted into applause. Ichigo and Uryuu wore exasperated expressions as they tried to get those in line to quiet down so they could talk sense into Orihime, but they both knew she had her mind set.

"Are you sure about this Inoue-san?" Uryuu pleaded. "All the club members will support you stopping now".

"Yes, I'm sure." She replied, pausing in taking a sip from her bottle of sports drink. Just then, one of the third-year photography club members handed her a wet cloth for her face, which she accepted thankfully and wiped her eyes with. She returned the cloth to the same student who took it and then produced the two pictures that she had taken with Ichigo.

Orihime looked at the photos and began to laugh mirthfully. The sudden change in her mood attracted the attention of her male friends. As they approached, they looked down at the object of her laughter, and soon Uryuu joined in. "What was going through your mind there, Kurosaki?" he asked, looking down at the first picture, which Ichigo looked at over Orihime's other shoulder. He beheld an image of himself wearing a completely unintelligent expression: eyes wide, slack-jawed, and utterly unprepared for having his picture taken.

"I wasn't ready!" Ichigo began to defend himself, before Orihime stepped in.

"I like Kurosaki-kun's face in this picture, it makes me happy. I am keeping this one!" she said with finality. Under the circumstances, he couldn't bring himself to argue with her. He took the other picture and pocketed it without really looking at it.

"Alright, you win this one, Inoue," he teased. "Are you really sure you are ok?" he rechecked.

"Yes, I am much better now," Orihime beamed a blinding smile up to him.

"Alright," he relented. "I'll meet up with you two at dusk. Don't let her out of your sight, Ishida. If you need anything, text me and I'll be right back, understood?"

"Understood!" Orihime replied cheerily as she resumed her place in the photobooth. Uryuu nodded to Ichigo and started the line again as Ichigo left to find the rest of his friends. It was already almost 5:30, only about an hour and a half until dusk. He walked about halfway across the festival grounds with no sight of his friends. He took out his phone to call Chad, and saw that he had one new message from Orihime. He quickly opened it and read, "Thank you, Kurosaki-kun. Please let me heal your hand later. You are my hero (heart)." Ichigo blushed, closed the message, and decided to walk around until he found his friends the old-fashioned way.

Ichigo found his friends after about fifteen minutes of looking. Together they wandered around, sampling this and that and checking out the other club's booths. They ran into Tatsuki and her friends at about quarter to seven, just about when Ichigo was starting to corral the group into making their way back to Orihime and Uryuu. It took a minute for him to notice the girls were all wearing yukata, and some of them had styled their hair and put on a bit of makeup. "Wow, Tatsuki, I never thought I'd see the day that you would be dressed so femininely" he said without derision; just like he was pointing out the obvious.

"Surprised you noticed, actually," she retorted, just as Rukia and Renji joined their group, also in yukata. She eyed them with admiration. "Rukia! You and Renji make quite the pair tonight." She commented, slightly out of character for her, but the two did look impressive. Renji stood out with his long red hair pulled up as usual, but crowned with a thick dark gray headband that matched his slightly agape yukata with contrasting white obi. Rukia was resplendent in a midnight blue yukata with a pink and purple firefly motif and lavender obi.

"Thank you," Rukia replied, "my older brother sent them to us. He has very good taste". Renji rolled his eyes.

"Ok, then, let's get a move on. Ishida and Inoue must be about finished by now," Ichigo prodded.

The group made its way over to the photo booth, which, as Orihime had predicted, was getting too dark for pictures, and the once-crowded area was now empty as the photography club packed up its equipment. Some first-year handicraft club members were helping put the things away that wouldn't stay up overnight, but Uryuu and Orihime were missing. Ichigo approached one of the girls folding up banners and asked where they were.

"She said they are in back with some third-year members getting ready," he said as he returned to the group.

"Getting ready for what?" Renji asked, picking at his hear with his pinkie and looking bored.

"Ahem!" the group looked to Uryuu, who had just come out from behind the backdrop. "May I please present to you my, ahem, I mean, the handicrafts club's masterpiece for this event, Ms. Orihime Inoue, and her custom-made yukata!" and applauded in solo as he stepped aside, allowing Orihime to step out.

Nobody was really paying much attention at first, still busy heaping attention on Rukia and Renji, but when Orihime stepped into the light, all eyes shifted to her. After a beat of slience, she received some very appreciative looks and compliments from her friends. One friend, however, looked dumbstruck. Said tall, orange-haired, friend was having a very different experience than his comrades. When he saw Orihime step into the light, he finally saw what everyone else saw. He no longer saw the little girl carrying her dying brother's body into his father's clinic. He no longer saw the clumsy, silly friend of Tatsuki's. He could even no longer see the enthusiastic friend that cheered him on to rescue Rukia a year ago. Now he saw a beautiful indigo yukata with white hydrangeas modestly encasing a curvaceous body, held in place with a bright gold obi, tied in place with a red cord. He saw a long, graceful, white neck, accented with dainty silver dangling earrings, and exposed on account of a pile of soft auburn hair that was artfully piled onto the top of a head, held in place by her customary hair pins. Her head was carrying a face so lovely and smile so radiant, he drew back to avoid its direct gaze. What he saw was not his friend, Orihime Inoue. What he saw was the beautiful woman all those men had stood in line for hours to take their picture with, and he was humbled in her presence.

"Kurosaki-kun?" a sweet voice pulled him from his reverie. He refocused, settling his eyes on her sparkling brown ones. "Kurosaki-kun?" the voice said again, this time a bit more concerned. "Are you alright?"

"Huh? Umm, yeah, Inoue, nice outfit," he said lamely.

"Thank you!" she smiled enthusiastically. "Let's go get something to eat and then go write our wishes. I'm starving!" she said toward the entire group.

Ichigo's feet agreed to follow her before his brain caught up. As the group moved through the festival, his eyes kept drifting her way. He could not conjure a single coherent thought, and when he was addressed, he mumbled or laughed by way of reply. Absorbed by his own feelings of confusion, it wasn't until he knocked his right hand against the corner of a food stall and yelped, searing pain ripping from his swollen knuckles through his forearm, That he made an intelligible remark. "Shit!" he hissed over and over as he tried in vain to fling the pain away.

"Ah, Kurosaki-kun! I'm sorry, I got distracted! Come this way, please," the chagrined healer pleaded. Ichigo allowed her to lead him away from the main drag of the festival grounds and into a leafy corner behind the main shrine building. "Souten Kisshun," she incanted, as her two healing powers appeared to her and cast a healing dome over Ichigo's hand. Although he could not see it, he felt its effects almost immediately as the pain began to recede.

Ichigo sighed in relief, and looked at her again, this time with the sobering memory of pain tightening his hold on reality. "Thank you, Inoue," he said, in a gentler tone than she expected. She blushed a petty pink and smiled.

"Thank you, Kurosaki-kun. This is the least I can do after what you did for me tonight. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't stopped that man. You saw how I reacted – I am ashamed I just froze like that – I was completely useless."

"I don't ever want to hear you say that about yourself again, Inoue," Ichigo scolded mildly. He looked her in the eye and his own softened. "You are anything but useless. Just look at my hand now – better than ever!" he said, flexing it exaggeratedly. Orihime let out a small giggle and called back her Shun Shun Rikka. Suddenly, Ichigo felt a small loneliness appear somewhere inside of him.

That feeling was quickly erased by Orihime's next words, which she spoke in a hushed, shy tone: "Kurosaki-kun, thank you for protecting me".

It was Ichigo's turn to blush. "Let's go write our wishes before it gets too late," he said in an attempt to disperse the awkwardness, leading the way back to the group. Orihime smiled and nodded, falling into step beside him. He couldn't stop himself from stealing a glance at her every few steps.

The group wrote their wishes onto strips of white paper and tied them to the bamboo branches set out for that purpose. Then they went to the shrine to pay their respects to the local deity, and started to break up. They had school the next day.

When Ichigo was home, getting ready for bed, he caught sight of the photo he had taken with Orihime earlier, sticking out of the pocket of the shirt he had just discarded. He picked it up carefully and took a good look. He saw Orihime's dazzling smile first. He noted her relaxed posture and easy happiness. He took a look at himself next, and decided he didn't look too bad; not a big goofy grin, just enough to look pleased. Then he mentally compared this picture to the posed one of Orihime and Uryuu, and decided his picture with the princess was much more attractive and convincing. Satisfied, he drifted off into a comfortable slumber.

Several rooms away, if one was nearby, a pair of shinigami could be heard quietly arguing whether the terms of a previously made wager had been met or not. "Even if it hasn't happened yet, it won't be long now," Rukia hissed at Renji as he rolled his eyes and shook his head negatively.

*Google Russian Roulette takoyaki. Also, a note/pet peeve about Orihime's food preferences: In many fanfics they have her putting together things that are just plain inedible, or they reference red bean paste and wasabi as if they were universally hated and taste bad with everything. Neither is the case, I'm sure most people reading are experienced enough with wasabi and/or its western counterpoint , horseradish (I know they are not the same, just similar), to know it has various, delicious applications. Red bean paste is a little more exotic to lots of people, but it is just mashed up azuki beans that are sweet to begin with, and then have a lot more sugar added to it. It really doesn't have a beanlike flavor, only a beanlike consistency, and can be used interchangeably with jam. There are lots of dishes that Orihime puts together in the manga that are not considered by her friends to be disgusting, just weird, like if you were to put mayonnaise on a baked potato. Unless you hate mayonnaise, that combination just sounds weird, not necessarily disgusting. There are some dishes Orihime makes that would turn most people's stomachs, but that tendency is vastly over-exaggerated in many fanfics. End rant.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six:  The Edge of Seventeen

July 10th, 12:07 p.m.

Ichigo Kurosaki sat slumped on the school’s roof, picking at his lunch.  The rainy season had taken another brief reprieve as cicadas droned incessantly at an ear-splitting volume.  There was no breeze to speak of, and the heat and humidity were oppressive.  It was, in a word, miserable.  Karakura High School was a respectable, if somewhat average, institution and was not especially well funded, so like many Japanese high schools, it had no air conditioning. The result of these conditions were such that despite the sun exposure, the group of boys chose the roof to escape from the pressure cooker-like conditions created when forty near-adults were crammed into one stale, sweaty classroom. 

“It’s too bad your birthday is on a Tuesday this year, Ichigo. We could have gotten some girls to come out with us,” Keigo complained in a fashion that competed with the cicadas in terms of annoyance factor. 

“That is ridiculous,” Uryuu snapped back, his irritation heightened by the stickiness of the weather.  “No girls in their right minds would want to go out with you, Asano.  Plus, we have midterm exams next week.  I know you don’t care about your grades, but the rest of us do.  Even if Kurosaki’s birthday was on Saturday, there would be no partying”.

“I wouldn’t mind a bit of distraction, if it was on Saturday,” Mizuiro countered.

“Ichigo?” Chad looked toward him, observing that he hadn’t been listening to the conversation.  His eyes were on a spot on the grounds below.

“Sorry, did you say something?” Ichigo said looking back toward the group.

“Asano-san was talking about going out for your birthday and asking some girls along.  I could text some” Mizuiro started before he was interrupted simultaneously by Keigo, whining about the use of his surname, and Uryuu.

“I was just informing Asano-san,” Uryuu emphasized to add insult to injury, “that we would be busy studying for exams anyway.”

Renji joined the group belatedly, some hollows having needed vanquishing nearby.  “Girls, huh?  You boys have fun with that.  I’ve got my hands full in that department,” he supplied unnecessarily.

Ichigo groaned and sat up a bit straighter before addressing the group, “I have absolutely no interest in doing anything for my birthday.  Ishida is right, the timing is bad. Besides, I have even less interest in going out with the kind of girls you like, Mizuiro.  No offense”.

“None taken.  Not everyone is mature enough to appreciate older, experienced, women,” Mizuiro said mildly.  Renji exchanged a glance with him nodded in agreement.

“Well, if the women you know are anywhere as mature and experienced as Rukia, you boys are in trouble.” Renji advised.  All but Mizuiro and Chad groaned in disgust.

“We really don’t want to hear about it, Abarai,” said Uryuu defensively.  “And please spare us any further information; we would like to be able to look at Kukichi-san and not be forced to think of your extracurricular activities.”

“What do you mean, ‘look at’ her?  What are you doing when I’m not paying attention?” Renji demanded.

“As if!” Uryuu backpedaled.  “You can bring your jealousy to heel, Abarai.  I don’t look at Kuchiki-san that way.”

“Wait, you mean you look at someone else that way?” Ichigo asked with delight, well pleased at the opportunity to put the screws to Uryuu.

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Kurosaki!  Besides, I wonder if you’re mature enough to appreciate any woman,” Uryuu seethed.

“Ishida begs an interesting question.  You are going to be seventeen, Ichigo.  There has to be at least a couple of girls that have caught your eye.  Or boys?  We won’t judge,” Renji asked gleefully.

“No!” Ichigo denied vehemently, and added, “Besides, you are the last person on earth or any other plane of existence that I would talk to about that,” Ichigo’s eyes betrayed him for a split as he stole a look at the group of girls gathered around the tree in the grass below.

“What?” Keigo squealed in excitement.  Despite being otherwise below average in most respects, he excelled at sniffing out gossip.  “Who were you looking at down there?  Is there actually someone you are interested in?”

“Wait, what?  No!  Why? No!” Ichigo continued his plea of innocence. 

Four pairs of eyes narrowed on him suspiciously.  The ever-faithful Chad closed his eyes and nodded along with Ichigo, as he was saved by the bell sounding that lunch was over.  “Don’t think we are going to let this go so easily,” Renji smirked as he passed him on his way down the stairs.

----------

The same day, 9:22 p.m.

Orihime strained with physical effort to keep her shield in place behind Renji’s back while he slashed at the hollow in front of him.   There had been three at this location initially, and Rukia had chased one back a few blocks while Renji had dispatched a second and turned his attention to the third, when the second’s dying cry appeared to have summoned an army of small, starfish-like hollows, that were presently pressing en masse on Orihime’s shield.  Renji was in luck that she happened to have been on her way home from the convenience store when the hollows descended across the street from her location.

Renji exterminated the hollow in front of him after a few more moments and called to Orihime, “Uh, Inoue? What do you want me to do with those guys?  Is it going to hurt you if I cut your shield?”

“Well, not too much, I think, but I can’t hold them off much more and they are getting closer. It might be too close for swords!” Orihime shouted back between labored breaths.  “Do you think you could blast them off with Kido or something?”  She beseeched him with a pleading expression. 

“Actually, Inoue, I’m not really good at Kido –“ he started to answer before being interrupted by an increasingly urgent Orihime.

“Just give it a shot, please!  Now?” she failed to hide her panic as Renji flailed for a moment and finally came to a decision.

“Ummmm, uhhhh,  Bakudou #1: Sai,” Renji incanted without much confidence.  To his great surprise, the entire constellation of starfish hollows fell from Orihime’s shield, their five little appendages bound behind each of them. “I can’t believe that worked!  Now is your chance to get out of the way, Inoue,” he laughed as she leapt out of the way and he sliced Zabimaru through the pile of restrained hollows and watched them disintegrate.  He approached Orihime and gave her a couple stiff pats on the back as she tried to catch her breath with her hands on her knees. “Thanks for the assist, Inoue,” he said as she stood up and she repaid him with a blinding smile.

“I am very happy I could help, Abarai-fukutaicho,” she replied.

“Oh no, that won’t do.  You can call me Renji,” he said in a way that told her an ‘Abarai-fukutaicho’ from her was unpleasant.   Her eyes widened in shock.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that!” she said, waving her hands before her.

“Would it make you feel better to use honorifics?  I wouldn’t mind, as long as it’s not so formal as ‘fukutaicho’,”  he offered.

“Well, I guess I could call you ‘Abarai-san’, if that would be alright,” she said tentatively.

“No, that’s totally unacceptable,” Renji countered with cocked eyebrow and smirky grin.  “Renji-kun would be preferable.”

“What?  I couldn’t!  You are too kind to me” she said, not actually believing he meant it.

“Come on, you are like a sister to Rukia, and me by extension.  Let’s get rid of these formalities here in the world of the living, at least.  Would it make you feel better if I called you ‘Orihime-chan’?  Would you call me Renji-kun then?”  he asked, putting an arm around her shoulder in a decidedly fraternal manner.

“No!  Not even Kuchiki-san calls me Orihime!”  She looked, mortified, into Renji’s face and finally understood he was teasing her.  She dialed back her anxiety and said, “I guess Abarai-kun and Inoue-chan would be a fair compromise.” Orihime laughed, her heart quickly warming up to the idea of being considered familial to the two shinigami she held so dear.  She could feel a warmth begin to grow through her chest and her smile grew to twice its previous size as she considered what this meant.  “Thank you so much!” she said before bowing deeply in an expression of gratitude.

Renji grinned at Orihime’s cuteness and clapped her on the back hard enough to make her stagger a bit, then looked to the distance as Rukia hopped over to them using shunpo.  “Rukia,” he called out to her, “Inoue-chan just helped me take down an entire wad of mini starfish hollows.  It was totally gross.” He said, looking to Orihime briefly, flashing his eyebrows at her in an expression indicating that they shared an inside joke.

Rukia furrowed her brows for an instant, followed by a perplexed smile.  “Inoue-chan, is it?”

“I’m sorry, Kuchiki-san, Abarai-kun asked that I don’t address him as fukutaicho in the world of the living, if it bothers you-“ Orihime scrambled to apologize to Rukia.

Rukia’s eyes widened and she rushed to Orihime’s side.  “No, no, Inoue, I’m sorry I was just giving you both a hard time.  You are very close to us.  There is no need to call Renji by his rank.”  Orihime let out a deep breath and smiled at them both.

“Thank you, both.” she said sincerely.  “I will see you tomorrow at school, then,” she said as she picked her shopping bag back up and prepared to walk back home.

“Oh, just a minute, Inoue-chan,” Renji stopped her as she was turning around. “I wanted to ask you about Ichigo’s birthday”.  Orihime instantly blushed, and he knew he would be buying Rukia that new Chappy plushie at Urahara’s sooner than later.

“What about it?” Inoue asked.

“Well, it’s not until Tuesday, but Rukia and I were thinking of throwing him a surprise birthday party this Saturday at 8:00 at Urahara’s.  Would you be able to come?  ”

“Of course I will come!” Orihime answered quickly.

“Good,” Rukia said.  “Would you please invite Arisawa-san and your other friends?  We will all be in gigai so any of your friends are welcome.  We need to have some girls there.” she added with a gleam in her eyes.

Orihime began to feel suspicious but was too excited to care.  “Is there anything I can help prepare for the party?”

“You could bring a cake, if you like,” Rukia answered. “But just be sure to bring yourself, and wear something cute!  Oh, we could get ready together, if you want.”

“YES!” Orihime breathed with impossibly big eyes.  “Come over to my apartment anytime on Saturday and we can pick something out for you to wear, Kuchiki-san!”

“Alright, it’s a deal.  But please, call me Rukia from now on.”

Orihime could not stop her happy tears this time, and embraced her friend.  “I can’t wait, Rukia-chan”.

-----------

July 12th.  8:00 a.m.

The rest of the week had passed in a blur of test preparation and weather-related discomfort.  If it wasn’t raining, it was impossibly hot, and no one was in a very good mood when school let out on Friday.  When she woke up on Saturday, Orihime was very interested in taking a cool shower, finding a spot in front of a box fan, and sipping some iced tea.

She began her shower, and after finding that perfect temperature – cool enough to be refreshing but not so cold as to cause pain – she stepped in.  She let the cool water flow through her long hair and stream over her face as she closed her eyes, recalling the dream she had awoken from.

Since rekindling her friendship with Ichigo, her mind had been put much more at ease, and her dreams reflected that.  She no longer dreamed of battles and death nightly, and the content of her sleeping images were much more nonsensical and seemingly random.  This morning’s dream had featured Grimmjow and Ulquiorra playing checkers on a small game table in her room in Hueco Mundo, while she attempted to keep the game orderly.  Grimmjow ignored her and kept saying “King me!” at inappropriate times, and Ulquiorra would make no moves without first pondering the insignificance of the entire game; positing that each individual move was inconsequential because in the end he would win by default when Grimmjow lost his patience and tossed the entire gameboard over as he apparently had done in every previous game.

By the time she had replayed the entire dream in her head, she had finished with her shower and reached her bedroom, towel-drying her hair until it was only damp and pulling it up into a high messy bun to get it off her neck.  She put on some tiny shorts and a tank top, went out to the living room, opened the window, and set her fan right in front of it, turning it to high.  She walked to her kitchen, grabbed some iced tea and an energy bar, and set up her meager breakfast and study notes in the living room in front of the fan.  She plopped down in front of it and got to work.

She had been studying for about an hour when her phone alerted her that she had a text message.  She picked it up to look at it, but was interrupted by a knock on her door.  She pulled herself up and walked the short distance to the door and unlocked it while looking down to her phone trying to pull up the message.  She was just about to read it when her visitor spoke up through the door.

“Good morning, Orihime!  Did you get my text message?” Rukia’s voice rang clearly through the door.  Orihime switched her focus from the phone to the door in an instant, opening it wide.

Rukia stepped inside and took her shoes off. “I just got your text message, but I haven’t been able to read it yet. What are you doing here, Rukia-chan?” Orihime asked in surprise. 

“Of course you didn’t read it yet, I just sent it before I knocked on the door,” Rukia said, completely unaware of how strange her behavior appeared.

“Oh, well, what did it say?” Orihime asked, confused.

“It said I’m coming over to get ready for Ichigo’s party,” the shorter woman replied.

“Oh,” Orihime started.  “It’s only 10:00.  Why are you here so early?”

“A war requires preparation and strategy.  The fate of my Chappy plushie rides on the outcome of this battle,” Rukia answered seriously.

“Battle?” Orihime began and then decided it was too hot to deal with such absurdity.  “Ok, Rukia-chan, what would you like to do?”

“First, tell me the list of girls you have invited,” the shinigami started.

“Alright, I invited Tatsuki-chan, Chizuru-chan, Ryo-chan, Michiru-chan, and Mahana-chan, but only Tatsuki-chan and Chizuru-chan can come.  The others are too busy studying,” the healer answered.

“Oh, okay.  That makes it even easier.  No distractions.  Perfect,” Rukia muttered to herself, then looked to Orihime, “Have you gotten a cake yet?  Chosen what to wear?”

“Well, I ordered a cake to pick up around 4:00.  I don’t know what to wear yet; I don’t have that many clothes so I don’t think it will be difficult to decide,” Orihime said wistfully.

Rukia’s smile widened, “Perfect!  I don’t have anything to wear either.  We are going shopping!  And before you say anything, I’m paying!”

“No!  I couldn’t let you do that!” Orihime protested.

I am not doing it.  Urahara is.  He insisted that if there was going to be a party at his place, all the girls had better be looking their best.” Rukia informed her.

“… he really is kind of a pervert, isn’t he?” Orihime asked without expecting an answer, having come to the conclusion reluctantly over the course of her time knowing the eccentric shopkeeper.

“That’s what everyone says.  Come on and get dressed, we’re going.” Rukia said, pushing Orihime to her bedroom.  She was glad her little lie about Urahara paying went uncontested.  There was no way she was going to let Renji win their little bet, so she really needed Orihime looking her best, and if she had to spend a little money, so be it.  She had no real use for it anyway.

----

The two girlfriends were at the third department store of the day, and Rukia had been insisting that Orihime try on something a little sexy, but she kept resisting.  However, it was starting to edge into the afternoon and the pressure was on.  Orihime still had to pick up the cake, shower and get ready and it was already 3:00.  Her defenses were starting to slip.

When Rukia held up a black, slinky maxi dress with a diving V-neck, Orihime caved and went to try it on.  A moment later, she informed Rukia in no uncertain terms, “This one is a no.”

“Come on out and show me, at least!” Rukia pleaded.

“No.  This dress in indecent!  At least on me…” Orihime whined, tired of feeling like everything she tried on made her look like a bimbo.

Rukia recognized the sad edge to Orihime’s voice.  “Come on, Orihime, I won’t push you to buy it, I just want to see how it looks so I can recommend something more suitable next,” she said soothingly.

Orihime reluctantly slid the dressing room door open and stepped out.  It was all Rukia could do not to gasp.  Orihime looked like a bombshell; the dress hugged in all the right places, showing off the curves of her hips, the delicate dip of her waist, and the neckline revealed way too much cleavage - although slightly perkier, comparing the sight to Rangiku was not a stretch.

“Well, Orihime, you can certainly pull that dress off, you look gorgeous,” Rukia said sweetly but quickly added, “although you are right, it’s not quite appropriate for a girl your age.  You take that off and I’ll be right back with something else.”  Orihime blushed and smiled, feeling a bit of a confidence boost from Rukia’s reaction.  Rukia was pleased that at least now Orihime might be more open to something a little more flirty.

Rukia returned a few minutes later with a simple, gauzy, pale blue, off-the shoulder sundress that cinched in at the waist and came down to about mid-thigh.  She passed it over the door of the dressing room to Orihime, who tried it on and opened the door with a relieved smile on her face.  Although the dress showed a fair bit of leg and shoulder, it was modest; it was not too clingy, the blousy-ness of the top left some things to the imagination and the neckline was high enough to cover all but the tiniest glimpse of the beginning of the swell of her breasts.  She felt pretty, not sexy, and that made her feel comfortable.   Rukia smiled back at her and said, “hold on, I’ll be right back”.  She returned a few minutes later with a long thick silver necklace and sandals.  Orihime tried them on and looked at her reflection in front of Rukia.

“Thank you, Rukia-chan.  I feel a little bit grown up in this outfit; it’s so pretty!” she gushed.  Just then, her phone started to vibrate.  Curious, Orihime had a look and sucked in a quick breath when she saw it was her alarm.  “Oh no, I have to go get the cake! The bakery is halfway across town!”

“You go, I’ll buy your outfit, finalize mine, and meet you at your apartment in an hour.  Is it ok if I clean up there?” Rukia asked as Orihime changed back into her regular clothes.

“Yes!  That sounds good.  Thank you Rukia-chan!” she said as she ran out of sight.

----

7:50 p.m.

Renji had been having a difficult time earlier in the day trying to convince Ichigo to come to Urahara’s.  He had initially told the former shinigami that he wanted to spar with him, in gigai.  Ichigo refused, citing the weather as reason to avoid any kind of physical exertion. 

The next several excuses failed to hit the mark as well.  Finally, Renji played his trump card.  “We are expecting communication from soul society tonight.  I know you won’t be able to hear it for yourself, but we could relay the contents to you in real time so that you won’t miss anything.  I didn’t want to say anything before because I didn’t want you to get too excited”

That had garnered Ichigo’s interest, and had not ignited any suspicions for ulterior motives.  Everything was going according to plan.  Renji and Ichigo had left the Kurosaki Clinic at ten minutes to eight o’clock and would be arriving precisely at the appointed time.  When they arrived at Urahara Shoten, Renji loudly announced their arrival before entering, but it was too late for Ichigo to grow suspicious.  They passed the threshold, confetti was popped, ‘Happy Birthday’ was shouted, and Ichigo was officially having his first-ever surprise party.

It wasn’t a huge crowd; the above-ground part of the shop/residence was much too small for a large event, but because the group was short on space the party felt well-attended.  Keigo and Mizuiro were there, the latter bringing three heavily made-up ladies in tow.  Chad, Uryuu, Urahara, Yoruichi, Tessai, Jinta and Ururu were the next to greet Ichigo as he made his way into the interior tatami room where the party was going to be held.  Inside, Rukia, Orihime, Tatsuki, and Chizuru congratulated him and sat him on the floor in the middle of the long, low table.  Orihime offered him some iced oolong tea and then offered to serve Rukia, Tatsuki, and Chizuru, who had also taken a seat on the opposite side of the table.  Orihime then went around filling cups for the others in an effort to get the party going.

Ichigo took a sip of his tea and scanned the room.  As his sight landed on the corner of the room opposite the entrance he stopped and stared, his eyes nearly bugging out of his skull.  There, lying propped up on his elbow, was the third seat of the eleventh division, Ikkaku Madarame and beside him, sitting pretty as a princess, the fifth seat, Yumichika Ayasegawa.  Before he was able to shout something about the incredulousness of the situation and alarm the non-spiritually aware in the room, Urahara took a seat next to him, and hushing his voice with his fan, spoke, “Happy Birthday, Kurosaki-san.  I see you have noticed our foreign guests in the corner.  You should know that all souls present are in gigai, for your benefit and the benefit of the other newcomers tonight.”

Ichigo was still alarmed, however, and leaned a bit closer to ask, “Alright, I get that’s why I can see them, but what are they doing here?  Has the threat become more dangerous?”

“No, Kurosaki-san,” Urahara answered, “nothing to worry about.  Abarai-san and Kuchiki-san are returning to soul society in a few days to make reports, and Madarame-san and Ayasegawa-san will be substituting for them in their absence.”

Yoruichi came with a small bottle of sake and took a seat beside Urahara, handing a cup to him.  “Ichigo, don’t let Kisuke monopolize your attention tonight,” she said before she swallowed the contents of her own small cup and poured another.

Ichigo nodded and looked around again.  He was still processing what was happening and didn’t know how he felt about it.  On one hand, he was excited to see his former enemies-cum-comrades, on the other hand, he had, for all intents and purposes, left that life behind.  Rukia and Renji were one thing, but having more residents of soul society paraded before him was making him think about what he was missing.  He breathed out his nose heavily, and looked away, accidentally making eye contact with Orihime.  Her face fell at seeing his scowling expression.

“Is something wrong, Kurosaki-kun?” She asked, walking over to where Ichigo sat.  She knelt beside him and topped off his glass of tea with a concerned expression on her face.

“No, everything is fine, I just don’t trust those two,” Ichigo covered, pointing his thumb in the direction of the newly arrived shinigami and granting Orihime the tiniest smile.  She responded in kind, and he remembered he hadn’t really spoken to her since the Tanabata festival.  He had felt something about her that night that shook him.  He had been relieved when, on the next day at school, he looked on her in her school uniform and saw his friend again, not the ‘Goddess of Karakura’, as he later learned she was called.  Today was different, however.  Ichigo leaned back slightly and looked to Orihime again.  She looked different; older.  If he wasn’t mistaken, she was wearing a little make-up.  Not enough to look fake, just enough to highlight her eyes and add some shimmer to her pink lips.  His eyes drifted away from her face and took in what she was wearing.  He noted how her pale blue dress set of the creamy peach color of her shoulders, and how, following the neckline of the dress, he was treated to the sight of just a hint of armpit cleavage.  Next, his sight was drawn to a thick braided silver chain, which dipped down between the swell of her breasts, the start of which peeked out of the dress’s neckline just enough to ignite his imagination as to what lie beneath.  His gaze followed the necklace down to her lap, which offered him a generous length of bare thigh to behold.

Ichigo’s mouth was suddenly dry.  He brought his cup to his mouth and took a drink, raising his eyes back to Orihime’s.  When he saw that her eyes were wide and her face was a deep pink, he finally noticed that he had been openly checking her out.  His own face went beet red as he realized he was caught, and panicked.  He allowed a tortured “hrmg” to escape his lips as he stood up suddenly and staggered a step away from Orihime.  Unfortunately for him, Rukia had noticed and had no interest in letting him out of the hot seat.

“Speech!  Speech!” the diminutive shinigami demanded.

The room quieted and all eyes landed on Ichigo, whose complexion was still as red as a newborn.  “Uh,” he began quietly, “Uh, well, thanks for coming?  I’ll be right back,” he blurted out before making a run for the door.

He almost made it out of the room but was stopped just outside by Uryuu, who had missed the whole thing.  “Where are you off to in such a hurry, the party just started?” the Quincy asked.

Ichigo seized the opportunity to deflect attention from himself.  “I could ask you what you are doing here, weren’t you just saying the other day you’d be too busy studying?” he asked, much more condescendingly than he would normally.

“What’s your problem, Kurosaki?” Uryuu shot back defensively.

“Oh, so that’s not it then?  What could it possibly be to tempt the holier-than-thou Ishida out on a Saturday before exams?  Is it that you are making an exception because you’re hoping to see that little crush of yours?  Would she even show up in a place where you might go?” he lashed out cruelly.  Ichigo was not normally so vindictive, but Uryuu had been getting under his skin lately and Ichigo was desperate to shift focus off of himself.

Uryuu took a sharp breath through his nose and straightened his neck and shoulders, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose, attempting to regain some dignity as a blush emerged across his cheeks.  He didn’t know what had happened in the other room and was not expecting Ichigo’s offensive, and if he was honest with himself, his feelings were hurt.  Instead of answering, he turned on his heel and walked toward the exit, saying, “I don’t have to deal with this.”

Just then, Orihime came out into the corridor.  She looked between the two boys and watched Uryuu storm out.  “What –“ she began to ask, as Ichigo finally realized what he had done and interrupted.

“Maybe you should go after him, I said something I shouldn’t have,” he told her in a guilty voice.

“Oh, alright.  I’ll be back as soon as I can, Kurosaki-kun,” she said and smiled to him, making him feel even more guilty as he re-entered the party room. 

Orihime trotted outside and looked for Uryuu.  She couldn’t see him, so she closed her eyes and searched for his reiatsu.  She found it after only a moment, and she followed it around to the side of the building, where she found Uryuu with his jaw set on edge and his fists clenched against the exterior wall. 

“Ishida-kun,” she said softly as she approached.  He closed his eyes and lowered his head, trying to hide his blush.  “Ishida-kun,” she said again, more concerned than before.  She gently put one of her hands on his upper arm in an attempt to get him to look at her, which he didn’t do.  “Ishida-kun, I don’t know what Kurosaki-kun said to you, but I know he feels sorry about it,” she said, trying to soothe him.

Uryuu punched the wall with the side of his fist and then turned to Orihime.  “I very much doubt that, Inoue-san.  Thank you for your kindness, but I am not going back in there to spend time with someone as ridiculous as Kurosaki.”

“Oh, Ishida-kun, please come back in?” she pleaded, looking into his eyes with affection.  “I know Kurosaki-kun regrets what he did – Rukia-chan had just put him on the spot to make a speech and he was, um, embarrassed…” she trailed off, looking down and to the side.

“That is no excuse!” Uryuu started, before he stopped, speechless, and looked down at his left hand, which was now in both of Orihime’s.

“Ishida-kun, please come back with me,” she started to pull on his hand gently, and when she was met with resistance, she looked to his face and saw his eyes on hers.  She was not sure what she saw there, but she was shaken.  He had never looked at her so intensely before.  She felt his reiatsu flare briefly and then nearly disappear.  He looked away, removed his glasses and pushed the backs of his hands into his eyes, clearly upset and frustrated.  Much more upset and frustrated than the situation with Ichigo warranted.

“Please talk to me, Ishida-kun,” she asked.  He answered her with a strained groan, eyes still covered with his hands.

 Orihime was at a loss – she didn’t know what was bothering her friend so much – but she wanted desperately to fix whatever was bothering him.  She tentatively reached her right hand up toward his face, not sure what she meant to do there.  She brushed it against Uryuu’s wrist, which he abruptly dropped to his side, allowing her hand to fall lightly onto his cheek.  She gasped softly when he leaned into her palm, keeping his eyes closed, and furrowed his brows, inhaling and exhaling uneasily.  Orihime was overwhelmed with pity and brushed her thumb across Uryuu’s hardened cheekbones in an attempt to soothe away the tension there, when he suddenly relaxed his brows, opening his eyes slightly.   He saw the look of concern on her face and let out a soft chuckle, following by a small, gentle smile.  “Ah, Inoue-san,” he started wistfully, then took an abrupt step forward and embraced her.

Time stopped.

She didn’t know how long it lasted, but when Uryuu released her she felt like her lungs were going to burst – she hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath.  When he laughed at her, she finally exhaled audibly, looking to his eyes for answers.  She was both relieved and confused by what she saw there.  His expression held great fondness and even affection, but it also held bemused resignation.

“I’m sorry, Inoue-san,” he began, choosing his words carefully.  “I am always awed by the depth of your kindness, but tonight you have overwhelmed me with it.  You are truly the dearest friend I have, and I thank you for that.”  He stood up straight and put his left hand at the back of her right elbow, leading her forward.  “Come on, let’s get back to the party,” he said as he put his glasses back on his face.

Orihime wasn’t sure what happened, but she was happy her friend had recovered and seemed in much better spirits.  She flashed him a megawatt grin and followed. 

Neither of them noticed that they had an audience.

A/N:  Ok, I know I said this chapter would take us to the end of the school term, but it is getting to be unruly and I thought now was a good time for a break, plus I wanted to get an update out this week.  Nest week we’ll pick up here.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7: The Edge of Seventeen Part II

All eyes were on Ichigo when he returned to the room in the Urahara residence that held his birthday party. The look on his own face betrayed his guilt to the group, but after a brief moment of awkwardness, most of the guests looked away to resume their own conversations. Renji quietly decided to go outside and keep tabs on Orihime.

One guest was not so inclined to let the birthday boy off the hook, though. Rukia had a lot riding on tonight, and she wasn't going to let Ichigo's self-destructive inclinations spoil it. She narrowed her eyes on him while he slinked back to his seat and sat looking down at his lap morosely. 'No way is he going to sit here and mope while Orihime is out god-knows-where, probably alone with Ishida,' she thought to herself before getting up and making her way around to where Ichigo sat at the opposite side of the long table.

"So, you pissed off Ishida, huh?" she asked, feigning mild interest.

"You could say that…" Ichigo trailed off.

"Go fix it then." Rukia prodded more gently than she wanted to.

"Nah, I'd only make it worse. I sent Inoue after him to smooth things over."

Rukia couldn't believe what she was hearing. Frustration started to creep over her as she tried her hardest to not become enraged at the fact that Ichigo was really so dense, not only about the feelings of others, but his own. She decided to illuminate the situation for him a bit.

"Oh, I see. So you wanted to use Ishida's feelings for Orihime in your favor. Clever," she said, raising her eyebrows and nodding in apparent approval.

"Yeah," Ichigo answered before he really processed the content of Rukia's words. She watched, savoring every millisecond, as his expression slowly changed from one of being pleased with himself to one of horror as it dawned on him what she meant. "What?!" he hissed.

Rukia couldn't help but enjoy herself. "What do you mean, 'what'?" she answered innocently.

"Why would you say Ishida has feelings Inoue?"

"Because he does. You mean you didn't know?"

"No he doesn't," Ichigo said with a smirk, fully believing Rukia was teasing him.

Tatsuki, who was sitting directly across the table from Rukia, had overheard the conversation. She, being much more perceptive than her childhood friend, and having had enough with his ignorance of her best friend's feelings, and chimed in with a straight face, "Yes, he does. Idiot."

Rukia and Tatsuki watched with satisfaction as the truth of their words reveled itself to Ichigo. He couldn't hide his reaction as well as he thought he could. His breathing sped up and his face began to blush. He looked between the two black-haired females and tried to play it cool as he asked, "Well, does she have feelings for him?" as nonchalantly as he could.

As much as Rukia and Tatsuki would have loved to make Ichigo suffer more, neither of them wanted to lie about Orihime or potentially start rumors about her. "Orihime cares for Ishida as a friend, but that's all," Tatsuki began reluctantly, before quickly adding, "but I wouldn't be surprised if she eventually became interested in him. He is athletic and tall; kinda handsome I guess… And he shares her interest in sewing, and he is very sweet to her."

"What do you mean, 'sweet to her'?"

"I mean, he is very attentive. He is usually observant of her feelings and tries to make her happy."

Ichigo looked at Tatsuki as if she had been speaking a foreign language. She rolled her eyes and said, "He makes it very clear to her that she is important to him," as if it was obvious and Ichigo was a moron.

It was all too much for Ichigo, who was starting to feel sick, and the look of disgust on his face was amusing Rukia. Just then, Renji entered the room and announced, "I found Inoue-chan!" Rukia's face fell at the triumphant look Renji was wearing. His eyes locked on hers and gave her an evil smirk.

'Inoue-chan?' Ichigo thought to himself, mildly irritated, until he watched Renji move out of the doorway to reveal Orihime smiling serenely while being led by the elbow by 'Uryuu-fucking-Ishida', he swore to himself, observing the relaxed look on his rival's face. Ichigo's ire only increased as he saw the pair exchange a knowing look as Uryuu released Orihime so she could take her seat between Tatsuki and Chizuru. Ichigo huffed in irritation and got up. He ended up getting pulled into conversation by Ikkaku and Yumichika several seats away, and seeing that as an opportunity to think about something else, he took a seat there.

Rukia groaned in irritation as Renji took Ichigo's spot. Still pleased with himself, he didn't stop smiling until he saw the look of concern on Orihime's face. "What's wrong, Inoue-chan?" he asked her.

"Is something the matter with Kurosaki-kun?"

"Oh, he's just grumpy at us because we were giving him a hard time," Tatsuki answered.

"Oh," Orihime replied in a small, somewhat relieved, voice.

"By the way, Orihime-chan, did we tell you that we will be gone for a few days?" Rukia asked, checking to make sure Chizuru wasn't paying attention. "We're off to Soul Society, starting Monday."

"No! Why are you going back?" Orihime asked, worried.

"Just to make routine reports and check in with our divisions, and there is nothing new to report, really. But that's why Madarame and Ayasegawa are here." Renji answered. "We were planning to be gone for only two days, but we requested a bit longer because we would rather miss midterm exams," he laughed. "We'll be back when summer vacation starts."

Orihime relaxed and smiled, looking around the room. She was so happy to see everyone together, enjoying the evening. Keigo, Mizuiro, and Chad crowded the end of the table near the door with Mizuiro's girlfriends, each of whom had chosen one of the boys to fuss over, and were presently trying to feed each of them some of the snacks spread over the table. She watched for a while and laughed in amusement at their antics. The woman with Keigo seemed the least amused, and paying more attention to Chad, making Keigo jealous.

Her attention then drifted to Tessai, Jinta, and Ururu. Tessai was scolding Jinta, who had just hit Ururu over the back of the head for taking a nearby bottle of orange juice that he apparently had his eye on. Orihime observed with slight wistfulness as the three acted as if they were actual blood relatives, instead of the make-shift family they had become.

She then saw Uruhara and Yoruichi, who had clearly been pre-partying, flirting with each other, thinking they were being discreet. Orihime giggled as she saw Yoruichi push Urahara's hand off of her shoulder and him exaggeratingly lamenting the loss of contact in response, before begging her to accept his attentions, giving her bedroom eyes from below the brim of his ever-present hat.

Ikkaku started shouting then about needing more sake, and Orihime's eyes trailed to him and his companions. Her eyes landed on Ichigo's, and saw that he had been looking at her. He held her gaze for a second and then quickly looked away, scowling in apparent disgust.

She felt like she had been punched in the gut.

She took a moment to really feel the excruciating rejection. She then turned her face down and whispered to Tatsuki, "I think Kurosaki-kun is angry with me. Maybe I should leave…"

Tatsuki looked into her best friend's misty eyes and frowned. "No way, Orihime. No. If he is giving you a hard time, I will personally see to it that his attitude is adjusted," she growled.

"No, Tatsuki-chan, this is his birthday party. Could you please just make sure he gets the cake I brought?"

"What? You bought that jerk a cake and he is making you feel bad?!"

"It's not his fault, Tatsuki-chan…" Orihime started, but didn't know how to finish. What he could possibly be mad about, she didn't know either. Then she looked down at her lap and remembered his expression when she saw him looking at her before he had argued with Uryuu.

"It's my fault, Tatsuki-chan. I upset him somehow and I don't want to ruin his mood anymore. I'll see you on Monday," she said firmly and got up, dashing toward the exit, face red with mortification.

Uryuu noticed immediately and stood to go after her. Tatsuki stopped him before he could get past her, though. "Don't, Ishida. She'll just smile and pretend everything's fine so you won't worry about her-"

Rukia was on the same page as Tatsuki and interrupted, saying, "Ichigo is the one who upset her, he will be the one to fix it." She got up and marched over to Ichigo, grabbing an ear and pulling up painfully.

"What the hell, Rukia!?"

"Less talking, more walking," she said, dragging him out of the room by the ear.

When they exited the shoten, she finally released his ear and shoved him forward. "Find her and fix this. She bought you a cake, for gods' sakes," Rukia scolded.

Ichigo wasn't exactly sure what Rukia was talking about, or who she was talking about. He turned around to ask, but Rukia was nearly back inside. She looked over her shoulder to make sure Ichigo was following orders, and upon seeing him standing there, lost, she huffed exasperatedly and turned around, putting her fists on her hips.

"Ichigo! What are you waiting for? Go after her! She could be halfway home by now!" she exaggerated. "Plus, she has to walk through some questionable areas on the way, and dressed as cute as she is, she could attract the wrong attention."

Ichigo remembered Orihime's outfit and the reaction he had to it, and suddenly understood what Rukia was talking about. He forgot all about Uryuu and his earlier embarrassment and turned around and took off running without another word, knowing Orihime likely would need his protection.

Rukia rolled her eyes and went back to the party. When she got back inside, she plopped herself down next to Yoruichi, who watched with eyes the size of saucers as Rukia grabbed the sake bottle from her and took a long pull on it, exhaling loudly when she took the bottle away from her lips and wiping them with the back of one hand while handing the bottle back to Yoruichi with the other. She looked around the room and saw the anxiety on Uryuu, Tatsuki, and Chizuru's faces, and assured them, "It is all taken care of now, don't worry," before locating Renji and smirking victoriously.

Renji sighed, defeated.

Ichigo had slowed down to a jog, following the route he expected Orihime would have taken to go home. When he thought she couldn't have gotten this far already, he stopped to double back. He took a few steps and heard some noisy sniffling down a narrow side street. He turned into it, and there she was, only just a bit away from the main road but cloaked in shadow. She was clearly crying; crouched down with her arms on her knees, with her head resting on her arms. If she knew Ichigo was there, she gave no indication.

"Inoue," Ichigo called out softly, tentatively. When she didn't respond, he took a step toward her and crouched down beside her. "Inoue."

"Hmmm?" she answered between sniffles without looking up from her arms.

"Inoue, could you look at me?"

"Mmm-mm," she answered in the negative.

"Please, Inoue? I'm not sure why you are so upset, but I can't fix it if you don't talk to me."

"I'm sorry, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime choked out in a thick voice, still refusing to lift her head. "You should go back to your party! I didn't want you to feel like you had to follow me out here. It's not your fault…"

He was confused now. If it hadn't been his fault, why was he being blamed by everyone at the party? Regardless, he was glad to have escaped for the moment, and was feeling pretty sorry for Inoue, so he sat down on the pavement beside her.

"Well, I don't know about that, but I am in no hurry to go back there, so don't worry about it. What has you so upset, Inoue?"

She was surprised and comforted by the gentleness in Ichigo's tone and lifted her head, turning it away, careful not to let Ichigo see her face as she dug through her purse. Finding a tissue, she did her best to make sure she had no smeared mascara and adequately dried cheeks. After sniffing a few more times, she took a deep breath and turned to face him.

"You mean, (sniff) you aren't angry with me?"

"Why would I be angry with you, Inoue?"

"Well, when you were sitting with Madarame-san and Ayasegawa-san, I looked at you and you turned away like you were disgusted. (sniff) And when I brought Ishida-san back in from outside and sat down you left right away like you didn't want to sit near us. And earlier when I poured tea for you, you seemed really upset. I thought I must be embarrassing you somehow, like, maybe you didn't like my dress or something…"

"What would make you think that!? Your dress is really nice. Really nice…" Ichigo blushed slightly and looked away for a moment before looking back to gauge her reaction.

Orihime was trying to suppress a smile and was sporting a blush of her own. "You mean, you don't think I look cheap or ugly or something?"

"Inoue! I would never think that about you, no matter what you are wearing. First of all, you are anything but ugly. Do you remember how many guys were lined up to get their picture taking with you at Tanabata?" Orihime looked away, not particularly pleased with his answer. "Second, cheap? Inoue, what are you thinking?"

"I am thinking (sniff) that of all those guys lined up to take their pictures with me, many, (sniff) if not most, probably think I am cheap. Some certainly talked to me like I am." She started to cry again.

Ichigo was torn between panic at the sight of her tears and rage at the memory of the guys from that day. He took a deep breath and decided he had to do something. He considered it quickly: It's not like he had no experience talking to girls; he had two younger sisters at home who frequently solicited his advice and required reassurance. He decided to take the older brother approach.

"Inoue," he said, putting an arm around her shoulder and pulling her closer to him. "You are not cheap. You are beautiful. And any guy who sees anything other than that is not worth your time or attention."

He was rather pleased with himself. If he had said that to Yuzu, she would have given him a huge smile and a hug and skipped along her merry way. As he mentally patted himself on the back, he slowly came to the realization that Orihime had not responded to his statement at all. His anxiety grew as looked at Orihime with an uncertain expression.

Her eyes, although swollen and red from crying, were impossibly large and staring straight into his. She looked like a deer in the headlights. Despite her somewhat comical expression, Ichigo was quickly reminded that Orihime was not one of his sisters. She looked like a woman, not a little girl. With their current proximity, he could smell the almond scent of her shampoo and feel the warmth and softness of her exposed shoulders and back under his arm. He was suddenly hyperaware of every sensation. He had to escape her gaze. He looked down to her mouth. He realized that was a big mistake when he was faced with two swollen, glistening lips that seemed to draw him closer. He looked further down and was thwarted yet again when he realized that he was dangerously close to what Kon referred to as the 'Valley of the Gods'. His mouth ran dry. He slowly removed his arm from around Orihime's shoulders and returned it to his own side, trying unsuccessfully to make it seem casual.

"Kurosaki-kun," Orihime started.

"Inoue," Ichigo croaked out through his parched throat, "Do you like Ishida?" What am I saying?! He asked himself, not exactly sure where the question came from.

Orihime looked at him with an expression that reflected his inner monologue. "What do you mean, Kurosaki-kun? Isn't Ishida-kun our friend? We both like him, right?"

Ichigo put his own head in his hands. He had never felt more confused in his life. "Yes, he is. Thanks for setting things straight with him before," he said, muffled, through his hands.

"You're welcome, Kurosaki-kun, I'm glad I could help!"

Ichigo could hear the smile in her voice and felt some relief. He looked back to her and smiled in return. He nudged her shoulder with his. "Come on, let's get back to the party."

"That's exactly what I said to Ishida-kun!" she laughed.

Ichigo laughed too, and standing, offered a hand to Orihime to help her up. She took it and offered him her sunniest, most sincere smile. He felt his heart speed up and his chest constrict as he basked in her warmth. He had always known she was worth protecting – he had gone to hell and back for her, after all – but seeing her now, smiling up at him so radiantly, having forgiven and forgotten his earlier affronts so effortlessly, he knew deep inside that even though he had no means to protect her from the likes of Aizen, or even just everyday hollows, he would die a thousand times before he allowed her light to go out.

He pulled her up and helped to steady her. "Now, I heard a rumor that you bought me a cake." he said with a smirk and a gleam in his eye. She laughed and nodded, as he led the way back to the party.

He didn't let go of her hand until they had returned to the shoten.

July 13, 12:44 a.m.

The party was just breaking up. Ikkaku, Yumichika, and Yoruichi were passed out on the floor. Jinta and Ururu had gone up to bed a couple hours ago. Tessai was cleaning up. Urahara was still drinking, deep in conversation with Chizuru about how women just don't understand their charms. Chad, Keigo, Mizuiro and his entourage had just finished saying goodbye and were walking out. Renji and Rukia had left about an hour and a half ago – hollows, or so they said.

"Will you and Inoue-san be fine walking back on your own? I could go with you, if you'd like. It's awfully late," Uryuu asked Tatsuki, as she was waiting in the doorway for Orihime to get Chizuru up and going.

"No, we'll be fine. But thanks, Ishida. We'll see you on Monday." She answered appreciatively through a yawn.

Uryuu suppressed a yawn as well, said his goodbyes to the room, and went home.

"Thank you so much, Urahara-san. We will see you soon. Come on, Chizuru-chan, everyone is going home now…" Orihime pleaded as Chizuru tried to ignore her. She had clearly imbibed in more than a bit of sake.

"Hime-chan!" Chizuru whined, "You don't know how hard it is to find a kindred spirit. Kisuke gets how hard it is to be as sensual as me." Urahara laid back and nodded in agreement before covering his face with his hat. He was spent.

"Ok, up you come," Orihime said gently while trying to hoist up her inebriated friend. "How much did you drink, Chizuru-chan?" she asked, without expected a reply. The pair made their way to the door, where they were met with Tatsuki, and the trio proceeded out to the street. Ichigo was waiting for them outside.

"How far do you have to take her?" he asked Tatsuki and Orihime, pointing his thumb at Chizuru.

"She lives close to me, actually," Tatsuki answered. "Where you waiting out here for us?"

"Yeah, I wanted to make sure all three of you were ok getting home. It's late." He watched as Tatsuki sent an amused, questioning look Orihime's way. Orihime missed it, she was too busy smiling at Ichigo.

He sensed an opportunity.

"How about you two help get her onto my back and I'll walk with you? I think it's a bit far for the two of you to take turns propping her up. How did she managed to get so drunk?"

"I don't know. I didn't even know she had been drinking until Orihime tried to get her ready to go. She must have been sneaking it from that hat-n-clogs guy." Tatsuki responded.

"More like he was sneaking it to her," Ichigo said, shaking his head in disapproval.

"Well, I hope she's not too hungover in the morning, she has to study for midterms tomorrow," Orihime worried.

"Well, if she's not, it will have been a learning experience," Ichigo added unsympathetically. Tatsuki nodded in agreement.

The walk to Chizuru's house took about twenty minutes and was rather quiet - Tatsuki was quite tired; she had had karate practice all day up until dinnertime, and Orihime and Ichigo didn't know what to say in front of Tatsuki. When they arrived at Chizuru's house, Tatsuki spoke up.

"Thanks Ichigo. I can take her inside and get to my house alone. Would you mind getting Orihime home? I'm beat." She said, with her eyes mostly closed.

"Of course. I would have offered anyway, your house is so close to here," Ichigo answered.

"Are you sure, we could wait?" Orihime protested weakly.

"Yeah, I'm sure. My house is just five houses down the next street over. I'll be fine. Thanks a lot, Ichigo. Normally I'd be fine to do it myself, but I am so tired tonight."

"No problem, Tatsuki."

"Goodnight, Tatsuki-chan".

Tatsuki took Chizuru's keys out of her purse, unlocked her house, and took her inside.

Ichigo and Orihime started walking.

Silence.

"You don't have to walk me home, Kurosaki-kun, if you are too tired…"

"I'm not tired."

"But it's so late…"

"It almost sounds like you are trying to get rid of me."

"No! No, I just don't want you to have to go out of your way."

"Come on, Inoue. You know that even if I was tired and it was way out of my way, I wouldn't let you walk all that way by yourself at this time of night."

Orihime giggled. "This conversation sounds familiar."

"Oh yeah?"

"Yes. Remember at the beginning of the school year? It was a lot cooler then, though. You were out for a run and I ran into you at the park near my house. I believe you said, 'my old man would kick my ass if I let a nice girl like you walk home alone at this time of night'," she said, trying to mimic Ichigo's tone.

Ichigo chuckled. "You remember that, huh? Then why would you even bother trying to get rid of me?" He grinned down at her.

"I'm not! I just don't want to be a burden."

"Trust me, Inoue, you are never a burden."

Silence.

"Ummmm, are you, um, ready for midterms?" she asked, uncomfortable with what was not being said.

"Yeah. You?"

"Almost, I have a bit more studying to do."

Silence.

They still had about ten more minutes until they would get to her apartment. Orihime was tired and starting to get an upset stomach; she had thought about nothing except the short, handheld walk back from the alleyway to Urahara's for the duration of the party. She was hoping Ichigo would bring it up, or try it again, or something. She wasn't sure what it all meant, and the anticipation was eating at her. It was starting to show on her face.

After walking a minute more or so, Ichigo glanced her way and noticed Orihime's uneasy expression. "What are you thinking about, Inoue? You look like something's on your mind."

"Ummmm, No, I'm not really, I'm just tired," she started unconvincingly. She sighed and looked down at her feet, frustrated with her inability to be bold in this situation.

Ichigo stopped walking and put a hand on Orihime's near shoulder, turning her around to face him. He put his other hand on her opposite shoulder and leaned down to her eyelevel.

"Inoue. You can tell me. What's wrong?"

Orihime hesitantly looked up into his burning eyes. She was instantly lost. His warm, intense gaze seemed to look straight into her soul. His eyes were all that existed in the world, and she felt like she was being pulled in.

Ichigo was stunned when her eyes met his and instantly relaxed, staring straight back at him. He felt her shoulders lean into the palms of his hands, and saw a blush cross her cheeks, visible in the dim street light. Her chin tilted up toward him slightly, and then…

He panicked.

He quickly stood up to his full height. Keeping one hand on Orihime's shoulder's so she wouldn't fall over, he took his other one and scratched the back of his head, looking up to the sky as if something was really interesting.

"Ahhh, it is really late. You're probably really tired, we have a ways to go, and those are not walking shoes. Come on, hop up," he said to her, offering his back and crouching down a little.

"No, I'm too heavy!"

"No you are not. I remember you saying the same thing in Hueco Mundo. You were lying then too. Get. On."

As awkward as the situation was, Ichigo was right, she was tired, and her feet where aching in her strappy sandals. His offer was too tempting. "Well, if you insist…"

As Orihime wrapped her arms around Ichigo's neck, he started to second-guess his actions. Not because she was heavy – to the contrary, she was much lighter than Chizuru - but because as he grabbed hold of the insides of her knees, felt her full breasts press against his back, and listened to her whisper "All set," as her breath tickled his ears, he could feel an unwelcome heat flood his loins. A deep blush splashed his face. On the other hand, in her current position, she would be unable to observe the proof of his stimulation. 'Small blessings,' he thought sarcastically.

Orihime was in heaven. She had never believed she would be held in such proximity to Ichigo. From her current position, she was overwhelmed with the scent of laundry detergent and boy. Not just any boy, Kurosaki-kun boy. As discreetly as she could, she turned her nose into his neck a bit, inhaling as deeply as she could. The scent was so warm, so comforting. Before she knew it, she had dozed off.

Ichigo heard her breathing level out and felt her grip around his shoulders loosen. They were only about a block away from her apartment, so he decided that he would just lean forward enough that she wouldn't fall, rather than wake her.

When they arrived, however, he had no other choice. "Inoue," he said softly.

No response.

"Inoue?" a bit louder.

Nothing.

He hoisted her up a bit abruptly and heard a faint murmur from her. "Inoue?"

"Yes?" he heard her muffled voice as her lips pressed against his shoulder. Ichigo was hit with another round of agony in his nether-region.

"Inoue, we're home. It's time to get down now, alright?"

"Mmmmm," Orihime groaned with dissatisfaction. "But Kurosaki-kun is so comfy and smells so nice…"

She was asleep again.

He decided to try the door. Much to his dismay, it was open. He entered and slipped out of his shoes. He went to her bedroom and sat on her bed, slowly removing her arms from his shoulders and laying her down. He hemmed and hawed for a moment before deciding to take off her shoes, and then swung her legs up onto the bed by the ankles. He found a light blanket at the foot of the bed and covered her up, and then knelt next to her head for a moment. Her hair had fallen over her face and he gently brushed it away. As he did, he took in her delicate features, her long, dark eyelashes, her full, slightly parted lips. As he looked up, he saw how her vibrant hair fanned out behind her bare shoulders, their pale, youthful glow highlighted by her contrasting auburn hair. For the first time, he openly admitted to himself that he found her incredibly beautiful.

He watched her for a few more moments, and then got up to leave her room. As he walked to the door, he spied her purse. Normally he wouldn't dare look inside, but under the circumstances he felt he had no choice. There wasn't much there, just a coin purse, her phone, some lip balm, and – "there it is" – her apartment key. He let himself out, locked the door, and put the key back in through the mail slot.

That night, he dreamed of her.

That night, in anticipation of what would undoubtedly occur while they were away in soul society, Renji forfeited their wager and presented Rukia with the limited edition Chappy plushie she had been coveting. "A pleasure doing business with you, Abarai," the sassy shinigami said, smiling at her prize.

"I am never making a bet with you again," Renji replied.

July 14th, 8:23 a.m.

The rain came down in a steady drizzle on the morning of the first day of midterm exams at Karakura High, blessing the students with less oppressive weather in which to sit their first round of tests. Orihime dashed up the walk to the school courtyard, head down, dodging puddles and not looking much ahead of her. She bumped umbrellas with someone, called out, "Sorry!," and kept going, until she heard a familiar voice answer.

"Good morning, Inoue. You have to watch where you're going," the voice said, before the speaker grabbed her hand and started pulling her along.

"Kurosaki-kun? What are you still doing out here? You're going to be late!"

"I could say the same thing to you. I've been here for over twenty minutes; I was starting to get worried about you so I came out to check."

Orihime was glad her umbrella covered her blush.

Ichigo was glad for the same reason.

"Yeah, sorry, there was a hollow on my way here. Four came out at once this time; it took Ayasegawa-san almost ten minutes to get to mine," Orihime said quickly as they entered the school. She dashed to her locker to take off her shoes and put her umbrella away without waiting for Ichigo's response. He was waiting for her just past the lockers, shaking his head in irritation.

"Where the hell were Chad and Ishida then?"

"I think Sado-kun was already at school, and I believe Ishida-kun was on the fourth hollow. Madarame-san and Ayasegawa-san can't be everywhere at once, afterall," Orihime replied in their defense.

Orihime couldn't help but issue a small smile when Ichigo growled quietly in discontent at the facts she presented, accepting them but not liking them.

"Don't worry, Kurosaki-kun, everyone is here now and ready for exams!" she said enthusiastically, pumping her fist in the air.

He shook his head, and as they began to ascend the steps toward their second-floor classroom, the warning bell rang. "Shoot, we gotta go!" The pair took the stairs as fast as they could, and Ichigo opened the classroom door for her when he arrived first. Orihime blushed furiously as his hand found the small of her back, guiding her through to doorway before him.

Their unusual entrance did not go unnoticed.

"Good morning, Tatsuki-chan!" Orihime said to her friend in her usual manner, trying to act normal.

"Good morning, Orihime," her friend answered with an amused and incredulous half-grin. "What was that about?" she whispered to her friend after she took her seat.

"What was what?" Orihime answered innocently.

Tatsuki's grin spread across the remainder of her face as she faced the front of the classroom again. Her best friend could play coy all she wanted, Tatsuki knew what she saw.

Ichigo made his way to his seat, making eye contact with Keigo, Mizuiro, and Chad, greeting them with a quick, "G'morning," and then taking his seat. Feeling eyes on him, he looked around the classroom until his eyes found Uryuu's glasses, which obscured any view of his eyes, but the rest of his visage looked pale and stricken for a moment. As soon as Uryuu realized Ichigo was looking at him, he pushed his glasses up further, scowling, and looked to the front of the classroom.

"I wonder what's up with Ishida…" Ichigo started, before leaning toward Chad and asking quietly, "Where those hollows this morning really so bad?"

"I don't think it is the hollows that are troubling him," Chad answered as the bell signaling class rang.

Because of the focus on testing, the rumor mill was slow to get rolling. At lunch, things were relatively peaceful in the hallways and the classroom where Ichigo and friends ate. Even after lunch, nothing seemed amiss to Ichigo.

However, after school let out for the day, he started to notice the extra curious glances and dirty glares being thrown his way. He had a sneaking suspicion relative to the cause of his new fame, but he really wasn't sure. He decided to consult with Chad. He caught up with him at his locker.

"Chad – um, can I ask you a question?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you think, maybe, people are staring at me today?"

"Mmm."

"You noticed, huh?"

"Mmm."

"Do I have a sign stuck to my back or something?"

Chad shook his head no.

"Then what is so interesting?"

Chad, not being much for superfluous chatting, got straight to the point. "You and Inoue."

"But everyone knows we are friends..."

Chad rarely laughed. It was a big deal when the big man laughed. Even when he laughed, he rarely laughed loudly. This time, he guffawed.

Ichigo looked at him with a shocked expression.

"Ichigo, you have got to be joking, right?" he asked, wiping tears of laughter form his eyes. " The way you are looking at Inoue recently is anything but friendly, and the way you had your hands all over her today cleared up any doubts anyone had on the topic."

"My hands were NOT all over her!" he hissed.

"Ok, whatever, man. I think it's nice," Chad responded, still laughing.

He turned away from Ichigo, silently waved goodbye, and started his walk home.

Ichigo went up to study after dinner that evening, but thoughts of Orihime kept crowding his mind. After about ten minutes, he groaned, tugging on his hair in frustration, as he realized he had to deal with his uncertainties before he would be able to get anything productive done.

He mulled over the idea of Orihime and his relationship. 'My friend, Inoue. My FRIEND, Inoue.' It sounded wrong. 'My friend, Inoue-chan.' He shook his head. That sounded even more wrong. 'My friend. My friend who is a girl. My girl friend. My girlfriend, Inoue.'

The sound of that thought in his mind filled him with a sense of inner peace for a moment.

'Shit.'

'Shit shit shit.'

"SHIIIIIIT!" he groaned aloud.

His door opened.

"What's wrong, son?"

"Oh no, not now." Ichigo said into his hands.

"Oh, come on. You can talk to me."

"No, I can't."

"Is it about Orihime-chan?"

"What? How did you –"

"Rukia-chan told me before she left on Sunday."

"I'm going to kill her."

"There is no need for murder, son. And there is no need to be so secretive about your feelings, either. I am a very open-minded man. It wasn't so long ago that I was falling in love with your mother, you know."

"I am not falling in love!"

"That's what you think now. Anyway, why are you so bothered? Can't tell her how you feel? Worried she won't feel the same way?"

"What? No! I don't know…"

"Well, Ichigo, you are going to be seventeen tomorrow. You are nearly a man, and like a lot of men, you keep your feelings hidden pretty well, sometimes. Anyway, the only way Orihime-chan is going to know that you like her is if you tell her. So be a man, and tell her."

"I don't! Well, maybe I might…" Ichigo was reeling from all these new revelations. He felt overwhelmed and desperate. So desperate that he decided to ask Isshin for help. "If I do, what should I say to her?"

"Just tell her the truth. No woman can resist the charms of a Kurosaki man," he said, waggling his thick eyebrows.

"Dad…" Ichigo whined, begging to be taken seriously.

"Seriously, though, Ichigo, just tell her. I would normally tell you that either way she responds, at least then you'll know."

"What about this time makes it abnormal?"

"Because Orihime-chan has been in love with you for a long time now. Goodnight, son. Papa loves you too, you know." Isshin walked out, shutting the door behind him.

Ichigo felt like he had been hit by a bus with his father's revelation. His mind went blank for a while, then he returned to his studies robotically. He stayed that way while he brushed his teeth. He took his bath and put on his pajamas as if he was sleepwalking. He laid down and closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.

He rolled over and looked at his alarm clock, which read 12:00 a.m.

He heard his cell phone vibrate.

He picked it up.

1 new message.

He opened the message.

Tuesday, June 15th, 12:00 a.m.

From: Inoue Orihime

Happy birthday, Kurosaki-kun! I hope 17 is a great year for you! (smiley face)(cake emoji)(heart)

Ichigo read the message three times, smiled and held his phone to his chest. The old man knew a thing or two, afterall. He picked the phone back up, and texted back:

Tuesday, June 15th, 12:02 a.m.

From: Kurosaki Ichigo

Thanks, Inoue. See you at school tomorrow. (smiley face) BTW, go to bed, exams tomorrow!

...

His phone vibrated again.

Tuesday, June 15th, 12:03 a.m.

From: Inoue Orihime

I know, but I wanted to wish you happy birthday first. Good night, Kurosaki-kun. (moon emoji) (zzz emoji) (heart).

...

Tuesday, June 15th, 12:04 a.m.

From: Kurosaki Ichigo

Thanks. (heart) Good night, Inoue. (moon emoji) (zzz emoji)

A/N: Boom! There it is, another monster chapter in the bank. Next week, summer vacation. As always, thanks for reading and let me know your comments in the reviews!

Chapter Text

Thanks for the review, it is encouraging!

Chapter 8: Disturbance

July 17th, pursuant to the Living World's calendar

3:00 p.m.

Seireitei

Rukia and Renji exited the Captains' Assembly Hall. Both of them allowed their posture to relax and exhaled deeply. They had reported to their own division on their arrival in Soul Society three days prior, and it was their respective captains who presented the findings of their reports at the meeting, meaning neither Renji nor Rukia were required to speak except to answer the other captains' direct questions, if there were any.

As it happened, the captains of the Court Guard were less than interested in what was happening in the World of the Living, and eager to get the meeting over with. There were only two questions. The first was from the captain of the eleventh division, asking if Ichigo Kurosaki had shown any signs of regaining his powers. When Rukia answered negatively, he replied with a tsk and stopped listening altogether. The second question, surprisingly, came from Captain Hitsugaya, who asked after the well-being of his former hostess, Orihime Inoue, with a slight blush. Renji informed him that 'Inoue-chan' was much improved with his and Rukia's presence in Karakura town, causing several eyebrows in the room to lift slightly and a discreet elbow to the hip from Rukia for his lapse in formality.

As the pair left the First Division Headquarters and started toward the Sixth Division to head back to the World of the Living via the Kuchiki family's senkaimon, they felt a strange, mild but tangible, tremor in the air. Rukia and Renji looked at each other for assurance that the sensation was mutual. Before either was able to confirm anything they were both knocked to their hindquarters by a shockwave of foreign reiatsu. Scarlet and ebony strands of hair tangled together and whipped over the shinigamis' faces, stinging their eyes and cheeks as they strained to stay conscious amidst the onslaught of oppressive spirit energy that streamed with gut-wrenching velocity in every direction. Their ears popped as the roar of rushing reiatsu muffled all other sound, and their breath was stolen from their lungs. After several seconds, and just as Rukia's vision was beginning to blur, the reiatsu pulled back at an impossible speed, suctioning reishi particles with it in a vacuum caused by the swiftness of its retreat. As quickly as it began, it was over.

"Rukia!" Renji gasped, reaching down to his lover.

"I'm alright," Rukia said, panting and holding a palm to her forehead, as Renji assisted her back to her feet. "What was that?"

As if to answer her question, sirens began to sound throughout Seireitei. After an initial round of sirens, announcements ordering a return to barracks were issued. Renji took Rukia's hand and began to pull her toward the Sixth Division, but she pulled back, aware that the orders dictated that she was to return to the Thirteenth. Before they were able to argue with each other, Byakuya Kuchiki appeared in a burst of shunpo, grabbed Rukia by the waist, and nodded to Renji to follow before taking off toward Kuchiki Manor in another impossibly fast flash of shunpo.

The sound of the alarms muffled as Byakuya shut the Manor door and looked at Rukia with only a trace of concern visible on his face.

Rukia was first to speak.

"Onii-sama, thank you for getting me to safety, but I have orders to-"

"You have already returned to the World of the Living, as far as anyone else is concerned," Byakuya interrupted, his calm voice betraying none of his inner turmoil. "You will exit through the senkaimon at once. When you arrive in Karakura town, you will find the eleventh division members currently stationed there and advise that they are to shelter in place until further orders." He turned his focus to Renji and continued, "I will send a communication with pertinent information on receipt of same. Until then, continue as you were, keep a low profile, and await my orders."

Renji bowed deeply, answering "Understood, Captain."

With that, Byakuya led the pair silently to the senkaimon. Upon arrival, he looked at the pair again and gave Renji a meaningful gaze, before turning his attention to Rukia and nodding serenely, closing his eyes and effectually closing any potential argument.

"Thank you, Onii-sama…" Rukia whispered before being pulled through the senkaimon by Renji.


July 17th

Karakura

3:30 p.m.

"Ahhhh," Orihime said deliciously, as she stood from her desk, enjoying well-earned stretch, with one fist behind her head and the other reaching up and out at a 45 degree angle from her shoulder, before lifting her bust and expanding her ribcage for a deep breath and then collapsing into herself with a quick exhale. Midterm exams were officially over, and summer vacation had begun. Her eyes scanned the classroom briefly, and as they passed over Ichigo, she found him looking at her through the corner of one eye, giving her an amused half-smile. She gave him a small smile in return and blushed prettily, quickly resuming her scan of the room in an attempt to look casual.

Chizuru approached the auburn-haired beauty from behind, purring into her ear, "Now that we have some free time, and Arisawa-san is off to karate camp tomorrow, perhaps we can spend some of it getting to know each other more intimately…" she trailed off, bringing a hand up the side of Orhime's hip, creeping toward her ribcage.

Before Tatsuki had a chance to slap that hand and shoo away Chizuru, Ichigo had a flash of inspiration, thinking up a fib to get the tenacious lesbian to give up any hopes of corrupting Orihime over summer vacation. "Sorry Honshou-san, Inoue is going to be busy this summer volunteering at my dad's clinic. She won't have any time to herself, right, Inoue?"

"What?" the bespectacled girl whined, dejected. Simultaneously, eyebrows were raised in various degrees of surprise throughout the classroom.

Tatsuki was surprised indeed by both Ichigo's interest in helping Orihime out of her stalker's grasp and also the cleverness of the lie. It was perfect; the rouse kept Orihime out of Chizuru's hypothetical reach until school resumed at the beginning of September. Plus, Chizuru was right; Tatsuki was going to be out of town for Karate camp for almost half of the break, and she also had to travel for competitions after that. She spoke before Orihime could respond to Ichigo's question.

"Yep! Orihime was just telling me while we were studying last night that she was really excited to start helping out! In fact, she was planning on walking home with Ichigo and starting today, isn't that right, Ichigo?," she asked, directing an intense stare at him, willing him to understand what she was doing telepathically.

Telepathy may not have been Tatsuki's strong point, but Ichigo understood nonetheless. "Uh, right, we were just about to get going. Come on, Inoue," he said, standing and walking out of class without looking to see if she followed or not. He was beginning to worry about how far this charade was going to go before it blew up in his face, and he didn't want to be surrounded by his classmates if and when it did.

Orihime looked at Tatsuki, mouth agape, with confused eyes. Tatsuki got up and linked arms with the healer, leading her out of the classroom, saying "I'm so excited for karate camp, but I'm really going to miss you!" loud enough for everyone in the classroom to hear, in an attempt to keep Orihime from speaking until they were out of earshot.

Once they were out of the classroom, Orihime hissed to Tatsuki, "Is there something wrong with me?"

"What do you mean?"

"I don't remember ever volunteering to work at Kurosaki Clinic! Do you think I've suffered brain damage? I mean, I know I can be kind of absent-minded and clumsy sometimes, but I didn't think I ever hit my head hard enough to cause any memory problems…" she whispered seriously, terrified, as tears began to brim around her eyes.

Ichigo had been waiting, partially hidden behind a wall separating the stairwell from the hallway. When Tatsuki led Orihime past him, he fell in step next to the girls.

"Ichigo, tell Orihime she's not losing her mind, please?" Tatsuki begged, rubbing the nearly hyperventilating girl's back.

"What's wrong, Inoue?"

"She won't believe that we just made all this up."

"No, Inoue, Tatsuki's right – the idea just kind of came to me while I watched Honshou trying to feel you up –" Ichigo stopped dead in his tracks, his face turning thirteen shades of red, as he recognized the potential implications of what he was saying.

Luckily, the girls continued, completely oblivious to any potential dirty thoughts the former shinigami may have harbored. After a brief huff of a relieved exhale, Ichigo caught back up. "I never meant to embarrass or confuse you or anything, Inoue, I was just trying to give you an excuse to avoid her, and I just blurted it out before thinking. I'm really sorry," he said, stopping before her and bowing to her with his palms pressed together in front of his head for comic effect, looking up at her through squinted eyes that begged forgiveness.

Orihime stood on the landing of the stairs feeling rather stunned. As a group of other student began to descend the stairs, Ichigo stood up, observing Orihime's speechless expression. He smiled to her gently and she finally responded.

"You mean, I didn't tell Kurosaki-san I would volunteer?" She looked both relieved and slightly disappointed.

Ichigo let a short, voiceless, laugh escape through his nostrils. "No, really, I made that up just now. I promise. Now, come on, let's go before Honshou figures out our secret," he said, narrowing his eyes and smiling conspiratorially. Tatsuki ruffled Orihime's bangs for good measure, and the trio made their way down to the lockers before anyone else caught up to them.

As the three made their way to the school courtyard, they were met with Ichigo's friends, blocking the school gate, each with varying magnitudes of question written on his face. Mizuiro spared Ichigo a curious glance, looking up from his phone for a moment. Chad held a bemused, surprised grin. Ishida stood with poison in his eyes and arms crossed over his chest, waiting impatiently for the opportunity to interrogate. Unsurprisingly, however, Keigo was the first to break the line as he rushed toward them.

"Ichigooooooooooooooooooo!" he whined, "You are so lucky! I would give anything for the lovely Inoue-chan to come to my house every day! How could you do this to me, keeping her all to yourself?"

Ichigo's eyebrows began to twitch, and his elbow met with Keigo's head. "Idiot," he said lowly, and kept walking, as Keigo bent over, rubbing the sore spot, and then followed behind like a kicked puppy.

As Ichigo approached the group, Ishida started next. "So, what is this all about?," he asked icily. Chad backed up the question with an inquiring "Hmgh?" of his own.

"Relax you guys, he just said it to get Chizuru to stop fondling Orihime and to get her to leave her alone over summer" Tatsuki responded, seeing that Ichigo was too busy rolling his eyes as hard as he could to respond.

"Good thinking," Mizuiro replied good-naturedly, while Chad flashed his best friend a thumbs-up.

Uryuu blushed when he realized he had let his feelings become transparent. He tried to backpedal. Thinking fast, he formulated a way to cover his tracks and stick it to Kurosaki. "That is what I thought, but how are you going to keep Honshou-san from finding out? She is likely to drop by the clinic from time to time to harass Inoue-san. What are you going to say when she is never there?" He asked, smiling victoriously.

"Well, maybe she could volunteer once in a while. You never got a part-time job for the summer, and I'd hate to think of you sitting alone in your apartment for most of it. Plus Kuchiki is coming back soon, and she is staying in the clinic, so you two could hang out. The rest of the time Karin and Yuzu will be there, and they adore you. Ichigo is not the best company, but I'm sure his dad wouldn't mind having you there, right Ichigo?" Tatsuki asked, looking between the two expectantly.

Both Ichigo and Orihime were speechless at first. Ichigo was not against the idea at all, but he didn't want to say that in front of his friends, nor did he want to give Orihime the impression he had a feeling about it one way or the other, so he waited for Orihime to give some kind of indication about how she felt before he said anything.

After a brief pause, Orihime's eyes began to light up. "Oh, Tatsuki, you're right! It would be wonderful to have something to do, so close to Kuchiki-san, Karin and Yuzu," she started, sparing a shy glance toward Ichigo to gauge his reaction. When his face softened, she smiled and added, "If Kurosaki-kun wouldn't mind, that is…"

"Of course not, Inoue. I'm sure my old man wouldn't mind the help, either," he said, trying not to appear too eager. "He should be at the clinic today, we could try talking to him about it now, since we are supposed to be walking there "together" anyway."

Uryuu exhaled in disgust, realizing his plan to embarrass Ichigo just pushed his rival and the object of his own affection closer together.


Isshin was, as expected, over the moon that Orihime asked to spend some time with him in the clinic. Ichigo did not miss his father's waggling eyebrows and pointed looks between his son and Orihime every time her back was turned to him, either. Aside from a twitching brow, Ichigo was able to keep from alerting Orihime to anything amiss during his father's suggestive eyebrow-dance sessions.

It was decided that Orihime would help by manning the front desk Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, organizing files, answering the phone, and greeting patients from 1:00 p.m. until dinner, which Isshin insisted she have at the Kurosaki residence on the days she was working. His justification was that her help in the clinic freed Yuzu to focus exclusively on cooking, earning Orihime a seat at the table. And while Orihime maintained it was volunteer work only, Isshin insisted on giving her a small weekly stipend.

After showing her around the clinic, greeting Ichigo's sisters, and filling them in on what Orihime would be doing there this summer, Orihime looked at her phone, her face falling apologetically.

"I'm sorry Kurosaki-san, Kurosaki-kun; I have to go now. I promised I would have dinner with Tatsuki and her family before she leaves for karate camp tomorrow."

"No worries, Orihime-chan," Isshin said kindly, placing a fatherly hand on the healer's shoulder. "We will see you tomorrow afternoon, anyway! Ichigo will walk you to Tatsuki's house, won't you?"

"Um, sure."

"Oh, you don't need to do that, Kurosaki-kun, I don't want to hold up your dinner."

Isshin gave Ichigo a look that meant to say, 'don't even consider not walking her an option'.

Ichigo shot one back that meant, 'As if I would, cut me some slack!'

Refocusing on Orihime, Ichigo answered, "We know I'm going to do it anyway, Inoue. Don't bother protesting," with a friendly smile.

"OK, kids, look both ways before crossing the street and don't be in too big of a rush!"

"Goodnight, Kurosaki-san!"

"Goodnight, Orihime-chan!"

Ichigo slammed the door in Isshin's face and turned his face to Orihime as if nothing happened. "Let's go."

Orihime burst into a bubbling waterfall of a laugh, one that relaxed the teenagers into a mood of comfortable companionship.

"Kurosaki-san sure is lively, isn't he?"

"That's one way to put it," Ichigo said with a chuckle, and looked to Orihime with an unguarded smile.

Orihime's own smile widened at the sight of it. He always was good looking, with his angular bone structure and wide, intense eyes. But like this, this rare, carefree moment – he took her breath away. Her cheeks became dusted with pink as she looked forward, closing her eyes and taking a deep, comfortable breath, sighing on the exhale.

"Are you tired, Inoue?"

She reopened her eyes and looked up at him with a serene smile. "No, I just have the loveliest feeling whenever I am around your family. Each of you are so kind, and I am so happy that I will be able to see you so often this summer," she said airily, but with a deepening blush indicating she felt self-conscious with her admission. She smiled at Ichigo again, closing her eyes to avoid becoming more embarrassed.

She was so radiant and sweet, Ichigo's breath hitched. He struggled not to reach for her, so strong was the pull to touch her. Instead, he looked forward and remembered how he hadn't had time during final exams to speak with Orihime much, and besides greetings, they hadn't spoken privately since his birthday party and the texts on his birthday. He had missed her.

He was also feeling slightly reckless; buzzed on the feeling of freedom born from having finished his exams and from the thrill of how events had fallen into place that afternoon. Her blinding smile pushed him over the edge. He spoke before thinking. "You know, we have not spent enough time, just you and me. Do you want to hang out somewhere after dinner tomorrow?"

Orihime couldn't process what she heard and breathe at the same time. Could she have heard him right? No, she couldn't have. He said it so casually. But those were the words, right? The words she had wished to hear so desperately for over a year. Ichigo Kurosaki had just asked her on a date, right? Right? Inoue's eyes began to bulge in their sockets as she looked straight at the pavement two meters ahead, her face going a bit pale as her blood pressure waned. She faltered.

Ichigo still hadn't considered what he had said. He heard his own words echo through his mind as if they were someone else's voice. He caught Orihime as she tripped on her own feet and steadied her; threading his arm under her near shoulder and around her back to clasp her side below her far shoulder. He held her like that for a moment, then turned her to face him, still with his arm supporting her back. When she kept looking down, he tilted her chin up with a crooked forefinger. "Are you alright, Inoue?"

Orihime slowly raised her eyes to him. Her face was still pallid and her eyes were still opened quite widely, but as they met his, her blood pressure came back and she blushed profusely at their proximity.

It was not until that moment that Ichigo realized what he had done. He jumped back, putting a respectable distance between them. Orihime looked back down to her feet for a moment and rubbed her eyes, discreetly pushing aside the tears that were threatening to spill over there. Then, before Ichigo had a chance for mortification to set in, Orihime looked up at him again, smiling, and nodded. "I'd love to!" she added with a small giggle.

If Ichigo felt buzzed before, he was completely intoxicated now. Everything was right with the world. Nothing could wipe the dopey grin off of his face as they walked side by side in comfortable silence, hands nearly brushing the rest of the way to Tatsuki's house.

When they arrived, Ichigo stopped with Orihime in front of the door, waiting awkwardly. He didn't want to leave her so soon, but he also didn't want Tatsuki to come out and ruin his mood. Realizing he would see Orihime again, in person, in less than 12 hours, he turned to leave, with a quick "I guess I'll get going then…"

After a beat, he turned back, unwilling to let her go so quickly. "See you tomorrow, Inoue, have fun with Tatsuki…" he looked down at his companion's sweet smile and struggled again with the urge to touch her. He settled with a brief, polite bow of the head and a smile that showed his teeth.

Orihime bowed back, and when she saw his smile, she sighed contentedly. "See you tomorrow, Kurosaki-kun," she said softly.

The door behind her opened. Ichigo took that as his cue, turning around so that when Tatsuki viewed him, she would only see his back. "Bye Tatsuki! See you in a few weeks. Do your worst at Karate Camp!" He shouted while walking away, one hand in his pocket, the other waving as he went.

"Bye Ichigo!" Tatsuki shouted, bemused. Then she saw Orihime's face. She yanked her inside by the shoulder and slammed the door. "What happened?!" she asked, looking at Orihime's flushed face.

"Um, let's talk in your room after dinner," Orihime said with a shy face, and then burst into a fit of giggles, before looking back up to Tatsuki and throwing her arms around her best friend's neck, squeezing briefly and then sighing and letting go. As she gathered her composure, she whispered, "It's good news."

Tatsuki lowered a knowing smirk at her friend.


After dinner with Tatsuki's family, Orihime ran with her best friend up the stairs and into her bedroom, each of them throwing their bodies onto Tatsuki's bed with a bounce before drawing their feet up and facing one another in a huddle.

"Ok, Orihime, Spill," Tatsuki commanded.

"Well," Orihime dragged out, "I went to Kurosaki Clinic and Kurosaki-san agreed to let me work part-time. He even insisted on paying me!"

"Well, that's great news, Orihime, but that's not what I meant! Come on! Get to the juicy part!"

"Well, Kurosaki-kun walked me here. At first it was just normal. Well not normal, nicer than normal. He was really in a good mood. Then…" Orihime blushed at the memory.

"What?!"

"Then he asked me on a date" Orihime squealed quickly.

"WHAT?!"

Tatsuki had seen it coming, of course, she just would never in a million years imagine that Ichigo would just man up and ask her best friend out directly.

"Wait a minute, Orihime, I am having a hard time imagining this. What did he say, exactly?"

"Well, I told him I was looking forward to spending time with him and his family on regular basis, then he said something like, 'We don't spent enough time together, just the two of us. Do you want to hang out somewhere after dinner tomorrow?'"

"Well, I'll be damned. He actually did it. Well done, Ichigo." Tatsuki said incredulously. "Wait, what did you say?"

"I said I'd love to."

Tatsuki grinned at her best friend. "I'm happy for you, Orihime. Make sure you let me know how it goes! I'll have my phone in the evenings."

Just then, Orihime's phone's text tone sounded.

"Who's that, I wonder?" Tatsuki said with a knowing eyebrow raise.

Orihime blushed and looked at her phone. Tatsuki was right, of course. She opened her phone, read the message, and squealed slightly as she held the phone to her heart.

"What did it say?" Tatsuki said, reaching for the phone.

Orihime attempted to keep the phone out of Tatsuki's reach. Not because she wanted to keep the message a secret, but to protect Ichigo's privacy. Her effort didn't last long before Tatsuki swiped the phone from her grasp and read the message.

Thursday, July 17th, 7:12 p.m.

From: Kurosaki Ichigo

I forgot to ask, are you staying over at Tatsuki's tonight?

"Oh, boring…" Tatsuki groaned, gently tossing the phone back to Orihime.

Orihime furrowed her brows back at her, and quickly replied.

Thursday, July 17th, 7:16 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

No, she has an early start tomorrow so I'll go home after this (smiley face).

Tatsuki reacted in the most mature way she could imagine. "So, did you write back 'No, but I love you and I want to have your babies'?" ending her question with a multitude of air kisses.

"Tatsuki!" Orihime whined. Then her phone chimed again.

Thursday, July 17th, 7:18 p.m.

From: Kurosaki Ichigo

How are you getting home?

Orihime responded this time before Tatsuki could intervene.

Thursday, July 17th, 7:19 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

Tatsuki's mom is going to give me a ride.

Before Orihime looked back up at Tatsuki she felt a stinging on the back of her head. Tatsuki had been reading over her shoulder and was not impressed with Orihime's response, apparently, so she slapped her upside the head.

"Tatsuki-chan! What was that for!?" Orihime cried out.

"You silly thing," Tatsuki said, patronizingly. "Why didn't you say no? Then he would have offered to walk you home!"

"Oh…. But, Tatsuki-chan, he must be tired. We all just finished exams."

"You are so innocent, my dear," Tatsuki responded, shaking her head. Just then, Orihime's phone went off again; another message had arrived.

Thursday, July 17th, 7:22 p.m.

From: Kurosaki Ichigo

Ok, good. Text me to let me know you get home safe. Also, Renji and Rukia just got back, they say hi (smiley face).

Orihime texted back that she would and to say hi back from herself and Tatsuki. The girls sat around for about another half hour, analyzing the events of the day and talking about potential first date scenarios. At eight o'clock, Mrs. Arisawa shouted for the girls to come downstairs to drive Orihime home.

As Orihime got out of the Arisawa's station wagon, Tatsuki leaned across her seat to give her bestie a hug. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" She teased, then gave her best friend a wink and a wave, and off they went. Orihime went upstairs and let herself into her apartment, locking the door behind her and settling down on her sofa, taking a moment to digest how much her life had changed in the span of several hours. She reminded herself to reign her wild thoughts in; just because she was going on a date with Ichigo didn't mean they were yet 'dating', but 'Oh my god,' she thought to herself, 'it almost does!'.

Orihime took a deep, calming breath, and took out her phone.

July 17th, 8:11 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

I'm home now (blushing smiley face).

The reply was almost immediate.

July 17th, 8:11 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Oh good. Thanks for letting me know (smiley). Are you coming right at 1:00 tomorrow or a bit earlier?

July 17th, 8:12 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

I'll be a bit early, I'm sure. I'm so excited! (excited smiley).

July 17th, 8:13 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

I'm looking forward to it too. I'm glad we'll be able to see each other so often this summer (sun emoji)(beach emoji)(hospital emoji)(eyeroll emoji)(laughing emoji)

July 17th, 8:14 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

ROFL! (laughing emoji) But seriously, I am too (heart).

July 17th, 8:15 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Ok then, big day for you tomorrow. Do your best! (bicep curl emoji)(smiley).

July 17th, 8:16 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

I will. Thank you, Kurosaki-kun (heart). Good night (moon emoji).

July 17th, 8:17 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Good night, Inoue (heart).


July 17th, 11:00 p.m.

Urahara Residence

Rukia, Renji, Ikkaku, and Yumichika sat around a small tea table in the middle of Urahara's living room. The mood was quietly apprehensive. Urahara was visible, in the next room over, looking at something on a monitor, tapping his fan to his lower lip nervously. His guests sipped on tea, each holding on to his or her cup as if it were an anchor to sanity.

Finally, Ikkaku broke the ice. "Have you noticed that since you two came back, there have been no hollow outbreaks?" he asked quietly.

"It hasn't really been that long," Renji replied, with equally suppressed volume.

"It's been about eight hours. The longest lapse we have had since all this started in was about three hours. Something is up, or this is a really strange coincidence," Rukia said as if she didn't expect anyone else to hear.

None of them spoke further, until the hush was broken some minutes later, with a screeching meow, followed by the sound of Urahara's senkaimon closing.

"Kisuke! Would you please get me a towel?" Yoruichi shouted, having transformed back into her nude human form and heaving herself up the ladder from the underground level which housed the senkaimon.

She reached the main floor level and, with the exception of the towel flung over her arm, proceeded to enter the living room buck naked, without a trace of modesty. "I'll fill all of you in after I've had a quick bath," she said, heading up to the stairs to the second story.

Renji and Ikkaku's complexions reddened considerably, earning Renji a punch in the shoulder from Rukia. Yumichika had kept own eyes diverted from what he anticipated would be an unrefined scene.

Urahara then came into the living room and sat in his armchair, lit his pipe, and waited for Yoruichi to return.

Ikkaku was getting impatient. "So have you been able to figure out why we can't go back to Soul Society yet?" he asked with irritation creeping into his voice.

"Patience, Madarame-san. It appears the 12th division is still out in the field gathering information. Until they return and start entering any findings into their system, I am in the dark, I'm afraid," the former captain of the 12th admitted. He had long ago hacked backdoor access to the 12th's database, but that's were his indirect surveillance reach ended. Anything else had to be gathered physically, either by sending Yoruichi, a surveillance hell butterfly, or by taking clandestine trips back to Soul Society on his own, all of which was generally inadvisable. In this case, he had decided against hell butterflies due to their inefficiency - he could send one today and not expect it back until a week from now. Sending himself into Soul Society was also a bad idea – he attracted too much attention. But Yoruichi, former Captain of the 2nd division and Queen of Shunpo, was made for stealth missions, as much as he disliked sending her into the unknown.

After another round of tea, and just as Urahara was about to snuff out his pipe, Yoruichi made her way down the stairs, her hair still up in a towel, and a sleeping yukata tied haphazardly over her body. She sat on the arm of Urahara's chair, helping herself to his pipe.

"So, how did it go, Yoruichi-san?" Urahara asked pleasantly.

"I don't know, Kisuke," she said to him, before broadening her focus to the other occupants of the room. "I overheard a meeting of the Captains – none of them know what that was yet. The 2nd and 12th divisions are still out scouring Rukongai, trying to find a trace of where the epicenter of the reiatsu surge came from, but no one has been able to locate anything yet. I myself went out into Rukongai in hopes of finding a trail, but there was nothing. It's like nothing happened, except for that everyone who experienced it has been feeling like –"

"-like they were doused in a wave of fear and despair" Rukia interrupted. Yoruichi made eye contact with her and nodded somberly.

"Well, well, we'll just have to sit here and wait, then, won't we?" Urahara said, glancing toward to monitors again.

"Urahara-san," Yumichika politely asked, "do you think this event could be related to the sudden end to the hollow appearances here in Karakura town?"

"I don't know the answer to that either, Ayasegawa-san, but it is curious." He answered from under his hat brim.

"EEEyaaaaaah," Ikkaku yawned dramatically, stretching out before laying down on the floor. "If we are stuck here without any hollows to fight this whole time, I'm going to go insane," he said to the ceiling.

"It will be a short trip, at least," Yumichika said under his breath.

The two began to bicker conversationally, effectively chasing away the room's quiet tension.

Renji and Rukia stood then and bid their host and Yoruichi goodnight, leaving to return to the Kurosaki Clinic. Soon after they left, the group broke up to go to bed.

On their way up the stairs, Yoruichi whispered to Urahara, "Kisuke, do you think Aizen has anything to do with this?"

"Not directly, no. But I'm afraid the hogyoku might," he answered heavily.

"You have to stop blaming yourself for things outside of your control, Kisuke."

"If only I could, Shihoin."


OK! There we go! Let me know how I am doing, here. This story is kind of dialogue heavy. Too much? Just enough? Next week's plan is for first dates and more summer vacation fun, along with potentially some new info from Soul Society. And unlike this chapter, the next should incorporate the spans of more than one day, but the day in this chapter was pretty plot point dense. Anyway, thank you for reading, and please let me know what you think in the comments.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

July 18th

3:00 p.m.

Inoue's first day at the clinic seemed to be going fine. She arrived a little before one o'clock just like she said. I tried to greet her first but Yuzu beat me to it. I said 'hi' quickly and then got out of the way so Yuzu could show Inoue into the clinic and get her situated with an apron and a name tag to look 'official'. I let them be for a couple hours while Yuzu showed her the ropes. It was an average day so far; there hadn't been too many calls, and only one walk-in from an elderly neighbor, who really was only there to chat, by the time I decided to pop in and check how Inoue was doing.

"How's your first day?"

"Kurosaki-kun!" She smiles at me. "It is great! Your neighbor, Nohara-san is the sweetest man! He told me all about his grandchildren and late wife. And Yuzu is so great with people! She calmed down Sato-san so quickly over the phone after she cut her hand while chopping up carrots! And…"

At that point I kind of stop listening, I guess. I am too amused watching her. She is so excited; it's kind of hard to believe. I guess it's not that hard to believe though, she is Inoue, after all. She seems so happy. I would never say this word out loud, but there is no other word more appropriate: she is adorable.

Ring.

"Kurosaki Clinic. How may I help you?" she chirps happily.

Pause. Her face drops.

"Oh no, please come right away! I will inform Kurosaki-sensei* and we will be waiting for you. Please come quickly!"

The tone of Inoue's voice fills me with dread. I have heard that tone before. It can't mean anything good. She looks me in the eye for a moment, then quickly squints and looks away. I can see that she is trying to hold it together as she rushes to my dad's office. I follow.

"Kurosaki-san! Kurosaki-san!" she shouts before she reaches the door. He responds quickly; I am not the only one alarmed by her tone.

"What is it, Orihime-chan?"

She is starting to lose composure.

"It's Takahashi-san. Her son, Ryuuji, has stopped breathing!" her voice trembles.

"Ichigo, please get Yuzu. Orihime-chan, please follow me," he says calmly with a smile I've seen him wear before when he is trying to disguise his own apprehension.

I run to the house to get Yuzu. From my current location, it's faster for me to go outside and to the front door of the house than go back to the interior door that connects the buildings. I call to Yuzu from the front door and then I hear a panicked voice from down the street. I turn to see Takahashi-san carrying Ryuuji. She is a heavy-set woman, and she is running as fast as she can, but it's not fast enough for her liking. I call to Yuzu once more, and she responds, and then I sprint to Takahashi-san.

"Takahashi-san, let me help you!" I say as I take Ryuuj from her and dash back toward the clinic. She chokes out a sob and keeps running. She can run much faster now that her arms are free.

I look down at Ryuuji. He is about two years old, but he is big for his age. His lips are blue and I observe that his skin is getting progressively grayer as I close the short distance to the clinic. The doors open and Dad is there already, and takes Ryuuji from me, laying him an examination table in the emergency bay.

Yuzu ushers Takahashi-san to the side away from Dad so that he can work and starts asking her questions about what happened. Apparently Ryuuji had been playing with his older brother and had gotten into his toys. She suspects he swallowed one and is choking on it. The brother didn't say anything until Ryuuji became unresponsive. She tried the Heimlich maneuver without success and called the clinic on her way here.

Dad works on him and I can see his condition worsen. There are few things I have ever seen, and fewer sounds I have ever heard, more haunting that Takahashi-san's whimpers and gasps as she tries to cling to faith that her son, whose breathing has indeed stopped and pulse is difficult to find, will be alright. I look to Inoue. She is looking toward an empty corner of the room, with a sympathetic, but reassuring expression. Dad stops working, and looks in the same direction as Inoue. I don't see what they are looking at. Then it occurs to me; they are looking at Ryuuji's spirit. I see my dad mouth, "I'm sorry" to him. Then he looks to Takahashi-san, and says it out loud.

I was wrong before. The sound Takahashi-san makes now is the worst, most devastating sound I have ever heard. She wails in absolute despair.

I can't keep the tears from coming to my eyes, although, for Ryuuji's sake, I don't let them fall.

Yuzu and Dad turn their attention away from Ryuuji's ashen body to comfort Takahashi-san.

"No." I hear quietly from across the room. I look at Inoue, who is raising her palms slightly and wearing a determined expression under her tears as she says something inaudibly. I can just barely read her lips.

"I reject."

Dad spares a glance over his shoulder. His expression is unreadable. Takahashi-san weeps for a minute more.

Ryuuji coughs.

"Ryuuji!" Takahashi-san lunges toward her son, and suddenly the atmosphere in the room switches to one of profound relief.

"Mama!" Ryuuji starts to cry, and reaches for his mother. The pair hold each other tightly and cry at his miraculous recovery. Inoue blushes and looks at her hands.

"Well, I guess Ryuuji-kun was just a little slow to respond to the dislodging maneuvers," dad tells her, clearly just making things up to explain away the impossible. "Sometimes we are able to dislodge an object only partially, and then a patient's reflexes will kick it and expel it the rest of the way on his own, even if his pulse is undetectable. Much of the human body is still a mystery!"

"Well, I don't care how it happened, just… thank you. Thank you so much, Kurosaki-sensei!" Takahashi-san cries, grabbing the sleeve of his lab coat.

"It's my pleasure, Takahashi-san. I would like to keep Ryuuji-kun for an hour or so just to observe and make sure there are no other issues. Yuzu, would you please take the Takahashis into room A and get them comfortable? Orihime-chan, please bring some tea for Takahashi-san and some ice chips for Ryuuji-kun. His throat might be sore. When you are done, please come and see me in my office."

I have heard him speak in that tone before. I have heard it directed toward me when I did something wrong. I follow Inoue to help with the tea and give her a warning.

"Inoue-"

"I know! I know, but I couldn't sit there and let him die. His soul chain was still mostly attached, it had only started to crack, I just… I just couldn't bear to feel Takahashi-san's pain, knowing I could reject it all."

"I don't think anyone blames you, Inoue, but my Dad sounded pretty serious. I just wanted to give you a heads-up. He is usually pretty lenient, but I don't want you to be discouraged if he says something negative."

Inoue nods and takes the tea and ice chips into room A. I wait in the hall, and after a moment she comes out and gives me a tight, closed-mouth smile and a nod, and then walks determinedly into Dad's office. Dad comes out and closes the door with her inside. "Ichigo, don't worry, I'm not going to scold her or anything. I just need to talk to her about using her Rikka at the clinic. Why don't you go take Yuzu's shopping list and go to the store for her, she's going to be busy for a while." My dad might be a weirdo, but I can sense that he's got Inoue's best interests at heart. I nod and leave.

Dinner with my family was peppered with questions about Inoue's first day and interrupted from time to time by Yuzu pondering aloud about Ryuuji Takahashi's miraculous recovery. Each time she did, Inoue and Dad would nod along giving no indication that there had been any supernatural interference. In order to keep from reacting I kept my mouth full, which was easy, because Yuzu's cooking is delicious. Plus, she went all out for Inoue's first 'family meal' with us.

After dinner Yuzu brought out a cake that she had prepared in the morning. It wasn't particularly fancy, but we all felt compelled to have a piece even though we were stuffed already. By the time Karin and I started to take the dishes away from the table, all of us were beyond satiated. Inoue joined us in time to shoo Yuzu out of the kitchen and help us finish up the cleaning.

As we finish, she says goodnight to the girls and dad as we pass through the living room, and I mention to him that I'll take her home after we go out for a bit. I'm glad he doesn't ask any questions. I'm doubly glad Inoue doesn't ask any questions. I have no plan and I am totally out of my depth. I guess we'll just walk until I figure it out. In the meantime, I'll deal with what's been worrying me all evening.

"So, what did my dad talk to you about in his office?" I ask after we're out the door.

"Oh, that," she laughs uncomfortably, and I wonder if I shouldn't have asked. "He said he had never seen my rejection ability before, and wondered how it worked. I explained it as well as I could."

"That's it?" I suspected by his tone earlier that there had to be more to it.

"No, he explained that he wasn't angry about what I did today, but that I ought to be careful about that kind of thing. Something about tampering with time and space and the unknown fabric of the universe," she says with a serious edge, bringing the tips of her index fingers together thoughtfully.

"Oh," I answer carefully, and she turns to me with an unexpectedly excited expression.

"But, he was so cool about it! He said that in the end, it was my unique power, and how I use it is ultimately up to me, but that he would prefer that if I use it I do it in such a way that the people involved don't suspect and that I don't exhaust my own reiatsu."

"Well, I can't agree with my dad being 'cool', but I'm glad you two have an understanding," I tell her, relaxing considerably. She nods and smiles. She is adorable. There I go again, with that word. What am I thinking?

What am I thinking? I'll admit, I'm not an especially thoughtful guy; I'm more of a 'man of action', if I do say so myself. Do I 'like' like her? Yes, I guess I kind of established that the day before my birthday, but I haven't really analyzed it any further. Until now, this thing with Inoue has just kind of taken me along for a ride. But, here we are, alone together, and I asked her out. I guess this is kind of like a date. Crap. I should have planned something. What should I do?

"What do you want to do, Kurosaki-kun?"

Whoa! Does she read minds, too?

"Uh, huh huh, well…" Think, Kurosaki! "Well, I thought we were both probably pretty full, we could just walk around for a while until our stomachs settle and then maybe, uh, get some coffee or something…" Oh, real smooth, dude. Way to go. I look away from her and actually roll my eyes at myself.

"That sounds perfect!" She says, and it sounds like she means it. She sure has a generous spirit. She exhales comfortably and looks forward, her shoulders relax, and she looks at peace. Her eyes catch me looking at her and she gives me that little squinty grin she always gives me when she catches me.

"Sorry," I say impulsively.

"For what?"

"Um, looking at you?" It is a question, I guess. Is it alright with her that I keep staring at her?

"Why would you need to feel sorry about that?"

"Um, I don't know,"

"I look at you." She blushes shyly as she admits it, but holds eye contact, managing to maintain a cheerful vibe.

"You do?"

"Come on, you can't say you've never caught me."

"I guess I have, but I never thought anything of it."

"Oh," she shrinks somewhat and I know I must have said something wrong.

What was it Rukia said? It is so hard to listen to her when she yaps on and on… Oh yeah, 'look at things from her perspective'. Ok, so how would I feel if she said she didn't think anything of it when I look at her?

Shit. I'm an idiot.

"I mean, I didn't think you were checking me out or anything…" Oh shit, there I go again, why can't I just think for a second before I open my mouth?

"What?" She is unable to hide her surprise. Luckily for me, she seems delighted that I might have just admitted to checking her out.

"Uh, nevermind…" I say, scratching at the heat prickling on the back of my neck as my embarrassment paints my face and upper body red.

She laughs gently. It sounds like windchimes;

soothing. I want to be nearer to her. I also want to tease her for laughing at me.

"You find my torment funny, do ya?" I ask using the same voice she's heard me use on Renji, or even Grimmjow. Then she looks at me with those huge, shocked eyes, and I know it's time to strike.

"How do you like it now, Inoue?" I growl as I lunge behind her, pick her up by the waist and start spinning in a circle.

She shrieks and then erupts into a peal of laughter. "Let me down, we'll both be sick! We just ate!"

I do as she commands after a few more turns. I am dizzier than I expected I would be, and I have to stop and regain my bearings as I laugh at her from under my bangs.

She is trying to catch her breath between waves of laughter, wiping tears from her eyes.

I can't remember the last time I had this much fun. As the dizziness passes, I straighten. I know what to do now.

"There is a Mr. Donuts about three blocks from here. Let's go get an iced coffee, yeah?"

"Mmm!" She beams at me. My chest swells. The effect her approval has on me is warmer and brighter than when she uses her Shun Shun Rikka. I start walking. I don't realize that I had taken her hand until she squeezes it in return. It is new. It is different. It is not weird. It feels right. I can't stop the smile that spreads across my face.

I do, however, realize that we have a ten minute walk ahead of us at our current leisurely pace, and seeing as this is a first date, it ought to contain some conversation. I start.

"So, how are the hollows these days?"

"Surprisingly, they have been almost non-existent since Rukia-chan and Abarai-kun came back yesterday."

"Huh, that's weird. Hey, when did you and Rukia start calling each other by first names? And what is the deal with you calling Renji 'Abarai-kun'?"

"Rukia-chan asked me to call her that when she invited me to your birthday party. Abarai-kun initially wanted me to call him 'Renji-kun', but I couldn't do that!" she laughs nervously, remembering how she felt then.

"Yeah, that would be too weird," I agree. "You are pretty formal with people, Inoue."

"Yes. I just don't feel comfortable being too forward," she says apologetically.

"I don't think it's a bad thing, Inoue. I think it's charming."

"Oh," she says. She blushes. I've embarrassed her. In a good way, I think. But I'm curious, "Why don't you want to be forward with your friends?"

"Well, honestly, it's because I have no family. Don't get me wrong, Kurosaki-kun. I love each of my friends like they are my family. Tatsuki-chan has been like a sister to me since middle school, and more recently Rangiku-san and Rukia-chan have. But I would have never addressed them by their given names without first being invited. I don't want to burden anyone with my loneliness, you see."

"I can understand that, Inoue. You are very considerate. I just wish you would depend on us more. You are not a burden. We all care for you very much and I don't like to think of you feeling lonely or isolated."

"Kurosaki-kun…" She looks up at me, apparently speechless.

"Don't worry so much, Inoue." I tuck the hand I've been holding into the crook of my elbow and give it a pat. "You can depend on me." I say it on impulse, and I mean it, but I don't dare look at her. I don't think I could handle the embarrassment.

She gives my arm a squeeze and says, "Thank you, Kurosaki-kun."

My dad might be right.

After a bit of awkward silence, Inoue speaks up.

"Do you still miss it terribly, being a shinigami?"

I'm surprised she asks that now, honestly. But then, her question hints that she knows I did, and she just wonders if it has gotten any better.

"Yes." I decide to be honest. "But, honestly, since Rukia and Renji came back and decided to hang out in gigai all the time, it's been easier, somehow. Before, after my reiatsu faded, it felt like my whole shinigami experience was part of an alternate universe, unreal and unreachable. Now it's different; it's may still be just out of my reach but at least I know it's there, that whole other world. I mean, I know there is nothing I could do if we were being attacked by a hollow now, except provide moral support. But having a tangible connection to Rukia and Renji takes the sting out of it. Not to mention Chad, Ishida, and you are keeping me in the loop now."

"I'm sorry we kept you in the dark before."

"No, don't be. I was the one who pushed you and Ishida away. That was selfish on my part. I didn't consider how you two would feel at all. It was childish of me. I'm sorry."

She doesn't say anything. She gives my arm another squeeze though, so I guess she forgives me.

"So, I guess Ikkaku and Yumichika went back to Soul Society, now that Rukia and Renji are back." I say, trying to restart the conversation.

"No, it's weird. After Rukia-chan and Abarai-kun came back, I sensed their reiatsu go to your house, but then later they went back to Urahara-san's for a while. Then after an hour or so they went back to your house. Madarame-san and Ayasegawa-san are still at Urahara-san's; I can feel their reiatsu hasn't left there since Rukia-chan came back. I guess they have no reason to leave since there haven't been any hollows."

"Don't you think that's weird, though? They were only here to fill in for Rukia and Renji. Why didn't they go back Soul Society right away?"

"I don't know. Do you want to go ask Urahara-san?" she asks, concerned.

"Maybe tomorrow. I still have to buy you a coffee." She lights up. I made the right call putting off getting my answers for her sake.

"Um, Kurosaki-kun, you don't have to buy me anything…" she starts.

"What do you mean I don't? I asked you out afterall, it's my treat!"

"Well, thank you, Kurosaki-kun, but I just started working, so I will have some extra spending money…"

"Well, Inoue, I don't want to brag, but I am making a small fortune filling in with various clubs around school," I exaggeratedly inform her. "I just got 5000 yen for one bout at the Judo club's meet last week. And that was just for one bout, not the entire meet." I say with false modesty. "I think I can afford to treat you to coffee," I add with a pleading edge.

"Oh, alright, if you insist," she giggles as we arrive.

We get to the counter to order. "I'll have I black iced coffee with sweetener. What do you want, Inoue?"

"Um, I'll have café au'lait. Hot please." I raise one eyebrow at her in surprise. Although it's after dark, it's still hot outside.

We take a seat at a table near the glass and a server arrives a moment later with our simple drinks. As our drinks are set down I ask, "Why the hot drink?"

"I'm a 'hot' girl, I guess." I nearly snort, and then chuckle. She was completely serious, and has no idea what she just said.

"Yes, it's safe to say the general consensus is that you are a hot girl," I tease, then look down and blush. I can't believe it. I'm flirting. Me. Ichigo Kurosaki. What happened to me? Then I look across the table at my blushing companion and take in her loveliness. Her long, dark lashes shade her eyes as she averts her eyes and takes a sip of her drink. She is wearing the same think she wore at the clinic under her apron – just a plain green knee-length skirt and a yellow t-shirt with a flower embroidered over her heart - but she makes it look good. Although, I suspect, she could wear nearly anything and it would look hot. I should probably think of something else now, my thoughts are wandering into dangerous territory. I change the subject.

"So, what's new?" Idiot, you already know the answer to this! You've been with her all day! Fix your question! "…with Ishida?"

"Huh?" She looks at me surprised. "Well, he asked to make alterations to my school uniform for me, which is nice. It was getting kind of tight, and I can't really afford to buy any new pieces. Other than that, hmm. Oh, yes, he mentioned that his relationship with his father has been a bit smoother recently, so that is good!" she smiles.

I am kind of taken aback by her answer. I had no idea he talked to her about that kind of stuff, I mean, that's kind of serious. It makes me feel uneasy. I clench my teeth and try to shake it off.

"Yeah, that's great... Do you guys talk about that kind of thing normally?"

She nods exuberantly. "Yes, all the time. He opens up so easily when you spend time with him one-on-one. He is actually very easy to talk to. Ishida-kun is a very good listener and he is very interesting; he knows a lot about a wide variety of things."

What is this feeling? Why do I feel so angry? I can't be jealous. I can't be. It's Ishida, for god's sake. That fancy-pants Quincy. That irritating know-it-all. The one who has feelings for Inoue. The one who is 'a very good listener and is very interesting'. The one she spends 'one on one' time with. Oh fuck, I am jealous.

I am scowling before I know it and when she notices she becomes concerned. "Is there something wrong, Kurosaki-kun?"

"No. No, Inoue, everything is fine, it's just…"

"What?"

"Um, I guess I'm just surprised. He always seems so closed off," I say to distract her from my real feelings.

"Well, he is at first, Kurosaki-kun. But if it bothers you, you could try to get him to open up a little more. I know your relationship with him is a little, uh, tense. You have always competed with each other about Quincy and Shinigami stuff, but despite all that you are his closest male friend. I think if you wanted him to talk to you about that kind of thing he would be great at listening to you too!" she says, apparently pleased.

I am surprised by what she said. I wonder if it's true. Inoue is not prone to making things up about people, so she must mean it. Anyway, I am getting distracted and decide to put the thought of my relationship with Ishida on the back burner for the moment.

"I'll think about it," I finally answer.

"Good. I hope you two can work it out, I know Ishida was very lonely after…" she trails off, but I know what she means. After I cut her and Ishida off from my life like a dickhead.

"Anyway," she starts mercifully, "How are Rukia-chan and Abarai-kun at your house? I have been dying to see them outside of school and battles with hollows. Are they like a regular couple?" she asks, excited.

"Um, they are mostly the same, I don't really notice that kind of thing. Sorry," I say as her face falls, disappointed that there is nothing more juicy to share.

"Oh. Well, I'm just so happy for them. They deserve their happiness," she says, her cheer recovering.

The coffee has moved through me and I have to use the restroom. "Excuse me for a minute, I'll be right back."

She nods and smiles, taking another sip of her drink as I go.

When I come back out, she is not alone. Two guys are standing at our table and another has taken my seat across from Inoue. They appear to be speaking to her respectfully, and she laughs easily. They don't seem to be a threat to her, either. They are, however, a threat to the claim I have not yet made on Inoue. As usual, I don't think, I act.

"Ready to go, babe?" I ask from behind her, putting both of my hands over her shoulders and giving a squeeze.

"Uh, Ok," she says in a daze as I pull her chair out. As she stands, I snake an arm around her waist, resting my hand on her hip, looking at the guys with an expression that clearly communicates that they should back the hell off.

Inoue waves to the guys and says, "It was nice meeting you," in a detached voice and I turn her around and walk out of Mr. Donuts with my hand still glued to her hip possessively. I start walking toward her house wordlessly.

She doesn't make a peep. I can't look at her, I don't want to see her face if she is unhappy right now.

We make it until the end of the block, and she stops. Uh oh, here it comes. I let go of her and close my eyes and ball my fists, bracing myself.

After a tortuous pause, she speaks.

"Kurosaki-kun, um… What is this? What are we doing?"

Wait, she doesn't sound angry. She sounds almost scared. I open my eyes to get a better idea what I'm dealing with. She is just looking at me with an apprehensive expression. Waiting. Crap, I have to start talking….

"Um, Inoue, I," I start, and then I can't stop. Verbal diarrhea, I think it's called? Anyway I have no control at all as I continue. "I just can't take it. I can't take seeing those guys chat you up, or hearing you talk about how close you and Ishida are, and knowing that nearly every guy who passes you by wants you for his own, and I am RIGHT. HERE. I mean, am I invisible? Do they not see me? Do you not see me?" I am going off the rails now, I know. I'm not making sense anymore. All my insecurities are just jumping into a barrel together to ride down the waterfall of verbal stew spewing from me. She is looking hurt. I gotta get it together.

"Inoue. I'm sorry, I'm letting my emotions take control of me. Give me a second".

She does. After I count to ten in my head, I look back at her. "Inoue, I like you."

I didn't say it out loud.

I can't. I can't even breathe.

I do the only thing I can do.

I grab her into a tight hug, holding her head to my chest. My heart is pounding. I wonder if she can hear it. I hope so.

I breathe in the scent of her hair. It smells like almond shampoo again. It is a soothing smell. I exhale shakily, and slowly the tension in my body releases.

Her hand starts creeping up my chest and I release her head. She looks up at me with tears in her eyes. Without thinking, I wipe them away and bring my forehead to rest on hers, still holding her body close to mine.

"Will you be my girlfriend, Inoue?" I whisper.

"Yes." She whispers back, and wraps her arms around my neck to hug me back.

That actually happened. I can't help it. I grin like a fool. I want to pump my fist in the air, but I don't. I give her a squeeze, and then let her go, except for her hand, which I take now with confidence.

Her blush is nothing compared to mine as we start walking toward her house.

When we arrive, I walk her to her door and she opens it without unlocking it.

"Inoue," I say with a disapproving voice. "You can't leave your door unlocked! What if you have a stalker or something waiting in here for you?!"

"What? That would never happen. Come on in and check for yourself."

I do. I march straight to the bathroom and check behind the doors, look in her bedroom, round the kitchen, and behind the living room curtains, before I declare the place safe for her to enter.

"So, Kurosaki-kun," she says in a shy voice, "are you really jealous of Ishida-kun?" she asks with a humorous lilt.

"Well, kinda… hey, it's not funny!" She is giggling at me.

"Yes it is funny. I kinda think he likes you." She giggles some more, raising an eyebrow at me.

"Oh you poor, deluded woman." I shake my head. "Ishida is definitely not gay."

"Are you sure?" she asks with a pout.

"It's the truth." She looks disappointed. "Poor Ishida," I say to myself.

"What?"

"Uh, nevermind. Hey, do you still want to go to Urahara's together tomorrow?"

"Sure, I guess I can go."

I take her hand and give it a little tug. "What, do you have to check with your boyfriend first?" I tease her for her somewhat strange choice of words. She bites her lower lip and looks up at me from under her eyelashes, blushing. She looks good enough to eat. I have to get out of here or I might. I laugh awkwardly.

"Well, I was thinking we could go over in the late morning, like 11:00. How does that sound?" I ask, backing up toward the door slowly.

"That sounds great," she answers, smiling. She lets me go and I make a beeline to the door. Once I'm outside I turn around.

"Goodnight, Inoue. I'll talk to Renji and Rukia tonight and then text you to let you know for sure."

"Ok, Goodnight, Kurosaki-kun."

"Goodnight."

"Goodnight"

"Um, ok, see ya."

"Mmhmm. Get home safely,"

Why won't my feet move?

"Inoue, why won't my feet move?"

She shrugs and smiles. She is looking at me like I can do no wrong. This is a good, good feeling. I don't want to end it. I have to, though. I can't get drawn back inside or I won't leave. I make an executive decision. I lean in and kiss her cheek. She gasps. Like I said before, she is adorable.

I straighten up and turn around and start walking down the open hallway toward the stairs. "Goodnight, Inoue!" I call and wave without looking at her, right as I start to go down the stairs.

"Goodnight, Kurosaki-kun!" I hear her squeak in response as I walk out of her sight.

Then I hear a quiet, giddy squeal.

I allow myself that fist pump now.

*If you didn't know, the honorific 'sensei' applies to doctors as well as teachers.

A/N: Well, that didn't go as planned. How did you like it from Ichigo's perspective this chapter? I started it just to see how it would go and then the chapter sort of wrote itself, and despite my best intentions, the chapter decided we wouldn't get to the Soul Society mystery this week. Next time. Thanks for reading and let me know what you think!

Chapter Text

Chapter 10: Holding Pattern

July 18th.

Apart from being a chance to visit, Ichigo and Orihime's visit to Urahara's was a waste of time. He had brushed away their questions with excuses that the continued presence of the two Eleventh Division shinigami was a precautionary measure due to the suddenness of the hollows' departure from Karakura. So after tea, baked goods, and idle chitchat, the freshly minted couple found themselves leaving Urahara's shop hand-in-hand with free time and no plans. They were in the middle of a conversation about what to do for lunch when they were interrupted by a pair of familiar faces walking toward them with curious expressions.

"Renji, Rukia, where are you going?" Ichigo called out, awkwardly letting Orihime's hand go and stashing his own into his pocket.

"A better question might be where are you two going, and where did you come from?" Rukia asked, clearly interested more in what Orihime and Ichigo were doing alone together.

"Oh, Rukia-chan, we just came from Urahara-san's shop. We were wondering why Madarame-san and Ayasegawa-san are still here. We had thought they were only going to stay until you and Abarai-kun returned," Orihime answered, missing Rukia's implication.

"What did he tell you?" Renji asked, suspiciously.

"Nothing much," Ichigo answered. "He said something about 'procedure' and blew us off. Somehow, I don't believe that is all there is to it."

Renji and Rukia looked at each other knowingly. After a few moments of silent contemplation, Renji nodded at Rukia, who turned to face their friends with a serious expression. "Perhaps we should all go to Orihime-chan's place to talk. There isn't much to know at this point, but I think you should know what we know. If Ishida and Chad can come, that would be convenient. We'll pick up something to eat on the way, if you don't mind."

Orihime nodded and whipped out her phone, calling Uryuu while Ichigo texted Chad. Within minutes the plan was set, and everyone started toward Orihime's apartment.


 

"So that was it, and we haven't had any new information since then," Rukia told the group huddled around Orihime's living room table.

"So I guess we just wait then." Ichigo finally broke the silence that followed Rukia's explanation about what had happened in Soul Society.

Inoue had been nibbling on her lower lip and watching the floor, lost in thought. Finally, she decided she couldn't keep her concerns to herself. "Rukia-chan, you said everyone felt a surge of total despair and fear. Was there anything familiar about that? Anything else identifying about it?"

Uryuu's eyes shot up to Orihime's at her question. He seemed to be the only one in the room who recognized what she was alluding to. His brows furrowed for a moment and then he, too, looked to Rukia for answers.

"Well, I can't say there was anything I recognized about it, but I can honestly say that it was the purest, most intense instance of those emotions that I have ever experienced." Rukia said, looking to Renji who nodded in agreement.

Uryuu gave Orihime an intense look. She returned it, and then, nearly imperceptibly, shook her head to discourage him from saying anything further. Uryuu skootched over a bit toward her and put a hand on her shoulder in assurance, giving it a squeeze, and allowing it to trail down to the middle of her back and stay there. Neither he nor Orihime noticed Ichigo's growing scowl and reddening complexion.

"Ichigo?" Chad asked, having noticed his best friend's distress.

Orihime and Uryuu finally looked to their fair-haired friend and noticed him glaring at Uryuu.

"Is something wrong, Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime asked in an intimidated voice.

His eyes softened as he looked down toward Orihime for a moment, only to harden again as he returned his gaze to Uryuu. "You're fine, Inoue, but Ishida is being rather handsy, don't you think?"

Uryuu shook his head in offended confusion. "To what are you referring, Kurosaki? I am merely trying to comfort our friend who is obviously worried about this situation. You would do the same if you had an ounce of sensitivity," he said in a rising voice, confusion giving way to anger.

To everyone's surprise, Ichigo backed down. He realized he wasn't being fair, given that no one else in the room knew about his new relationship status with Orihime. Although he wasn't exactly comfortable making an announcement about it, he knew he had to say something to avoid further misunderstandings.

"Sorry Ishida, it's just…" he looked to Orihime to gauge her feelings on revealing their relationship. She smiled at him in approval, giving him the boost he needed to continue. He sighed and shook his head in surrender. "I guess it's not fair to expect you to respect my relationship with Inoue when you don't know about it. We're going out," he said, taking her hand.

"I KNEW IT!" Rukia shouted, pointing at the two. Orihime giggled in response.

Chad and Uryuu's eyes grew wide. Chad recovered first, smiling and quietly saying, "Finally."

Uryuu's shock was a bit more severe. He sat frozen, with his hand still on Orihime's back, until she finally turned to face him completely.

"I'm sorry Ishida-kun, I wasn't keeping secrets from you or anything, this only happened last night," Orihime said, worried her dear friend might be feeling left out by the revelation.

Ishida recovered after that. He cleared his throat and stiffened. "I would never think you would do something like that, Inoue-san. I'm sorry, I'm just surprised, is all. If you're happy, I'm happy," he said politely with a small smile pointed only to Orihime. He looked up to Ichigo with a flat expression. "If you do anything to make her unhappy, I'll kill you."

Ichigo knew he meant it, and gave him a single nod in acknowledgement.


 

The week that followed was relatively uneventful. Orihime had filled Tatsuki in on what had happened with Ichigo over the phone each night, and by Thursday her athletic friend was getting kind of bored of hearing the minutiae of her awkward hand-held walks home with her new boyfriend.

The subsequent week was no different. Orihime would call Tatsuki religiously every night and gush about the quiet walk home, or if she stayed home that day, the non-descript text messages containing cutesy emojis. Tatsuki, however, was growing concerned; her best friend and new boyfriend appeared to be stuck in some kind of holding pattern. After the night of their first date, Orihime didn't mention any more dates or physical contact besides hand-holding. She decided the couple needed a push.

"Hey, Orihime, I was thinking, wouldn't it be great to go somewhere this summer? I'm coming back to Karakura next week. Maybe we could get a group together and rent a couple of those cabins in the mountains like we did with my family a few years ago."

The cottages she referred to were nothing glamorous by any means, and they could rent them for about 1500 yen per cabin per night, and each cabin could sleep four people easily. Including food and the train tickets to get to and from the mountain, it would be less than 5000 yen per person for the whole weekend.

"That sounds like so much fun, Tatsuki-chan!"

"Great, I'll call to reserve the cabins. You invite Ichigo, Ishida, Chad, Kuchiki and Abarai."


 

August 4th.

And thus the plans were made. A three-cabin campsite was reserved. There was no electricity, and the cabins' only comforts were shelter from the weather and wooden bed frames with musty futons rolled-up in the closet available for use. There was also a firepit and shared bath house with toilets, cold showers powered by a pump well, and a natural hotspring out the back. The scenery was quite beautiful, but it was only accessible on foot, and required a long journey up the side of a mountain over treacherous terrain, making it remote and private, despite its relative proximity to the Tokyo Metropolis.

The group reached the campsite in the early evening. Although it was cooler in the high altitude, they had worked up a sweat making the trek up the mountainside and it was decided that after setting up bunks the party would take turns cleaning up. Boys would go first, so they would be free to build a fire while the girls cleaned themselves up.

"Why did you get three cabins, Tatsuki-chan? We could have easily fit into two," asked Ryo while unpacking a few things into the girls' cabin. She had been invited by Tatsuki to even out the boy-girl ratio.

"Well, I wanted to have the site to ourselves, so I rented all three. Plus, that way there is one free, just in case…" Tatsuki trailed off.

"Just in case of what?" asked Ryo, raising a suspicious eyebrow.

"Oh, I'm sure she is worried about if one of the boys snore or something, that way everyone can sleep well!" Orihime answered, oblivious to Ryo's insinuation.

"Yeah, what she said," Tatsuki added with an eyeroll. "Well, I don't know about you three, but I am looking forward to getting into that hotspring. My legs are killing me!" she added.

"Yeah, maybe you should go over there now, you could sneak a peek at Sado-kun with his shirt off," Ryo teased while pulling a fresh pair of shorts out of her bag.

"WHAT?!" Orihime whipped her head around and pounced at Tatsuki, grabbing her by the shoulders. "You like Sado-kun?! How could you not tell me?!"

"It's not like that, Orihime," she answered, grabbing the healer by the wrists and removing her hands from her shoulders. "I just think he's kind of hot, that's all. I don't 'like' him. I don't really even know him very well."

"Still, you could have told me you thought he was cute," Orihime pouted. She looked between Ryo and Tatsuki like a kicked puppy.

"Relax, Orihime, no one is trying to steal your best friend. I was sitting next to her on the train ride here and we got to talking about our 'types'." Ryo said, putting a damper on Orihime's wild imagination wherein Ryo and Tatsuki were about to embark on a fabulous adventure in boys without her.

"You don't say? Who's your type then, Ryo?" Rukia prodded, feeling protective of Orihime.

Ryo's face went pink. "Ummrmmm," she mumbled.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" Rukia pressed.

Ryo hid her face. Tatsuki was sick of all the cutesy shyness, and since she was outed already, held no reservations about outing Ryo.

"She likes Ishida."

Orihime gasped like a silent movie actress, delicate fingers clutched together, and then started to clap. "Oh, oh, oh!" she couldn't make any sense of her bubbling happiness at first. "Can you imagine if you dated Ishida-kun and Tatsuki-chan dated Sado-kun? We could all go out on group dates! And-"

Tatsuki interrupted. "And what is it we are doing now? It makes no difference. Besides, you're getting way ahead of yourself. We were just talking about who we think is cute of the guys here. That doesn't mean we are in love or anything. Calm down, sheesh."

Orihime looked at her best friend with a mildly wounded expression, but immediately forgot about any imagined offense when she heard a knock on the door and a deep voice.

"Your turn," Chad's deep voice reverberated through the door. The girls looked at one another with wide eyes, and Tatsuki and Ryo's faces started to turn red as they realized he might have heard Orihime's babbling. None of them dared to breathe at first, except Rukia, who shook her head at her immature friends and grabbed a towel.

"You would think none of you had ever spoken to a man before," she said as she left the cabin, leaving the door ajar. The three remaining girls turned their heads to look out the door with trepidation. There was a collective sigh of relief when they realized the guys were all busy making a fire, paying no mind to the girls.

After their showers, the girls went to the hotspring for a soak before dinner, with the exception of Rukia, who decided to just get dressed and join the guys. When the other girls were done with their soak, they went back to the shower room to change into fresh clothes.

"Um, Tatsuki-chan? Ryo-chan? Didn't we leave our clothes here?"

"Yes…" Ryo started carefully, her eyes scanning the room.

"Son of a bitch! That midget stole our clothes!" Tatsuki roared, kicking over a wash stool. After the stool stopped rattling, the girls were able to hear an evil cackle from the other side of the door.

"Indeed! The midget did steal your clothes. However will you get them back?" a fully clothed Rukia asked through the door in a sing-song voice.

"Rukia-chan, please!" Orihime whined.

"Sorry, Orihime, I can't just give them to you. One of you will have to come out and get them, I'm afraid," Rukia answered with false sympathy.

"Now what?" Tatsuki asked? As tough and self-assured as she was, she was very modest. She didn't want to be seen parading in front of her male classmates in only a towel under any circumstances. She looked between her two friends. Ryo was somewhat tall and very slim, so her towel was able to wrap around her sufficiently to keep her covered while coming up a little short on her legs, but all that was beside the point. Ryo was the least acquainted with the guys and would feel the least safe going out in a towel. Orihime, on the other hand, knew the boys the best, but she looked like sex wrapped in fluffy cotton. She had tied up her hair to keep it out of the hotspring, showing off her neck and shoulders. Her towel bound her full breasts tightly together, creating a bustier effect, with the flesh that spilled over the top of the towel jiggling sinfully with each move she made. The slit in her towel was wide as a result of the girth of her breast line, and the view of her upper thighs and the side of her hip was indecent. There was only one thing to do.

"Ok, Rock Paper Scissors, first one who loses goes out. Agreed?" Tatsuki proposed. The other two nodded, and brought out their fists.

"Rock, Paper, Scissors, shoot!" All three had thrown scissors. Tatsuki groaned softly.

"Rock, Paper Scissors, shoot!" She had thrown rock. Ryo had thrown scissors. Orihime had thrown paper.

"Ok, try again. Rock, Paper, Scissors, shoot!" This time, Tatsuki and Ryo threw rock. Orihime threw scissors. She took a deep breath. Ryo looked relieved. Tatsuki looked horrified. She had hoped Ryo would lose.

"Ok, I'll go. Pray for me," Orihime said dramatically for comic effect, trying to dispel the dark mood. She smiled and opened the door. "Rukia-chan! Where have you taken our clothes!?" she called as she strode out confidently.

The guys' chatter and efforts to tend the fire immediately ceased, and all eyes were on Orihime. Four mouths fell open, and four pair of pants suddenly felt a little tighter. They couldn't help it. It was biology, after all. Orihime saw them and felt a little thrill. She wasn't out there by choice, so she couldn't be considered an exhibitionist, which in her mind gave her license to feel empowered by the obvious effect she was having on the guys. She marched over toward them, jugs bouncing with every step, her towel threatening to reveal her womanhood with each stride. "So? Don't any of you have any idea where our clothes are?" she asked the mute, red-faced quartet with an air of authority and hands on her hips, accentuating her tiny waist and causing her towel to ride up all the more.

The four just gawked at her. She was truly magnificent. After what felt like an eternity, Orihime heard Rukia's nearly hysterical laughter coming from the spare cabin. Orihime looked toward it with a sharp expression. "You'll pay for this, Kuchiki!" she said, raising her fist, and taking a step in her direction. As she did so, her towel started to loosen. She grabbed for it, but she was too late. Just as it began to release, Ichigo's brain started to work again and he leapt up in front of Orihime, shielding her from the gaze of the other three men present. "Oh no!" Orihime said in a tiny voice.

Ichigo tried not to look. He really did, but as his girlfriend bent over in front of him to pick up her towel, he couldn't help but sneak a peek at her perfect bottom. He groaned in discomfort as his pants grew impossibly tight, and as soon as Orihime had the towel wrapped around her again, he picked her up like a bride and carried her into the cabin where Rukia was hiding the clothes. Rukia wisely took off toward the guys before Ichigo got to the threshold. He shot her a murderous glance as she scurried away. He slammed the door behind him and set Orihime down, turning to face the closed door while Orihime went about gathering the clothes.

"Are you trying to kill me?" Ichigo finally asked, forehead resting on the door.

"What? Of course not, Kurosaki-kun. I'm sorry, there was nothing I could do. I lost."

"Lost what?"

"Rock Paper Scissors."

"Oh." Ichigo groaned again.

"Are you alright, Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime asked, worried now.

"No, I'm not alright. How do you think I'd feel, seeing my girlfriend nearly naked in front of my friends?" he shouted, louder than he wanted to.

Orihime suddenly was mortified. She understood that he might be a little jealous, but this was really uncalled for. The others were her friends, and as far as Orihime was concerned, they couldn't possibly be attracted to her. She started to wonder if perhaps that was the problem, and maybe Ichigo was embarrassed by how she looked.

"I'm sorry, Kurosaki-kun, I didn't think you would be ashamed of me if-" she started, but couldn't continue as tears started to gather in her eyes.

He turned around then, face red, looking like he was being tortured. His heart ached knowing he was making her feel so badly, and his crotch ached seeing her still clad only in a towel. He allowed a strained groan through his nostrils, and then stepped up to Orihime and embraced her, careful to keep his arousal just far enough away from her. "I'm sorry, that's not what I meant," he said into her hair and laid a gentle kiss on her head.

"Then, you're not ashamed of my body?" Orihime asked with a small flicker of hope through her tears.

Ichigo couldn't believe what he was hearing. He let loose a mirthless laugh. "If only you knew what your body did to me," he said quietly. Orihime's eyes shot up to his and she suddenly felt alarmed by the fire she saw in them. He looked like he wanted to eat her. She shrunk in on herself slightly, causing her hip to jut forward by an inch. That inch was all she needed to feel the proof of Ichigo's attraction scrape against her through his jeans. She whimpered as a heady blush spread across her chest and face, her breath fanning up toward Ichigo's face. He eyes darkened further, and his body started to take over. He seized Orihime by the waist, craning his neck down to crush her lips with his.

This was nothing like the sweet pecks on the cheek she had received from him earlier. No, this was a full-fledged, hungry, scorching liplock. Orihime was quickly swept away and snaked her arms around his neck, pulling him closer. His lips moved against hers, and she tentatively opened her mouth, flicking the tip of her tongue out to taste his bottom lip. She let out a soft, feminine moan of appreciation and sucked his bottom lip into her mouth gently.

Ichigo was being driven mad by Orihime's forwardness. He pressed himself to her and subconsciously rocked his hips slightly in an attempt to alleviate the pressure building there. His hands made their way down to the backs of her thighs, and in an instant, he had hoisted her up and turned so that her back was pressed against the wall, his arousal pressed to the inside of her thigh painfully, although Orihime didn't seem to register any pain, so lost she was in the taste of his lips. Ichigo then opened his own mouth and thrust his tongue into Orihime's welcoming mouth.

Orihime whined in crippling pleasure as Ichigo's tongue dominated her mouth. She writhed under the pressure of his chest pressed against hers, and without either participant noticing, her towel was again coming loose. Orihime sucked on Ichigo's tongue and whimpered through her nose as her hormones took over her completely. Ichigo was similarly lost, his hands roving up her now-bare sides, his fingertips ghosting over the sides of her breasts, as he pulled out of Orihime's mouth and began to trail hot kisses across her cheek to her ear and down to her jaw. Orihime was overwhelmed by the sensation, distracted only by the growing ache of need between her legs. She pulled on Ichigo's shoulders, attempting to get some leverage so she could somehow find some relief, when her blood suddenly ran cold.

"Orihime! Ichigo! What is taking so long? The girls are starting to get cold! Get out here!" Rukia shouted from the other side of the door.

Ichigo let loose a feral growl in disapproval. His eyes met Orihime's, and she had to shake her head and blink at what she thought she saw. She looked again, and all she saw was a deep scowl on Ichigo's beautiful face, trying obviously to rein in his desire for the time being. But for a moment, she thought she saw black sclera and yellow irises looking at her.

Orihime took a shaking, deep breath, and reached down for her towel, which was hanging around her waist loosely. Once she had it in hand, Ichigo closed his eyes and took a step back, turning to face the other wall. Orihime quickly dressed and gathered up the other clothes.

"Coming, Rukia!" she called and opened the door, still out of breath, arms full of Ryo and Tatsuki's clothes.

Rukia and Renji were standing near the door. They looked at each other knowingly and chuckled as Orihime made a run for the bathhouse.

Several minutes later, an irate Ichigo emerged from the spare cabin. None of the guys dared give him a hard time about what may or may not have transpired while he and Orihime were in there. Given that they had all enjoyed an eyeful of his half-naked girlfriend earlier in the evening, they counted themselves lucky that they came out of the ordeal without bruises.

The rest of the evening went on as planned. A fire was built, a meal prepared, ghost stories were told, and Orihime and Ichigo gave each other a wide berth. Ever since their little rendezvous in the cabin, anytime they came near each other, they could both feel electricity crackling between them. Each time their eyes locked, their insides started to catch fire. They both knew it wasn't safe to get too close.

Finally the party went to bed, but neither Orihime nor Ichigo could fall asleep. After about an hour, Orihime's phone buzzed.

August 5th, 1:24 a.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Can't sleep. Are you up?

Orihime sighed in relief. She was hoping he would contact her.

August 5th, 1:25 a.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

I can't sleep either. Want to sit with me outside?

August 5th, 1:25 a.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

I'm already out here.

Orihime got out of bed and put a hoodie on over her nightshirt and shorts, stepped into her flip flops and snuck outside. Ichigo was standing a few feet away.

"Hey," he said gently, holding a hand out to her. She took it and he pulled her in to a sweet embrace. "Sorry about before," he started.

"Why?" Orihime looked up to his face, nervous that he regretted what had happened.

"It's just that," he paused, gathering courage, "that was our first kiss. It wasn't exactly what I expected, and I'm sure it wasn't what you expected. I let my control slip, I'm sorry," he looked to the side, ashamed.

Orihime's heart melted at the sight of him. She stood up on her tiptoes and pulled his chin over to face her. "Does this make up for it?" she asked with smiling eyes, and then closed the distance between them, connecting her lips to his sweetly, lingering for a moment, before pushing slightly into it and then backing off with an audible "kiss" noise.

"Yes," he answered, giving her an vulnerable smile and then a tight hug. Just as the pair were about to go in for another kiss, the door behind Orihime opened up.

"Rukia-chan?" Orihime whispered into the darkness and then looked the other way as Renji came marching across the campground toward Rukia.

"I just got a hell butterfly from Ni-sama. We are being called back to Soul Society immediately."

"What?" Orihime and Ichigo asked in unison.

"What are you going to do with your gigai?" Ichigo asked.

"We'll just carry them with us, I guess, and drop them off at Urahara's," Renji answered.

"We'll go with you to Urahara's," Ichigo started.

"No, you won't. It is dark, the path is dangerous, and you are stuck in a physical body. You'll have to wait until morning." Rukia said in no uncertain terms.

"She's right, Ichigo. There is no way to make it down safely. We'll have to wait."

"Fine. I expect to hear something tomorrow." Ichigo relented.

"I'm sorry, Ichigo. I don't know when we'll be able to meet again, but I hope it's soon," Rukia said apologetically, worried her friend would take her disappearance badly again.

"Don't worry, Rukia, Renji. Just be careful. I hope we can meet again soon," he replied.

'He is growing up,' Rukia thought to herself. "Goodbye for now, Ichigo," she said, popping her soul candy, and letting Renji grab her and his own gigai.

"Goodbye Orihime," she said to her friend, who nodded and waived to her and Renji as he bade her farewell.

"Let's go to bed, Inoue. It's going to be an early morning for us, I imagine," Ichigo said, suddenly serious.

"Yes, goodnight, Kurosaki-kun," she said, heading to her cabin.

"Goodnight, Inoue," he said, grabbing her hand and pulling her to himself for another short, sweet kiss.

"See you in the morning," he added, with a roguish smile.

"Heh heh, yeah," Orihime answered with a somewhat idiotic grin, tripping her way up the cabin steps. "See you in the morning, Kurosaki-kun."

A/N: Surprise! Hope you liked it. let me know in the comments please. I had a hard time sitting down to write this chapter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11:  Pump the Breaks

Renji looked between Rukia and his captain in confusion, before looking again to Commander Yamamoto, who had called a captain and lieutenant meeting.  Rukia had been summoned as well due to her involvement in Hueco Mundo.

“I’m sorry, Mayuri, could you say that again, please?” Kyoraku asked the captain of the Research division.

“I said Aizen is dead.  How much more plainly do I need to put it for you simpletons?” he sneered.

“And the Hogyoku?” Ukitake asked.

“Gone,” he answered defensively.

“Destroyed gone?  Taken Gone?” Soi Fon demanded clarification.

“I don’t know!” Captain Kurotsuchi shouted.  “Just gone!”

The room went quiet for a moment, until Hitsugaya asked the question on everyone’s mind.  “Found a new master, ‘gone’?”

“That is the fear, Hitsugaya-taicho,” answered Yamamoto grimly, casting a glance to Captain Kurotsuchi that communicated his desire for him to follow-up on the concern.

 “When was the Hogyoku discovered missing,” Captain Kuchiki asked smoothly, belying his own anxiety.

“After Aizen’s death,” Kurotsuchi answered petulantly.

“Which was…?” Komamura followed up exasperatedly, making no attempt to disguise his impatience at the necessity for the court guards to extract each little detail out of the psychologically childish captain one by one.

“Coinciding with the ‘incident’,”  he answered.

“Is that what we are calling it now?” Hisagi asked.

“Yes,” several present answered in unison.

“Why are we just hearing about this now?” Unohana asked earnestly, gently and certainly trying to get back to the agenda, whatever it may be.

“We have only just been able to spare enough resources to allow the proper monitoring of the Muken.  It was not a high priority under the circumstances, being all but impenetrable.  We allowed low-security surveillance consisting of just a visual feed to suffice while most of our personnel was out searching Rukongai.  As one might imagine, it is difficult to ascertain whether a person, as heavily bound as Aizen, is alive or dead based solely on a visual picture.  The vital data must be under surveillance as well.  This is how his death was missed until now.  The Twelfth Division has reviewed the data from the time of his death countless times now, using both the vital data and the visual feed, and we have been unable to find anything remarkable about it.  Aizen was alive one moment, and then he wasn’t.  When we removed his body from the Muken this morning, it was brought to the Twelfth and examined to my exacting standards.  The Hogyoku was gone, with no trace remaining.”

“Hmmm, this is a problem,” Kyoraku broke the following silence with the understatement of the century.

Commander Yamamoto brought the meeting to attention with a thunderous bang of his staff on the tiled floor.  When all eyes were on him, he raised his eyebrows enough for the gathering to see the glinting orbs underneath.  “I will summon Urahara Kisuke.  Unfortunately, it is our only option.” 

His lieutenant nodded once and left to carry out his captain’s will unbidden.  Yamamoto directed his gaze then to Hisagi, Kira, and Matsumoto.  “Report what you have heard in Rukongai.” He demanded with absolute authority.

The three lieutenants looked to each other, unsure where to start.  Rangiku decided to take the lead. “Well, Soutaicho, I would like to preface this report with the disclaimer that none of us put too much stock into the drunken rumblings of the Rukongai pub scene,  but all three of us have heard in multiple instances stories of a strange beast sighted at night in Rukongai.  According to the locals, this beast made its first appearance the night of the ‘incident’.”

“And what have the stories had in common?”

“Just that this creature is about the same size as one of us, only has been spotted at night, and avoids contact with any souls.  In each story it has fled before being identified.” Hisagi reported.

“And what, if any, identifying characteristics have been reported?” the Commander pressed, narrowing his eyes with interest.

Kira spoke up hesitantly.  “The creature is said to have wings and a tail, Soutaicho.   It is said to be a demon.”

“Mmmm.” Yamamoto responded, effectively dismissing the three.  Then he addressed the rest.  “I will call you again after I have spoken with Urahara Kisuke.  In the meantime, direct your squads to follow up on any leads it finds on this ‘demon’, but also to discourage the citizens of Rukongai from weaving this into a tall tale. It undermines our efforts if all information we receive is hearsay.”

All present nodded.

“Kuchiki Rukia, Lieutenant Abarai” the commander added, “You will return to your own squads, but be on standby to return to the World of the Living.  It may be necessary to bring the Ryoka back to Soul Society for a period of time before this issue is resolved, and your participation may be required to ensure their cooperation.”

“Yes, Commander,” they answered in unison.

With that, Yamamoto dismissed the meeting


 

Ichigo woke the guys up early that morning, filling them in on how Renji and Rukia had been mysteriously summoned to Soul Society in the middle of the night while packing up and cleaning up the campsite.  The girls joined them soon thereafter, and after giving Ryo the excuse that Renji had received an emergency call about a relative in an accident earlier in the morning and that everyone wanted to get back a day early to see what they could do, the group started down the mountain.  While going down was definitely faster than going up, the trip back was still going to take about four hours including the multiple train and bus stops involved.

After saying goodbye to Ryo at Karakura Station, the rest of the group went directly to Urahara’s.  Tessai showed them into the living area, and Yoruichi entered, informing the group, “He’s not here.  He has been summoned to Soul Society.  I don’t know when he will be able to return or get a message to me.  I tried to follow him but he seems to have locked the senkaimon somehow.  He also locked access to all his surveillance equipment, presumably to keep it out of the wrong hands during his absence, so all any of us can do right now is wait.”

The group eyed each other with anxious and disappointed expressions.  There wasn’t really anything to say.  Ichigo spoke up, “You’ll let us know as soon as you hear anything, won’t you, Yoruichi?”

“Yes.  In the meantime, be careful.  Ayasegawa-kun and Madarame-kun were also called back to Soul Society too.  If hollows start showing up in Karakura again, it will fall to you to take care of them.  I’m stuck here too, so I guess I can help out in a pinch, but I can’t be everywhere at once.”

“Of course.” Uryuu said as Chad and Orihime nodded along.  Ichigo made a somewhat awkward face, but not because he felt sorry for himself again.  He just realized he wasn’t being addressed by Yoruichi and it felt kind of odd.  He suddenly felt great empathy for Tatsuki, who was also standing to the side of the group.

With that, the group decided to go part ways for the rest of the weekend; everyone was tired from the trek up and down the mountain and lack of sleep over the past 24 hours.  The anticlimactic outcome of the trip to Urahara’s did nothing for their energy levels.  Ichigo said goodbye to his friends and took Orihime’s hand to walk her home, taking her backpack while she carried her pillow. 

When they arrived, he came in with her backpack and set it down near the door, just past the shoe-changing area.  He wasn’t quite ready to leave her yet, though.  Luckily for him, she felt likewise.  “Would you like something to drink, Kurosaki-kun?” she asked from her bedroom as she put her pillow away.

 “Actually, I am pretty thirsty,” he said, picking her backpack up again and bringing it to the doorway of her room.  She took it with a smile and set it down, planning to deal with it later.

“Follow me!” she said cheerfully, leading the way to the kitchen.  She took out two glasses and opened the fridge.  “Would you like water?  Barley tea?  Milk?”

“Barley tea would be great,” Ichigo said, watching how her hair in her ponytail spilled over her shoulder to veil her face as she leaned into the fridge to retrieve the pitcher.  He took a seat at the counter stool and smiled at her as she passed him a full glass.  She stood on the other side of the counter and watched condensation grow on the side of her own glass.  She had kept the curtains drawn in her apartment while she was gone in attempt to keep it cool, but it was still quite hot inside.  She got up to open her large window and put her fan in front of it, directing it toward Ichigo.  “Is that helping at all?” she asked him.

“Yeah, that makes a big difference, thanks,” he said as he held the cool glass to the back of his neck.

Orihime chuckled a bit.  “Next time, maybe we should go to the beach instead of the mountains,” she said with a laugh in her voice.

“I’d go.  I think we could still pull it off this year if you want, we can at least try,” Ichigo said, not especially excited but clearly not opposed.

“Yeah… It’s not going to be the same without Rukia-chan and Abarai-kun, though.  I hope they can come back soon,” Orihime said without much actual hope, watching her fingers draw lines in the condensation on her glass.

“I know.  As much as they annoy me, it’s a little lonely without them.”

“Right?” Orihime looked to Ichigo with a smile, pleased that he was sharing his feelings with her so easily.

Ichigo looked up at his girlfriend, observing her with an affectionate half-grin, and then looked down to his lap and spoke, “You know, I had planned on going home right after dropping you off, but…” he trailed off, raising his head again with a sideways gaze somewhat shadowed by his brows.

“Umm, Kurosaki-kun, would you like to stay and watch a movie?  It’s too hot to do anything else really.  We could have dinner here, if you don’t mind… I kind of blew my budget for the week on camping…” She was nervous and tripping over her words. She wasn’t sure what he had in mind. Also, he was watching her like a hawk.  She didn’t want to appear too eager, and she knew he wouldn’t miss anything.

“That sounds great, Inoue.  Actually, I could go for some cold ramen.”  He saw Orihime’s face begin to fall a bit, and quickly added, “The convenience store kind is fine.  I’ll go get it now, if you don’t mind. I’ll get some ice cream, too,” he added to literally sweeten the deal.

Orihime’s face lit up.  “Really?  You don’t mind?”

“Of course not!  What kind of boyfriend would I be if I couldn’t even treat my girl to ice cream and noodles?”  he said, nearly laughing.

Orihime blushed and gave a shy smile.  She still wasn’t used to the idea of being his girlfriend, despite what had happened the previous day.  At the memory of that her blush deepened significantly and she squirmed a bit.

Ichigo noticed her discomfort but misinterpreted it.  “Are you alright, Inoue?  You look overheated.  I could go…” He reconsidered.  He really didn’t want to go.  “I could go get the food and you could take a shower or something and cool off,” He reconsidered again.  He didn’t want to be that selfish.  “Or we could just do this another time?”

“No!”  Orihime’s focus came back as she answered with a sharper voice than she intended.  “No, I’m fine.  But a shower is a good idea.  Take my key with you and I’ll get cleaned up.  You can clean up too after you get back, I mean, you have a change of clothes in your backpack that you were going to use tomorrow, right?”

“Oh yeah,” he answered, not exactly comfortable with the idea of showering at her house, but even more averse to the idea that he would be sweaty and smelly while his girlfriend was fresh as a daisy.  “That’s a good idea, Inoue.  I’ll be back then,” he added, taking the key.

“See you soon!” she answered.


 

Ichigo was right to be a little concerned about taking a shower at Orihime’s place.  It felt unnatural using her almond-scented shampoo and fruity body soap, although not unpleasant.  The part that was really unnerving though was the errant thoughts about this being the place where Orihime took her daily showers that kept flooding his mind.  In fact, he had such a hard time keeping his thoughts ‘family friendly’ that Orihime started to get worried about him and came to knock on the door, asking if everything was alright.  The fear of being caught with a raging boner in his girlfriend’s bathroom was enough to cool his thoughts, and he finished dressing as he assured her everything was fine.

Ichigo was also right about the convenience store cold ramen; it hit the spot.  After they ate dinner, they brought the ice cream out to the living room and turned on a comedy movie.  They were both drawn into the movie while their hands and mouths were busy eating their desserts, but after the ice cream was gone, they both felt a little more conscious of one another.    Ichigo tentatively took Orihime’s hand, and she intertwined her fingers with his.  Orihime began absentmindedly stroking the side of his palm with her little finger, which Ichigo, being seventeen years old and completely inexperienced with girls, found to be the most erotic sensation in his young life.  His focus on the movie was quickly fading and his breath was becoming shallower and quicker.  He returned Orihime’s attention by stroking the back of her hand with his thumb in time with her own movements.  Soon enough, Orihime realized what was going on.  She too was inordinately turned on by this small physical connection.  Her breathing mimicked Ichigo’s, and when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, she started to turn her head to him, and before her eyes could find his face, his lips found hers.

He kissed her softly at first, just allowing his lips to mold against hers motionlessly, and after a moment the hand that was not in hers found its way to her shoulder.  He turned her to face him and then tilted his head to allow the kiss to intensify.  He sucked her lower lip into his mouth for a moment, and as she let out a silent gasp, he went on the offense, his tongue dominating her mouth.

It was all going too quickly for Orihime.  As much as she was into it the day before, being here, alone with him in her apartment, she felt much more vulnerable.  Armed with the knowledge of how hot their make-out session in the cabin had been, she also knew if she let things go too far, she wouldn’t be able to stop either of them.  She put her hands on Ichigo’s shoulders and pushed him back.

Ichigo didn’t get the message.  His gaze darkened and he pushed her back, so that her shoulder blades hit the arm of her sofa.  His throat growled slightly as he went in for another kiss.

“Kurosaki-kun!” Orihime yelped a lot louder than she intended, pushing her hands into his chest and locking her elbows.

Ichigo froze.  He looked at Orihime’s frightened face and he felt his nerves turn to ice.  His face fell and paled as he sat back down, unable to look away.

“Oh my god, Inoue, I am so sorry.  I don’t know what came over me,” he said in a soft, quaking voice.

Orihime just nodded silently and looked at her fists as she straightened back up.

After a tortuous minute, she spoke up.

“Kurosaki-kun, I’m sorry. I just think things between us are moving too quickly.  I mean, it’s not that I don’t like it, I just, I, I just don’t want to rush so much,” she said, looking up to him apologetically.

Ichigo’s frozen heart melted a bit, and he wished he could take her hand without feeling like a pervert.  “You’re right, Inoue,” he smiled apologetically and stood up.  “I should probably go home.  I’ll see you on Monday.”

Everything inside of Orihime was screaming for her to stop him, but she knew he was right.  She got up and followed him as he made his way to the door.  “Thank you for understanding, Kurosaki-kun.  And thanks for dinner!”

He turned around to face her as he put on his shoes at the door.  “Don’t worry about it, Inoue.  You are right, and you are welcome,” he said, putting on a confident smile for her benefit.  Her relieved reaction was worth it.  She was so damn cute, he couldn’t help himself from grabbing her chin lightly and pecking her on the lips before giving her a tight hug.  “I’ll see you Monday,” he repeated himself.

“I’ll see you Monday.  Goodnight, Kurosaki-kun,” she said dreamily.

“Goodnight, Inoue,” he said, leaving before he could change his mind.


 

Sorry it’s a short one, but this seemed like a natural place to stop.  Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think about the news in Soul Society and IchiHime action

Chapter Text

Chapter 12: Summons and Petition

September 1st

The rest of summer break went on as it did before the camping trip. There had been no word from Urahara, no more hollow appearances, and as time went on, Ichigo and his friends began to allow everyday life to take over the majority of their thoughts.

I was still warm when school started up again on September first, but much more comfortable than the sweltering days of July and August. Apart from the students' general laziness from being away from their studies for a month and a half, there was nothing remarkable about the first day back.


September 2nd

Ichigo noticed that Tatsuki and Orihime were talking a lot more than normal in class, somewhat secretly. He chalked it up to "girl stuff" and didn't give it a second thought.


September 3rd

-Morning-

Ichigo noticed that Orihime was a bit later than usual showing up for class. When she finally arrived, she smiled more brightly than usual and made somewhat of a display of coming directly to his desk and wishing him a good morning. Then she hesitated, giving him a vibe like she was expecting something. When he just replied with his usual 'good morning', her grin fell a little, and then she went back to her desk somewhat reluctantly and crestfallen. He couldn't figure out why.


-Noon-

Ichigo had lunch with the guys on the roof as usual. Orihime ate with Tatsuki and her friends on the lawn. They were making more of a ruckus than usual, but it wasn't extreme. Ishida had joined the girls, for some reason he couldn't fathom.


-After School-

Orihime lingered at her desk a bit after the last bell rang. Usually she would go to the handicraft clubroom right away. Ichigo would normally go home immediately after class unless he had a substitute club job, which he didn't today. He packed up his things and threw his book-bag over his shoulder, turning his direction toward his girlfriend.

"Don't you have club today, Inoue?"

"Yes, I'm going there now, I just…" she answered in an uncertain tone.

"You just what?" he pressed gently.

"Um, nevermind Kurosaki-kun. Are you substituting today?" she asked, hopefully.

"No, I'll just go home after this," he answered carefully.

"Oh," she replied dejectedly. "Alright, I'll see you tomorrow, Kurosaki-kun," she added quickly and dashed out of the classroom.

'What was that all about?' Ichigo wondered to himself.


-Evening-

Ichigo's phone buzzed. He looked down to see a message from Ishida. 'What could he want?' Ichigo thought to himself, opening the message.

September 3, 7:05 p.m.

From: Uryuu Ishida

Why are you being such an asshole?

Ichigo groaned inwardly. He had enough on his mind with Orihime acting so weird the last couple days. He really didn't want to deal with Uryuu picking a fight. His pride wouldn't let the insult go, though, and he found himself tapping out a reply after a minute.

September 3, 7:07 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

WTF Ishida? I didn't do anything to you.

Ichigo waited for a minute, almost looking forward to having it out with his fussy friend. He could use to blow off some steam. What happened, though, was the last thing he expected. His phone started to ring.

"Shit!" Ichigo nearly dropped the phone. No one ever called him, not even Orihime. He looked at the caller i.d., and sure enough, it was Uryuu. Ichigo took a deep breath, sighed, and answered.

"What do you want?" he answered, already irritated.

"I want to know why you are doing this to Inoue-san. Do you have any idea how hurt she feels right now? What kind of boyfriend are you?"

"I haven't done anything! Mind your own business, Ishida! If she feels badly, it must be something you did, because I haven't really talked to her all day."

"Oh. My. God. I can't… Are you for real, Kurosaki?" Ishida was truly flabbergasted. This caused Ichigo's first inkling that there was something else wrong. His mood shifted from aggressive to apprehensive.

"What are you talking about, Ishida?" Ichigo asked carefully.

Ishida groaned dramatically. Ichigo could hear him slapping something and then muffling the phone, but not well enough to stop Ichigo from hearing Uryuu yell, 'what does she see in this guy?' before putting the phone back up to his face and answering.

"Today is Inoue's birthday, you idiotic dumbass!" he shouted into the phone so directly that his voice was somewhat distorted.

Ichigo was silent. He had the kind of feeling that one has upon waking from a nightmare, unsure whether this was real or not.

After waiting for a reply that never came, Uryuu was even more incensed. "So, tell me, Kurosaki: why is it that I was the one having lunch with your girlfriend, and I was the one walking her home after handicrafts club, and I took her out for dinner with her friends, I gave her a gift, and I sat with her while she tried not to cry while trying to convince me that she's ok with her supposed 'boyfriend' totally blowing her off, huh?"

Still no response.

Uryuu was beyond furious now. Red-faced and with a menacing tone, he went for a low blow. "Apparently you don't mind if another guy swoops in to take care of her. Fine. It's not as if she's just another girl, Kurosaki. This is Inoue-san we are talking about," he said her name with reverence. " You remember her, right? The sweet little thing who showed us all how much she's got going for her at the campsite? If you are willing to let a girl like her twist in the wind, believe me, there are a million other guys willing to step up and treat her properly in your absence. And actually, in that case, I'll be first in line!"

It was on, then. Ichigo may not have a fast reaction time to being assaulted with guilt, but his jealousy had a hair trigger. He was nearly out his bedroom door as he growled, "Where are you?"

"Oh, what, now you care? Are you going to come and show me what a big man you are? Bring it on, then. I'm outside Inoue-san's place, and I'll be waiting," he taunted, and hung up.

The run from Ichigo's house to Orihime's apartment took about 20 minutes at a quick pace. By the time he arrived, he was still angry, but somewhat out of steam. Uryuu, on the other hand, had had nothing to do but pace and stew on his anger while he waited. He sneered as Ichigo approached, waiting for him to start something. His will to fight ebbed, however, when he saw Ichigo double over, gasping for breath. His spiritually powerless friend was clearly not in as good of shape as he had once been. Uryuu crossed his arms in front of his chest, leaned against a street light, and waited, scowling at his rival.

Finally, Ichigo stood upright, and took a step toward Uryuu. Uryuu pushed off the streetlight and looked up toward Orihime's window and smirked. That was all it took to reignite Ichigo's fury, and he lunged toward Uryuu intending to tackle him.

While Uryuu was inferior to Ichigo in physical strength and experience in hand-to-hand combat, he made up for it in speed - Quincy Hirenkyaku speed - that Ichigo had no hope of even perceiving in his spiritually-lacking state. "Show yourself, Ishida!" Ichigo roared in frustration.

"I'm not hiding," Ishida answered in a soft voice, much too close to Ichigo's back for his comfort. Ichigo spun around, fist drawn. Ishida dodged Ichigo's attempted punch easily and began to taunt him, disappearing and reappearing just long enough for Ichigo to throw another punch, just to dodge when Ichigo was nearing contact.

Ichigo was tiring fast, and he was losing his patience. He knew he'd never be able to catch Uryuu unless he was able to get into his head. Ichigo decided that the circumstances called for playing dirty. "So this is what you do now, Ishida? Trail around other guys' girlfriends, waiting for them to make a mistake and then swooping in like a white knight? Is it because you know no woman would ever consider you otherwise?" He still wasn't able to pinpoint Uryuu's location. Then he made the decision to say something he knew he shouldn't. "Do you really think she'd ever take you seriously after seeing you in that ridiculous Quincy costume you're so proud of?"

He saw stars before he felt any pain. He realized he was on the ground, and when the stars started to fade, he looked up and saw Uryuu clutching his own fist, and saying something he couldn't hear. Slowly, his deafness gave way to ringing in his ears, which pulled back little by little into a muffled version of Uryuu cursing like he had never heard before. He listened, knowing he deserved it, as he heard him go on with increasing clarity. "You're a real bastard, Kurosaki. What makes you think any of this was about either of us?" He asked rhetorically, knowing Ichigo wouldn't be able to grasp his point nor speak coherently at the present.

Ichigo watched, unable to stop the world from spinning at the moment, as Uryuu stomped up the stairs and knocked on Orihime's door. He heard a bit of a commotion which sounded like Orihime fussing over Ishida. Ichigo groaned to himself and tried rolling over. He got about halfway to his side before giving up and looking back up to the sky.

After a few moments, he heard a surprised sound from Orihime followed by quick footsteps clunking down the metal stairs to her apartment. He cracked open his non-swollen eye and saw her run to his side, flanked by Uryuu, whose hand was completely healed.

"What were you two doing out here?!" She half-questioned, half-admonished, as she summoned her healing dome. Ichigo recognized the way she held her arms and hands, and, together with the sudden warmth and peace he felt throughout his entire body, he understood that not only was she rejecting his head injury, she was also rejecting his stress and restoring his energy, whether or not she knew it. After his injury had completely healed, she still sat with the dome over his entire body for several minutes as the two boys listened to Orihime lecture them about how to be friends.

By the time Orihime retracted her dome, Ichigo was feeling pretty good. All that had happened before seemed so petty in the face of how he felt: like something that was lost had been found. 'I guess this is inner peace,' he thought, before laughing at himself. It wasn't just inner peace, though. He felt like he could take on the world. That led to a magnanimous feeling taking over his consciousness. He apologized to Uryuu sincerely. Uryuu was so amazed by the heartfelt nature of the apology that he was able to return one in kind, after which Ichigo took Uryuu aside and thanked him for teaching him an important lesson about how to treat the ones who are most important to us, throwing a meaningful glance Orihime's way. An onlooker would have found the whole thing creepy and unnatural, but the two boys were really feeling good about life after settling their differences and being healed up.

The boys parted ways amicably, and Ichigo returned to Orihime.

"Inoue, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize that today was your birthday," he said, looking down at their hands as he took one of hers.

Inoue was relieved that it had only been a mistake, but she was still disappointed about the whole thing. As she faced him to accept his apology, that disappointment was still evident on her face. Ichigo's 'inner peace' threatened to crumble when he saw it. He felt desperate to make things right. "Do you have time to come with me?" he asked gently.

"Um, what do you mean? I have time…" she trailed off, feeling uncertain.

Ichigo didn't answer. He started walking, pulling her along. She followed somewhat reluctantly, but Ichigo strode with such purpose that soon she was following eagerly. He led her to a cemetery on the other side of the river. They walked through it without slowing down. When they got to the other side, a small paved path meandered up the side of a hill. Ichigo continued to lead Orihime up the hill until they reached the top. There was nothing on the top of the hill than some unlit stone lanterns and a few benches. Ichigo took Orihime to one of the benches and they sat down. The view of Karakura from the hilltop was quite pretty; the building lights reflected in the river like rippling stars.

"Thank you for bringing me here, Kurosaki-kun. It's very pretty," Orihime said quietly. Ichigo smiled slightly, aware that he had a lot more work to do to make up for missing her birthday, but knowing this was a good start. She intertwined her fingers with his while she watched the scenery and he watched her. He tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear.

"Happy birthday, Inoue," he said softly as he leaned in to kiss her. It was just a short peck, and afterward Orihime leaned her head on his shoulder, content to sit there with him quietly. Ichigo enjoyed the closeness, but after several minutes he was losing interest in the scenery, and was afraid Orihime might get too comfortable and fall asleep. He decided some conversation was in order.

"So, did you have a good birthday, despite your boyfriend being an idiot?" he asked.

She answered with a giggle first, then added, "Yes. Tatsuki-chan, Chizuru-chan, and Ishida-kun brought a cake at lunch, it was delicious!"

"Good," he smiled, glad that she had friends that cared about her too. "Speaking of Ishida, sorry about before…"

Orihime simply nodded in response. She knew that what happened between the two of them was a long time coming, actually. She was hopeful that going forward they would become better friends.

Ichigo, on the other hand, was curious about some of the things Uryuu had said. "So, he mentioned going out for dinner. Where did you go?"

"Oh, Ishida-kun and Tatsuki-chan treated me to Gusto*. I had pasta and a parfait. I'm still full!"

"Oh, sounds good. Ishida also mentioned that he got you a gift…" Ichigo kind-of-asked.

"Oh yes!" she said more enthusiastically than Ichigo would have preferred. "He finished altering my summer uniform! But he gave that to me on Sunday. I can't wear it for much longer now, but it should still fit next year. Also, today he gave me this!" she said, smiling, holding up her phone. Attached to the case was a charm made of vinyl that was in the shape of the 'Laugh Hour' logo with a caricature of the show's host on it. She laughed as she looked down at it, adding, "I really love this program, and now whenever I use my phone I can be reminded of how funny it is. Ishida-kun probably didn't want to make me feel uncomfortable with anything too special, but this charm, although cheap, shows how well he knows me and what a great friend he is. I'll treasure it." Ichigo thought to himself that it was a perfect gift from Uryuu; personal enough to be meaningful but cheap and frivolous enough to not overstep the boundaries Ichigo had set for Uryuu. He suddenly felt very guilty for how he treated his friend earlier.

"Yeah, that's really nice," Ichigo said without letting his disappointment with himself show for her sake.


Meanwhile, in Soul Society

Though little evidence had been found to corroborate the initial reports of a 'demon creature' roaming around at night in Rukongai, the current and former captains of the twelfth division were knee-deep in hypotheses regarding Aizen's death, the Hogyoku's disappearance, and 'the incident'.

While both scientists agreed that it was nearly certain that Aizen's death was directly correlated to the Hogyoku's disappearance, their agreement ended there. Captain Kurotsuchi's current guess was that the Hogyoku must have consumed all of Aizen's reiatsu and then consumed itself, in essence black-holing itself out of existence, which might explain the strange energy surge.

Urahara's hunch was much less far-fetched and more in line with what the other division captains feared; that a being had attained or was born into soul society with a power level greater than Aizen's, attracting the Hogyoku toward him/her/it. He further posited that as a result of being tapped into Aizen, the awakened Hogyoku was able to absorb Aizen's innate reiatsu and use it to somehow escape the Muken in search of the new being. Being a rational man, Urahara wasted no time fantasizing on who in Soul Society could have reached such supreme power so quickly after Aizen's fall from power; that idea was absurd. Instead, he had spent the past several days creating a mental list of any beings outside of Soul Society that may have the potential to surpass Aizen.

There were a few suspects that came to mind immediately, including, of course, Ichigo Kurosaki. He would have been the obvious choice to most people, had he been able to continue his progress as a shinigami. Alas, his power being stripped, and being very much alive on Earth, he was out of the running.

A more likely person of interest to the Hogyoku, in Urahara's mind at least, would be Orihime Inoue. Her power, although not ever used to the fullest, had the potential to reject the entire universe out of existence based on her will alone, if she was able to maintain her reiatsu, making hers a power rivaling that of God the Creator. She, however, also being alive and well in the World of the Living, could not possibly be the answer.

He was left, then, with only weak guesses, among them: new souls, aliens, fallen and purified arrancar, or an experiment of Mayuri's gone bad. None of these guesses were worth pursuing at this point, since he had no leads of such a being's existence. No, the best course of action he could imagine would be to bring a being that might tempt the Hogyoku to Soul Society, and he had just the girl in mind.

As he made his case to Commander Yamamoto, the old man listened, nodding along from time to time. As Urahara suspected, it took little convincing for the Commander to greenlight his experiment: To bring Orihime Inoue to Soul Society in an attempt to draw out the Hogyoku.

Out of consideration to the girl in question, Urahara decided to send her a message to announce what was required of her, before sending for her two days later.


Back in Karakura

Ichigo had just wrapped his arm around Orihime as she snuggled into him on the bench on the hill, his unfocused gaze drifting toward a cellular tower in the distance. Suddenly, he felt what he assumed to be a moth fluttering around his face. He swatted at it distractedly and then put his arm back over Orihime's shoulder.

"Ichigo- what did you just do?" Orihime asked in a voice that held a spooked quality.

"Oh, sorry to startle you, there was just a moth around my face, I was swatting it away," he answered somewhat sleepily.

"Oh," she responded with a nervous laugh. "Excuse me a moment, um, my phone is buzzing," she lied as she stood and took several steps away into the shadows, turning on her phone's display for Ichigo's benefit in order to make her lie more believable. As she brought the phone hear the side of her face, she extended her finger in order to let a very insistent hell butterfly land on it. She listened to its message, turned off her phone, and returned to Ichigo, wondering to herself how it could be possible that he was able to perceive the messenger from Soul Society at all.

She shook the thought from her mind as she told Ichigo her second lie of the evening: "That was my aunt. A distant relative has died and I am expected to go to the funeral this weekend, so I'll be leaving right after school on Friday and I won't be back until Sunday."


*Gusto is a popular Japanese chain restaurant that serves western and Japanese food at very low prices.

A/N: Thanks for reading! Please let me know what you think!

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 13: Admission of Service

September 4th

Orihime woke up feeling old, and not because she had just turned seventeen yesterday. She had been unable to sleep well that night, the weight of her dishonesty toward Ichigo hanging around her neck like an ox yoke.

By the time she arrived at school that morning, she had resolved to tell him the truth, despite Urahara's recommendation. Her decision final and guilt somewhat eased, she was able to greet her classmates in her usual fashion, except Ichigo, who she approached contritely. "Um, good morning, um Kurosaki-kun. Um, if you, uh, have time at lunch, um, could we, uh, talk?" she asked timidly, finally meeting his eyes when he did not immediately answer.

Ichigo studied Orihime with suspicion. Why was she acting so full of regret when he was the one who screwed up yesterday? He couldn't begin to guess, which shook his confidence. Had she decided she couldn't forgive him for forgetting her birthday after all? Had she decided that Uryuu was a better boyfriend material? It was making him anxious. "Do you want to go talk now?"

"No, no, it can wait until lunch," Orihime answered, waving her hands in front of her to convey it was no big deal.

"Alright, I'll meet you outside, then..." he trailed off uncertainly.

"Thanks," Orihime sighed as the bell rang for class.


After stopping at the canteen for a juice box and a sandwich, Ichigo met Orihime just outside the school entrance. She looked up at him with an uneasy expression and led the way toward spot on the field far away enough from the other clusters of students to afford them some privacy.

"So, what did you want to talk about, Inoue?" he asked softly, with an edge of concern in his voice as they sat on the grass.

"Well…" she bit her lip, looking down, and looking very guilty.

Ichigo felt the bitter taste of bile rise up the back of his throat as he prepared for the worst. He swallowed it down and forced himself to speak gently, "Go ahead, Inoue, whatever it is, it'll be alright."

Orihime looked up at him and confirmed his fears. "I lied to you, Kurosaki-kun. I'm sorry."

Ichigo reeled from her admission. Images of her with Uryuu swam through his head, making him feel numb. It wasn't until she had been speaking for a few minutes that a few words got through to him, words like "Urahara-san" and "Soul Society". His mood shattered in an instant, and he refocused on Orihime with laser precision.

"Wait, what did you say, Inoue?"

"I'm so sorry, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime answered, true regret in her eyes.

"No, I meant what did you say about Urahara and Soul Society?"

"Oh," Orihime eyed him dubiously for a second and then repeated herself, "the phone call I took last night was not really a phone call, and I don't have any dead relative's funeral to go to. The message I got last night was from Urahara, asking that I be ready to go to Soul Society tomorrow after school. He said he needs my help, and he hopes to have me back here by Sunday."

Ichigo initially felt relief, until he realized that she would be doing this without him, which did not make him happy. As usual, he spoke before he thought. "No, you can't, Inoue."

"What?"

"I mean, I can't go with you, so it won't be safe…" he said the last couple words quietly, realizing he was being unfair and observing the deflating look on Orihime's face. "I know you can handle yourself, Inoue, it's just…" he stopped, knowing he couldn't win, and looked down at his juice box.

She reached over to touch his forearm. "Just what, Kurosaki-kun?"

He looked up at her. 'Why was it that she is the one always comforting me,' he wondered for a moment, before continuing. "It's just that I'm going to miss you and I won't be able to cope well with you there and me stuck here," he admitted, embarrassed.

"I know, Kurosaki-kun, I'll miss you too," she said, stroking his forearm soothingly. "It's just for a few days, though, it shouldn't be so bad."

"You don't know that. You don't know how bad things are there." He took a deep breath, and then met her worried eyes, "Honestly, it doesn't matter if there was perfect peace there. It's just that there is nothing I can do to protect you if anything happens, and that terrifies me," he admitted quietly.

Orihime looked around quickly to make sure no one was looking, and then briefly got up on her knees and kissed Ichigo's cheek before sitting back down. "Thank you for worrying about me, Kurosaki-kun," she said sweetly as her skin flushed. Then her brows became a bit sterner, and she informed him firmly, "but you don't need to. I'll be with Urahara the whole time."

"Yeah, like I can trust that weirdo," he said barely under his breath. Orihime couldn't help but laugh.

"Hey, it's not funny! He is a lunatic. And a pervert," he added, his own cheeks turning pink.

Orihime really laughed then, clutching her stomach and falling to her side. Ichigo's grumpy expression didn't help her attempts to be serious. Soon there were tears streaming down her cheeks as the laughter, fueled by Ichigo's reaction, continued relentlessly. After several attempts, she was finally able to rein it in and sat upright, smoothing out her skirt and apologizing sincerely while wiping her eyes. "I'm sorry, Kurosaki-kun, I didn't want to lie to you. Urahara said that I should tell you the dead relative story. I guess I was so preoccupied with his request to go to Soul Society that I didn't even think about whether I should lie to you or not. I felt so guilty all night, I could barely sleep."

"I know you couldn't do something like that on purpose, Inoue. There is nothing to forgive, since you told me the truth, anyway," he said affectionately, and was rewarded with a blinding smile. He took her hand and added, "And I know I can trust you in Soul Society, it's just everyone else and the unknown that makes me worried. I mean, the last time you went through a Senkaimon you were kidnapped by Ulquiorra-" he stopped himself there, knowing it was no use. He knew that no matter what he said, if Orihime was needed by her friends, on earth or in Soul Society, she would not refuse them. It wasn't that she felt pressured and couldn't refuse them, either. She would not refuse them on principle. It was something about her that he greatly admired. To ask her to do otherwise would be to ask her to stop being herself, he mused in a rare moment of maturity.

"Anyway, thank you for telling me. Of course, I'll worry about you. But I know you are capable. Just promise me to be extra cautious and let me know what is going on there when you come back. And say hi to anyone we know for me, OK?"

"I will!" she answered, probably happier than she had ever felt in her entire life after hearing his affirming sentiments, then threw her arms around him.


September 5th

After school on Friday, Ichigo walked Orihime to Urahara's. The pair decided not to tell Uryuu and Chad about Orihime's trip, knowing Uryuu would object and if they told Chad then Uryuu would be odd man out. Tatsuki had been told the truth, and had not taken it well. Orihime was glad she was busy with karate and unable to see her off; she didn't want a scene at Urahara's.

When the couple arrived they were greeted by Urahara near the door, who raised an eyebrow at Ichigo for a moment, before quickly regaining his poker face. He wasn't sure, but he had thought he had caught a faint sensation of Ichigo's reiatsu. The scientist made a mental note to dig deeper into that possibility another day, and greeted the two warmly.

"Well well, what is this I hear about the two of you being a couple? I haven't been back in Karakura for more than ten minutes and already I've been made quite aware of the situation. Congratulations, then," he said before snapping his fan shut and turning toward the house. "Right this way, Inoue-san."

"Just a minute, hat-n-clogs," Ichigo said sternly, "I want some assurances first that she is going to be kept safe."

"There is nothing to worry about, Kurosaki-san. Inoue-san will be escorted by myself at all times. She will be perfectly safe."

"Ok, but why do you need to bring her to Soul Society in the first place? And before you say anything, be aware that Rukia and Renji already told us all about the 'incident' and Yoruichi-san told us how long you have been in Soul Society, so I want the truth. How does Inoue fit into all of that?"

"Oh, I see. So I don't need to explain as much. The truth is I merely require Inoue-san's presence as part of an experiment, in which she will be expected to do nothing but some very simple work with her Shun Shun Rikka. She won't be interacting with anyone or anything during the duration of the experiment except for myself and any company she may request, or in the case of Matsumoto-san and Rukia-san, any friends who may request her company. She will be carefully monitored for the entirety of the experiment. If the experiment is a success, she may be home sooner than Sunday. If the results are not immediate, I plan to run the experiment for 48 hours before I consider it a failure and send her home."

"Really? That's it?" Orihime asked with a slight smile. She was starting to look forward to what really sounded more like a slumber party than an experiment.

Ichigo still had some doubts. "Where will she be staying?"

"In the laboratory of the twelfth division, of course," Ichigo raised an alarmed brow before Urahara explained further, "I will be there to maintain her safety and Kurotsuchi-taicho won't even know she is there. And you can stop giving me that look; when it is time for Inoue-san to sleep she will be accompanied by Rukia-san."

Ichigo was relieved that Rukia would be there for Orihime. He trusted her completely to keep his girlfriend's best interests at heart. He turned to Orihime and took her hands, "Be careful, then."

Orihime smiled at him, eyes sparkling with excitement, but a brow twisted in concern for him. "Are you going to be alright?"

"Of course. Rukia won't let anything happen to you, and like I said the other day, I know you can take care of yourself. I'm just going to miss you." He started to lean into her before he turned his attention back to Urahara, glaring at the shopkeeper to back off.

"Oh, yes, I'll give you two a moment," he said before shuffling away to the next room.

Ichigo leaned in to kiss her as soon as he was gone. "Don't miss me too much," he said as they separated, giving her a little smirk. "I was planning on taking you out for a belated birthday celebration this weekend, but since than might not work out, look forward to it as soon as you get back."

"Oh, you don't have to do anything special for me, but I'm really excited now!" she said cheerily. "I'll miss you though, you know," she said, wrapping her arms around his waist and tucking her head into his chest.

Ichigo planted a kiss on her head and stroked her hair from the top of her head down her back, returning her hug as he reached the middle. "Alright, get going before I change my mind," he said, backing away so she could go through the door Urahara previously exited. Orihime nodded and went through it without looking back.


The trip through the Senkaimon was unremarkable. Urahara had requested that she conceal her reiatsu to the best of her ability when they exited into Soul Society. When they did, they were already inside of the Twelfth Division. Urahara led her down a hallway that was similar to a hospital's, complete with beeps and boops of various monitoring equipment, but the color scheme was decidedly darker. They passed a room with a windowed wall that appeared to be a server room being monitored by a few technicians. Then they entered into a room at the end of the hall that looked much like an operation theater, with the exception of the continuing dark walls and furniture more suited to a sitting room. To Orihime, it was reminiscent of her room in Las Noches, with an inverted color scheme and no moonlit window.

"Would you like a drink or anything to eat, Inoue-san?" Urahara asked hospitably as he set about turning on monitoring equipment.

"Actually a drink would be very nice. I'm not used to concealing my reiatsu – it's hard work!" she answered cheerfully.

"Alright. I will be right back with some tea. I've got to turn on some monitors in the other room and I believe Rukia-san is on her way over with Matsumoto-san as we speak. I'll get some for all of us. You have a seat, or wander around the room, whatever you'd like." He said as pleasant as can be while gesturing around the room. "I just ask that you please not touch the monitoring equipment, it is quite sensitive. And also, do not leave this room, I can't guarantee your safety if you leave; Mayuri is always on the lookout for a new experiment," he added darkly.

Orihime gulped and nodded, and Urahara left the room. She walked around it, examining the various monitors and sensors. They were undecipherable to her, so they didn't hold her interest for very long. She took a seat on a sofa upholstered in fake leather that was the same color as an eggplant. It was comfortable enough, but not anything special. She picked at a loose spot in the cushion stitching as she waited for Urahara's return. She noted that from inside the room, she was unable to sense anyone's reiatsu. She correctly concluded that the room was constructed out of a reiatsu blocking material.

After several more minutes, Urahara returned. As he opened the door, the room was briefly flooded with reiatsu, and she was able to pick out those of her two visitors close by, causing a smile to erupt across Orihime's face. Urahara set down the tea and started to pour as a knocking began at the door. "Would you mind opening that, Inoue-san? I believe it's for you anyway," Urahara asked while picking up a third cup to pour. "Just pull the lever upright."

Orihime did as instructed and was immediately lifted off of her feet in a fierce hug, her face pressed snugly into Rangiku's breasts. "Orihime-chan! I've missed you so much!" the exuberant blonde cried while squeezing her human friend as tightly as she could. Rukia caught Orihime's free eye and said, "Long time no see, Orihime!" and broke into a chuckle. "Alright, that's enough, Matsumoto. You'll suffocate her," Rukia said through her laughter.

"Right this way, ladies. Tea is served," Urahara welcomed the trio into the room toward the furniture. "I believe you all will have lots to talk about, however, I must warn you, I will be monitoring what goes on in here and as a result I'll be able to hear anything you say. That being said, I will also be rather busy with my experiment so I won't be hanging on your every word. In other words, I'm not trying to snoop but your privacy is not guaranteed. Also, you will be locked inside. In the event something goes wrong, Inoue-san knows how to open the door from the inside. From time to time I'll be opening various vents to this room, so you may hear some fans whirring or external noises, so do not be alarmed. I will also sometimes ask Inoue-san to perform some simple spiritual tasks related to the experiment over the loudspeakers just there, so don't be surprised by that either. I'll leave you ladies to it for now, and I'll be back to check in in a few hours. You may release your reiatsu as soon as this door is shut, Inoue-san. Ta-ta." Urahara picked up the cup of tea he had poured for himself and left the room with it.

"So, tell me all about you and Ichigo!" Rangiku squealed as soon as the door was shut.

Orihime launched into the tale of how they got together, tastefully leaving out the part about the mountaintop make-out session, although Rukia filled Rangiku in on clothes-hiding incident. Rukia and Rangiku asked a lot of questions, trying to get the shy healer to open up a bit more. After about an hour, and just as Rangiku started to really press for more details, Urahara's voice crackled over the loadspeaker, "Inoue-san, please suppress your reiatsu again for a moment."

Orihime nodded and did as asked. As soon as it was nearly undetectable, the creak of a vent, followed by the hum of a fan was heard, followed by some distortion from the loudspeaker. "Alright, now, Matsumoto-san, are you finished with your tea?" Urahara asked over the loudspeaker.

"Yes…" Rangiku answered carefully.

"Good," Urahara replied happily over the loudspeaker, "please throw your cup to the floor to break it."

"What?!" Rukia asked incredulously.

Rangiku was not at all bothered by the request. "Okay," she said merrily, while lifting the cup overhead and dashing it down to the tiled floor where it broke into seemingly a million pieces.

"Very good, thank you, Matsumoto-san," Urahara spoke through the loudspeaker politely as Rangiku sat back up, looking pleased with herself. "Now, Inoue-san, please use your rejection technique to restore the cup. You may release as much reiatsu as necessary; don't worry about holding back."

"Okay!" Orihime answered in a chipper voice, and set about piecing the cup back together with her Shun Shun Rikka.

Not ten seconds after she began, the room began to vibrate and the open vents overhead slammed shut. Suddenly, the monitoring equipment in the room shut off along with the lights. Orihime shrieked quietly, and, abandoning the half-repaired cup, cast a shield over herself and her two friends. After a moment, violet emergency lights lit up and an unknown, polite, voice came over the loudspeaker. "Do not be alarmed, the experiment has been a success. Please wait inside until Urahara-san is able to return. He should be back shortly."

"Well, that was quick," Rangiku said glibly.

Rukia rolled her eyes at the voluptuous shinigami and turned to Orihime. "You alright, Orihime?"

"Yes, that just surprised me!"

"You and me both! I wonder what this experiment was about", Rangiku agreed as the regular lights went back on.

The three women sat and waited making sporadic small talk, anxious for Urahara's return. After about a half hour, their anxiety was starting to be replaced with boredom. "You girls wanna plays cards or something?" Rangiku asked, finding all the waiting too tedious to bear.

The other two agreed and they started to play. After another two hours, the loudspeakers came back to life and Urahara's tired, somewhat breathless voice came over. "Apologies, ladies, cleaning up after this experiment took longer than I expected. You can come out of the room now, but please brace yourselves, there is a lot of residual reiatsu in the air and I don't want you to be taken off guard.

The women passed around suspicious looks at one another before Orihime went to the door and pulled the lever latch upright. A quiet hiss was heard as the pressure between the room and the hallway equalized. As Orihime opened the door, they were immediately engulfed in a thick cloud of heavy reiatsu. Orihime felt it was familiar immediately, but she was unable to place it. It had a desperate sort of quality, but it wasn't dark. It actually had a bit of a hopeful flavor to it. The three friends heard Urahara's geta clopping down the hall before they could see him, and walked forward toward it.

As he came into view, Rukia asked first, "What is this reiatsu? It reminds me of the one we felt during 'the incident', but it is so incredibly different now," she trailed off, hoping he would fill in the blanks.

"I'm sorry I can't be specific at this time, Rukia-san; Commander Yamamoto has ordered this experiment classified top secret. Not even the other captains, including Kurotsuchi-taicho, know. All I can say is your instincts are usually right," he said the last sentence from behind his fan and added a wink for emphasis before turning his attention to Orihime. "Thank you for your cooperation and participation in this experiment, Inoue-san. I'm prepared to escort you back to the world of the living now."

Rangiku protested immediately. "But, she just got here! You can't take her back so soon!"

"I'm sorry, Matsumoto-san, but I'm sure Kurosaki-kun will be waiting on her," he countered.

"I'm sure he wouldn't mind if I stay a little longer, Urahara-san," Orihime said gently.

"Unfortunately, that is not an option at this time, and I can't explain why. All I can say is that it is imperative that you leave Soul Society as soon as possible. If you would like, Matsumoto-san and Rukia-san could accompany us through the Senkaimon, I'll make your excuses to your captains if necessary," he added looking at the other two, before looking back to Orihime, "but we must leave at once."

Orihime knew he was quite serious and didn't contradict him again. The quartet went back down the hall toward the room with the Senkaimon and wasted no time getting in.


When they arrived back in Karakura, it was about 9:00 p.m. Urahara informed them that he had some things to take care of at the shop, so if Rukia and Rangiku wanted to walk Orihime home, he would be ready to go back to Soul Society as a group as long as they came straight back; it was important to return quickly.

The group of girlfriends started their walk to Orihime's apartment right away. All three were shaken by the mysterious experiment and residual reiatsu, and as they walked they started to talk about it. "Have either of you ever felt a similar reiatsu? I mean, it was totally different from the one from 'the incident' but something about it was similar. Do you agree, Matsumoto?" Rukia asked.

"Yes, it's as you say, similar but totally different," she answered.

"Yeah, I mean, I wasn't in Soul Society for 'the incident' you keep referring to, but I'm having the same response as you two. That reiatsu is almost the same, and yet totally different, to someone I used to know. But it my case, I know it's just my imagination," Orihime interjected.

"Who are you talking about – why are you so sure it's your imagination?" Rangiku asked, alarmed.

"Because he's dead." Orihime answered solemnly.

"Um, Orihime, it is Soul Society. If he's dead he would be reborn there," Rukia pointed out.

Orihime's face lit up for a second at the possibility then fell. "No, he would not have gone to Soul Society, I think."

"Why do you think that?" Rangiku asked.

"Because he wasn't human in the first place." Orihime said somewhat wistfully. "Anyway, we're here," she said, looking up at her building. "I'm sorry we were only able to spend a few hours together, but I was so glad to see you both again!" she added with a smile.

"Me too. I miss you a lot when we're apart, Hime-chan!" Rangiku said somewhat emotionally, bending down to give the shorter girl a big hug.

"I hope we can meet again soon, Orihime," Rukia said, much more collected than Rangiku, placing a hand on Orihime's shoulder and squeezing affectionately.

With that, the two shinigami flash-stepped back to Urahara's place. When they arrived, they told him about what Orihime had said about recognizing the reiatsu.

"Curious," Urahara responded without giving away anything. In his head, however, he was more convinced than ever that his hypothesis was correct and was anxious to get going. "If you are ready, we'll be off then." He had an arm around Yoruichi's waist and gave her a one-handed hug and a kiss on the head. "Everything should be back online now Yoruichi-san. I'll be in touch soon but I have a lot of work to do so I may not be able to do it right away."

Yoruichi stretched and looked at him like she didn't care, although everyone in the room knew differently. "I'll be out and about too, Kisuke. Don't wait up."

Urahara tipped his hat to her and waved to Tessai and the kids before leading Rangiku and Rukia back through the senkaimon.


9:10 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

I'm back! (heart) Apparently the experiment was a success! (big smiley)

9:11 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

What?! Wow, that was fast! I'm relieved (heart). Have you eaten?

9:11 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

No (sad emoji)

9:12 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

I'm hanging out at Chad's place and we just got some pizza. Do you want to come over?

9:12 p.m.

From: Orihme Inoue

YES! (smiley). I'll meet you there in a few minutes!

Chad's place was only a 8 or 9 minute walk from Orihime's place. She started walking before she got a reply from Ichigo.

9:13 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Wait! I'll come pick you up.

Ichigo started walking toward Orihime's apartment. He had made it almost halfway there when he heard a shriek that made his heart fall to his stomach. If he could run any faster than he did toward it, he would be flying.


Orihime had made it about two blocks away from her apartment before she ran into them. It wasn't a particularly seedy area, it was just bad luck, really. The yakuza punk from Tanabata and two of his friends just happened to walk out of a convenience store, presumably to buy more cigarettes, just as Orihime was walking past.

"Well, well, well, if it isn't Princess Orihime. Hey guys, this is the chick I was telling you about from that festival," the man from Tanabata leered toward her.

Orihime ignored them and picked up her pace a little, hoping they were busy and would just let it go. She was in no such luck. The three men followed her across the street, catcalling as they went. She was just about to duck into a supermarket when a black van pulled up, and the men grabbed her. Orihime shrieked wildly, unable to summon her shun shun rikka, and reluctant to use them against humans anyway. Instead, she kicked and thrashed at them, slowing their progress, and allowing her shirt sleeve to rip in the process.

"Oh, looks like she's real feisty, what do you say, Aniki?" one of the men said to the ringleader, holding Orihime's legs together under one arm, trying the wedge the van's door open with the other.

"Just how we like them, right?" the other man answered as he approached her. The other two men were holding her arms and hair, pulling back so the boss could inspect her. "You'll be a good girl, right? We just want to have a little fun," he said, trailing a finger from her cheek down her neck and continuing down until he had pulled down the neckline of her shirt far enough the begin to tear it.

"No! Please, let me go!" Orihime shrieked again, only to be rewarded by a sharp slap across the cheek.

"That's not the right answer, love," the man said in a voice full of false compassion, before grabbing the inside of her thigh and shoving her and the other men toward the now-open van door. He lit a cigarette and started to turn to go back to the driver's seat when Ichigo appeared out of nowhere, landing a kick into the back of the man's knee. As the man fell forward, he followed up with another kick, this time to the back of the man's skull, launching him face first into the pavement. The man did not get back up.

The man holding Orihime's legs dropped them and was on Ichigo in seconds. Ichigo was able to redirect the man's forward motion toward the side of the van, where he caused a large dent into the passenger door before staggering forward and lunging at Ichigo again.

The man holding Orihime's arms , the same man from Tanabata, held tighter and pulled her farther into the van, while the man who had been holding her hair let go and went out to help the one fighting Ichigo. In a one-on-one fight, Ichigo nearly always had the upper hand. Two-against-one was a little more tricky. The new fighter managed to land a fist on Ichigo's jaw before getting thrown into the car like the previous fighter. Both of them staggered to their feet as Ichigo prepared to take them both on at the same time. The two charged in unison and Ichigo was focused on them until he heard a very distinct ripping sound and a sobbed, "No, I reject!" from Orihime. At that point, he couldn't remember what happened anymore.


September 6th, 2:36 a.m.

When Ichigo came to, he was back in Chad's apartment, surrounded by a warm, healing glow. As he cracked his eyes open, the golden shimmer dissipated until he could see Orihime and Chad clearly.

"Orihime! Are you alright?!" he cried, sitting up quickly and gathering her into his arms. Tears began to quietly fall down his cheeks as he held her as tight as he could without hurting her. "Did that guy… are you..?" he couldn't bring himself to ask.

"Yes, I'm alright!" Orihime answered breathlessly, nodding repeatedly. Ichigo held her out by the shoulders a bit so he could look her over. She seemed unhurt, although she was now wearing what looked like one of Chad's T-shirts, which was long enough to reach below her knees. He pulled her back into him and onto his lap and rocked slightly, just hanging onto her as if letting go would mean letting the men from the van have her back. Orihime clung to him tightly as well, making no sound except poorly controlled, shuddering breaths.

After a several minutes, Ichigo stopped his rocking and relaxed his grip on her, resting his forehead against hers. This time, less frantically, he asked again, "Are you really alright? What happened?"

Orihime answered honestly. She was shaken up, of course. She had decided to leave the house as soon as she was invited, not reading the text asking her to wait for him. It had been bad luck that she ran into those guys. She was sorry she didn't use her Shun Shun Rikka earlier, but she was hesitant to use it against humans. She had healed up her own scrapes and bruises and, thanks to Ichigo, she was safe and sound.

Ichigo listened patiently, nodding along. When Orihime finished, he asked Chad, "How did we get back here? I don't remember much after I had the first guy down."

Chad answered very carefully. "Ichigo, I don't know what happened, exactly, but I left here when I felt Inoue's reiatsu go crazy. By the time I got to you two, all four guys were on the ground. Two were knocked unconscious. One had his arm cut off at the elbow. Another was dead. I don't know how any of that happened."

Ichigo's eyes were filled with dread as he returned his gaze to Orihime. "What did I do?" he asked her finally in a frightened whisper.

Orihime took a deep breath to steady herself and looked Ichigo straight in the eye. "I cut the man's arm off. He was about to… anyway, I panicked and called Tsubaki. I was able to restore the dead man's pulse after you calmed down, after Chad arrived, but then you collapsed again. After that we ran. Chad carried you back here. You were in terrible condition; I have been healing you for hours," she started to cry at the memory of Ichigo's cut and swollen face.

"What do you mean, I calmed down? And how did I kill a guy? I don't remember anything after I heard you screaming in the van."

"That's because you weren't the one who killed him, Ichigo," Chad answered. "Your hollow did."


Sorry not sorry for the angst. Please comment to let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

Chapter Text

A/N: Very bad language ahead. Please skip this the first part of this chapter in italics if you find cursing/swearing/profanity offensive. The remainder is pretty fluffy and pleasant.


 

Chapter 14: Response and Counterclaim

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, FUCK fuck fuckity-fuck-fuck! This is so fucking frustrating! Of course, King-boy has to wait until he has no spirit-juice left in him to finally get with the Queen, but then, just when he has enough juice to at least let me see what he's doing, he goes and lets her get molested by some goddamn mouthbreathers… Well I'll tell you fucking what, there was no way those shitstains were going to get their dicks anywhere near our Queen, even if I had to destroy that dumbass King-boy's meat suit in order to get the job done.

What's worse is that douche-bucket Zangetsu is nowhere to be found. Last time that dude kind of brought King into his own, but now all he's got is me, good ol' Horse, and horses aren't famous for their ability to provide spiritual guidance.

Anyway, when I heard Queen crying out, I couldn't sit back and wait for King to kick those guys' asses. I mean, I gotta hand it to him, for a sack of flesh, King is pretty awesome. I mean, if it was anyone else, I woulda burnt through their meat suits in seconds. As it was, Tweedledee went down dead as a doornail without much more than a 'how do you do', and Tweedledum didn't take any more effort than that. In fact, if not for Queen's kickassery on her own- slicing through that knuckle-dragger's arm like it was butter- I don't know if King would have survived the ordeal; when I saw that Queen was fine and awesome, I calmed down enough to stop burning through his body tissue so fast, and Queen was able to start rejecting the damage I was doing as I was doing it. King does have a bit of the old spirit-juice back, whether he knows it or not, but not enough for me to manifest properly. He can't even get out of his body yet.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. So after sweetcheeks the Queen had restored King-o's skin and my rage had gone a bit flaccid, you won't fucking believe what she did. Just when I thought she could absolutely do no wrong, she started bringing that dead motherfucker back to life! I mean, what the fuck? What kind of thank you is that? I told her as much, too. She told me some bullshit about how she didn't want crybaby 'Kurosaki-kun' to have to live with being a murderer, even if it was for defense. Well fuck that, I said, and then King's friend, Gigantor, showed up and restrained me. Goddamned bear of a man, that one. Powerful reiatsu too. Stuck as I am inside of the King, there was little nothing I could do but wait while Queen performed her blasphemy. I mean, I guess I get it, but what a bunch of pussies! At least she didn't fix him up or anything – I doubt the dude will ever walk again – but I won't be satisfied knowing that they still breathe after daring to touch OUR queen.

And speaking of touching our queen, I must say I am rather proud of my little protégé, he really went for it up on that mountaintop. Yeah, I made a guest appearance for a moment but that was  all  him. If not for that piece of shit shinigami's interruption we probably would've been able to claim Queen then and there. A fuckin' shame.

Shit I got sidetracked again, where was I? Oh right, when King collapsed and Gigantor took me and Queen back to his place, I really got a chance to see the damage I did to him. I don't think I'll be able to do anything like this again without killing him until he levels the fuck up, and unfortunately, our fates are tied together, so him dying is not in my best interest. Queen was a beast though, rejecting all the damage I did. She is so fucking magnificent. It took her hours, and when she was done, she healed herself. If more people had needed it, she woulda' healed them too, and she'd still be fresh as a daisy. Motherfucking BEAST, that woman. I am damn proud of her, I'll tell you.

Anyway, I don't know if the royal couple realize it yet, or maybe Queen is doing it on purpose and not telling us, but every time she whips out that little rejection tent of hers, King's reiatsu loss is also being rejected. Little by little, she's filling him back up. Unfortunately, King's reiatsu pool is huge, so her filling it up like she's been doing has been like trying to refill the goddamned ocean with a garden hose. Tonight was a bit better, though, I mean, I really tore him up so she was working on him a long time, plus the closer they get to one another emotionally, the more effective her technique, but there is still a long way to go before we reach the levels of his glory days. He's going to have to pitch in and do some of the work himself, but I guess that will come in time.

The one thing that worries me, though, is, like I said, Zangetsu is M.I.A. I mean, getting out of his human body before was always tied to him taking the form of a shinigami with that battle pass or that midget's dorky glove or that soul candy jazz, but now, all signs point to there being no shinigami abilities left in him. So what the fuck are we supposed to do now? I can't keep burning through his meat suit every time I want to kick some ass – like I said, he dies, I die. I hope they find an answer soon because I'm coming up empty in here.


 

September 6th, 8:27 a.m.

Surprisingly, Ichigo woke up first. It took him a few moments to remember where he was when he opened his eyes to an unfamiliar ceiling. He blinked and looked to the left, recognizing a poster of a rockstar on Chad's wall, before he turned to the right and was met with Orihime's face inches from his.

Ichigo got up on one elbow and looked down at Orihime. She was curled up on her side in Chad's oversized gray T-shirt with her head on the futon that Ichigo laid on, her long auburn hair streaming out behind her like a sail. She slept deeply, still exhausted both from the scuffle the night before and from using so much spirit energy to heal Ichigo. Her face held a trace of anxiety, and her brows drew together as her eyes danced under their closed lids. Her unease pained Ichigo, who reached out and brushed her shoulder with his hand, gently. As soon as he made contact, however, Orihime yelped, jumping up so she sat upright on her left hip, hands flat on the floor, breathing heavily, until her eyes focused on Ichigo. Tears came to her eyes and she whispered an apology as he gathered her into his arms and laid back down on his futon with her. He covered her with his blanket and kissed her nose. "I'm sorry I scared you. Go back to sleep," he whispered. Orihime nodded and was asleep almost instantly. He stroked her back slowly, enjoying the feel of her warm body through the thin fabric of Chad's soft T-shirt, and allowing his mind to quiet.

Chad, who was woken up by Orihime's outburst, walked out to the living room where they slept and, seeing Orihime's still form, asked Ichigo quietly, "Do you want any coffee?"

Ichigo nodded and stayed with Orihime as Chad prepared the coffee. Later when Chad set a mug down on his bar-height eating table, Ichigo carefully extracted his arms from around and underneath Orihime and padded carefully toward Chad. Chad silently offered that they go out onto his small balcony with a nod of his head in that direction. Ichigo nodded in response and they quietly took their beverages outside, sliding the glass door shut behind them.

Once outside, the pair leaned against the railing and Ichigo held his steaming cup to his nose. After a log silence, he asked, "So, my hollow is back, eh?"

Chad nodded thoughtfully, and then added, "It's problematic."

"Yeah, that guy was always kind of a bastard," Ichigo agreed without much thought.

"It isn't that, Ichigo." Chad countered forebodingly, "It's that both of you are stuck in your physical body. Inoue was struggling to keep him from ripping through your skin before your body collapsed. It wasn't damage from the fight that she had to heal when we got you back here, it was the damage your hollow did to you in his attempt to take over your body."

Ichigo sipped his coffee and thought over what Chad had said. He agreed, but he didn't understand. "How is it possible for my hollow to even do that, especially since I don't have any reiatsu?"

"I don't understand that part either, Ichigo."

"And, of course, now would be the time that ol' Hat-n-clogs is busy in Soul Society," Ichigo snarked. As he said it, Orihime opened the door and stood in the doorway. She looked so small as she stood with one arm across her stomach clutching her opposite elbow and curling the toes of one foot over the other, before she looked up at them uncertainly.

"Actually, Kurosaki-kun, Urahara-san said that Yoruichi-san could contact him from his shop, so if you need him, we can ask her to help us," she offered in a small, tired voice.

The boys perked up at the new information. A cool breeze blew at Orihime's exposed legs, causing the appearance of goosebumps on her flesh and perked nipples clearly visible through the T-shirt she was wearing sans bra. Orihime crossed her arms in front of herself out of habit, both for modesty and to warm herself, but she wasn't fast enough to avoid her male companions' interested glances. Chad looked away respectfully after he had caught himself gawking, as Ichigo blushed and suggested they all go inside. As she turned around he was treated to the profile of her buttocks clearly outlined through the thin fabric. He forced his vision up to eye level, after checking to make sure Chad wasn't also enjoying the view. Ever faithful to Ichigo, Chad had found something of great interest to look at in the distance outside.

After Orihime was safely inside and Ichigo suggested she take the blanket to warm herself, the three made a plan to go to Urahara's place to talk to Yoruichi. It was suggested that Orihime repair the damage to the clothes she wore the night before, but she explained that she would rather burn them than have to be reminded about what happened when she had worn them. The boys nodded their understanding and decided to first stop at her place so she could shower and change. They called a cab to protect her dignity; there was no way she was walking or taking public transportation in her current state of dress.


 

Orihime quickly showered and changed into a pair of jeans and a pink T-shirt with a white hoodie wrapped around her waist. Being in a hurry, she hadn't washed her hair and had it pulled up into a high ponytail. She walked quickly past the guys sitting in her living room, her shoulders back and ponytail swishing behind her as she went, and slipped on a pair of sneakers before calling out, "You two ready?"

Chad and Ichigo staggered up to standing positions. Both had been mesmerized by her sudden poise after witnessing the depth of vulnerability she had offered earlier that morning. They both indicated their agreement and left for Urahara's.


 

Chad, Orihime, and Ichigo were disappointed on arriving at Urahara's to find that Yoruichi was out. Jinta promised to relay a message to contact them as soon as she returned, and the threesome decided to go get an early lunch at a café near Ichigo's house, which they ate more or less in silence as tired as they were. After lunch, Chad went back home and Ichigo offered Orihime to come over to his house to relax for a bit with whoever was home while he took a quick shower and got changed before taking her home.

Orihime felt dead on her feet, and with her desire to not be alone today, her answer was a very quick yes. Ichigo, relieved, wrapped an arm around her back and escorted her that way for the eight minute walk to his house. When they arrived, only Karin was home. Ichigo needlessly explained that he had spent the night at Chad's and he and Inoue had just run into each other and that he was going to take a shower. Karin wouldn't have cared whether he told her anything or not; she valued privacy.

After Ichigo went up the stairs, Orihime spoke to Karin, "It's been a long time, Karin-chan. How are you doing? Anything new?"

Karin knew immediately that something was wrong. Orihime's voice lacked all of her usual enthusiasm, and it was apparent to Karin that Orihime was forcing herself to socialize. "I'm alright, Orihime-chan, are you?" she asked gently, but to the point.

Orihime suddenly felt torn. Here was a young girl, with no mother or other female role model in her own family, unknowingly asking about her being the victim of an attempted sexual assault. Orihime recognized that this was a teachable moment, but also didn't want to bring Karin down or burden her. She thought it over for a long moment, and decided to go somewhere down the middle with her explanation. "Well, Karin, uh… you know how it's important to always be aware of your surroundings, right?"

"Yes," Karin answered seriously, waiting for Orihime to continue.

"Well, last night, I let myself get distracted, and I, um, encountered some people who wanted to hurt me."

Karin's mouth dropped slightly and her eyes widened with dread, "What happened?" she whispered.

"Well, they tried to push me into a van, but your brother and Sado-kun were nearby, and they helped me fight them off. Those guys were really unlucky we are all so strong!" she said with forced cheer as she flexed her biceps, before she adopted a more serious expression and added, "but, I would have never even been in that situation if I had been paying better attention. I made some stupid mistakes. I was out alone way too late, daydreaming as I went, and when I first felt danger, I didn't run for it or make a lot of noise, I just put my head down and walked a little faster. The reason I'm telling you this, Karin-chan, is because I don't want you or Yuzu-chan to ever have to be in a situation where you are forced to fight for your safety. I want you to learn from my mistakes and always remember to take simple precautions."

Karin nodded solemnly and when she met Orihime's eyes, there were tears lining them. Karin was surprised by her own display of emotion and quickly wiped them away. She felt the need to explain herself, suddenly. "I'm so sorry, Orihime-chan. I don't know why I'm acting this way, I was just so worried when you said that… and I …" she didn't want to continue as her voice started thicken. Instead she looked up to the ceiling to try regaining her composure. After a brief moment, she returned her eyes to Orihime, huffed out a quick breath and smiled. "I'm just really glad you're ok."

Orihime was moved that this girl she had only really spent the past summer getting to know cared about her this much. As she returned Karin's smile, tears came to her own eyes, and she couldn't stop herself from reaching out and hugging the girl. To her surprise and relief, Karin hugged her back.

Ichigo came down the stairs at the same moment, watching quietly. He didn't want to interrupt what looked like a private moment between his stand-offish sister and his girlfriend. The fact that Karin looked up to Orihime as an older sister was not lost on him, and he was pleased that Karin and Orihime were comfortable enough around each other to be in such a situation. He kept silent until they broke their embrace.

"Karin, have you eaten?" he asked casually as the girls stepped away from one another.

"No. I'm going out though, for soccer practice. Yuzu packed a lunch for me," she answered as she pulled the lunch out of the refrigerator. "Actually, I better get going now, or I'll be late. See you later, Ichi-ni. I hope to see you again soon, Orihime-chan," she called as she strode toward the front door. Before she opened it, though, she turned around and addressed Orihime once more, "I won't forget what you said."

Orihime smiled with her mouth closed and nodded, waving Karin off as she left. After the door closed, and before she turned around, she felt a pair of strong arms snake around her waist from behind, followed by Ichigo's chin coming down to rest on her shoulder. "I think she likes you," he said to Orihime softly.

Orihime tilted her head so that it touched Ichigo's and nodded slightly, "I like her, too."

"I'm glad," Ichigo said, squeezing Orihime a bit tighter and putting his lips into the crook of her neck, placing a gentle peck there, before screwing up his eyebrows and yawning through his nose. "I don't know about you, Ori – Inoue, but I'm exhausted," Ichigo wasn't sure what to do with his unintentional use of her given name so he pressed on, "would you be interested in a nap? And before you start worrying, no one is going to be home for a few hours and I'm not some kind of perv who would try to take advantage of you after what happened last night. I mean really sleeping."

Orihime turned her head and kissed his cheek. "That sounds wonderful," she wasn't in the mood to press the issue of his use of her given name either, although the sound of it filled her with joy - joy only suppressed slightly by the memory of the instances surrounding his first use of her name the previous night at Chad's.

Ichigo led her up to his room by the hand and closed the door behind them. Under any other circumstances both of them would be nerve-wracked and anxious, but neither of them had the energy to even stand for much longer. Ichigo held the blanket open for Orihime to climb in. She did and lay on her side facing the window. Ichigo climbed in after her, spooning her from behind, and both of them were fast asleep in minutes.


 

When Orihime woke up almost five hours later, Ichigo was not in his room and from the sound of things, the entire Kurosaki household was home and getting ready for dinner. Embarrassed, she quietly got out of bed and walked over to the restroom. After using it and checking to make sure she didn't have any drool dried to her face, she made her way down the steps. The noise she heard previously hushed suddenly as she made her way down the hall toward the living/dining room area. When she came in, she was confused to find the room dark. She took another step forward, trying to determine whether everyone was in the kitchen, when the lights went up, and poppers went off on either side of her, as Yuzu, Karin, Ichigo and Isshin called out, "Happy belated birthday!" in unison.

Orihime was shocked. She stared at the Kurosaki family for a moment, before her eyes scanned the room, taking in the pink and yellow streamers and balloons, and even a hand-made sign that read "Happy Birthday Orihime-chan". Her chin started to wobble, her eyebrows knit, and a sob wracked through her body as she fell to her knees. She looked up and attempted to say thank you, but only choked out another sob. Karin, Yuzu, and Ichigo looked on in horror, thinking perhaps they'd made a mistake.

Isshin, on the otherhand, being somewhat of a kindred spirit in terms of emotional outbursts, rushed to Orihime's side. "I'm sorry, Orihime-chan! Did we frighten you?" he asked, placing a reassuring hand on Orihime's shoulder.

Orihime shook her head no, and then looked up into Isshin's concerned face. When she saw the affection in his eyes, she launched herself into his embrace and let her tears flow. "Thank you so, so much. I've never had a family birthday party before," she managed to choke out so that the rest of the family could hear her.

Immediately, Yuzu started to cry and ran to her father and Orihime to join in the hug. Karin, although smiling instead of crying, also came over to put a hand on Orihime's shoulder. Ichigo watched the spectacle with a mix of shock and awe. He could feel something swell in his chest, seeing the girl he cared for and his family share such a strong bond. He watched for a minute until he came over to break it up gently, taking Orihime's hand and extracting her from Isshin and Yuzu's clutches. "Come on, this isn't even the good part yet," he said with a wink as he led her to the dining table.

They had prepared dinner and cake for her, and after eating and singing and blowing out candles, each person brought out a small wrapped gift. Orihime protested politely, but she was over the moon with happiness that they had done all this for her. She took the first gift from Yuzu, who could not wait to have her gift opened.

Orihime carefully unwrapped the package and found a yellow apron with ruffled edges inside. Orihime held it up in front of her and nodded appreciatively. "Thank you, Yuzu-chan! This is so cute!"

Yuzu blushed deeply, and said, "You're welcome. I hope you don't mind that it's used. It was my mother's, but I thought it would suit you so well, so I asked dad if I could give it to you."

Orihime held back tears as she nodded her approval to Yuzu. Karin, who had had enough emotion for one day, thrust her own gift into Orihime's now empty hands, effectively changing the topic. "Here you go," she said unceremoniously.

Orihime lifted the top off and pulled out a pair of fluffy socks with pink teddy bears that resembled her own stuffed animal. "These are fantastic! They look just like Enraku! I love them!" she effused.

Karin smiled sheepishly and then turned her attention to Isshin. "Your turn, Goatbeard"

"Indeed!" Isshin laughed, presenting Orihime with a package larger than the rest. She opened it carefully and looked inside, where she saw a surprisingly fashionable, military-style green canvas jacket with colorful flowers embroidered on it.

Orihime's eyes grew as she tried it on. The fit was perfect. "Wow, Kurosaki-san, I never knew you had such great taste in clothes!" she said with a blinding smile.

Isshin smiled back and said, "Well, one day, I'll let you see me all dressed up. I'll show you fashion!" The room reacted in guffaws.

Finally, Ichigo gave Orihime his gift. It was a small package with silver wrapping paper and a blue bow. She opened it, and inside the white cardboard box was a simple silver ID bracelet with her name engraved into it. She stared down at it, the first piece of jewelry she'd ever received from a boy that wasn't her brother, and was speechless.

"I'm sorry, it's nothing special or fancy," Ichigo started, before Orihime looked up at him and shook her head with smiling eyes and put the bracelet on, admiring the way it caught the light.

"I love it. Thank you, Kurosaki… family" she said, looking around the room, before looking back at Ichigo and whispering with a blush, "thank you, Ichigo."


 

Thanks for reading!

Chapter Text

Chapter 15: Temporary Order

September 26th

Orihime sat at her desk that Friday afternoon lost in thought while waiting for the bell announcing that school was done for the weekend. The weeks following Orihime's assault had been peaceful. There were no further glimpses of Ichigo's hollow trying to manifest, no extraordinary hollow numbers in Karakura, and things within the group of friends at Karakura High School had returned to a steady rhythm of classes, after school activities, homework, and casual socializing.

Orihime had been proving herself exceedingly resilient. Although she consciously exercised greater awareness and caution, she was able to quickly put this most recent event into perspective. After all, she had been through and survived so much already - abusive parents, the death of her brother, school bullying, her hollowfied brother's attempt to murder her, being on the lam in Soul Society, and being abducted by Aizen - that this most recent event, although certainly traumatic, was just another experience to learn from. She was honestly surprised by Ichigo and Chad's hyper-protective reactions; neither of the boys let their guard down around her while in public. She traced her name on the ID bracelet Ichigo had given her for her birthday and laughed quietly to herself, raising her gaze across the classroom to her boyfriend and his right-hand man. The threat had already been neutralized, but her protectors were on higher alert than ever. She sighed softly, grateful that they cared.

Orihime's thoughts drifted toward her plans for that evening. Keigo had been badgering Ichigo to go to karaoke with him since the start of the school year, and Ichigo had finally relented in hopes that Keigo would be satisfied and stop asking, on the condition that Orihime could come along. Naturally, since she was coming the invitation was then extended to Uryuu and Tatsuki, so in the end it would be Ichigo, Chad, Keigo, Mizuiro, Uryuu, Tatsuki, and Orihime. Orihime was looking forward to it all week. It hadn't been since the camping trip that all seven of them had gone out somewhere together.

When the bell finally rang, she was up and out of her chair before anyone else, her body bouncing to attention as she tried to find her balance after her poorly executed launch out of her seat. She felt a heavy hand on her shoulder and looked up into Chad's slightly blushing face, as he mumbled, "careful…" and continued making his way up the row of desks toward the classroom exit. Orihime shook her head, smiled, and followed him, feeling the presence of her other friends not far behind.

The group convened in the school courtyard to confirm their plans. Keigo reminded everyone at least four times that they were to meet at the karaoke house in front of the train station at 7:30, which would give everyone time to get home and get changed and eat something.

Because Orihime and Chad lived near to one another, he, Orihime, and Ichigo began their walk toward their neighborhoods. Ichigo had decided to go to Orihime's and wait on her to change, then walk her to his house so he could change and they could grab something to eat before going on to Karaoke, since he lived the closest to the station.

Chad waved and continued on to his apartment when they neared Orihime's place. As she led the way up the stairs to her apartment, Ichigo trailed behind quietly, mesmerized by the way her hips swayed with each step. By the time they reached her door, Ichigo had completely forgotten their evening plans. As soon as they closed the door behind them, Ichigo's hands reached out for Orihime's waist, turning her to face him as they both stepped out of their shoes. His lips met hers before they were past the concrete genkan and in his eagerness they both lost their balance when the backs of Orihime's legs met the raised hardwood ledge of the main floor. Ichigo broke their fall slightly, catching their combined weight on one hand, but did not let go of Orihime's waist.

"Ow," he said softly with a smile in his whisper, and then dipped his head back down to kiss her again. He broke it after a few more seconds and added as an afterthought, "Are you alright?"

"Yes," she whispered softly and pulled him by the collar back down to her, allowing her shoulder blades to touch the floor and her knees to bend up around one of his legs, returning his kiss with a kind of urgency that surprised him. Her fingers threaded through his soft orange hair as she used the back of his head for leverage to deepen their kiss, slipping her tongue between his parted lips.

Ichigo was not disappointed. Something in the way Orihime pulled at him had fanned the fire in him that had been smoldering since their camping trip. Since Orihime's run-in with his hollow, those embers had been burning increasingly brighter, much to his own shame. He had fought with himself the past few weeks to keep his more protective, possessive, thoughts to himself, thinking that any physical advances would be the last thing Orihime needed now. And yet, here she was, taking the initiative and making it clear to him that this was not an unwelcome turn of events. The corners of his lips turned upwards slightly as he let a hum of satisfaction rumble in his throat and his knee creep toward Orihime's center.

When the muscle of his thigh made contact, Orihime broke their kiss, allowing a choked "Ngh" to escape before gulping a lungful of air and scooting back enough to rise up on her elbows. A flicker of worry crossed Ichigo's face until he made eye contact with Orihime, and saw unveiled desire swimming in her bronze eyes.

"This way," she said, raising up from under him and backing toward her sofa. She reached for his hand, which he gave her without a thought, allowing her to lead. Orihime guided Ichigo to sit in the middle of the sofa and sat astride his lap without hesitation, wrapping her arms around his neck and bringing her lips to his ear, whispering, "Thank you, Ichigo," before placing a kiss on his jaw.

"For what?" Ichigo barely croaked back, shifting in his seat, trying to shield Orihime from the growing cause for concern below her.

"Everything," she answered seriously, looking down at his guarded eyes with her sincere ones for a moment before tightening her hold around his neck and crushing her breasts to his hard chest, burying her nose into his hair and just breathing in his scent. She hung on like that for a long moment, until Ichigo tentatively brought his arms around her waist and held her back, squeezing her small body to his and letting his head settle in the crook of her neck. A relaxing sigh passed his lips as he melted into her embrace, breathing in her scent, allowing himself to be completely cocooned by her presence.

Just when he thought he could be satisfied just to hold her like that for eternity, Orihime loosened her hold around his neck as her lips sought his again and she allowed her hips to settle atop Ichigo's, brushing her cotton panties against the zipper seam of the slacks of his school uniform.

Ichigo nearly sobbed out a soft cry into her mouth at the contact and fought the urge to thrust his hips upward toward her core. He was growing painfully hard, and he felt that Orihime didn't seem to have a clue, until she moaned into his mouth and tentatively pressed her warm, cotton-clad lips against his rock-hard length. Despite the multiple layers of fabric, Ichigo could feel her heat radiate through. His mouth suddenly went dry and he could no longer take a full breath.

Orihime was similarly surprised at the new sensation. She could feel a blush bloom from her eyes to the tips of her breasts, tightening the soft mounds and traveling down her abdomen. Her entire body started to tighten up; every part except her desperate mouth, that attempted to suck Ichigo's tongue into it, and her core, which was melting into a hot pool of what, she didn't know. She was curious, though, and tilted her hips up, allowing herself to slide up the clothed ridge of Ichigo's length. He whimpered in response, breaking their kiss and hissing out a soft, "shit, 'Hime," and latching his lips onto the pulse point of her neck, sucking the delicate skin softly, trying in vain to distract himself from what Orihime was doing.

It was a useless attempt, and within seconds, his hands moved on their own accord down her shoulders, past her elbows, to her ribs, finally cupping the sides of each breast, which were still pressed against his chest. Orihime responded with a soft hum and a rock of her hips, causing another eruption of sensation in his groin. He squeezed the soft, sweater-enveloped mounds in his large hands, testing their weight, and pushed his thumbs between their bodies, searching out her nipples.

When they found their intended target, he circled them with the pads of his thumbs. Orihime's response was more than he bargained for, however, mewling into his ear and settling into a slow, gentle rocking rhythm against him.

Ichigo's head snapped back, looking to Orihime with huge, surprised eyes and pink cheeks. He caught the briefest glimpse of Orihime's red complexion and dark, unfocused eyes before her mouth dove into his neck, returning the attention he had given her neck earlier. The sensation of her lips on his neck overwhelmed him so that the last of his inhibitions shattered, and he raked his hands down around Orihime's sides around to her buttocks, grasping tightly and pulling her weeping core tightly against him as he thrust against her covered slit, roughly brushing her clit with his pants' seam with each pass.

Ichigo's pace was not as slow and sensual Orihime's, and it wasn't long before both of them were panting, frantically racing toward an unmarked goal. As the heat in her hooded pearl started to simmer over into a boil, Orihime began chanting Ichigo's name into his ear, which caused him to increase his pace in a desperate attempt to get her wherever she was going. It wasn't long before the strain in Ichigo's own pants had reached a breaking point, and before he knew what was happening, his panting became erratic, and he choked out her name and he bit down on her shoulder to silence his cry as he unexpectedly came all over himself.

Mortified, Ichigo stopped moving and loosened his grip on Orihime's bottom, but she wasn't finished yet and, being inexperienced, didn't realize what had happened. She continued to rock against him, to his horror, until she became aware that he had completely softened. She whined in frustration as she tried desperately to find something to rub against, something to help ease the ache that wanted so urgently to shatter, which was quickly starting to ebb further and further from the realm of possibility. She finally found his thigh, and rocked against it for a bit, experiencing a few sparks of relief, but nothing close to the promised explosion she had felt was so imminent moments ago. Defeated, she sighed, kissed Ichigo's cheek, and pulled back, finally noticing the look of dismay on Ichigo's pale face.

"Oh no! Is something wrong, Ichigo? Did I hurt you?" she asked, scrambling off of him, fearing she may have done something to make him reject her.

"Um, I have to use your bathroom," Ichigo answered awkwardly before making an even more awkward run for it.

Once inside, Ichigo groaned as he pulled down his pants and saw the mess he had made. As he tried to clean it up with toilet paper, he worried about what he was going to say to Orihime when he came out with a large stain on his crotch and her whole roll of toilet paper used up. He considered asking her to leave without him, when he heard a soft knock on the door.

"Um, Ichigo? Are you alright in there? You keep flushing the toilet…" her timid voice asked through the door.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Orihime. Just, uh, leave me alone for a minute!" he accidently shouted while trying to remove a piece of toilet paper that was all but glued painfully to his crotch.

Then he heard a dreaded sound. A soft hiccup, followed by a sniff, followed by a soft, sad voice, "I don't know what I did, Ichigo, but I'm sorry! Please don't hate me."

Ichigo groaned. "You didn't do anything… Well, you did something…But I would never hate you for it. Quite the opposite, actually. It's just…" he trailed off, unable to form the words in his mouth.

"Just what?" Orihime asked in a carefully hopeful voice.

"I made a mess." He blurted out, half whining, half cursing.

"Oh," Orihime replied. "Ohhhh," she repeated, the actual meaning of his words dawning on her as a wicked smile began to cross her features. "Oh, I see," she added, before breaking out into a peal of laughter. It sounded to Ichigo like someone was tickling her, the way she was laughing. He started to feel a bit miffed.

"Hey! It's not funny! Stop laughing Orihime!"

His angry voice, the use of her given name, and the absurdity of the situation were pushing Orihime over the edge ever further. Her laughter became almost hysterical, and she had to push her down on her cheeks to stop the pain that was gathering there and force herself to breathe.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she laughed, although she was doing her best to calm down, taking deep breaths and trying to think about anything else. It took her several minutes until she was successful.

When she was finally able to speak normally, she tapped on the door again. "Ichigo, I think I can help you, but you have to open the door."

"No way. There is no way I am coming out there like this…" Ichigo trailed off, obviously still quite distressed.

"I promise I won't look, Ichigo. But don't think it will work unless you open the door."

Orihime could hear him stand up from the toilet and shuffle toward the door. As she backed away from the door, she could feel her now cool, damp panties between her thighs, and squirmed a bit in disgust at herself, giving her greater insight into Ichigo's distress. When the door finally opened, she screwed her eyes shut, and held up her palms, picturing his clean school uniform in her mind, and said, "I reject."

Ichigo watched as his mess quickly disappeared and the disheveled state of his uniform righted itself. He sighed in relief, and let himself enjoy the restorative effect on his abused member for a moment, before he spoke softly, "Honestly, Orihime, I could stand here all day, your healing technique is so relaxing. But I'm all better now; you can open your eyes."

She did open her eyes and saw the look of contentment on his face. "You know, I could use it to restore your energy and relax you from time to time. If you are not injured it is hardly any effort for me," she offered with a smile.

Ichigo's face lit up. "You really would do that for me? I mean, I don't want to tire you out or anything, but if it's really no trouble, I would love that," he nearly babbled in anticipation.

Orihime giggled at his reaction and nodded, and without delay, called her Shun Shun Rikka, casting a dome over his entire body. Ichigo felt his muscles relax and a feeling of general well-being wash over him. He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes, letting her restorative power wash over him.

After about fifteen minutes, Orihime interrupted his quiet. "Uh, Ichigo, I'm sorry, but I have to…" she eyed the bathroom longingly as he opened his eyes to look at her. "Yeah, oh, yeah, of course, do what you gotta do," he said groggily as if she'd woken him from a deep sleep. As she called back her fairies he saw the tone of the color in the room noticeably cool. He chalked it up to just being kind of 'out of it'.

In the bathroom, Orihime removed her soiled panties and threw them into her shower stall to hide the evidence for the time being. She took out a washcloth and wet it with warm water, using it to clean the remaining wetness between her thighs. When she made contact, she shuddered, remembering the sensation of Ichigo rocking against her. Only then did she realize what they had actually done, and she was suddenly overwhelmed by too many emotional responses to count. First, she felt wonder and what they had actually done, something she had never even considered a possibility a year ago. Then, embarrassment – she had been so forward! Next was happiness, fear, excitement, anticipation for what may come in the future, and finally, a vague dissatisfaction. She knew that she hadn't really 'finished', and part of her was put out by that. As she cleaned herself, the ache she had felt before started to return, so she quickly tossed her towel back into the shower, getting the hell out of the bathroom before her imagination took her to a dangerous place.

She threw the door open and marched to her bedroom to change without sparing a glance to Ichigo. Suddenly it was his turn to feel insecure. He sat on her sofa wondering if he had done something wrong as he heard her shuffle around in her bedroom. Now that he was passed his own embarrassment he was able to consider what Orihime might be feeling. Had she enjoyed it? Was she disappointed? Did she regret it? Did he regret it? Well, apart from the unfortunate mess he regretted nothing. In fact he was keen to do it again. He recalled the feel of her taut nipples against his thumbs and the firmness of her behind in his palms and began to get aroused again. He stood quickly and tried to think of something else as he paced the living room.

Orihime came out of her room in jeans and a lightweight boat-necked sweater. She had brushed her hair so that it cascaded over the front and back of her shoulders, proving some coverage to her neck and otherwise-exposed clavicle. She glanced at her wall clock and squeaked, "We have to go! It's almost six o'clock!"

Ichigo jumped up to follow her and they took off toward his house. When they arrived Ichigo bounded up the stairs two at time and directed Orihime toward the kitchen to find some leftovers. No one was home, but Yuzu kept a stocked fridge. Orihime pulled out some leftover vegetable side dishes and found some ginger pork from the night before and put it in the microwave. She stuck her head back in the fridge and looked around for something. "Ah-ha!" she cried as Ichigo entered the room in jeans and a hoodie.

"Ah-ha what?" he asked slightly amused, while pulling out two portions of microwaveable instant rice.

Orihime twirled out of the fridge holding a tube of red bean paste aloft like Excalibur. "I found it!" she proclaimed triumphantly.

"What are you going to do with that?" Ichigo asked innocently. He didn't know what Orihime had pulled out of the fridge previously.

The microwave dinged and she took out the ginger pork and Ichigo passed her the microwave rice. As she put the pork and veggie sides on the table, she waved the tube of red bean paste toward the pork. "To go with the pork, of course!" she answered cheerily.

Ichigo was unable to disguise his initial reaction as his face screwed up into a grimace. Orihime's cheerful façade fell into one of skepticism. "Don't make that face, Ichigo. I'll bet you haven't even tried it."

Ichigo raised his eyebrows back at her and retorted, "I'll bet no one besides you has ever tried it."

"Come on!" she nearly whined, taking the hot rice out of the microwave and setting the portions down on the table. "Haven't you ever had a chutney before?"

"A what?" Ichigo asked through his first bite.

"A chutney. It's like a jam that people eat with meat," she answered while squeezing out a line of bean paste on her plate next to the pork. Ichigo shook his head no.

"How about turkey and cranberry sauce? I think that American assistant language teacher brought some to English class for us to try last year."

"I must have been sick that day."

"Ketchup on a burger?"

"Of course, everyone has had that."

Orihime looked at him with a gleam in her eyes. "This is practically the same thing! You should just try it!" she said enthusiastically, cutting a piece of pork for him and slathering on a teaspoon of bean paste, holding it out for him to try.

Ichigo shook his head and shut his mouth like a toddler refusing food. Orihime rolled her eyes.

"Come on, if you try it and you don't like it you don't have to finish it. Please?" she begged.

Ichigo huffed in defeat. He couldn't refuse her. He opened his mouth as his brows knit together in anxiety and allowed Orihime to put the concoction into his mouth. He cringed before he even bit down on it, but as he continued, he had to admit it wasn't even half bad. In fact, it was pretty good after he got past the initial fear factor. He finished chewing and swallowed, continuing to eat the rest of his food without giving Orihime any indication that he had found it tolerable.

"Well? What did you think?" she asked excitedly after a moment.

Ichigo swallowed his current bite and answered flatly, "It was OK."

Orihime took that as a win and gave him a huge smile, and then tucked into her food in earnest. If they didn't hurry, they were going to be late.


They arrived at the karaoke house just in time and the staff immediately ushered the group into a medium-sized room and got their drink orders going. As they were all underage they all decided to get all-you-can-drink self-serve soft drink bar, and they ordered some snacks to share right away as Keigo, Mizuiro and Chad started queuing up their songs and passing the songbooks around the room.

About half an hour later, Orihime's first song came up, which she sang with Tatsuki. The girls were rather enthusiastic, bouncing around as they sang the upbeat tune. As they danced, Orihime flipped her hair behind her shoulder, revealing an angry, reddish-purple mark on her neck. Tatsuki noticed immediately, and, unthinkingly, pointed at the offending blemish and shrieked into her microphone, "Is that a hickey?!"

Immediately, all eyes were on Orihime, and blushes started to spread around the room like a virus. Keigo began to lament the fact that he hadn't been the one to give it to her, and Orihime excused herself to run to the bathroom to see for herself.

When she crept back into the room, Uryuu was halfway through a serious-sounding pop song. She sheepishly took a seat next to Ichigo, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, with all her hair covering his mark. Ichigo was embarrassed, but also kind of proud, elbowing her in the ribs good-naturedly and smiling. Orihime was cheered by his expression and began to sing along with Uryuu's song.

The group stayed for about three hours in total, and when they were finished, they were all feeling pretty high on life and youth and friendship, and walked outside into the cool air laughing and not really paying attention to anything, until Ichigo called out, "Yoruichi?"

The woman in question approached the group with a curious expression. "Yes, Ichigo, it's me, she said cautiously. Uryuu looked between the two with alarm.

"What's with the weird looks, guys?" Ichigo asked suspiciously.

Yoruichi laughed then, and answered, "Well, Ichigo, I'm surprised you were the one to spot me."

"And why is that? It's not like I walk around with my head in the clouds," Ichigo answered defensively.

Yoruichi raised a single brow at him. "I never said you did, boy-o. I'm surprised because I am not wearing a gigai."

Ichigo staggered back a bit in shock, and then looked at her with a hopeful expression. "Does this mean-" he started to ask before the catwoman interrupted.

"I don't know what it means, but I'm here to bring you back to the shoten to speak with Kisuke anyway, so you can ask him," she answered casually, and started walking toward the shop. Keigo and Mizuiro had to catch the last train home, so they quickly said their goodbyes and the rest of the group turned to catch up with Yoruichi.


Yoruichi led the group into Urahara's office, which was a cramped space filled with monitors and stacks of journals. She sat down in his chair and tapped on a screen that appeared to be powered by tentacles. The screen flickered to life and after a moment the green-clad shopkeeper toddled into view.

"Wow, so many guests! I feel honored," Urahara said through the screen, fanning his face.

"You wanted to see us?" Ichigo wasted no time getting to the point.

"It's good to see you too, Kurosaki-san. And actually, I believe it was you who wanted to see me. I'm sorry it has taken this long for me to contact you, but I have been traveling."

"Oh, where did you go?" Orihime asked with wonder in her voice.

Urahara chuckled and answered, "Sadly, it was business, not pleasure, that took me away, Inoue-san," he answered dramatically, before continuing in a suddenly serious tone, "Actually, I have been in Hueco Mundo."

Orihime and a few others in the room took a sharp intake of breath through their noses as Urahara let what he said sink in.

"What were you doing there, Urahara-san?" Uryuu asked the question on everyone's minds.

"The purpose of my trip is classified, Ishida-san, but I did make an interesting collateral discovery that I can share with you," he said conspiratorially from behind his fan, pausing to allow suspense to fall over his listeners.

"And what's that?" Uryuu asked without delay, disappointing the shopkeeper.

"Well, as I traveled its desert, I found that the four corners of Hueco Mundo have been sealed. If my thinking is correct, this is the reason the superfluous hollow appearances in Karakura have ceased."

"Four Corners?" Tatsuki asked, confused.

"Yes. As Inoue-san will recall, Hueco Mundo's night was never-changing. The moon was stationary and there is no way to tell the passage of time without counting the hours yourself, right?" Orihime nodded as he continued. "Well, unlike the living world which is spherical and revolves around the sun on its axis creating days, nights, and seasons, Hueco Mundo exists on a flat plane. When one reaches the ends of Hueco Mundo, he or she will see nothing but a void similar to the interior of a Garganta. Now, the land shape of Hueco Mundo is more or less square-shaped, the four corners of which had historically leaked spirit particles into the surrounding void, and more recently had been left opened to Karakura via actual Garganta. I believe all of you have had to deal with the effects of these four open portals several months ago."

The eyes in the room widened at this new information and a few heads nodded in understanding as Urahara continued, "Those Garganta have been closed since 'the incident' in Soul Society, as you all could deduce. What we couldn't know, however, was that not only were the Garganta sealed, so were the Four Corners of Hueco Mundo. There are no spiritual leaks anymore. The corners have been so strongly sealed that the only way in and out of Hueco Mundo now is via a Garganta, which, as you know, can only be opened by a high-level shinigami or an Arrancar."

"Wow. That's a lot of information we weren't expecting, Urahara-san," Orihime finally broke the silence that followed his explanation with a slightly overwhelmed voice.

"I know, Inoue-san. I did think that you all would be interested to hear the cause of the sudden drop off in hollow numbers, though…" Urahara replied, somewhat defensively.

Chad nodded and rumbled, "Thank you, Urahara-san," giving him a thumbs up, restoring the shopkeeper's cheer.

Ichigo was starting to get irritated. Although he was interested to learn about Hueco Mundo and hollows and all that, he was anxious to learn what he could about the manifestation of his own hollow.

"Thanks. Anyway, Hat-n-clogs, what about my hollow trying to take over my human body? And what about me being able to see Yoruichi without a gigai? Am I regaining my reiatsu?" Ichigo spat his questions out before Urahara could go off on another tangent.

"Not quite yet, Kurosaki-san," he answered sympathetically. "I confess, when you delivered Inoue-san to me for our experiment in Soul Society, I was able to detect a faint amount of your reiatsu."

Ichigo's eyebrows shot up at this, disappearing under his bangs. Urahara continued, "My equipment in the room you now occupy is picking up a significantly larger amount of your reiatsu today than at that time, Kurosaki-san, so whatever it is you are doing, keep it up," he said encouragingly.

"Now, as far as your hollow trying to manifest, I'm not surprised. Your hollow was not destroyed as a result of using the Final Getsuga Tensho, only your zanpakuto and spiritual pressure. This means that your hollow remained with you, dormant, until your recent reiatsu restoration. However, your zanpakuto remains destroyed, leaving you, much like Arisawa-san and Inoue-san, spiritually aware but unable to separate your soul from your body. My understanding, however, is that Inoue-san stabilized your body while your hollow successfully manifested, and that it was only for a brief period of time. Correct?"

Chad, Ichigo and Orihime nodded silently.

"I see. And, I was made aware that Inoue-san was in a great deal of danger at the time, correct?"

"Yes," Ichigo answered.

"Well, you'll remember, that your 'hollow' is really just part of your own soul, Kurosaki-san, the part that deals with base instincts. I would venture to guess that your hollow is becoming aware due to your climbing levels or reiatsu, and your desire, on an instinctual level, to protect Inoue-san caused that power to try to manifest. It has not happened since, correct?"

"Right," Ichigo answered, still confused.

"Well, my best advice is not to worry about it, and keep Inoue-san out of harm's way for now. As I said before and as you know, your hollow is a part of you, and if your body is destroyed with your soul in it, the hollow will also be destroyed. And we know your hollow is the embodiment of your own instinct, correct? And what is every animal's most basic instinct?" he asked like a school teacher.

"To screw like rabbits?" Tatsuki asked under her breath to Orihime, giving her an evil smirk.

Urahara did not miss it. "Arisawa-san is not far off the mark. Producing offspring is certainly a base desire for most organisms, and in fact just an offshoot of the most basic instinct of all: self-preservation. In order to preserve itself, Kurosaki-san's hollow should not try to manifest again in his physical body."

"Ok, so what do I do now?" Ichigo asked, somewhat comforted but still confused.

"You'll have to wait until more of your reiatsu is restored before there can any action is required on your end, Kurosaki-san. I don't believe there is really anything you could do until that time comes. Until then, just live your life. Nurture your relationships with friends and Inoue-san; since you have been more social and closer to her, your reiatsu has increased exponentially."

"I see. Thank you, Urahara." Ichigo bowed his head gratefully and put his arm around Orihime's shoulder.

"It's my pleasure, Kurosaki-san. Well then, back to the lab for me. I don't have plans to be back in Karakura for the foreseeable future, but you can always get in contact with me here. Good luck, Kurosaki-san, Inoue-san, everyone," he said, tipping his hat before the screen went black.


Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you think! I really love to hear your feedback. Also, happy Halloween!

Chapter Text

Chapter 16: Discovery

THE INFORMATION THAT FOLLOWS IS CLASSIFIED CLEARANCE LEVEL ALPHA

Operation Kuroichou: Day 1 Report

Objective: To contain and identify the subject.

Research Notes: The subject appears to be a young man of average height. He presents nude, and his body condition is underweight, perhaps emaciated; his hipbones are especially apparent. However, the subject's condition is difficult to evaluate due to what appears to be a dark chrysalis enveloping his groin and extremities. The subject averts his eyes or otherwise blocks observation of his face with his long hair. The subject is remarkably clean-looking, despite his otherwise poor condition. The subject does not respond to communication, although his body language suggests he may be overwhelmed by his surroundings. The subject's containment room has been fortified with enough kido spells to restrain him and protect the other occupants of the building from the oppressive level of reiatsu the subject leaks, apparently involuntarily. The subject's spikes of reiatsu when he appears stressed are dangerous.

Conclusions and Recommendation: The subject has been satisfactorily contained at present under the current circumstances, but I am unable to make a positive identification at this time. It is my recommendation that the subject not face further interference for the time being, lest he be prodded into a fight or flight response, making containment impossible.

Signed: Kisuke Urahara


Operation Kuroichou: Day 2 Report

Objective: To maintain containment and identify the subject.

Research Notes: The subject appears much less distressed than yesterday, although he displays caution in all things; he seems to have stabilized for the time being and he allowed me to approach him outside of arms-reach without flaring his reiatsu. This allowed me to better observe him. Preliminary field reports were correct in that the subject has wings and a tail. The object I misidentified as a chrysalis yesterday, after shifting and breaking apart, revealed itself to in fact be a pair of leathery wings, which the subject had been using to cover his body. Under the wings, the subject's body is covered in black hair over his groin and extremities. The subject did not respond to questioning, nor did he reveal his face today. I did not attempt to enter his personal space.

Conclusions and Recommendation: The subject remains satisfactorily contained at present, but I remain unable to positively identify it at this time. It is my recommendation that I be allowed to take my time to gain the subject's trust in order to make a positive identification without putting the safety of Soul Society at risk.

Signed: Kisuke Urahara


Kisuke Urahara Private Journal Notes:

Research Notes Day 3: I have identified the subject. No, rather, I recognize him. What he is now is somewhat of a mystery.


THE INFORMATION THAT FOLLOWS IS CLASSIFIED CLEARANCE LEVEL ALPHA

Operation Kuroichou: Day 3 Report

Objective: To positively identify the subject.

Research Notes: The subject has shown his face to me. It is fine-featured and heavy-browed, and appears human-like in appearance. Initial monitoring does not indicate any active interference from the Hogyoku. The subject observes me openly and keenly now, but does not respond to communication.

Conclusions and Recommendation: I am able to confirm that the subject is unarmed and has not shown any signs of aggression to date. The subject appears to be some kind of unusual Plus. I recommend that further testing be undertaken in order to make a final conclusion.

Signed: Kisuke Urahara


Operation Kuroichou: Day 10 Report

Objective: To classify the subject and identify/isolate any threats.

Research Notes: On my arrival to the lab this morning, the subject addressed me as 'Kisuke Urahara' and requested a robe. I obliged him, and on my return from fetching the item, the subject had transformed to a completely humanoid form. He was devoid of the excess body hair, wings and tail. He put on the robe and I asked him his name. [NAME REDACTED], he informed me. I observed that his way of speaking is straightforward and subdued. Based on the information the subject has provided me, he retains many memories from his previous incarnation as a(n) [REDACTED]. He exhibits new confidence and answers questions when asked, but does not offer information nor does he ask questions. Interestingly, he displays some confusion when answering questions about his previous life. I have requested that he submit to testing relative to the presence of the Hogyoku within him and whether he can accurately be classified as a Plus as I previously hypothesized, although I have not told him the actual objective of the testing. He has acquiesced to same.

Conclusions and Recommendation: I have not identified any threats from the subject excepting his potentially lethal reiatsu. I cannot make a positive classification at this time. I recommend that further testing be undertaken in order to make a final conclusion, to be undertaken by my assistant in this matter, Shihoin Yoruichi, who is the only person outside the Captain Commander and myself who I can recommend having the clearance necessary to participate in this operation. I further recommend a thorough investigation of [REDACTED], the subject's prior environment, which I would undertake myself. I estimate that this investigation would last between a week and ten days.

Signed: Kisuke Urahara


Operation Kuroichou: Day 20 Report and [REDACTED] Field Report

Objective: To summarize the findings of the tests on the subject and field report on [REDACTED]

Test Findings: There were three comprehensive tests, the results of which follow.

Hogyoku Presence Test: Relative to the status of the Hogyoku, extended testing indicates low levels of spiritual energy consistent with the Hogyoku. Much to this writer's surprise, the Hogyoku appears to have been absorbed by and infused into the subject. Specifically, the Hogyoku could not be isolated from the subject, but rather appears to be present in every fiber of the subject's spiritual body. It is the belief of this writer that the Hogyoku has been irrevocably integrated into the soul of the subject.

Soul Classification Test: The results for this test were inconclusive, although this writer rather finds fault in the parameters of the test than its findings. The subject tested low-level positive for Plus and Human soul. The subject tested strongly negative for Hollow and Shinigami soul. These findings do not allow for a positive classification, although Hollow and Shinigami can be ruled out. It is this writer's belief that the subject is a new type of soul which cannot be classified using existing terms.

Psychological Test: The subject was tested for the following psychological risk factors: Depression: Negative. Anxiety: Negative. Stress: As appropriate. Adolescence: Negative (Note – the subject presents as a man in his twenties, although this should not be interpreted as an indication of his soul age). Psychological Trauma*: Negative. Fear: As appropriate. Post-Traumatic Stress: Negative. Chronic Pain: Negative. Abuse: Negative. Schizophrenia: Negative. Mood Disorder: Negative. Emotional Dysregulation: Negative. Neuroticism: Negative. Impulsivity: Negative. Personality Disorder: Negative. Findings: The subject appears well-adjusted despite his unusual circumstances. His personality appears underdeveloped, which is expected for a newly reincarnated soul. His responses to stress and fear are appropriate for the situation. The subject displays unexpected maturity and rationality relative to his powerful reiatsu – after initial failures, the subject was able to consistently overcome negative emotional responses to stress and fear and control his reiatsu appropriately. *The subject recalls traumatic experiences from his previous incarnation but is able to appropriately identify these memories as not native to his current incarnation.

Field Report: Prior to departing to the field, I perused the records of the last mission to [REDACTED], during which a team of seven (7) Shinigami were dispatched to [REDACTED] and were subsequently temporarily trapped there after what is commonly called 'The Incident'. They claimed that on entering [REDACTED], the passage through which they arrived was unexpectedly sealed behind them in a rush of reiatsu. On the rescue team's arrival, no such phenomenon occurred. My experience reflected that of the rescue team. After my initial arrival, I was greeted by [NAME REDACTED], who now claims to be the King of [REDACTED]. He engaged me in battle, and after he was satisfied to call it a draw, he spoke with me about Ichigo Kurosaki. [REDACTED] informed me that he had, prior to the time of 'The Incident', opened four [REDACTED] to the World of the Living, sending hollows after Ichigo Kurosaki to gauge his spiritual pressure, in hopes of engaging him in battle again. As expected, most hollows did not follow orders and instead hunted souls and were destroyed by the Karakura Shinigami and Ichigo Kurosaki's friends. The hollows that followed orders reported to [REDACTED] that Ichigo Kurosaki had made no progress toward regaining his shinigami powers. After several weeks of consistent reports, [REDACTED] began losing interest, but never bothered to close the [REDACTED]. It was not until the incident that sealed the [REDACTED] from Soul Society that the ones to the World of the Living were also sealed.

Conclusions: My conclusions from the subject testing are mixed. Foremost, I conclude that the subject is not an immediate threat to Soul Society and bears no intentions to use his considerable reiatsu for nefarious purposes. My secondary conclusion is that because the Hogyoku and the subject have merged into one being, there is no possibility to separate the Hogyoku from the subject, and as a result, the Hogyoku is contained. I hypothesize that the death of the subject will result in the destruction of the Hogyoku. I cannot make a classification of the subject's soul. It appears to be a new type, but it is most similar to a Plus or Human soul, excepting its vast reserves of reiatsu. Whether he has any extraordinary offensive abilities is indeterminate at this time. The subject self-reports being unaware of any such ability.

My conclusions from field research have supported my hypothesis relative to the subject's previous incarnation and reincarnation into Soul Society. The subject was previously struck down by a Zanpakuto, in essence, purifying his soul, allowing his rebirth into Soul Society. However, because the subject was not previously a human soul, he is not a regular Plus. Additionally, because the subject died in [REDACTED], his soul was unable to pass into Soul Society until a [REDACTED] was opened from Soul Society through which his soul could travel.

Recommendation: To my knowledge, there is no precedence of how to deal with such a soul as the subject's. Despite the subject's allegiance to [REDACTED] in his previous incarnation and absorption on the Hogyoku, he appears innocent and without ill-intent. My recommendation is that he be treated similarly to a powerful Plus. Although the subject tests negative for Shinigami potential, I have high expectations that he can, with training under proper guidance, become a powerful ally of the Gotei 13.

Signed: Kisuke Urahara


Operation Kuroichou: Correspondence to Kisuke Urahara

Dated: Day 26 of Operation Kurichou

To: Kisuke Urahara

I am in receipt of your reports and although I am hesitant to accept your recommendations based on the insufficient evidence to support your conclusions, I am in agreement that the subject, and thereby the Hogyoku, must be contained. I am inclined to leave the matter to Central 46, but given that the subject has not yet committed a crime and is not a Shinigami, Central 46 is likely to dismiss the matter completely due to lack of grounds and jurisdiction.

However, I am left in a quandary relative to how to proceed. I am considering several options at present, the most expeditious being the swift termination of the subject. However, if your reports are substantiated, such measures would not be necessary. I am left with no other option than to take a deposition of the subject myself. Please have the subject ready in one month. This will allow you sufficient time, I believe, to prepare the subject and complete any further testing. The deposition will take place in the subject's current quarters, and Lieutenant Sasakibe will accompany me to act as transcriber of the proceedings.

Signed: Genryuusai Yamamoto


PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT OF PROCEEDINGS

Operation Kuroichou: Day 56

Deposition of Subject by Captain Commander Genryuusai Yamamoto

Appearances:

Captain Commander Genryuusai Yamamoto as Questioner

Kisuke Urahara as Lead Researcher and Counselor for the Deposed, [REDACTED]

Lieutenant Choujirou Sasakibe, Court Reporter

Captain Commander Genryuusai Yamamoto (CC): Please state your name for the record.

[REDACTED] (R): [REDACTED]

CC: And what are you?

R: I do not know.

Kisuke Urahara (KU): Respectfully, I believe the Commander would have better results with the subject by asking leading questions rather than open-ended ones. Excuse my interruption.

CC: Very well. [REDACTED], are you a hollow?

R: No.

CC: Have you ever been a hollow?

KU: Please specify whether you are referring to the subject's current incarnation or any previous incarnation.

CC: Have you ever been a hollow in this incarnation?

R: No.

CC: Have you ever been a hollow in a previous incarnation?

R: If my memories are accurate, yes.

CC: And if my information is correct, you were an [REDACTED], and promoted to [REDACTED] under the traitor, [REDACTED]. Does your memory corroborate this statement?

R: Yes.

CC: Do you remain loyal to [REDACTED]?

R: No. [REDACTED] is dead.

CC: Do you wish to avenge [REDACTED]?

R: No. I have no emotional connection to [REDACTED].

CC: Do you have an emotional connection to anyone?

R: Yes.

CC: Who?

R: [REDACTED].

CC: And why is that?

R: I do not know. I do know that she is the last memory I have of my previous incarnation. After I was reincarnated in Soul Society, and before my period of confinement began, I felt her reiatsu in Soul Society, and at that time I was overwhelmed by a desperate need to meet her. I used what I would have called [REDACTED] in my previous incarnation, or what Shinigami call shunpo, to get to Seireitei from my previous location in what you call Rukongai. Before this, I was unaware I was able to use that technique in this life.

CC: Why was this ability not reported, Kisuke Urahara?

KU: I guess I didn't ask the right question, so he never supplied this information.

CC: Hm. Are you still desperate to meet [REDACTED]?

R: No. Not desperate.

CC: But you still want to meet her?

R: Yes.

CC: Why?

R: I do not know. It is an emotional response.

CC: What would you do if you met her?

R: I would speak with her. I would like to attempt to learn why she intrigued my previous incarnation. I would like to satisfy the urge to protect her.

CC: Protect?

R: Yes. In my previous incarnation I was her guardian by order of [REDACTED]. However, my current desire to protect her does not stem from the will to carry out [REDACTED]'s orders, but the belief that she possesses something precious.

CC: And what is that?

R: I cannot recall.

CC: I see. Now, I would like to ask you about the Hogyoku. Kisuke Urahara reported that it has merged with you.

R: I am aware of his theory.

CC: Are you in agreement?

R: I can tell you what I know. I know [REDACTED] used the Hogyoku to evolve my previous incarnation from that of a [REDACTED] to a [REDACTED]. In doing so, the final form of my previous incarnation was as a child of the Hogyoku. When I was reincarnated in Soul Society, I was not aware of my surroundings, nor was I in control of my reiatsu. It flowed freely, reflecting my mental state at the time of my death in my previous incarnation. This is what initiated 'The Incident'.

The Hogyoku's power, as you are aware, is desire manifestation. I was afraid and alone and desired comfort. The Hogyoku heard my distress and answered me. It did not come to me as a physical orb as it is usually depicted, but as spiritual energy. I first felt its familiar presence blanket me, and then it was absorbed into me, as if it had always been a part of me. I suppose in this incarnation that is true.

As to the theory that the Hogyoku will be destroyed when I am destroyed, I do not know if that is accurate. I believe the Hogyoku desires to be with me, in that I am its child, and have potential for great power, at least in my previous incarnation. When it initially 'merged' with me, I could feel it in every fiber of my being, as if it were my own blood. However, I can feel that the Hogyoku is now dormant. Whether the Hogyoku is permanently fused with my being or whether it can move freely as spiritual energy after my demise is not something one can know until the time comes.

CC: I see. What is it you desire, [REDACTED]?

R: To learn about myself. To learn about [REDACTED]. To meet her and protect her.

CC: You do not desire to increase your own power?

R: I am ambivalent toward to my power except how it relates self-regulation and to protecting [REDACTED].

CC: Thank you. I will adjourn this matter to ponder my decision for ten days. You are dismissed.


OPERATION KUROICHOU WAS CONCLUDED ON DAY 66.


In re: the matter of U.C.

FINDINGS AND ORDER

I find that U.C. is neither a hollow nor a shinigami. Although possessing potentially A-Class levels of power, U.C. is most accurately classified as a Plus, and as such, is subject to reincarnation in the World of the Living. However, I find that allowing U.C.'s reincarnation as a human soul without guidance to be troubling in its potential implications.

I further find that U.C. has committed no crime against Soul Society, nor has any desire to commit such a crime been observed. U.C. has passed vigorous psychological examinations and his ability to stabilize and contain his reiatsu has been acceptable.

I find that the Hogyoku has merged with U.C., and that the potential effects of U.C.'s destruction on the Hogyoku are indeterminate. I find that keeping U.C. alive and the Hogyoku contained is preferable to any alternative at this time.

I find that Kisuke Urahara, creator of the Hogyoku, bears some responsibility in the creation of U.C., and is the only being left who bears such a burden. I further find that Kisuke Urahara is uniquely equipped to help U.C. transition into his new life.

THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED:

U.C. shall be sent to the World of the Living with Kisuke Urahara effective immediately. Kisuke Urahara shall be solely responsible for U.C.'s well-being, education, adjustment, and expenses in the World of the Living until such time that he determines U.C. is capable of being self-sufficient. In the event U.C. commits a crime against Soul Society, the Gotei 13 shall maintain jurisdiction in order to bring such crime to justice.

Signed this 1st day of December, in the 2,114th year of the Shinoureijutsuin.

Captain Commander Genryuusai Yamamoto


Notes: Kuroichou = black butterfly

I searched high and low to find out how time was measured in Soul Society but cam up empty, so I ended up taking the only somewhat reliable historical date I could find, on a bleack wiki, that said the Shinigami Academy was +/- 2100 years old. I chose 2114 because the dates in this story align with the year 2014 (not intentionally – I started this story with a random start date and kept it up, then started to get lost so I had to pull up a calendar that matched it.

Thanks for reading !

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

December 1st

"Are you serious? Just don't answer," the scowling karate champ said in response to her best friend's phone buzzing, effectively stopping the healer's story mid-stride and bringing her excited mood down a few notches.

"I have to at least check, Tatsuki-chan," Orihime said with reluctant surrender in her voice as she brought her phone into view. After a moment, she sighed heavily and added, "Yeah, that can wait," setting the phone back onto its place on Tatsuki's bed.

"He knows you are here to study, right?"

"I told him twice today."

"Then what is so important!?"

"It's not. Well, I guess it is, to him anyway. I don't know." Orihime's shoulders slumped and her breath started to struggle as she tried to keep her swirling emotions in check.

Tatsuki's shoulders dropped as well and she placed a hand on her best friend's forearm. "Maybe if you talk about it, you'll figure out what exactly is bothering you."

"That's not it, Tatsuki-chan. I know what it is; I just don't want to bring you into it."

Tatsuki was slightly hurt by Orihime's response, but her reaction was tempered by Orihime's obvious emotional discord. She straightened, and said, "Well, I'd say I'm already in it; I've been watching you go from the happiest person on earth a few months ago to a girl who is avoiding her boyfriend recently. Has he been pressuring you to do things you don't want to do?"

Orihime took a deep breath and sighed again, realizing that she couldn't avoid the topic with Tatsuki any longer. "It's not what you are thinking, Tatsuki-chan, but technically, yes."

"What!?" Tatsuki roared, furious, but not sure where the conversation was going anymore.

"No! It's nothing sexual or anything like that!" Orihime clarified, sounding surprisingly disappointed at the end.

"Wait a minute. What?" Tatsuki asked, considerably calmer but more confused.

Orihime groaned and let her upper body flop down on Tatsuki's bed, one hand falling over her eyes. "I wish it was that, actually," she admitted quietly, before rolling over onto her stomach and whining. "He seems to be losing interest in me where that is concerned…"

"That's impossible, Hime. Have you seen yourself?"

"Yes! That's why it's even more frustrating!" she half-joked, supplying a lame laugh. "Honestly, Tatsuki, he used to be very, very, interested in the, uh, physical aspect of our relationship, but that kind of dried up a while ago."

"Do you think he's interested in someone else?" Tatsuki asked, although she was quite sure that wasn't the case.

"No, it's not that. It all started that night we went to Asano-san's Karaoke party a couple months ago. We had been, um, making out, and uh…" she stopped herself, not wanting to regale her friend with the tale of Ichigo's embarrassing moment, "uh, he broke a glass and cut his hand. Yeah. So, I healed it with my power. He said it felt really good, and that made me really happy, so I offered to use my power on him once in a while, just for therapeutic purposes. So we tried a few times, and he was really happy about it, which made me really happy too. But, soon, it became the only thing he was really interested in. I mean, he still kisses me goodnight and stuff, and sometimes we still make out, but usually, he is rushing through it, just going through the motions before he can ask me to 'heal' him while he just sits there. More often than not, he falls asleep! All the while, recently at least, all I can think is, 'why am I doing this? What's in it for me?' I know that's selfish, but I'm starting to doubt whether he is with me for me or for what I can give him."

"What the hell? That sounds kind of creepy, Orihime. What's so beneficial for him about it anyway, that he would rather do that than get in your pants?"

"Well, we noticed after doing that for a couple weeks, that his spiritual pressure would increase every time we did it, like, a lot. And if we didn't do it for a while, his spiritual pressure wouldn't get any better."

"Orihime, this isn't right. He's taking advantage of you!"

"No, Tatsuki-chan! I'm sure that isn't it - he's just anxious to regain his powers and he knows that there is nothing he can do until his spiritual pressure is restored… Urahara-san said so in front of all of us."

"Orihime, you just said that you are having doubts about his feelings for you. Obviously the arrangement you two have isn't working for you. You have to tell him how you feel, or this is only going to get worse."

"I know, you're right, I just feel so insecure right now…"

"I can't imagine why…" Tatsuki rolled her eyes and they landed on Orihime's phone. "What did he say, anyway?" She picked up the phone and read the message without waiting for Orihime's response.

December 1, 4:56 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Hey, could you stop over on your way home? I think it's starting to fade again.

"What a dick! Not even a 'how are you'? You know what, Orihime? You should go over there. I should go with you. Maybe he'll get the message if I push it into his face with my fist!"

Orihime smiled sadly at her friend, sorry that she was so upset by her inconsiderate boyfriend. "No, I think you are right though, I should go and talk to him. Actually, can we finish studying tomorrow? I think I better go take care of this while I have the nerve."

Tatsuki looked at her friend with a sympathetic expression. "Alright. But let me know if you change your mind or if he needs an attitude adjustment."

Orihime smiled and left, texting to Ichigo that she was on the way.


 

Urahara and Ulquiorra stepped through the senkaimon into the shopkeeper's underground training ground. Ulquiorra took a quick look around while Urahara considered his new charge in his new environment.

"Welcome home, Cifer-san. I'm sure you'll be quite comfortable after some adjustments. I'm afraid you'll have to stay down here for a few days while I prepare a few things, but I'll have Ururu bring you a futon and some spare clothes. You appear a bit taller than you were in your previous incarnation so you shouldn't be swimming too badly in a set of my clothes. At least until we can get you some of your own, anyway. I'm sure you are keen to get out of that threadbare yukata!" Urahara was rambling, he knew, but he wasn't prepared for this, and was trying to buy time until he came up with an actual plan. "Well, I will be back down here in a short while. Please feel free to look around. And keep that necklace on that I gave you; the amulet will help you suppress your reiatsu."

"Of course," Ulquiorra answered quietly as he bent to pick up some of the golden sand below his feet, rubbing it between his fingers.

"Right," Urahara said, both anxious to get upstairs and dreading telling his housemates about their new pet project. "Be right back!" and with that, he was gone.

Ulquiorra sat on his haunches and looked up at the false sky above him. It was uncomfortably similar to Las Noches. Everything about this current situation - this current life - was uncomfortable. He remembered who he had been. He had been Ulquiorra Cifer, Cuatro Espada, powerful and empty. Now, he was not sure who he was. He knew he was powerful, but to what extent? He knew he was no longer an Espada, or a hollow at all for that matter. He also knew he was no longer empty inside, and that is what unsettled him the most.

'What is this feeling?' He felt a distinct tightness in his chest and throat. He felt weight on his brows and shoulders. He felt a cold, uncomfortable, energy just below the surface of his skin and acid in his stomach. 'Is this fear? No. There is no threat here. Is this… anxiety?'

Before Ulquiorra had a chance to try to answer himself, he heard a creak from the door opening above him and, looking in that direction, saw a young girl with long black bangs in front of her face throw a bundle over the railing in front of the door, and then approach the ladder. Much to Ulquiorra's shock, instead of beginning the long climb down the ladder, she simply stepped off the balcony and plummeted toward the ground. Ulquiorra was overwhelmed with panic and leapt toward her with an unmanly shriek, hoping to catch her but knowing he wouldn't make it with his reiatsu being suppressed by Urahara's necklace. Just when he was sure the girl was about to meet her doom, she slowed to a gentle stop before she made soft contact with the ground. Ulquiorra stopped, stunned, until he felt gentle ripples of soft reiatsu emanating from the girl.

"Hello," she said softly, not looking at him. She picked up the bundle and walked it to where Ulquiorra stood, still frozen, and held it out to him. She was dwarfed by the size of it, and Ulquiorra could only see the very top of her head as she meekly said, "Here you go."

Urahara returned as Ulquiorra released a quiet, delayed-reaction type of whimper, as if he were chewing on a string of terrified vowels.

Urahara chuckled, "I see you have met Ururu."

Ulquiorra found his natural, underwhelmed, voice again. "Nice to meet you. My name is Ulquiorra," he said, settling his facial features back to neutral.

He took the bundle from Ururu, who looked up at his face, bowed, and disappeared.

"She is a bit shy," Urahara informed him as he approached. Ulquiorra placed the bundle on the ground and looked to Urahara for direction.

"There should be a change of clothes, a futon, and some books and snacks in there for you. I am going to need to take some samples from your spiritual body to get to work on making a gigai for you. Eventually you may not need one anymore, but that is up to you, and kind of a distant future possibility, but for now we've got to focus on getting you above ground and stable. Also, here is a communication device. You can reach me, the kids, Yoruichi-san or Tessai-san with this if you are lonely or need something. I'll send the others whom you haven't met down in a bit."

Urahara snipped some of Ulquiorra's hair and wrapped it in a small cloth, then asked him to open his mouth and swabbed the inside of his cheek. "I'll give you a moment to change, and then I'll collect your yukata and let you rest for a while. It's been a long day."

Ulquiorra nodded as Urahara turned his back to him. As he pulled out the dark green samue pants and side-tie shirt, Urahara spoke, "It's rather a nice coincidence that my typical wardrobe will look so nice with your coloring. Ulquiorra dressed quickly and held out the yukata he had been wearing, saying, "Here you go. What is my coloring?"

Urahara looked at Ulquiorra in surprise, then gave him a quick full body glance, confirming his previous statement. "Yes. Your skin, hair, and eye color are complemented by the color of my clothes. Take it as a compliment; one needs a bit of flair to pull this look off," he said with pride.

Ulquiorra was at a loss, and his feelings were surprisingly evident on his face, despite his lack of expression. Urahara studied him for a moment, and then his eyes lit up in delight. "You mean, you have not yet seen yourself in this life?" Ulquiorra shook his head. "Well, we shall have to remedy that! Just a moment, please, Cifer-san!"

Urahara dashed out of the underground with the samples and returned a moment later with a vanity mirror. "I'm sorry, this is the biggest one I have in the shop that isn't already nailed to a wall, but it will have to do. Please have a look at yourself," he said, holding out the mirror to Ulquiorra with gleeful anticipation.

Ulquiorra took a step toward Urahara and looked into the mirror. He studied himself with a detached curiosity. He angled his face from side to side as he watched his long, thick, feathery, black hair drape over parts of his face, falling over his nose much like Ururu's at present. His face was familiar to him, but at the same time not, with its fine nose and small down-turned mouth within a heart-shaped face with sharp chin and wide cheekbones. His skin looked healthy but quite fair, although not bone-white as he had remembered. There were no marks on him at all; his skin was like a baby's. His brows were strikingly heavy, and they hooded large green eyes rimmed with thick black lashes. He had been a monster in his previous life, with feral eyes and horns sticking out of his skull. He didn't look like a monster anymore, and he didn't know how he felt about that.

Finally, after looking for some time into the mirror, watching for tear streaks to appear on his cheeks that never did, he pushed the mirror aside gently and said in his velvet timbre, "Thank you, Kisuke Urahara. That is enough," and walked toward the bundle to sort through it and distract himself.

Urahara didn't know what he was expecting, but he was slightly disappointed in Ulquiorra's response. He watched as Ulquiorra started to silently look over the book titles he had provided and considered that perhaps he was just trying to figure things out, just as Urahara was himself.

"I'll be back tomorrow, Cifer-san. Don't forget to reach out with the communicator if you need anything, all it takes is the touch of a button. Have a good evening."

"Thank you," he answered without looking up.


 

Before Orihime even knocked on the door, she could feel Ichigo's reiatsu. It was as strong as it was the day before and the day before that when she had used her Rikka on him last. She rolled her eyes gently and sighed. She knew this would be the case, but she was disappointed just the same.

Ichigo opened the door quickly after she knocked, grabbing her by the hand and pulling her toward the stairs, muttering, "finally," in a relieved whisper.

Orihime allowed him to take her upstairs, and watched as he pulled out his desk chair for her and then lay on his bed, looking to the ceiling expectantly. She waited for him to look at her, which took longer than she had hoped it would, and said, "We have to talk."

Ichigo propped up on one elbow and said, "Okay, but can it wait until we're done?"

Orihime was not surprised, but she was still hurt and angry. Part of her wanted to just give in, but then she remembered what Tatsuki had said, and she shook her head saying gently, "No, Kurosaki-kun, it can't."

"What could be so important that it can't wait!? Can't you feel that my reiatsu is fading again?"

"No, I can't, because it's the same as it was before, Kurosaki-kun," she answered as calmly as she could under her growing frustration.

"Even if that's the case, don't you think me getting my powers back as soon as possible is the most important thing!?" he snapped in frustration.

He might as well have slapped her across the mouth. She couldn't speak, and she couldn't stop the bitter disappointment she was feeling from welling up in her eyes. She had known Tatsuki was right and that he'd been taking advantage of her, but to say it so plainly to her that her feelings were lower on his list of priorities than her restoring his reiatsu was a harsh blow. She didn't know what to do, and finally turned to leave.

Ichigo grabbed her wrist as she made for the door. "What the hell, Orihime? What is your problem?"

"What is MY problem?" Orihime shrieked at him, nearly hysterical. She could bear a lot of things. She could forgive a lot of things. But for him to try to turn this around and make her feel like she was the one acting inappropriately was crossing the line.

Ichigo drew back slightly when he saw just how agitated Orihime was. She was shaking and having difficulty breathing. After a pause, she started to sob. Ichigo still couldn't see how he had upset her though, so he reached forward to stroke her shoulder, asking naively, "What's wrong, Orihime?"

Orihime pulled away and tried hard to calm down. She knew her behavior was not helping get her point across at all. Finally, red-faced and tear-stained, she looked Ichigo in the eye and whispered, "I can't do this."

"Oh, okay, sorry, I didn't know. Um, we can do it later then, okay? Just relax a bit," Ichigo said, under the impression that she was just tired or something.

"No, Kurosaki-kun, I can't do this anymore," she replied, gesturing back and forth between the two of them. "I don't know when it happened, but things aren't the same anymore. You are only interested in me restoring you, and after I've done it, you are done with me…" she trailed off looking down at her feet as her face went even redder, ashamed at her inability to hold his interest in her as a woman.

Ichigo was torn. Part of him was feeling an icy wave of dread at the prospect of being dumped, but a larger part of him was angry that she would possibly cut him off from his only avenue toward restoring his power. That part of him was not alone.

As Orihime felt Ichigo's eyes on her, she looked back at them and saw black beginning to lick the around the edges of his sclera. Orihime gasped and backed up against his bedroom door, grasping blindly for the knob. Ichigo was not having it, though, and faster than she could see it happening, he had caged her against the door with one hand on either side of her head.

Orihime began to tremble. She had never felt threatened by Ichigo before, but she did now. He brought his face closer to hers, and before he could say a word, she reacted, squeaking, "I reject!"

A flash of golden light separated the two and Ichigo found himself flung back onto his bed. Orihime ran for it, and didn't stop until she was back at her apartment.

Ichigo shook his head, dazed. He looked back to the spot where Orihime had been and saw his father.

"What did you do?" Isshin growled. Even with Ichigo's depressed sensing abilities, he could feel waves of angry reiatsu radiating off his father.

"I didn't do anything!" he shouted, looking into his father's eyes as his own started to fade back to normal. Isshin didn't miss the change in his son's eyes, however, and before Ichigo knew it, his father had hauled him up by the collar and was looking at him with hard expression.

"If you didn't do anything, then why is that girl's heart broken?"

Ichigo's eyes went wide as it finally dawned on him that Orihime may have had other reasons for wanting to talk to him. "What do you mean, heartbroken?" he asked carefully.

Isshin was disgusted, and threw Ichigo to the ground, hard. "What the hell is wrong with you that you don't know? Think!"

Ichigo still wasn't sure what the problem was, but he knew he had to do something about it. He got up and gave his father a sideward glance before running down the stairs.

When he got outside his house, Tatsuki was waiting. Before he had a chance to figure out what was going on, she swung her fist up under his chin and had him back on his butt. Ichigo rubbed his chin gently and whined, "This is not a good time, Tatsuki!"

"Not a good time?!" Tatsuki yelled back. "Oh, believe me, I can think of no better time!" She went in for a kick this time, but Ichigo was able to block her. Tatsuki regained her balance, and then tackled Ichigo, pinning him to the ground on his back, and snarled, "This is all your fault. You had better fix this. NOW."

Ichigo pushed her off of him and stood up, still holding onto his now bruised chin. He made a move to take off after Orihime, then paused, looking back at Tatsuki with a pathetic expression. "I don't suppose you want to clue me in as to why she's upset?"

Tatsuki groaned angrily, marched over to Ichigo, and kicked him in the shin.

"Jesus, Tatsuki! Lay off! I just want to make things right!" Ichigo said, making sure there was a good amount of distance between them.

"You are so full of shit, Ichigo, you know that?" Tatsuki said, disgusted. "But, I am going to clue you in, because I don't think Orihime deserves to be let down twice in one night."


 

Ichigo had thought about what Tatsuki told him the entire walk over to Orihime's apartment. She had explained how he had been taking advantage of Orihime and how she didn't feel like he thought her feelings mattered anymore. To be honest, Ichigo didn't really understand. He had thought Orihime was just as excited as he was at the prospect of him getting his powers back, and the fact that she wasn't disappointed him. Regardless, he did understand that she was hurt and that everyone seemed to be on her side, so he figured an apology was in order.

She opened the door before he even knocked, sensing him there. She saw the bruise on his chin and fought the urge to immediately heal it. Instead, she silently looked at him, waiting to see what he had to say.

"Orihime, I'm sorry," is all he said, and then stepped toward her, intending to hug her. When she stepped backward and turned her back to him, he figured she still wanted to talk and was inviting him in. He went in, taking off his shoes and going to sit on the sofa without looking at her until he had settled. When he looked up, she was still standing by the door. At first he was worried she was going to throw him out, but as she stood there thinking, she slowly closed the door. After a few minutes, she made her way toward him, standing on the opposite side of her low table.

"Kurosaki-kun, did you come here to talk now?" she asked timidly.

"Yes. I'm sorry about how I acted before and I want to hear what you have to say. Please…"

"Ok. Here's the thing, and today was the perfect example: over the past few months our relationship has changed, and not for the better. We somehow have gone from boyfriend and girlfriend to something else. All you seem interested in is me restoring you."

"Now, that's not true, Orihime. Just this past weekend we watched a movie and, um, hung out." He interjected, alluding to their most recent lackluster make-out session.

"There it is, Kurosaki-kun. I guess you don't see it. Did you realize I stopped using your given name a long time ago? Do you notice that you rush through whatever plans we make so we can get to me restoring you? Do you notice that since this started, I have actually been going out of my way to avoid you? I feel like you are using me." Her voice was getting more and more agitated as she continued, and tears started to spring forth from her eyes again, "When did you stop caring for me as a person, Kurosaki-kun? Or did you never have real feelings for me in the first place?"

Ichigo was blindsided. He really didn't see what she saw, and he was offended. "How can you even say that, Orihime? Or do you prefer Inoue now?" he yelled up to her. He immediately regretted his outburst as she ran to her bedroom and started to wail.

Ichigo dragged a palm down his face, wincing when he got to his bruised chin, and considered his options. He didn't want to break up, and he couldn't have her angry at him long-term; he needed her or he would never get his powers back. If he had to swallow his pride in order to placate her, he would do it.

He waited a few minutes until her crying had tapered off to a soft hiccupping, and then knocked on her doorframe. "Orihime, you're right. I'm sorry. I have been a jerk," he said as he knelt beside her bed. She sighed and quieted, waiting for him to continue.

Being there like that, he remembered how he felt back when he had brought her home from his birthday party, and how he had looked at her then, thinking she was the most beautiful girl in the world, and how he would do anything for her. He had the disturbing realization that he felt much differently now. Not that he didn't think she was beautiful; of course he did. But now, he realized that she was right; he did place his needs over hers in this situation, and, when he really thought about it, he wasn't sorry about that.

He was sorry for hurting her feelings, though, and he decided his best course would be honesty. He reached out to stroke her shoulder, and then pulled on it gently to get her to roll over and look at him.

"Orihime, you mean a lot to me. Knowing that you feel so badly hurts more than my chin right now," he offered with a small chuckle, trying to lighten the mood. Although it didn't make her feel better, she wasn't upset further. He continued. "You are right about one thing though, I am kind of obsessed with getting my powers back. And honestly, I am not sorry about that; I need them to protect you, after all."

Orihime smiled at that sentiment and sniffed loudly before sitting up. "I guess I can understand that, Kurosaki-kun, but I think we should set some boundaries. That will protect us both from having unrealistic expectations."

"Okay, like what?" he asked reluctantly.

"Like having specific times for me to restore your reiatsu, and those times are not to overlap with us doing other things together."

Ichigo wasn't thrilled with the proposal, but knew it was better than losing her. "Alright."

"And you know, Kurosaki-kun, maybe you can ask Urahara-san to try training you again; you've reached a reiatsu level now where I think it might be useful."

Ichigo perked up at that suggestion. "That's good idea. Do you want to come?"

"Yes, actually. I think he ought to hear how you've been progressing from both of us.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 18: Reconciliation

Ichigo and Orihime had decided to have some tea and get a bite to eat before going to Urahara's to allow them both the chance collect their emotions after their first real fight. They were surprised when Urahara himself answered the door, looking tired and stressed.

"Long time no see, Kurosaki-san, Inoue-san. How did you know I was back?" he asked, clearly distracted.

"Um, we didn't, Urahara-san. We were hoping to talk to you but we didn't expect to see you here in person. Did you just get back?" Orihime asked.

"Yes, just now, in fact. So much to tell you about! But not today, I'm sorry to say. I have a lot on my plate at the moment. Is what you need to discuss terribly urgent?"

"Yes, it is," Ichigo said with a hard look.

"Ah, I see," Urahara replied, finally observing Ichigo properly. "Your reiatsu is quite improved."

"Yes, Urahara-san, I have been using my rejection technique to somehow restore it, little by little. I suggested we ask you if it might be beneficial for Kurosaki-kun to start training; I think it's important so that he would be able to control his hollow if it tried to manifest again," Orihime added, giving Urahara a loaded look.

Urahara didn't miss it. "I see. Well, I think you may be near a point where it might be of use to train you, but I need a few days to prepare and think about how to best go about that. I also would like you to stop in after school every day this week, Kurosaki-kun, so I can measure your reiatsu. In the meantime, Inoue-san, I would like you to use your rejection technique to restore Kurosaki-san's reiatsu for a set amount of time each day, so I can measure the increase. Would thirty minutes per day be too much, Inoue-san?"

Orihime sighed, not liking what she was being asked to do, as it undermined the compromise she and Ichigo had come to earlier. The more she thought about it though, the more she realized that set sessions that were limited in duration were exactly what she had in mind, even though she had hoped not to do it every day. She nodded in agreement.

Both men smiled, and Urahara started to back up into the shop, then paused, "Oh, and Kurosaki-san, please come to get measured in the evenings. I am working on a project that is going to take up most of my time during the day for a while. Goodbye!" With that, he slipped back inside his shop and slammed the door behind him.

Orihime and Ichigo stood staring at the closed door in shock for a moment, completely thrown by the shopkeeper's exceptionally bizarre behavior. Ichigo was first to shake it off.

"Come on, Orihime, let's go, we have school tomorrow."

"Yes," she answered, her focus still far away. Suddenly she snapped back to attention. "Oh, yes, but you have to stop over at my apartment so I can restore you like Urahara said.'

"We don't have to do it tonight, Orihime. I'm sure you're tired."

Orihime sighed softly. "It was never about that, Ichigo."

He looked down at her and gave her a small smile at her use of his given name. She caught a glimpse of it and smiled herself, feeling encouraged.

"We just had a misunderstanding that needed to be cleared up, that's all. I can restore you today," she answered, looking forward and picking up her pace.

"Hey, wait up!" Ichigo laughed as he jogged to catch up to her.


December 2nd

Ichigo stood outside the Handicrafts Club room after school, about three-quarters of the way through the latest Bad Shield volume, waiting for Orihime to come out, when he picked up whiff of sour reiatsu. He looked up to see Tatsuki standing across the hall from him with her arms crossed, glaring at him.

When she saw that she had is attention, she spat, "What are you doing here?"

Ichigo had had enough of Tatsuki. She was meddlesome with Orihime and abusive toward him. "Waiting to walk my girlfriend home, what are you doing here?"

"Hmf, shows how much you know. She's coming home with me," Tatsuki answered in haughty tone. "Oh, wait, she probably didn't tell you because she didn't want you to know."

"What the hell is your problem, Tatsuki? I understand being worried about your friends, but you crossed way over the line yesterday and you are dangerously close to crossing it now. My relationship with Orihime is fine, thank you. We worked things out yesterday, if you must know, not that it's any of your business," Ichigo replied, dishing out a superior tone to rival Tatsuki's, before levelling an icy stare at her and adding, "Oh, and by the way, try any of that shit again with me like you did last night and you will regret it."

"Are you threatening me, Kurosaki?" Tatsuki hissed, fuming.

"It's not a threat, Arisawa. I am just making that line I referenced before crystal clear for you, since you seem to lack the ability to sense it yourself. Oh, and by the way, Orihime can and does handle herself, despite whatever you think. She doesn't need you fighting her battles for her anymore." A small part of Ichigo regretting pointing that out to her, knowing it would hurt, but on the other hand, he reasoned, Tatsuki really needed to be put in her place. She had become somewhat of a tyrant.

Just then, the clubroom door opened and Orihime came out. "Ichigo-kun! Tatsuki-chan! What are you both doing here?" she asked with a smile until she picked up on the tense atmosphere. It was then that she remembered promising Tatsuki to study again that afternoon. "Oh! I'm so sorry I forgot, Ichigo, but I promised Tatsuki we would finish studying today. We didn't get to finish yesterday…"

Ichigo played it cool. "No worries, Orihime. Let me know when you're done and I'll walk you home," he said, wrapping an arm around his smiling girlfriend's shoulders and giving her an affectionate squeeze as she nodded, while throwing a triumphant glance toward Tatsuki.

"Tch, whatever. Let's go, Orihime," Tatsuki demanded, giving him a look that promised retaliation, grabbing Orihime by the elbow, and dragging her toward the exit.

"See you later!" Orihime called and waved over her shoulder.

When they were out of sight, Ichigo released a long sigh and dropped his head to his chest, feeling like the world was against him.

"Something wrong, Kurosaki?" a familiar voice asked in an unexpectedly gentle tone. Ichigo had forgotten that Uryuu had been standing there since Orihime came out. Ichigo looked up at Uryuu, and was about to tell him that everything was fine, until he remembered what Orihime had said about Uryuu and his superior listening abilities.

"Actually, yeah," Ichigo started, feeling uncharacteristically vulnerable. "If you have some time right now, would you mind lending me an ear for a bit? I could use another person's take on it."

Uryuu was deeply surprised, but also quite pleased that Ichigo would ask him for help. "I'm free; do you want to talk here or…?"

"Er, how about we go somewhere where we can get a drink and sit down, this might take a while," Ichigo answered, starting toward the exit.

The boys decided on a small coffee and tea place near school that only had a few tables and wasn't typically busy in the afternoon. As expected, they were the only customers, so they sat down and ordered a drink and after they were situated, Uryuu looked at Ichigo and simply said, "Go ahead."

Ichigo started a long monologue, starting with his difficulties with Tatsuki and his father, and then, carefully, explaining the tension between himself and Orihime. Ichigo expected at that point that Uryuu would jump in to defend Orihime, but to his surprise, Uryuu said nothing, but kept his focus, nodding along and allowing Ichigo to get everything out that he needed to say. Ichigo continued, explaining how he didn't mean to upset Orihime, and that he still cares for her very much and wants to be together, but that his focus right now is on leveling up. After he had spoken for what felt like a long time, he stopped, and added, "I know you and Orihime are pretty close, Ishida, so I know you'll probably take her side, but thanks anyway for letting me get this off my chest."

"Actually, Kurosaki, I think you are right."

"Um, what?" Ichigo was stunned.

"You said your focus is on leveling up your power right now. I can relate to that, and I think that it's the right thing to do. I understand that Inoue-san is unhappy with the change in your relationship, but I think she is being a bit naïve and will understand in time that it's not to slight her. Besides, it's not like you intended for this to happen; neither of you expected for her power to be the source of you regaining yours. You certainly could have reacted to her better last night, I mean, your anger was definitely uncalled-for, but I think your position was correct.

Before this happened, you were able to focus on your relationship with her like she was the center of your world; she was the goal. That was easy to do then; you had nothing else to work toward besides each other. But now, there is the possibility to have your powers back. You have another worthy goal, and I think you should do your best to achieve it."

He paused to sip his tea and continued, "Inoue-san sees it through a completely different lens – she has always seen you as her hero, with or without power. Honestly, you as a powerless human is no worse than you in bankai as far as she's concerned. So the focus that you are putting on your self-improvement is unnecessary to her. It sounds like you started to explain to her how you felt last night, but I think you can do better to get her to understand why this is important to you. I think once you do, she will be a lot more supportive."

Ichigo's eyes were wide as he said, "Wow, Orihime wasn't kidding, you are a good listener," quietly with a tinge of awe in his voice.

Uryuu blushed and pushed up his glasses, flustered at the unexpected praise. "In any case, Kurosaki, I would be happy to help you however I can toward getting your powers back. I lost my Quincy powers too, once, if you'll remember, so I know how this feels."

Ichigo was really touched, and finally understood why Orihime held their bespectacled friend in such high personal regard. He looked across the table at him, and didn't see his irritating, prissy, know-it-all classmate anymore. He saw a young man; mature for his age, intelligent, caring, articulate, athletic, well put-together, and a true friend. He wondered if this was the Uryuu that Orihime always saw. A tentative feeling of envy washed over him, followed by a small, nagging suspicion. "You're not just saying all this to drive a wedge between us, right? I know you had feelings for her before," he asked carefully, trying not to be disrespectful after the kindness he had received.

"No, I would never do that to my friends." Uryuu answered cautiously.

"It's not like I blame you, Ishida. You'd have to be blind to not be attracted to her."

"It's not that, Kurosaki, although I admit I find her quite beautiful. But foremost, she is my dear friend; I would never intentionally do anything to make her unhappy. And, as much as it irritated me at first, she has chosen you as the one to be by her side and make her happy, so I will respect her choice as long as you are good to her. Besides, before you were ever interested in her I had decided not to pursue her or anyone else while I focused on improving myself as a Quincy."

Ichigo was once again deeply impressed by his friend's unexpected maturity and openness. He was starting to feel overwhelmed by gratitude. He suddenly stood up from the table and bowed formally at the waist, barking, "Ishida, thank you very much for listening to me," before quickly straightening back up, red-faced and embarrassed by his outburst. It wasn't lost on him that it was something Orihime would have done, and part of him was amused by how much she had rubbed off on him.

Uryuu couldn't help but laugh, and a rare, carefree smile swept across his handsome face. "Careful, Kurosaki, you don't want to ruin your reputation with that display of humility," he teased in good faith.

Ichigo relaxed and smiled in return as his phone buzzed with a message from Orihime letting him know she was almost done at Tatsuki's. "Well, that's Orihime, I've got to go pick her up from Tatsuki's. Thanks again, Uryuu. I may take you up on helping me train soon," he said, putting on his coat.

Uryuu stood and started to get ready to leave as well. "Anytime, Kurosaki. See you tomorrow." He smiled to himself all the way home.


Hoping to avoid Tatsuki, Ichigo texted when he arrived instead of knocking at the door, and Orihime met him outside soon afterward. It was a cold night, and although they were dressed appropriately for the weather, the air still bit at their exposed cheeks, giving both of them a rosy glow.

"So, it turns out, you were right about Ishida." Ichigo started when she approached him, his elevated mood being clearly expressed through his tone of voice.

"Oh yeah, how so?" Orihime asked, amused.

"After you and Tatsuki left, I asked him to listen to me, like you suggested a while back. You were right. He is a great listener. He is open. And he does give really good advice."

Orihime was so pleased she could barely contain a giggle. "Oh, I'm so happy! I bet Ishida-kun is really happy too, now."

"I think he is," Ichigo admitted, before narrowing his eyes, putting an arm around her waist and pulling her close as they continued walking, "be careful though, when we talked about you he admitted that he thinks you are 'quite beautiful'. I don't want him falling in love with you and stealing my girl," he teased, tickling her side.

Orihime went serious, and suddenly stopped walking. She looked up at Ichigo wide-eyed, and asked, "Did he really say that?"

"…Yes?"

"No!" she laughed self-consciously. "Ichigo is being silly. No one would ever say that about me!" she added and continued walking.

It was Ichigo's turn to be serious as he took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him. "You most certainly are beautiful," he told her, before kissing her full on the lips.

Orihime's knees went weak. Ichigo's kiss was not aggressive, but it was brimming with intensity, as if he meant to communicate all his feelings toward her through it. When he finally pulled back, they were both out of breath, and stood for a moment just looking into one another's eyes.

It was as if someone had flipped a switch. Both of them were suddenly desperate to get back to Orihime's apartment. Ichigo took Orihime's hand and began to lead the way at a brisk pace, and she was more than willing to keep up. They said nothing else for the duration of their walk.

After they arrived at Orihime's and took off their shoes, there was no stopping them. They clawed off each other's jackets and left them on the floor as they made their way to Orihime's living room, hands searching each other's bodies as their lips met once more. Orihime's cold fingers made their way to Ichigo's collar, letting them warm up against the skin around the base of his neck, causing him to shudder. Ichigo mimicked her, getting rid of her uniform's bow and opening the top few buttons of her blouse to allow his little fingers to go under her collar as he cupped her face and dove in for a deeper kiss than before. Orihime whimpered under Ichigo's mouth at the touch of his frigid digits.

Something about that sound shifted Ichigo's desire into overdrive. Ichigo pulled away from her mouth to find the next button of her blouse, then went in for another breath-stealing kiss, only to pull away, dragging Orihime's upper lip with him a bit as he did, as his fingers found the next button. He continued this way, teasing her upper and bottom lip in turn as he managed to undo all the buttons on Orihime's blouse.

Orihime was entranced by the give and take of Ichigo's kisses, and didn't really realize her shirt was all the way undone until she felt his hands drag across her shoulders, pushing her sleeves and bra straps down to her elbows in unison. Orihime gasped as he felt his warm, soft lips on her clavicle, and cooed his name. Her own hands found the hem of his shirt and began to push it up, sliding her hands against his sculpted abdomen as his lips made their way down toward her right shoulder.

"Are you ok with this?" his husky whisper crawled into her ear like a drug.

"Yes," she whispered back as he pulled off his t-shirt, her arms encircling his bare torso and pulling their bodies together tightly, leaving no space between them. She brought her own lips to his neck and inhaled his warm, woodsy scent before latching onto his pulse point.

Ichigo pulled Orihime to his chest even tighter, and held on as she suckled his neck for a moment, before creeping his fingers under the bit of shirt still covering her back and finding her bra clasp. He fiddled with it for only a few moments before getting it to open and brought his hands back to her front to free her from the remaining garments on her upper body.

Ichigo took a step back to take a look at her naked breasts for the first time, salivating at their perfection, before gathering her back into his arms and squeezing her topless body to his, allowing her softness to fill each one of his hard crevices. His skin began to hum with sensation, and it almost felt that any part of his body that wasn't in contact with hers didn't exist. He wanted to get closer. He tucked his face into her neck. He still wanted to get closer. He picked her up with ease and laid himself down on her sofa, settling her on top of him. He squeezed her body tighter, kissing her cheek, nuzzling her neck, breathing her soft, feminine scent, until his breath began to hitch. He didn't notice, but Orihime did, and when she did, she pulled her face back to look at him. He was crying.

"Ichigo?" she asked tenderly, worried about him.

He looked at her, confused, until the first tear rolled down the side of his face into his ear. Then another one. Then another from the other eye. Then a hiccup, a sputter, and several more tears, until he had to let go of her and press the heels of his thumbs into his eyes in an attempt to stop his tears. "I don't know…" he choked, bewildered.

Orihime propped herself up on one forearm and stoked his cheek. "It's alright, Ichigo," she whispered, tears starting to roll down her own cheeks. Despite not knowing the cause of his unexpected display of emotion, she was overwhelmed with sympathy and was focused on finding a way to soothe him. She wiped away the tears that escaped his palms and kissed the trails they left on his temples. She placed petal soft kisses on his lips again before rolling off to the side and pulling his head under her chin and holding his shoulders in a warm embrace. She pulled the throw blanket she kept on the sofa over them and let him release whatever it was he had bottled up.

After his breathing started to even out, he lifted his head, only to see that she had begun restoring him, even as she held him. He squeezed her around the waist a little tighter and allowed himself to melt into her, and was soon lulled to sleep.

Orihime kept an eye on the clock across the room. Exactly thirty minutes after she had begun, she pulled back her power and crept away from Ichigo, trying not to disturb him. She gathered her clothes off the floor and went to the bathroom to dress, fix her hair and splash some water on her face. When she came back out she found Ichigo sitting up on the sofa, reaching for his t-shirt.

"Sorry, did I wake you?" she asked as he pulled his shirt back on and before he had a chance to answer she added, "Well, I suppose you have to get going to Urahara's shop soon anyway before it gets too late."

"Yeah," he replied groggily. "Sorry about before, I don't know what came over me," he added, surprisingly back to normal.

"It's ok," she assured him, "if you want to talk about it I'd be happy to listen."

"No, really, I don't even know why that happened; it's so weird. Thank you, though. After you started restoring me it was like everything that was hurting just went away."

"Hurting?"

"Yeah, it was like all my emotions were hurting, which makes no sense." He gave a little chuckle and smiled as if he were genuinely carefree, making Orihime somewhat suspicious. He made his way to the door and picked up his jacket. While he put it on he added, "I guess I just missed you."

Orihime wasn't completely convinced, but she didn't want to send him off worrying about how she was feeling, so she smiled and put her arms around his neck and pecked him on the lips, saying, "Let me know when you get home."

Ichigo gave her a quick hug and another peck on the cheek and said, "Will do. See you tomorrow," and was gone.


Ulquiorra stood in the training grounds below Urahara's shop holding a strange white orb with red stitching.

"What is wrong with you? Throw it!"

"Where do you wish me throw it?"

"At me, you idiot moocher!"

"Very well." Ulquiorra drew his arm back and propelled the object toward the red-haired boy holding the strange, club-shaped weapon. For a reason unfathomable to Ulquiorra, the boy was not pleased with the orb struck him in the side of his body, blasting him backward into a rock.

"What the hell, moocher? Haven't you ever heard of baseball!?" Jinta shouted from within a cloud of dust.

"No." Ulquiorra answered without inflection.

"Now, now, boys, it's time for you to come back upstairs, Jinta, and for me to take Ulquiorra's measurements," Urahara's voice carried over the sandstorm created by Jinta's body as he entered the underground.

"Tch, whatever. Read a book or watch TV or something, you green-eyed weirdo." Jinta huffed as he hoisted himself up the ladder, while Urahara floated down.

The shopkeeper made his way to his confused guest and produced a gray box with a screen on it. He set it down and explained, "This is a TV, or rather, a device of my own design that allows you to watch television programs from the human world. Go ahead, try it," he prodded as he took out a wand that measured reiatsu, waving it around Ulquiorra's body like airport security.

Ulquiorra touched the power button and the box lit up, revealing a moving picture of a woman dressed in a business suit reporting the news of the day. Urahara passed Ulquiorra a small black rectangle and explained, "This is a remote control. You can control the volume of the sound of the program and which channel you are watching by pressing the buttons. Try it out."

Ulquiorra pressed a button labeled 'channel up' and saw another moving picture, this time with men in tight white uniforms throwing objects toward one another, and one of the men had a club like Jinta's, but slimmer. "Is this… baseball?" he asked.

"Quite astute," Urahara answered with a small chuckle as he continued taking measurements.

Ulquiorra studied the game for a bit and then pressed the 'channel up' button again, revealing a moving picture of people sitting on a sound stage laughing at each other. "Oh, this one is Inoue-san's favorite," Urahara mentioned innocuously.

Ulquiorra perked up instantly. "Why?" he demanded, before leaning in to study the program intensely.

"She likes to laugh, Cifer-san," Urahara answered simply.

Ulquiorra's eyebrows grew slightly closer together as he eyed Urahara dubiously. In all the time he knew Orihime, he had never seen her laugh. He went back to staring at the TV for answers after a beat.

"Ah, just on time," Urahara said as his eyes went back to the door. "Good night, Cifer-san. Don't hesitate to call if you need anything."

Ulquiorra nodded silently without looking up as Urahara went upstairs.


"All done, Kurosaki-san," the shopkeeper proclaimed after measuring Ichigo's reiatsu with the same wand he had used on Ulquiorra. "Your reiatsu is increasing. Inoue-san does good work."

"She sure does," Ichigo replied, somewhat distracted. "Is there someone here?"

"You mean someone besides the usual suspects?" Urahara asked, curious that Ichigo might be able to sense Ulquiorra despite the protections he had taken, until he realized that he hadn't had a chance to spiritually sanitize the reiatsu wand.

"Yes, it seems like there is someone else here that I know, but I can't quite place it…" Ichigo answered, wrinkling his brows.

"Oh, actually, I think your senses are being deceived; this wand has residual reiatsu all over it. I'd bet I've used it on someone you know – I had it with me in Soul Society up until yesterday," he lied smoothly.

"Oh, that makes sense," Ichigo answered and yawned, much less interested now. "Well, it's late. I'll see you tomorrow," he added, walking outside.

"Yes. Goodnight, Kurosaki-san!"

A/N: OK! Thank you for reading and I may not get a chapter out next week; it's Thanksgiving here in the States, and I have to make brussels sprouts. I'll try though!

Chapter Text

 

December 8th

Urahara Shoten

It had been a week since Ulquiorra had been brought to the World of the Living, but he had yet to make it above ground.  Urahara had been hard at work trying to create a modified gigai that was strong enough to withstand Ulquiorra’s potential reiatsu fluctuations and technologically advanced enough to cloak his reiatsu while remaining functional for daily life. 

He had tested out many prototypes over the course of the past week, each a failure.  Ulquiorra had easily burned through the first gigai as soon as his suppression necklace was taken off.  The second one could take the pressure, but was much too cumbersome for Ulquiorra to live in.  Urahara was working on the 32nd prototype presently, when he heard an unfamiliar, classical guitar ringtone.  It took him a moment to remember that it was the ringtone he had chosen for incoming calls from Ulquiorra’s communication device.  His new houseguest had never used it until now.  Urahara scrambled to pick up the receiver and clicked the call through.

“Kisuke Urahara?” the now-familiar baritone asked over the somewhat crackly connection.

“Yes, Cifer-san?”  Urahara’s voice replied with a mix of curiosity and amusement.

“I, er... I find myself… unoccupied.”

Urahara suppressed a chortle.  “Cifer-san, are you lonely?”

“I am usually alone.”

“Allow me to rephrase.  Would you like some company?”

Urahara listened to Ulquiorra’s measured breaths as he waited patiently for an answer.

“I would not object to company,” the former espada finally answered.

“Alright.  Make sure your necklace is on.  I’ll open the door and you can come upstairs to my office and keep me company while I work for a bit.” The scientist grinned as he disconnected the line, feeling daring.


 

Earlier that day, Karakura High School

Ichigo’s foot tapped the floor rhythmically as he watched the classroom clock tick towards the last bell.  Before the final tone chimed he was up and at Orihime’s desk, gathering her bag. His girlfriend smiled up to him, surprised at his eagerness.  She was pleased when had offered to walk her home to her apartment after school even though she no longer had a specific obligation to use her Shun Shun Rikka to restore Ichigo’s spiritual pressure.  Ichigo grasped her hand and pulled her to his side, muttering, “Let’s get out of here, Orihime,” before leading her out of the door, causing most of the girls in the classroom to swoon openly and some of the boys to brood in envy.

Orihime blushed as she was led across campus, growing ever more curious to find out why Ichigo was in such a rush.  She watched his face as he pulled her outside of the school gates, and felt a mixture of amusement and confusion when he completely ignored Keigo’s calls to “wait up” from behind them.  Orihime was content to follow silently for the first two blocks, but Ichigo still hadn’t slowed down, and she was starting to get winded.

“Ichigo?  Can we slow down a bit?” she asked sweetly, looking up at him with an apologetic smile.

“Huh? Oh!” Ichigo looked slightly flustered, as he was pulled back to reality.  “Sorry Orihime.  I’m just, er, anxious to be back at your place.”

Orihime smiled and her heart fluttered a bit.  “Oh?  Why is that?” she teased.

Ichigo didn’t seem to be bothered by it and started walking again, still a bit faster than Orihime would have preferred.  “Because I want some alone time with you,” he finally answered.

Orihime’s cheeks flushed and she swallowed down a squeal of anticipation as she happily tried to keep pace with her boyfriend.

When they arrived at her apartment, she was out of breath.  Ichigo set down their bags and went to her kitchen as she stood in the entrance taking off her shoes.  As she stepped up to the main floor, he returned with a glass of water.

“How thoughtful, thank you!” she said as she beamed at him.  He passed her the glass and watched as she drank deeply.  She drank about half of it and began to set it down, before Ichigo took it from her and drank the rest, never breaking eye contact with her.  For a reason she couldn’t understand, Orihime found the action very erotic.  She could feel heat building in her core, and when Ichigo finished the water, she took his wrist and led him to her bedroom.

As bold as a move that was, Orihime was too shy to make the next one.  She released his wrist and watched as Ichigo, not missing a beat, pulled off his shirt and laid down on one edge of her bed, then patted the open space and ordered her to sit.

She obeyed, and she felt her insides turn into hot mush as he started to pull her down toward him into a tight hug.  He tucked her head under his chin and her nose rested in the crook of his neck.  She breathed deeply his natural scent, and, her desire ignited, began to place soft kisses up his neck toward his jaw.

Ichigo squeezed her a bit tighter, and chuckled, before saying softly, “Easy there, tiger.  I don’t want to get carried away.  I just thought we could get some cuddle time in before we have to get down to business.”

Orihime blanched.  “Down to business?”

Ichigo pulled back to look her in the eye.  “Yeah, did I forget to tell you?  Ol’ Hat-n-Clogs wants us to continue with the ‘restoration sessions’ as we have been, for the time being.  I thought I told you on the phone last night?”

Orihime was confused.  Ichigo seemed very sincere, but she was pretty sure she remembered him saying that Urahara was finished with the restoration experiment, although they were free to do it whenever they wanted.

“Really?  That’s not what I remember you saying.”

“Oh?  I guess you were pretty sleepy by the time I called.   You also said something about how Enraku was going to take you dancing later, so I wondered if I had woken you up or something.”

Orihime laughed at the idea of her stuffed animal saying anything, much less offering to take her out on a date.  “I guess I was tired.  I thought you told me Urahara-san didn’t need us to do that anymore,” she said good-naturedly.

Ichigo hugged her again and kissed the top of her head.  “You are the cutest, ‘Hime.  Would you mind if we did it while we lay here like this?  I’ll set my watch.”

Orihime giggled and called her healing fairies as she snuggled back in to Ichigo’s chest, listening to his heartbeat as his breath evened out.  After a few minutes, his arms slackened, and Orihime realized he was asleep.  Gently, so as not to wake him, she began to trace hearts on his chest with her index finger, experimenting with touching his nipple as she did.  Ichigo hummed softly the first time, and the second time he jerked slightly, to Orihime’s amusement.  She tried again, thinking it must be either ticklish or arousing.  To her disappointment, he cracked open an


eye long enough to look at her disapprovingly and say, “Quit it, that’s distracting,” before quickly nodding off again.

Orihime pouted and snuggled back in to Ichigo’s neck when she felt something that caused her full attention to shift, although she still kept her healing powers going over Ichigo, being so well-practiced at it by now that she could probably do it in her sleep. 

She carefully weaseled her way out of Ichigo’s arms and went to her window, her previous amorous thoughts now forgotten.  ‘What is this spiritual pressure?’ she asked herself silently while trying to track its origin.  It was barely perceptible; if she focused too hard on it she lost it, but if she expanded the range of her own spiritual perception around her, she could feel it again on the periphery.  It was familiar, but unfamiliar.  She felt an overwhelming compulsion to investigate it.  She tracked it for a few more moments before it disappeared completely, but not before she recognized that it came from the direction of the Urahara Shoten.  ‘Great – now I can kill two birds with one stone,’ she thought, casting a mildly suspicious glance toward Ichigo.

Before she knew it, Ichigo’s watch beeped, indicating that a half-hour had passed.  He opened his eyes and sat up, smiling as Orihime passed him his shirt from the floor.  “You are the best, ‘Hime,” he said as he stood up and put his shirt back on.

Orihime smiled and nodded, and added, “I forgot we have a test in history tomorrow.  I better let you go so we can get our studying done.”

Ichigo rubbed a palm down his face as he yawned, and then met her eyes.  “You’re right, I forgot about that.  If I stayed here I doubt we’d get much studying done,” he said with a gleam in his eyes that had Orihime’s pulse quickening again, in spite of herself.

She walked him to the door and kissed him goodbye and wished him goodnight as he left.  She waited ten minutes to give Ichigo a head start, taking a few of those minutes to eat a quick snack and fix her hair before she left for Urahara’s Shop.

 

Urahara Shoten

Ulquiorra observed Urahara’s work silently, for the most part.  He had wandered around the office to look at the bound volumes and loose papers, stopping here and there to examine them or one of the instruments that littered the room.  Presently, he sat in a chair in the corner of the room, nearly nodding off, when Yoruichi threw the door to the office open wide and said in a very concerned tone, “Kisuke!  We have company!”

Ulquiorra’s eyes opened impossibly wide as he recognized the foreign reiatsu.  Urahara quickly got up and blocked the door, half expecting the green-eyed man to attempt an escape.  After a very tense moment during which Ulquiorra made no move, both Urahara and Yoruichi visibly relaxed.  It was only then that Ulquiorra looked between both of their faces and through the open door with a torn expression.  He knew he couldn’t risk leaving the safety of the office for the time being, even with his suppression necklace on, but he was more than eager to get his chance to meet the woman.

“Cifer-san, I know you must be very anxious to leave, but this office is the only room above ground that is capable of concealing your reiatsu should your necklace fail.  As it is, a trace of your reiatsu is leaking at this very moment.  I hope you understand why I can’t let you come out.”

“Yes, Kisuke Urahara.”

Urahara gave a tiny eyeroll at the way he had been addressed, but appreciated Ulquiorra’s rationality nonetheless.  “Thank you, Cifer-san.  By way of compromise, please feel free to watch and listen to anything that comes on over the monitors,” he said in a conciliatory tone, gesturing toward what looked like an oversized computer monitor.

Ulquiorra nodded and sat before the monitor as the shinigami left the room, sealing the door behind them.

Urahara met Orihime just inside the shop.  Ulquiorra felt his throat constrict and pulse speed up as he saw her face appear to him on the monitor for the first time in his current lifetime.  He strained to listen as she began to speak.  “Good evening, Urahara-san!” her voice rang out, loud and clear, carrying a smile he had rarely seen or heard in his previous incarnation.  It was then that it struck him that she was so much different than he remembered.  He mentally berated himself for not expecting this.  Of course she was not the miserable abductee she had been when they were together.  She seemed carefree and full of life now.  He looked away from the monitor, somehow pained that she felt so much better without him in her life.  It was then he noted that his new capacity for emotion was clouding his judgment.  Of course she was happy.  She wasn’t a captive anymore.  Furthermore, her emotional state was completely independent from him.  As far as she knew, he was long dead.  Ulquiorra knew he needed to get over himself.  He blew a lock of hair out of his face and looked back to the monitors, listening as the conversation continued.

“Good evening, Inoue-san.  What brings you to my fine establishment this on this cold night?  Can I interest you in some of my new products?” the shopkeeper asked from behind his fan.

Orihime shook her head.  “I’m so sorry to bother you, Urahara-san, but this visit is more personal.  Do you have a few minutes?”

Urahara’s demeanor changed and he quickly snapped his fan shut, using it to tip the brim of his hat up slightly , allowing his gaze to meet Orihime’s. “Of course.  Please come in,” he said, leading the way into the sitting room and gesturing for her to take a seat as he took one opposite.   Tessai arrived a moment later with tea and gave a cup to each of the room’s occupants, addressing Orihime as “Inoue-dono” before he bowed and left without another word.

After he had left, Orihime decided to lead with the question about the unfamiliar reiatsu.  “Uh, Urahara-san, I came here tonight because, um, I faintly sensed an unusual spiritual pressure…” She allowed her question to trail off, hoping he would fill in the blanks for her.

“I see,” he began carefully.  “I think I know what you mean.  Very faint, was it not?”

“Yes!” she nodded vigorously, clearly anticipating that he would satisfy her curiosity.

Urahara sat back, seemingly considering his options.  Ulquiorra, watching with bated breath in the next room, leaned ever closer to the monitor, wondering if the shopkeeper’s next words would reveal his presence to the woman.

Alas, Urahara denied everything.  “The senkaimon was open for an extended period today.   I wonder if someone powerful came through recently, before the sweepers had a chance to purge the residual reiatsu.”

Ulquiorra’s posture mirrored Orihime’s as they both slumped into their chairs, disappointed.

“Oh,” she replied, underwhelmed, but shook it off quickly.  “I have one other thing that’s bothering me, Urahara-san.  Didn’t you say that your experiment with restoring Ichigo’s reiatsu had concluded and you didn’t need me to do it anymore, for your purposes, anyway?”

“Yes, that’s true.”

Orihime’s heart sank a little.  “But, you changed your mind, right?  Didn’t you tell Ichigo yesterday that you wanted me to continue as we had been last week?”

Urahara grew somewhat cautious.  “What are you getting at, Inoue-san?  I didn’t speak with Kurosaki-san yesterday.  And the last thing I told him was that my experiment was complete.  I don’t know how he could have misunderstood that.  Has he been acting strangely again, Inoue-san?”

“No, not particularly this time.  He said I must have been tired and forgot that he told me, but maybe he was just tired and imagined that he spoke with you!  Maybe it was a dream he had!” she laughed nervously after this, trying desperately to convince Urahara and herself that her excuses were actual possibilities.

“Maybe you are right, Inoue-san,” the shopkeeper said kindly, but then hid his eyes behind the brim of his hat and added a warning, “but just to be safe, please contact me if he starts acting suspiciously at all.  I am still very busy with my daytime work, but I am drawing up a plan to start training him.  In the meantime, if his hollow starts to manifest or anything else strange happens, let me know immediately.  I may need to reprioritize my tasks.”

“Oh, of course I will.  I’m sorry to take up your time, Urahara-san.  Thank you so much for listening to me,” she said politely as she got up and made her way to the door.

“Anytime, Inoue-san.  Your presence is always a welcome treat for all of us here,” he replied as his eyes flashed to the room’s monitoring system camera for a moment.

Orihime smiled, bowed, and left, trying to stave off the troublesome thoughts that circled her on her walk home.


 

December 9th

Karakura High School

Orihime was able to act like nothing was wrong all morning.   It wasn’t until lunch when she decided she had to clear the air with Ichigo.  After they had eaten in their classroom, she asked him to come with her to the handicrafts clubroom.  Ichigo was unperturbed as he shut the door to the clubroom, until he turned around and saw the look on Orihime’s face.    She leaned against one of the tables in the room, unable to make eye contact, but somewhat red-faced and chewing on the inside of one of her cheeks nervously.

“What’s the matter, Orihime?”

“I spoke to Urahara-san last night,” she answered, still looking at his knees.

“What?  Why?”  he asked, carefully maintaining a calm exterior.

Orihime looked at his face then, surprised he didn’t react more defensively.  She relaxed a bit, still nervous, but no longer as red-faced.  “I felt a weird reiatsu, and I tracked it back to his place,” she started.

“What?  Why didn’t you call me?  I would have gone with you!”

“No, it didn’t seem dangerous, Ichigo.  Just kind of like, déjà vu, or something.  Anyway, he told me it was basically nothing, and while I was there we talked about the restoration experiment.  He told me he did not ask us to continue.”

Ichigo’s heart stopped, momentarily, knowing he’d been caught.  But then, his survival instinct kicked in, and as smooth as silk he lied, “Oh, really?  I could have sworn he told me the day before yesterday-“

“He told me he didn’t talk to you that day.”  Orihime interrupted, trying not to panic at his possible dishonesty.

“Well, I mean, I guess I could have mixed that up, or dreamed it?” he said as he plead to god that she would believe the thick mask of innocence he was wearing.

Orihime was on the fence.  Her gut told her that Ichigo was lying, but her heart told her to believe in him.  Besides, if she could dream about going out dancing with a pink stuffed bear, it was totally plausible that he could dream about repeating something that had actually happened a week before.  She decided to believe him, and smiled warmly at his face before finally agreeing with a cheerful, “I guess so!  I’m just glad that for once I’m not the one who is mistaken”

Ichigo laughed in relief and walked up to her, putting his hands on her waist and kissing her forehead. “I’m sorry to make you worry about that.  I know Tatsuki gives you a hard time about being flighty. Not that I think you are,” he added as an afterthought.  “I guess something like this was bound to happen to me sometime,” he added with a grin.

Orihime put her arms around his back and squeezed, feeling mostly relieved.  A small part of her, which she chose to ignore, still held suspicions, but Orihime was the kind of girl that stood behind her beliefs, and she decided to believe in Ichigo’s innocence.  Having established that restoration sessions were no longer necessary, they decided to go their separate ways after school and get caught up on their studies.

---

9:30 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Missed you after school today (heart)

---

9:33 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

Me too!!  (heart)(heart)

---

9:33 p.m.

From:  Ichigo Kurosaki

I know we don’t have to, but do you want to get together tomorrow after school?

---

9:35 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

I’d love to (heart).  What did you have in mind?

---

9:35 p.m.

From: Ichigo Kurosaki

Just some ‘quality time’ at your place (wink emoji)(heart)

---

9:36 p.m.

From: Orihime Inoue

(heart)yes!(heart)


 

December 10th

Orihime had handicrafts club after school, so Ichigo met up with her at the school gate around 5:30.  Her first thought when she saw him was that it was weird to see him around school outside of his uniform.  He was wearing jeans, a hoodie, and a warm jacket.  It was dark already and just beginning to snow. Only occasional flakes fell here and there, and they melted the instant they hit the ground, but it made everything seem damp and colder than it really was.  Orihime noticed that Ichigo had another jacket draped over his arm, and when she trotted up to him, he lifted it over her shoulders.  Orihime gratefully put her arms in the sleeves and zipped it up, pulling the collar tight around her neck. The jacket was warm and smelled like Ichigo, and Orihime felt like she was in heaven. Ichigo offered her an elbow, which she took, and the pair started off toward her apartment.

The walk to her place was pretty quiet; neither of them wanted to expose their mouths to the cold air more than necessary.  When they arrived at Orihime’s place she kept Ichigo’s jacket on as she put on the kettle and made them each a mug of hot chocolate.  She brought the mugs out and they began to make small talk about their day, and passed a half hour just warming up that way.

After their fingers and toes thawed, Orihime took the mugs back into the kitchen and mentioned thinking about dinner.  Ichigo followed her in, and as she stood at the sink, he came up behind her, caging her between his body and the sink, with one hand on either side of her body on the counter.  He pressed his hard body into hers and whispered in her ear, “I’m hungry for something else,” allowing his blossoming erection to drag across her school skirt as he put an open mouth kiss behind her ear.

Orihime was not expecting such an advance from Ichigo at that moment, but she found that she welcomed it.  She whimpered softly and, without realizing it, stuck her hips back a bit to push his hard member deeper into her soft flesh.  Ichigo responded with a growl of approval from deep in his chest, and brought his hands around to her front, unabashedly reaching for her breasts.

This was new territory, Orihime mentally noted.  Usually Ichigo was much shyer about his advances, but he was assertive and in control today and she would be lying to herself if she said she didn’t love it.  When his hands found their targets, they squeezed firmly, causing Orihime to moan out unexpectedly.  Ichigo chuckled a bit, massaging her voluminous assets, and letting his index and middle fingers of each hand search out the her nipples through her clothes.

Orihime allowed this to continue a few minutes, enthralled with the sensations Ichigo was providing, until she began to feel a hot dewiness begin to pool in her panties.  Cognizant of what her own body wanted, she began to grow even more aroused and impatient.  She reached her hands over her head and into Ichigo’s hair, pulling his face down to hers, and kissing him deeply, before whispering, “let’s take this to my room.”

In an instant, Ichigo was halfway across the kitchen, pulling her behind by the hand. He pulled her into her room and tossed her to her bed, closing the door behind them.  He stood at the door for a moment watching her look up at him with her eyes ablaze with unfamiliar passion  He observed the way her bust rose and fell as she panted and rubbed her thighs together.  Part of him was disturbed by the image, unable to reconcile the idea of his sweet, innocent girlfriend behaving so wantonly, but the larger part of him was 17 years old and indiscriminately horny.

“Ichigo, please…” she mewled, not sure what exactly she was asking for at the moment, but his inaction was torture.  He slowly walked toward the bed, sat beside her, and with a singular focus, began to take off her shirt. He wasted no time and removed her bra without any fanfare, immediately diving toward her nipple and sucking it into his mouth as he pushed her back down on the bed, his other hand palming the other breast with enthusiasm.

He suckled on her soft pink nipple until it became hard in his mouth, then spent some time dragging his tongue across it and playing with the tip, flicking it back and forth with his tongue before lapping around her areola in a circle and then sucking the whole nipple back into his mouth, taking in as much of the surrounding tissue as he could, before releasing the whole thing with a loud ‘pop’, then switching to provide the other breast with the same treatment.

Orihime’s mind had turned into mush.  She panted and moaned, hips bucking toward the empty air above her that her body wished so desperately was full of Ichigo’s body.  She had never before experienced such a strong physical need for anything in her life.  Her hands went on their own accord to Ichigo’s head, pressing him closer still into her breasts, until she felt a finger from his unoccupied hand make contact with the soaked cotton of her panties, tracing the line between the encased lips, and dipping in toward her entrance.

Orihime’s hands flew behind her, releasing Ichigo’s head, which he lifted from her breasts as she brought herself up into a half-incline. She whimpered when he touched her again, watching her face contort as he did.  He allowed a mischievous smirk, causing Orihime’s eyes to go wide as he pulled her panties down her legs and off of her completely, taking a moment to examine them and the state of their saturation.  He raised his brows in approval and lifted her skirt to see her soft curls, opening her thighs for a clear view of the glistening lips below.

Orihime was finally aware of her vulnerability in this situation, and her sudden apprehension showed on her face and silenced her voice.  Ichigo was pleased upon observing her act more characteristically, and sidled up to her, kissing her sweetly as his hand returned to her slit, tracing softly.  Orihime’s breath shuddered with each pass, and she struggled to keep still, afraid of things getting out of control.

Ichigo, on the other hand, was in complete control.  He deepened his kiss a bit, and dipped a finger into her bare slit, searching for the cluster of nerves at the apex.  Orihime squeaked softly when he found it, and from there it was just a matter of time.  Ichigo manipulated the sensitive nub rhythmically with his middle finger, allowing his other digits to flirt with the opening to her entrance from time to time.   When Orihime could no longer swallow her mewls and was panting again, Ichigo released their kiss and latched onto her neck again.

Orihime could feel the heat within her build, and as her perception of the world beyond what she felt between her legs began to fade, the sensation caused by Ichigo’s hand sent visions of stars behind her tightly closed eyelids. She found herself holding her breath the closer she came to the precipice of her imminent fall, only to gasp for another breath and hold that one when she came close to passing out from lack of oxygen.  Then the muscles of her inner thighs began to twitch, her breasts swelled, and Ichigo moved his mouth from her neck back to a nipple and latched on, sending her hurtling over the edge, and Orihime’s consciousness ascended to somewhere in the cosmos as the incredible pressure Ichigo had built released all in one great mind-altering blast of pleasure, which she rode out in a silent scream.

After the initial burst of sensation, aftershocks of pulses deeper within her caused her to sob out.  As they diminished in intensity, her focus returned to the present, her brow relaxed, and her eyes opened on vision of Ichigo smiling at her gently.  She was overwhelmed with emotion, and as tears began to gather at the corners of her eyes, she blurted out in a whisper, “I love you, Ichigo,” before reaching for his head and kissing him intensely, desperate to communicate to him the depth of her emotion.  She didn’t give him a change to reciprocate or reject her sentiment.

Ichigo allowed it, his hand still cupping her drenched sex, until his lack of participation slowed her efforts.  She drew back cautiously, fear of rejection in her eyes, until she saw his apologetic expression.

“Sorry, ‘Hime, but I didn’t come ‘prepared’… and we made a bit of a mess,” he said as he glanced down toward her still cupped womanhood.

Orihime was mortified.  “Oh no!  I’m so sorry, Ichigo, here!” she said as she pulled a box of tissues from her bedside table and held it to him.

Ichigo chuckled, and took the box from her with his clean hand.  Then, to her shock, he brought the hand that was covered with her essence to his nose and inhaled deeply, humming in appreciation.  The image embarrassed and turned her on in equal measure.  When he smiled and looked at her again with bedroom eyes, he said, “that’s not what I meant, but thanks for these,” wiping the soiled hand off.  “What I meant was I’m not prepared to finish the job, if you know what I mean.”  He laughed out loud when Orihime’s eyes grew large in confusion, and added “I didn’t bring the required ‘supplies’”. 

Orihime’s face flushed and brows rose in understanding, and then a huge smile spread across her face.  She wasn’t sure she was ready to take that step with Ichigo yet, but she was relieved that he considered it a possibility.  She had still been harboring doubts that he was interested in her in that way, after the whole restoration issue between them.

She was roused from her thoughts when Ichigo stood and offered her a hand, saying, “you should go get cleaned up.”

“But, are you ok?” she asked, concerned, and stealing a glance at the remaining bulge in his pants.

“Um, well, I’m afraid if I have any more excitement, my lack of supplies won’t be enough of a deterrent, if you know what I mean…” he trailed off awkwardly, and made a show of adjusting himself with a pained expression.

“Oh, well, I know we don’t have to do this anymore, but after I get cleaned up I can, um, restore, um, ‘it’, to its previous state.  I know how much it relaxes you,” she offered as she got up and walked to the door, clutching her discarded shirt to her front for modesty.

“Well, you don’t have to if you’re too wiped out, but if you could that would be nice,” he answered.

“Of course!  I’ll be right back!” she said with a huge smile and left the room.

Ichigo sat down on the bed heavily and breathed a sigh of relief.


 

December 11th

Karakura High School

Orihime was glowing.  Tatsuki noticed.  Orihime explained that she was just really happy.  Ichigo and Orihime stole knowing looks at one another all morning.  Tatsuki tried really hard to convince herself that she had not caught a glance of Ichigo sniffing his fingers and leering at Orihime. By lunch, Tatsuki was really annoyed.  She was actually relieved when Orihime mentioned she needed to go to the handicrafts clubroom at lunch and Ichigo offered to accompany her.  They left the classroom in a hurry as soon as the lunch bell rang.

As soon as they closed the door to the clubroom, Ichigo was pulling her by the back of the head toward his mouth.  Their tongues battled and hands roved, hips rolling toward one another, as they embarked on a fast-paced make-out session. 

Tatsuki had followed from a distance and was pretty sure she knew what was happening on the other side of the door.  As much as she did not want to be in this situation, she didn’t want her best friend to get in trouble if someone else walked in on her and her boyfriend’s indiscretion.  She waited in the hall until her stomach started growling audibly and she was starting to hear quiet moans from Orihime.  Feeling disgusted and hungry, she walked to the door and banged on it loudly.

“I’ll give you one minute before I come in there and drag you two out,” she shouted through the frosted glass on the door.

Ichigo and Orihime froze, and then Orihime covered her mouth to stifle a laugh.  Ichigo stared at the ground, unmoving, until Orihime whispered an apology.  He then looked up at her with a pained expression.  “I think I’m going to need more than a minute,” he whispered, looking pointedly at his groin.

Orihime followed his line of sight and observed his throbbing erection, and barely contained another fit of giggles.  Without having to be asked, she summoned her Shun Shun Rikka and set to work restoring Ichigo to his more relaxed state, and then called to Tatsuki through the door, “Don’t worry, we’ll be out in just a minute.”

When they came out and joined the others in the classroom to eat, Chad asked Ichigo to come to his place later that night.  Ichigo had neglected his friend recently and agreed.  At the end of the school day, Orihime and Ichigo parted ways, promising to spend Friday evening together.

That evening, Orihime stopped at the drugstore, just in case.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20: Intervention

December 12th

The night did not go as planned. Ichigo had left over an hour ago, and Orihime sat on her sofa, trying to figure out what had happened.

At first, things went as they usually did, some kissing and fooling around, but when Orihime made a move to reciprocate the experience Ichigo had provided her earlier in the week, his reaction was nothing like what she had anticipated.  When she had moved her hand toward his zipper, he stood abruptly, wearing an accusatory expression, as if he had been betrayed by her interest in him.

Orihime had been understandably upset and confused.  She had started crying and Ichigo started rambling incoherently and finally left.  At first she blamed her emotions for being unable to follow what he had said, but as she sat now trying to recall it, she realized it was Ichigo who wasn’t making sense.  It was as if he wasn’t talking to only her.  He had thrown out disconnected phrases like, “If you really cared about me, you would just give me what I need,” and “I obviously won’t be getting what I came for,” and “There’s no way in hell I’d let it go that far,” and “Queen or not she’s useless if she can’t deliver.”  It was contradictory to his reaction and didn’t make any sense.

Finally, the pain of rejection eased slightly, and she started to put all the pieces together.  Her eyes grew in fear, realizing that even though it was late, she needed help immediately.

***

Ring

Ring

Ring

Cough.  “Hello?”

“Ishida-kun!  I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

“Inoue-san?”

“Yes, I’m sorry to call so late.”

“I know you wouldn’t unless it was important.  What’s the problem?”

“Er, it’s difficult to explain over the phone.  I hate to ask so late at night, but could you come over? I’ll explain when you get here.”

“Of course, but are you sure you don’t want Kurosaki or Arisawa-san?”

“No, I’m sorry, but you are the only one who can help with this.”

“Alright, I’ll be right there.”

When Uryuu arrived, Orihime already had the door open for him.  She showed him inside and explained the odd, gradual change in Ichigo’s behavior since they had begun the restoration sessions, glossing over the specifics of their romantic activities, and ending with a teary retelling of his episode earlier than evening.

“Inoue-san, I hope it’s not the case, but if what I suspect is true, Kurosaki has developed an addiction to these ‘restoration sessions’.  It sounds to me as if he has been manipulating you for some time now, and to be honest, I think you have been inadvertently enabling his behavior.”

Orhime looked at her lap silently as Uryuu confirmed what she had been denying to herself for as long as this had been going on. 

He continued.  “This really all started after that time his hollow manifested, didn’t it?”

Orihime looked up at him with fear in her eyes and nodded.

“As I suspected.  I know Kurosaki would never intentionally hurt you, but you and I know better than anyone what his hollow is really capable of.”

“I’m so sorry, Ishida-kun, but that is why it had to be you tonight,” she whispered through quiet tears.

Uryuu put a hand on Orihime’s shoulder and patted it comfortingly.  “I’m glad you called me.  I’ll stay on the couch tonight and tomorrow morning we’ll go to Urahara-san’s together and try to get everything straightened out, alright?”   He smiled at her encouragingly and she nodded and smiled in return as she dried her eyes.  In that moment, he reminded her so much of Sora that without thinking she threw her arms around his neck and held on tightly.

“Thank you, Ishida-kun.”

He wasn’t sure what the hug was about, but he was happy to let her do it.  He brought one hand up to the space between her shoulder blades and the other to the back of her head and held her in place for several minutes until she seemed to relax.  He released her, saying, “Off to bed, we should get going early. 

Orihime nodded and disappeared into her bedroom, reappearing a moment later with blankets and a spare pillow.  She handed them to Uryuu and smiled again. “Thank you again, Ishida-kun.  Let me know if you need anything else. Goodnight, Ishida-kun.”

“Goodnight, Inoue-san.”

December 13th

Urahara sat cross-legged in his armchair, pipe in hand, and eyes obstructed by his customary hat. He nodded from time to time as he listened to Orihime and Uryuu explain about the change in Ichigo’s behavior.  When they finished, he uncrossed his legs and bent over, resting his elbows on his knees and pushing his thumbs into his eye sockets in an effort to stave off an impending headache.  Ulquiorra’s gigai was nearly complete.  He really didn’t need Ichigo’s problems right now.  Finally he exhaled audibly and looked up, knowing that despite his preferences, these kids needed to take priority right now.

“I understand, Inoue-san, Ishida-san.  I need to speak to Isshin Kurosaki.  Please go home and wait.  I expect we’ll have to take care of this situation quickly, so don’t go too far; we’ll need your help as well.”

“What do you need our help with, Urahara-san?”  Ishida asked.

“Kurosaki-san’s reiatsu level has stabilized, and Inoue-san’s restoration no longer has any beneficial effect.   I have been monitoring him from a distance for weeks now.  Ishida-san, I believe your suspicions are correct, but that both Kurosaki-san and his inner hollow have developed an addiction to Inoue-san’s restoration.  We are going to have to stage an intervention.”

“An intervention?” Orihime asked.

“Yes, I’ll need the cooperation from several people, including the two of you, and I’ll have to come up with some kind of treatment plan.  I’m sorry to tell you, Inoue-san, that this means that the two of you will have to stay away from each other for a while.”

Orihime nodded but felt heartbroken.  She suspected that a separation would be necessary, and she was afraid of Ichigo at the moment, but she didn’t like it.  It felt like they were being forced to break up.

Uryuu noticed and put his arm around Orihime’s shoulders. “Don’t worry, Inoue-san, I’m sure it’s just until he is better.”

“We’ll see how it goes, but for the time being, he can’t be trusted around you, Inoue-san. You shouldn’t be alone with him for any reason, do you understand?” Urahara warned.

She nodded silently.

It was tentatively planned that the intervention would take place later that night.  Urahara asked Ishida to stay with Orihime for the time being so that between now and the intervention she wouldn’t be alone, in the event Ichigo decided to do something drastic.  Ishida agreed to stay with her for as long as it took, and then Urahara left to see Isshin.

December 14th

The day and night passed, and there was no word from Urahara or Ichigo.  Uryuu had stayed with Orihime as promised, and in the morning both of them were feeling more anxious than ever.  Finally in the early afternoon, Urahara called to inform them that preparations were complete and that they should come to the shop at 4:00 p.m.

At the appointed time, they arrived, stomachs churning in fear of Ichigo’s reaction.  Ururu showed them down to the underground where a group of people stood in more or less of a circle. Isshin was already there, as were Yoruichi and Tessai. More surprisingly, Ryuuken Ishida was present, as well as Renji and Rukia.  Orihime’s eyes grew wide as she took in the gravity of the situation; certainly Urahara anticipated resistance from Ichigo.

Urahara came down shortly thereafter.  “May I have your attention everyone?  Thank you.  As you know, we have gathered to stage an intervention for Ichigo Kurosaki.  He has recovered his reiatsu, but not any shinigami abilities.  His hollow, however, has manifested in the past and has been showing signs of being able to manifest recently.  This is why I have invited you all here.   Not only are all of you trusted allies of Kurosaki-san’s, but you are also powerful enough to lend assistance if things get out of control.”

“Excuse me, Urahara-san,” Uryuu interrupted, “But what if things get too far out of control?”

“Well, I have some insurance for that.  Ururu, if you please?”  The small girl came out with an armful of identical necklaces made of black metal chains and a hexoganal black crystal which connected to the chain with a delicate green wire that seemed to grow around the crystal like veins.

Renji scoffed.  “What is this, some kinda magic necklace that is going to protect us from a cero?”

“Not quite, Abarai-san, but you are not too far off.  Please everyone, put these necklaces on, and do not remove them for any reason until I tell you.”

Everyone did as told, and then Urahara excused himself, taking two more necklaces with him as he went upstairs.

**

In his office, Urahara put his own necklace on, placing it out of sight under his shirt, while he and Ulquiorra watched the monitors silently waiting for Ichigo to arrive with Chad.  As they came into view on the monitors, Urahara put his hand on Ulquiorra’s shoulder and nodded, leaving him behind in the office and went to greet the approaching boys.  Urahara discreetly passed the extra necklace to Chad, who put it on quietly.

“I’m glad you could make it today!  As I said before, I’ve prepared something for your training that will hopefully have some quick results,” Urahara said, leading the way to the underground.  When Ichigo finished descending the ladder, he turned around, and he smiled as he caught a glimpse of Renji.  His face became more guarded, however, as he recognized the other faces present.  When he made eye contact with Orihime, his eyes narrowed, and he battled with feelings of guilt and anger.  But when he saw Ryuuken and his father, he knew that Urahara had not been forthright with him.

“What is going on here, Urahara?” he growled.

“We have all gathered here today because we care about you and have your best interests at heart.  All of us have concerns about your hollow’s influence on your judgment recently, specifically how it relates to your relationship with Inoue-san,” Urahara began in a pleasant tone.

Ichigo looked at everyone with a shocked expression. 

Urahara continued, “You see, your reiatsu has been stable for weeks.”

“Yeah, thanks to Inoue,” he interrupted, guarded.

“Actually, son, that’s not true.  Inoue has told us that she has been using her restoration technique on you almost every day this week, and it has made no difference in your reiatsu.”

“How is that even possible?  I know when my reiatsu is starting to plummet.  That’s why I…”  he stopped, knowing he’d just revealed something he shouldn’t.

“I know that’s your perception, but it is not reality, Kurosaki-san,” Urahara said after a beat.  “Inoue-san, Ishida-san, your father - we can all attest to your reiatsu’s stability.  I also have the data graphs, if visual aids will help.”

“That won’t be necessary.  Inoue and I know that every time she does it I get better, right Inoue?”

Orihime closed her eyes and hung her head.  It was killing her to see him like this.

“Orihime?” he said quietly as he took a step toward her.

She finally looked up at him with tears running down her face.  “That was true at first, Ichigo,” she answered softly.  “But for a long time now, it has made no difference to your reiatsu.  The only difference is that now you are cranky when too much time has passed since the last time I restored you, and you are much happier after I do it.  Also, you seem to be willing to do whatever it takes to get me to agree to do it,” she added, a faint blush painting her cheeks.

Ichigo closed the distance between him and Orihime, and as he did he noticed everyone else in the room tense up and take a step toward them.  He ignored them and took Orihime by the shoulders, bending down to find her eyes.  “Hime, please,” he whimpered.

His father was the one to intervene.  He put a hand on Ichigo’s shoulder and said gently, “I’m so sorry son, I wish it hadn’t come to this.  I should have paid closer attention.  But for your sake and Orihime-chan’s, it is for the best that the two of you don’t see each other anymore.  At least until all this is sorted out.”

“You can’t mean that,” he replied in a more assertive tone, now feeling challenged.

“I’m afraid he does, Kurosaki-san,” Urahara answered for Isshin.  “But, not to worry, I have spoken with your father and Ishida-san, and together we have come up with a training program that we believe will allow you to get your hollow under control.  The hope is that once you can control your hollow effectively, your cravings for Orihime’s restoration will subside.”

“Well, that’s great, but you still can’t make me and Orihime stop seeing each other!” he nearly pleaded, his voice carrying a heavy dose of desperation, as he grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him.

Uryuu reached toward her in response, afraid of what Ichigo might do.  That one small gesture seemed to flip a switch in Ichigo.  His reiatsu flared, his sclera started to flicker black, and his voice started to take on an otherworldly timbre.  He was still in control, but he seemed to be on the same page as his hollow.  The two seemed to speak as one as he said, “Let’s prove it to them then, ‘Hime.”  He pulled Orihime’s arm again, snatching her out of Uryuu’s reach painfully.  “Come on, ‘Hime.  Show them.”

Orihime was frightened and confused.  She could feel Ichigo’s energy becoming darker.  She didn’t want to anger him any further, so she tried her best to act like she couldn’t see his hollow in his eyes.  “What do you want to show them, Ichigo?”

“YOU KNOW WHAT I WANT, ‘HIME!  SHOW THEM HOW IT MAKES ME BETTER!” he screeched in a voice that was more hollow than Ichigo.

Orihime looked around quickly and saw only cautious eyes around her.  Urahara seemed to nod in cautious approval.  Both he and Orihime seemed to be thinking the same thing:  by placating him, perhaps they could prove to him that he was wrong.

“Yes, Inoue-san, go ahead.  Use your restoration technique.  This wand measures someone’s base reiatsu.  I’ve already got a base reading on Kurosaki-san today. Restore him for a while and we’ll take another reading.  Then he’ll see for sure that we are right.”

“Or that you’re wrong,” Ichigo snarked in a shrill voice.  “Come on, then, Queen.  Let’s do this.”

Orihime gulped down her fear and rose her hands to call her power.  As she focused, she knew something was wrong.  Usually she barely had to think about calling her powers and they manifested properly.  This time, nothing was happening.  She tried her incantation.  “Soten Kisshun.”  There was no response.  Orihime began to panic a bit as her hands flew to her hairpins, which she discovered were still in place.

“Come on, Orihime.  Do it!” Ichigo demanded.

“I’m trying, Ichigo,” she cried back, more afraid of not being able to use her power at the moment than she was of him.

“Ayame! Shun-o!  Soten Kisshun, I reject!”  Nothing. “Soten Kisshun, I reject!”  Still nothing.  Orihime began to cry and looked up at Ichigo, “I’m sorry, I am really trying, but they are not coming!  Ayame and Shun-o aren’t answering me.”

Ichigo growled, and his reiatsu flared even more, pushing Orihime back toward Uryuu.  He looked at her and his eyes were unrecognizable.  “What good are you?  Sure, you might have held his attention for a while, Queen, with that sweet little body of yours, but what he really needs is power.”

Ichigo shook his head, and his eyes started to flicker back to normal, when Uryuu spoke up.

“How dare you, Kurosaki!”  Uryuu pulled Orihime back in an attempt to put himself between her and Ichigo.  With that, one of Ichigo’s eyes turned black and the other remained normal as Ichigo and his hollow appeared to fuse consciousness.

Ichigo was in no frame of mind to recognize it, but he felt rejected when Orihime was unable to conjure her power for him.  He felt betrayed by her and Uryuu now. His hollow’s influence on his mind served only to amplify these thoughts in an echo chamber, drowning out all rational thought.   Sand began to billow around Ichigo’s feet as his reiatsu swirled around him, and then, it seemed, all the hurt Ichigo ever felt in his life, all the heartache, pain, sorrow, and anger, coursed through him, causing his reiatsu to grow darker and malevolent.  He had to have an outlet for this inner turmoil. His hollow’s influence made it obvious to him to channel his hurt toward Orihime.

 “Oh, sure, run to the closest warm body, Inoue,” he sneered.  “That’s all you seemed to want from me anyway.  I was just trying to make you happy.”

Orihime began to sob.  Uryuu glared at Ichigo with revulsion.  “How can you say that to her, Kurosaki!  You know she would do anything for you.  She’s only here now to help you.”

“Of course you would say that, Ishida.  You just want to get into her pants.  Well, go ahead.  The rest of you: there is no need to worry.  Apparently Inoue has already moved on and there is no relationship between us to be concerned about,” Ichigo’s fused hollow voice snapped.  Then he turned his attention toward the rest of the room and stormed toward Urahara, “How about that training, then, Hat n’Clogs?” he shouted maniacally.  His spiritual pressure began to destabilize as he approached Urahara, although instead of diminishing, it only increased in a chaotic storm of hollow energy.  He didn’t notice Ryuuken draw his bow until an arrow whizzed toward him, which he grabbed instinctually and snapped with his bare, still human, hand.

Ichigo turned to face Ryuuken but stopped as a gurgly, reptilian voice hissed from his mouth.  Ichigo’s skin began to steam and darken as his enraged hollow attempted to take over Ichigo’s human form completely.  Orihime screamed and tried again to call her powers in an effort to preserve Ichigo’s body from the effects, but again was unsuccessful. 

Isshin began to panic, observing what was potentially the death of his son, and ran to him.  Chad’s reaction was similar.  Both of them were blasted backward and unconscious as wave upon wave of dark, violent reiatsu emanated from Ichigo. Rukia and Tessai attempted kido spells, which were unable to meet their mark.  Renji unleashed Zabimaru, but was quickly stopped by Yoruichi, who was wise enough to recognize that using that attack on Ichigo would either be completely ineffective or kill him, since he was still in a human body.

Urahara knew it was time to play his ace card.  He quickly scanned the room, observing that all those present still wore the necklaces he had handed out earlier, and then spoke calmly, “Time for plan B, Cifer-san.”

The door of the underground immediately opened and shut, but no one noticed.  What everyone did notice was being surrounded by a stifling pressure and the air being stolen from their lungs until the crystal on their necklaces began to glow with an emerald green light, and then as suddenly as it appeared, the sensation was gone, save for their hair still being whipped around their faces.

Ichigo, however, was not so lucky.  It was as if his hollow energy was a flame that was just snuffed out, together with his consciousness.  It took only two seconds for the previously uncontrollable beast to turn into nothing but a singed pile of teenage boy.

Urahara looked up to Ulquiorra and indicated to him to put his suppression necklace back on, and Tessai and Rukia quickly got to work repairing Ichigo’s body.  Ulquiorra descended the ladder and approached Urahara, who remarked kindly on Ulquiorra’s ability to use his reiatsu with such precision, using only enough to neutralize Ichigo but not cause any additional damage.

Rukia looked up to Ulquiorra with a mix of awe and fear.  She was grateful that her friend was still alive, but she was shocked to see the source of that familiar energy in Urahara’s training grounds.

Her shock, however, was no match for Orihime’s.  Her eyes opened incredibly wide as she beheld her former guard.  He looked quite a bit different, without his pallor and hollow mask, and wearing what appeared to be Urahara’s clothing.  Nonetheless, she recognized him instantly.  Her mouth opened, but no sound came out.

Ulquiorra looked at her, concerned.  He didn’t like that she appeared so distraught at seeing him.  He took a few steps toward her, ignoring Uryuu’s warning to leave her alone, and asked her, “Are you afraid, woman?”

Orihime’s knees buckled and she fell unconscious into Uryuu’s arms before she could answer.

-----

A/N: Sorry for the delay!  Thanks for reading.  This chapter is so important to the story and I really wanted to get it right, but it just wasn’t coming out well. I rewrote it more than once and finally have something I feel comfortable posting, although I’m not totally loving how it’s written.  Please let me know what you think.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

December 14th

When Orihime came to, she was alone in a small empty tatami room. She assumed she was still at Urahara's place; it looked like a room that would belong to him. She decided to wait for someone to come get her, thinking she had been put there for a reason. Also, the solitude allowed her some privacy to collect her thoughts about the events of the day.

At first she took a moment to get her bearings. She looked out the window, and saw the dark street below, confirming her suspicion that she was still at Urahara's house. Everything was quiet, and she couldn't feel anyone's specific spiritual pressure. Next she thought to take out her phone to check the time: 5:14 p.m. She had only been unconscious for about twenty minutes. She paced the small room and wondered what was going on elsewhere. She also wondered what was stopping her from going to get her answers herself.

Then she remembered the green eyes that had shocked her to the point of passing out. She backed up to the nearest wall and allowed her back to slide down it until she sat with her knees next to her chin, hands slack at her sides, as her mind finally allowed what she had seen to sink in. For a long moment, all her mind's eye saw were his eyes. She didn't have the capacity to have any feelings about it. It took all her mental strength just to attempt to reconcile what her eyes had shown her with what her heart had known with great certainty: Ulquiorra was dead. Dead as a doornail. And yet, those were his eyes she had seen.

After that long moment had passed, and her mind's eye had temporarily agreed to disagree with her heart, she set aside her disbelief and examined the memory in a bit more detail. Her mind's eye zoomed out from those haunting eyes and focused on the entire person. There in her memory were things that her heart demanded be used as proof that this was not Ulquiorra. The man was not a hollow, first and foremost. His neck and part of his chest had been exposed - he had been wearing Urahara's clothes, after all – and there was no evidence of a hollow hole. The man with Ulquiorra's eyes was also a bit taller than Ulquiorra had been. Not much, but noticeable when he had approached her. His skin was fair, but not bone-white. He showed emotion much more easily that she had ever seen Ulquiorra do. Come to think of it, his pupils were not cat-like, but regular human circle pupils. Were there the tear-like markings on his face? She couldn't recall, and if that was the case then probably not, she reasoned.

For a brief moment, relief washed over her as her heart was satisfied in its conclusion that the man with the enormous reiatsu could not have been Ulquiorra, but only bore a strong resemblance to her former guard. But after that moment had passed, her heart began change, as hearts do; its relieved feeling turning into grief. She had lost him before. She did not want to revisit those memories. Then, she remembered what he had said to her.

'Are you afraid, woman?'

Ah yes. That was indeed his voice. Those were indeed his words. And that was indeed his heart, which she knew he had possessed back in Hueco Mundo, which reached out to hers.

It had all been too much. Even if it had happened separate from Ichigo's intervention, it would have been disturbing and difficult to accept. But as it was, after feeling so abused by Ichigo, the one she had once trusted with her heart and soul, and having her Shun Shun Rikka abandon her, having to subsequently deal with such a dissonant image as Ulquiorra's return at that time was just too much for her to take.

Her Shun Shun Rikka! How could she have forgotten? Her hands flew to her temples and she called for her fairies. They did not appear to her, but she heard Shun-O's voice.

"We are very sorry, Orihime. We must have worried you. But I'm sure if you look inside yourself, you'll understand that we actually were doing your bidding."

Orihime's eyes darted from side to side, looking for the source of the voice.

"Don't worry, Orihime. We are here. We have not left you. You just lack the will to summon us now."

"But why, Shun-O? I called to you so desperately!" she whispered.

Tsubaki answered, "Listen, woman, it's not our fault your boyfriend went berserker. You may have said you wanted to restore him, but we listen to your soul, and it was saying loud and clear not to do it."

Ayame's voice cut him off, "You were afraid, Orihime. You didn't want to provoke him, and believe me, we wanted to protect you, but your soul stood its ground."

Orihime thought about what they said as their voices again faded to the background. She knew she wanted Ichigo to get better. She knew that her restoration wasn't helping him. But was that reason enough for her soul to contradict her consciousness?

"Hmm, if I was my soul, what would I want most?" she asked herself out loud, oblivious to how absurd and contradictory the question was, because as odd as it was, it was the right question to ask. She knew what she wanted deep down. She wanted to be loved by Ichigo. She wanted to be respected by him and accepted into his heart. She knew that when she first started dating him and restoring him, it was done in a loving way, and he was letting her into his heart little by little. But at some point, things changed, and every time she restored him, she was left feeling more used and empty. She had been incrementally walling off her heart from him to protect herself. She also knew, deep down, that every time he took her restoration from her, she fell more and more out of love with him. The Ichigo she originally fell in love with would never do that to her. He would protect her with everything he had. The Ichigo she saw in Urahara's basement was not the boy she loved. She didn't know if he still existed.

She wiped the tears that were silently trailing off her cheeks as she finally articulated to herself that while she hoped that her Ichigo, the one she had gone to Hueco Mundo to protect, was still there, the Ichigo that presented to her recently, the one being manipulated by his hollow and manipulating her in turn, was only going to tear them apart if Ichigo didn't find a way stop it on his own. And she knew there was nothing she could do except to hold her ground and demand that he came to her as her Ichigo, not the imposter she saw in Urahara's training ground earlier. That is why her Shun Shun Rikka wouldn't manifest when called to restore him. They knew what she needed and wanted before she was able to recognize it herself.

Orihime took a deep, shaky breath, and decided she had spent enough time thinking. Just as she was about to open the door, someone knocked on the other side.

"Inoue-san, I'm coming in," the voice of her dear friend Uryuu reached her through the sliding door.

Orihime opened the door for him and offered him a small smile. He looked worried. "How are you feeling? Have you just woken up?"

"I'm alright," she answered, aware that her eyes must be red from crying. "I've been up for the better part of an hour, just thinking about everything."

"I'm so sorry, Inoue-san. I really didn't think it would be that bad." It wasn't just concern for Orihime that rattled his voice, Uryuu himself was clearly troubled by what he had seen and heard.

"How is he?"

"Kurosaki?"

She nodded.

"Still unconscious. At least he was when they left with him."

"Left?" she asked with a slight edge of panic in her voice.

"Yes. Kurosaki-san, Ryuuken, and Urahara decided that he needs to be trained to control his hollow. I am not allowed to tell you where they are taking him; they haven't even told me yet. Once they have him stabilized, I will be brought in to help, so I'll be able to let you know how he's doing. But for now we'll just have to wait. Oh, I'm so sorry, Inoue-san," his own eyes became misty as Orihime started to break down in sobs in front of him. He pulled her to his chest and they both held each other and waited for the pain to subside.

After what felt like a long time, Orihime stepped back and wiped her face with the back of her hand. "So, did they all go?"

"No, Kuchiki-san, Abarai-san, Yoruichi-san, Tessai-san, and our fathers left. Urahara is here. He wants to speak with you. I'm supposed to take you to him when you are ready."

Orihime stood up straight and turned to the door. "I'm ready"

"Ok, here we go," Uryuu said without a lot of confidence, leading the way.

When they arrived in Urahara's office, the shopkeeper stood and bowed to Orihime. "I'm very sorry to have caused you distress, Inoue-san. Please forgive me. I'll explain all that I can." With that he stood and gestured for her to take a seat. She took it, and Uryuu sat next to her.

"Urahara-san, I have many questions, but why don't you start," Orihime offered.

Urahara nodded and crossed his legs. "As we suspected, Kurosaki-san's hollow was manipulating his mind. We were able to witness the extent to which its ability to influence Kurosaki-san reached today, before his was neutralized."

"Yes, I have questions about that, of course. But first, please tell me: what's going to happen to Ichigo? When can I see him again?"

"Right – well, to answer your last question first, I don't know. It is dependent on when Kurosaki-san is able to control his hollow and his urges for your restoration. As for your first question, what I can tell you is that Isshin Kurosaki, Ryuuken Ishida, and Yoruichi-san will be working together with my indirect supervision to help him gain control of his hollow. We have several methods we'd like to try, and hopefully we'll be successful sooner than later. We are going to focus on him being able to resist his hollow's influence and increasing his physical body's ability to contain his hollow simultaneously. Hopefully we will be able to draw on his innate reiatsu to create a way to fortify his physical body. We hope that we will be able to take him to Soul Society sooner than later. We will have more resources at our disposal and it is anticipated that he will finish his training on a shorter timeframe there. In the meantime the cover story is that he is studying abroad for a while."

Orihime nodded, allowing herself to process everything intellectually and putting aside her emotions about the ordeal at present. "And why is your role in Ichigo's training going to be indirect?"

"Well, Inoue-san, I have orders from Soul Society to focus on another matter. And although I am not officially affiliated with Soul Society, the object of my responsibility is under its jurisdiction."

Orihime's eyebrows knit together as she tried to remain patient with Urahara's indirectness. She decided she didn't want to find out how long he could dance around the topic before he became informative, and asked, "So, is that why Ulquiorra is here?"

Urahara laughed nervously, "More or less, yes. I don't know how much you want to know today, but he is the reason I've been so busy. He's also the reason for your jewelry. As you experienced, his reiatsu is immeasurable. The necklaces redirected his reiatsu away from those who wore them and back to him. However, what you experienced was only a fraction of what he is capable of. If he wished, he could have easily destroyed all of Karakura, including those of you wearing these necklaces. Innately, he has the potential to be very dangerous. However, he has no ill intentions and does well suppressing his reiatsu on his own these days. He wears an identical necklace at all times that kind of acts as a suppression device, constantly capturing and redirecting back toward him any unintentional reiatsu flares. However, traces are able to pass through. You were able to detect some about a week ago and paid me a visit, if you'll recall."

Orihime nodded and Urahara continued. "You may also recall the experiment I requested your assistance for in Soul Society. You recognized his reiatsu then, as well, although you told Rukia-san and Matsumoto-san that you were surely mistaken at that time."

Orihime's eyes went wide in shock. "They told you about that?"

"Yes, of course. They had also experienced 'the incident' in Soul Society. They were rightfully concerned that you were on to something."

Orihime was starting to get stressed. "So you are saying that you knew he was alive all that time ago? It has been months! Has he been living here all this time?"

"Please, Inoue-san, understand that I did not know it was him until well after our experiment. There were other factors at play that warranted your participation in the experiment. Now is not the time to divulge that specific information. Regardless, shortly after the experiment I learned that Cifer-san was part of 'the incident'. If you'll recall, I spent months in Soul Society afterward, only permanently returning to Karakura at the beginning of this month. Cifer-san has only been here since then."

Orihime sat back, and looked at Uryuu with an expression that read, 'can you believe this?'. Uryuu shook his head and spoke up. "How is it safe to have a hollow – no - an arrancar with a second release, living here in Karakura?"

"He's not a hollow," Orihime said in a detached voice.

"Inoue-san is right, Ishida-san. He is not a hollow. Nor is he human or shinigami. He is a type of previously unclassified plus. He has no known offensive capabilities apart from the sheer force of his reiatsu. He can do flash step. When he was first reincarnated as a plus in Soul Society, he was in what he informed me was his 'segunda etapa' release, but only insofar as appearances go. He had no zanpakuto and was physically weak. Generally when a soul is reborn in Soul Society, he looks the same as when he died in the living world. In Cifer-san's case, it was as he died in Hueco Mundo. As his soul became acclimatized, his physical form was able to match the humanoid appearance of the population of Soul Society. I don't know he is able to change his appearance anymore. As far as I know he hasn't tried." Urahara was starting to ramble, thinking more about his work than his conversation with Orihime and Uryuu, until Uryuu cleared his throat.

"I'm sorry, I'm allowing myself to get sidetracked. Suffice it to say there is a lot more unknown than there is known. However, I have spent the last few months spending most of my time with Cifer-san and can confidently say that he is not a threat as long as his reiatsu is suppressed. I am working on making a gigai for him that will be more reliable and permanent than the necklaces, but until then he will be confined to my training grounds and office. The poor thing is getting quite bored and lonely."

"Lonely?" Orihime asked, surprised at herself for saying it out loud.

"Yes. I'm sorry to spring this on you now, Inoue-san, but I feel compelled to tell you that Cifer-san is quite anxious to speak with you, and although his existence is news to you, he has been waiting since the experiment. Don't misunderstand, he will certainly continue to wait if you are not ready to meet him, but if you have no objections, he would welcome your presence immediately."

"Does he allow you to call him that?"

"What?" Urahara was thrown off by Orihime dodging his question.

"Does he allow you to call him Cifer-san, or do you do it despite his objections?" she repeated calmly.

"Actually, Cifer-san has never brought it up. Why would he dislike it?" Urahara asked, still feeling like he lost control of the conversation.

"He once told me not to call him as I would a human - with honorifics - and if I was to call him, I should call him 'Ulquiorra'."

"Well, perhaps he is feeling more 'human' these days," Urahara supplied with an uncomfortable laugh. "Anyway, about you speaking with him-"

"I'm sorry, Urahara-san. This is still too much for me to deal with. I can't do it right now. I'll think about it," she stood as if she was ending the conversation. Uryuu picked up on it and stood with her.

"I'll walk you home, Inoue-san," he offered.

"Thank you. I'm sorry for my rudeness, Urahara-san. And thank you for helping Ichigo."

"Of course, Inoue-san. Please stop by anytime, whether to get whatever information I can share about Kurosaki-san's progress or to speak with Cifer-san."

Orihime nodded and left with Uryuu without another word, too mentally exhausted to talk anymore.


"I'm sorry, Cifer-san, she just isn't ready to speak to you. She was very distraught by Kurosaki-san's behavior and she had believed you were dead. She needs some time to process her emotions."

"I understand, Kisuke Urahara."

"Are you going to be alright, Cifer-san?"

"I've waited this long. I can continue to wait."


December 21st

"Kisuke Urahara. Why would the woman persist in avoiding me?"

Urahara rolled his eyes. Ulquiorra had kept it together for a few days, but over the past three or four days his impatience at the situation was beginning to seep through his unemotional façade.

"Be patient, Cifer-san. Would you like some good news?"

"Yes."

"I have a new gigai for you to try."


December 24th

"I believe that does it then. It looks like the 78th's time's the charm!" Urahara exclaimed as he set down his reiatsu wand, satisfied with the final adjustments.

Ulquiorra looked at himself in his new gigai in the mirror and flexed his fists, rolled his shoulders, and tapped his toes to the ground, testing it out.

"This one is more responsive than and not as heavy as the previous attempts."

"Oh, how very generous of you, Cifer-san. Well, let's not waste any more time. Let's get you outside!" Urahara could not contain himself; he was happy for his stoic houseguest, and no lack of gratitude from the former Espada was going to ruin his mood.

The pair ascended the ladder from the training grounds and were making their way out of Urahara's office when they heard a voice from the shop entrance. Her voice.

"Urahara-san? Are you home?"

Both men froze, wide-eyed in disbelief.

Urahara recovered first. "You stay here, Cifer-san," he whispered before calling out, "I'm coming, Inoue-san!"

Ulquiorra could not have moved if he had wanted to. He heard Urahara's muffled voice from the next room as he spoke to the woman. He heard her voice reply. He couldn't make out what they were saying.

Before he knew it, Urahara peeked back into the room that Ulquiorra was waiting in, face stretched into a wide grin. "She wants to see you!" he squealed and gave him a thumbs up before disappearing again.

Ulquiorra took a step forward and then hesitated, nervous. The last thing he wanted was a repeat of their last exchange. Before he could mentally prepare himself, Urahara returned to the room with Orihime in tow.

"Please, you two, make yourselves comfortable. I'll be in my office if you need me," Urahara gestured to the low tables and cushions on the floor. They were in the same room that Ichigo's birthday party had been held in. Urahara left the room still smiling, despite the awkward feelings of the rooms other two occupants.

Orihime sat first, keeping her eyes focused on her hands. Ulquiorra stood, seemingly trapped in a state of suspended animation, until Orihime cleared her throat and quietly spoke. "I'm sorry, Ulquiorra."

His name on her lips; had it always sounded so gentle? He pondered this as his feet moved him closer to her unbidden. Before he knew what he was doing, he was sitting seiza before her, palms flat on the tatami, and bringing his forehead down to the floor as well. "I am the one who should apologize, woman. You have done nothing wrong."

Orihime was at a loss for words, watching him nearly prostrate himself before her. Finally she stammered, "Please, Ul, Ulquiorra, please stop."

Slowly, Ulquiorra raised his head and met her gaze. They sat there, the two of them staring at each other, transfixed. Neither could seem to truly believe what he/she saw across the table. Orihime subconsciously shook her head in disbelief, breaking Ulquiorra's spell. He was again hit with a wave of shame and looked down.

"Ulquiorra, if you don't mind, please let me see your face. I never thought I'd see it again, and I'm having a hard time believing my own eyes. I feel like the little blue men are playing with my mind," she said somewhat dreamily.

"Little blue men?" Ulquiorra asked, quirking an eyebrow.

Orihime gasped at the expression. She had seen him irritated, disinterested, and enraged. A week ago she thought she had seen concern on his face. Before he died she was sure she saw regret. All of those previous variations in expression were rather miniscule in their degrees of differentiation. This one, however, this confused quirk of the brow, was so animated and out of character for him that after a long moment of widening eyes, she couldn't help but snort out a laugh, followed by an blush of embarrassment. She covered her face, apologized for laughing, and after she caught her breath, she peeked back up at him. He was back to his usual blank expression.

She looked at the details of him. He was Ulquiorra, all right. If she wasn't paying attention, she saw him how he used to be, bone pale, tear-tracked, and untouchable. But little by little, it was sinking in how much his appearance, and now flashes of his demeanor, had changed.

"It's really you, isn't it?" she asked quietly.

"Yes," he answered softly.

"I never thought I'd see you again."

"I'm sorry if my presence disturbs you."

"No!" she denied sharply. "I'm not… I mean… I'm glad you are…" She shook her head, trying to get her thoughts in order, and then looked at her lap again. "I felt like we left things unfinished when you died. I am grateful that you are alive, in whatever way this is."

She looked into his eyes after she spoke, and saw him staring back at her intensely. His nostrils flared as he inhaled an uneven breath.

Ulquiorra's chest tightened and filled at the same time. He was unable to identify what was happening to him. His heartrate began to increase, and his mind was flooded with questions for her, but he felt unable to articulate them.

"Are you alright, Ulquiorra?" she asked in a concerned voice. His inner turmoil was evident.

"Er, yes. Thank you for your kindness, woman," he spoke in that familiar, velvety timbre, causing her to relax as a small, lazy smile took over her expression.

"Ah, how nostalgic. You look different, Ulquiorra, but your voice is the same," she smiled.

"And this pleases you?"

"Yes."

"I am surprised."

"Why?"

"I would have thought you would want to erase me from your memory."

"I would never do that, Ulquiorra," she countered gently.

"But why, woman? Why would you want to recall such a dark time in your life, and the person who was responsible for it?"

"If you'll recall, Ulquiorra, I chose to go with you. And you were merely following orders."

"Not at the end, I wasn't."

"…I know."

"Then why?"

Orihime hesitated again. "Promise you won't be mad?"

"No, but I suspect I won't be."

"Because of the heart."

He sunk deeper onto his haunches, confused.

"Don't look at me like that, Ulquiorra. You know it's true. Before you died, you felt it, didn't you?"

"I do not know."

It was Orihime's turn to look defeated.

"I'm not denying it, woman. Although I have many memories of my previous incarnation, I do not have access to all of them. I had hoped that by speaking with you, I would be provided with clarification."

"Oh. Is this helping? Do you feel like things are getting clearer?"

"To the contrary. I feel more confused." Ulquiorra appeared despondent.

"I'm sorry. I'll go." Orihime got up and began to leave before Ulquiorra knew what was going on. She was embarrassed. She had said too much, and he didn't even know what she was talking about. She felt ashamed of herself.

She was several paces outside when he caught up with her. "Woman!" he shouted as he scrambled to catch up to her on the icy pavement. He had not had enough practice in his new gigai to maneuver over the slick surface. As he reached her he attempted to stop but continued his forward motion, his feet sliding in opposite directions as he tried unsuccessfully to find traction. His upper body lurched forward to compensate, and he began what was sure to be a very hard fall onto his backside, before he heard Orihime's voice call out, "I reject!"

His fall was broken by her shield, and she approached him. She grabbed him by the elbows and helped him to steady on his feet. He latched his hands onto her upper arms, still unsteady. When he stopped wobbling, she looked up into his face, waiting to find the reason he had come after her with no coat and wearing his indoor slippers.

He didn't let go of her, but stared into her eyes with burning curiosity. "I am sorry I upset you, woman, and I don't know why, but I know that thoughts of you are by far the most compelling ones I have had during this, albeit short, lifetime. I have a great desire to learn what it is about you that draws me to you. I feel that you have much to teach me, woman. It is selfish to ask, but would you allow me to meet you again?"

The look on his face was so sincere. Orihime didn't have much of an icy exterior in the first place, but despite that she melted into a puddle of what, affection? Could it be called that? She wasn't sure, but she did know she could not refuse him, not when she also wanted a chance to rectify the past.

She smiled up to him and nodded with a cheerful, "Mmhmm!"

Ulquiorra released her and looked at her, mystified by the abrupt change in her demeanor.

"Oh, before I go, I have something for you, Ulquiorra." She passed him a smallish box.

He took it and examined it. It was covered in red patterned paper. "Open it when you get inside. Urahara-san will know what it is. Ask him to contact me to arrange another meeting. Good night, Ulquiorra. Merry Christmas!" She smiled again, turned, and started walking home.

When Ulquiorra finished his very careful journey back to the Shoten (which consisted of only several steps), he went back to the tatami room and placed the box on one of the tables. The woman had told him to open it, but not how to accomplish the task.. He examined the box and found a seam in the paper. Pulling on it, the red paper ripped, revealing a white box underneath. Carefully, he pulled open what he had correctly guessed was a tab opening and saw a white wedge with a strawberry on top. He called Urahara in to explain the mystery object to him.

"Well well, what do we have here, Cifer-san?"

"That is why I have asked you for clarification, Kisuke Urahara. The woman informed me you would know."

"Of course I do, Cifer-san, it was just an expression. This is a slice of Christmas cake." Urahara removed the protective plastic sides from the slice, revealing a layer of sliced strawberries and whipped cream.

"Oh. What does it do?" Ulquiorra asked.

"Nothing. You eat it, Cifer-san. I'll get you a fork."

Urahara returned with the fork and gave it to Ulquiorra, trying in vain to suppress his amusement. Ulquiorra ignored him and took a bite.

It was mind-blowing.

"What kind of cake did you say this is, Kisuke Urahara?"

"Christmas cake."

The woman had said 'merry Christmas' to him before she left.

"So this is Christmas. I enjoy Christmas," Ulquiorra said flatly.

Urahara covered his mouth and began to leave the room, although he was able to say before he burst into laughter, "Glad to hear it Cifer-san."


Thank you for reading, one and all. Please let me know what you think with a review or PM! Happy New Year!

Chapter Text

Saturday, December 27th

Urahara had set up another meeting between Orihime and Ulquiorra for today at 2:00 p.m. Orihime stood before her full-length mirror, wondering why she cared what she looked like. She knew she wanted to present herself in a certain way, especially to Ulquiorra, but she was unsure how much of what she tried to convey would be understood by the former Espada. It was important to her to look strong and confident. She wanted at least her appearance to project an image of a young woman in control, especially since she felt like her world was falling apart recently.

While she was very interested in helping Ulquiorra find his 'heart', she was wary of falling back into their previous patterns, when he would freely attempt to bring her down. She was cautiously optimistic that he had fundamentally changed since Hueco Mundo, but she had the sense to be on guard, and for a reason she couldn't grasp, she thought her fashion choices were an essential part or her psychological armor.

It finally occurred to her that it was its resemblance to her Las Noches uniform that was the problem with the white turtleneck sweater dress she had on before she peeled it off and stood in her bra and black leggings, looking herself over in the undergarments. She took a moment to observe that she had grown well over the past year; her posture was better than ever. She was a bit taller and her bust and hips balanced each other out nicely; despite her generous cup size she didn't appear too top-heavy. As she made these assessments she noticed that her loose, wavy hair skimmed the tip of her tailbone. 'Time for a trim soon,' she thought, before her eyes locked onto her alarm clock. She was going to be late if she didn't hurry.

She took out a rust-colored tunic, which nearly went down to her knees when it was belted, with long blousy sleeves and a square neckline. She pulled it on and cinched it with a brown leather belt which matched the tall boots she had waiting for her at the front door. She looked back into the mirror, adjusted her blue hairpins, and nodded at her reflection, thinking that it would have to do before grabbing her purse and coat and scurrying to her door.

When she arrived at Urahara's, she was surprised that Ulquiorra answered the door himself. "Hello," he said quietly, his voice retaining the ability to travel its intended distance despite its low volume.

Orihime wondered at this, thinking perhaps it was the deep pitch of his voice; she vaguely recalled some nature program she had seen on television about animals with subsonic vocalizations which could travel long distances. She remembered something about elephants, and smiled to herself as she imagined a grumbling elephant with heavy black eyebrows and green eyes.

"Woman, what amuses you?" Ulquiorra broke her train of thought, bringing her back to the present.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I let my mind wander." 'Great,' she thought to herself. 'So much for projecting an in-control image.'

Ulquiorra just stared at her and stepped aside to allow her to enter. She didn't notice, looking to the side and chewing the inside of her cheek in mild embarrassment.

"Woman, I am not dressed for the weather, and this gigai is quite sensitive to variations in temperature. If you would like to meet outdoors I will request a coat –"

"No! I'm sorry, let's go inside," Orihime blurted as she scooted past him, careful not to make physical contact as he held the door open over her head. Once inside, she stepped out of her boots and into a pair of the guest slippers lined up next to the genkan, shrugging out of her coat and carefully laying it over her arm which held her purse.

Ulquiorra led the way back to the tatami room they had met in last time. It was set with two cushions on either side of the table closest to the opposite wall. Ulquiorra sat went to the wall side, leaving Orihime the spot closer to the door.

Orihime sat, setting down her coat and purse gingerly, nervously adjusting her seat position as she waited for Ulquiorra to start. She inwardly scolded herself for letting her unease show. She decided to take control of the situation, and looked up at Ulquiorra with a pleasant smile, prepared to start some small talk, until she saw his expression.

His eyes were burning, looking at her as if she held the answers to all the universe's questions, if only he could crack her skull open to find them. It was unsettlingly familiar. Her smile dropped a bit, and she raised a hand to the back of her head, asking, "Is there something you wanted to know, Ulquiorra?" adding an awkward giggle.

"Yes." Flat and emotionless was his voice, although his intense expression didn't let up.

"Well, try as you might, I don't think you can read my mind. I think you'll have to ask…" she trailed off, wilting slightly under the pressure of his gaze.

"Indeed," he replied with a slight sigh and closing his eyes, much to Orihime's relief. He did not speak for a long moment, and just as Orihime was about to open her mouth to end the tense silence, he said, "Thank you."

"Um, for what?"

"The cake. I quite enjoyed it."

"Oh," she paused, slightly wary of his formality given the topic of conversation. "You – you're welcome."

"Why did you give it to me?"

'Leave it to him to ask the difficult questions first,' "It was, um, a peace offering?"

"Is the war not already over?"

"No, I mean, yes, the war is over, but I was rude, and I thought the cake would make it easier for you to forgive me."

"You fool yourself."

"What?" Orihime's smile dropped, suddenly worried he was still upset with her.

"You convinced yourself that you needed forgiveness-" a flash of inspiration appeared on his face as he cut his thought short, "Or is it your habit to needlessly apologize?"

Orihime was offended now. "I… I don't…" she tried to deny it but couldn't come up with a valid defense. She did often try to smooth things over with undeserved apologies. Her shoulders slumped as she looked at her hands and sighed.

"I have offended you."

She breathed another heavy sigh and looked up. She was surprised to see a hint of self-doubt in his expression. "No, you are right. I do 'needlessly apologize'. I don't know why I do that. I guess I just want everyone to be happy all the time."

"Woman, I do not have the range of experience with emotions that you do, but in this short existence, I have not seen any evidence to support the idea that such an apology would cause the recipient happiness."

Orihime couldn't put a finger on how she felt at the moment. Memories of Hueco Mundo started to swim around in the back of her mind. This was exactly what she had intended to avoid. She felt defensive and pitiful at the same time. She could not make a decision about how to react before he continued.

"On the other hand, that cake did cause me happiness."

Her swirling thoughts screeched to a halt. Did he just say he had been happy?

"You can feel happiness?"

"Yes." His face was as flat as it had ever been.

She couldn't believe it. It was just too comical. Here he was, the former embodiment of despair, chatting about how cake made him happy. The laugh that bubbled forth was uncontrollable. Every time she opened her eyes to see the growing confusion on his face, she was wracked with another wave of giggles. After a minute, she gripped her aching stomach as tears began to form in the corners of her eyes, knowing that if she couldn't get this under control she was going to start hyperventilating.

"Woman, have you gone mad?"

She looked up to see his expression grow fearful and she lost all control. After a minute, she managed to wheeze in a breath and pressed the tears from her eyes as she fell backward onto the tatami. Opening her eyes to the ceiling, she started to calm down, squeezing her cheeks as a laugh here and there snuck through her controlled breathing. Once she seemed to have the giggles under control, she closed her eyes for a moment, trying to further calm her breathing.

When she opened her eyes again, she shrieked. Ulquiorra's face was about a foot and a half away, looking down at her as he knelt by her side. As she began to frantically scoot backward, his hands fell onto her shoulders, holding her in place.

"Kisuke Urahara!" he called out in alarm. The shopkeeper had been in his office two rooms away. In an instant he was kneeling on Orihime's other side.

"What happened, Cifer-san?" he asked, ready to take remedial action for whatever affliction Orihime was experiencing.

"The woman is malfunctioning," he answered, his voice betraying his genuine fear.

Orihime grasped Ulquiorra's wrists and attempted to push him off of her, but it was useless. Surrendering, she sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes over to Urahara. "Could you please explain to Cifer-san what a laughing fit is?" she asked, half whining, as Urahara's expression crinkled Up into a knowing grin.

Urahara chuckled and pushed Ulquiorra gently by the shoulders until he released Orihime. "After your visit I will certainly do so, Inoue-san. Cifer-san, you remember when I told you that Inoue-san likes to laugh? That is all this is, do not worry." The shopkeeper stood, offering Orihime a hand to get back to an upright position. "I'll leave you two to finish your conversation, but I'm right down the hall if you need me," he said as he left.

Orihime shook her head in disbelief as she turned her attention back to Ulquiorra, who was going back to his original seat. As she did she thought about what Urahara had said. Her eyebrows shot up and she refocused on Ulquiorra. "You guys talked about me?"

"Yes." Again he was a statue.

"Well? What about?" She was amused.

"You enjoy the television program, 'Laugh Hour'."

Orihime laughed again briefly. "It's true. I probably enjoy it more than you enjoy cake," she teased mildly, although her intent was lost on Ulquiorra, who became lost in thought, wondering if it was truly possible for a person to enjoy such a ridiculous program more than the divine combination of whipped cream, strawberries and shortcake.

When he didn't respond, Orihime concluded that his social skills probably needed some work before she started teasing him. She decided to change the topic to something she thought would be easier for him to discuss.

"What have you been up to since we last met?"

Ulquiorra refocused on her and began to report to her his activities, including helping with chores around Urahara's home, reading, and watching television.

"Have you been outside?"

"Yes. Kisuke Urahara has walked with me around the neighborhood, but we did not go far."

"Oh really? Why, is he worried about something?" Orihime asked, wondering if Ulquiorra was in any danger.

"No. I did not wish to be seen by other humans as I am now."

Orihime was surprised that Ulquiorra would be concerned about his appearance, and began to feel sorry for him. "Why wouldn't you like the way you look?"

Ulquiorra looked down at his body. "This apparel is… unsatisfactory."

Orihime nodded thoughtfully as she looked at Urahara's clothes on him. The fit wasn't perfect, but the clothes weren't so big as to look terrible. They weren't very fashion-forward; most people didn't wear that kind of traditional clothing regularly. She wondered if Ulquiorra picked up on that. She decided to ask. "What about that outfit bothers you?"

"Well, many things, but mostly I don't want to be seen doing 'pair look' with Kisuke Urahara."

Orihime's eyebrows shot up in surprise at this before she covered her mouth in an attempt to stop her laughter from getting out of control again. She succeeded in only laughing for a few seconds before mentioning, "I am impressed that you know what that is, Ulquiorra!"

"Well, for the first few weeks in the World of the Living I had a lot of time alone, and Kisuke Urahara provided me with a television. I was able to pick up some knowledge of popular culture during that time. I was able to discern that 'pair look' is not an activity in which two grown men are meant to engage."

Orihime leaned back on her palms and smiled at him, as she thought about how different he was. The Ulquiorra she knew from Hueco Mundo would not care at all for social norms. On the other hand, she kept calling Urahara by his full name. She wondered if no one had tried to correct him. "Ulquiorra, why do you call Urahara-san by his full name?"

"I have not considered the reason." Ulquiorra seemed to think about it for a moment. "I started calling him that when he was studying me in Soul Society, because that is how he had introduced himself, and I think it has just become a habit now."

"But you know it is unconventional, right?" Orihime asked gently. Ulquiorra nodded slowly, seeming to consider what she was saying, before she continued, "I think it would be better for you to call him 'Urahara-san'. It sounds more polite, and definitely friendlier than calling him by his full name; that sounds kind of confrontational."

Ulquiorra nodded again and looked Orihime in the eye. "I will take it under advisement."

Orihime smiled in approval and continued. "Perhaps we can ask Urahara-san if you can have some different clothes." Ulquiorra didn't object, so Orihime called out to him and asked as he came in the room.

Urahara smiled and answered, "That can be arranged. I did buy alternative clothing for him, but he looked so smart in this outfit that I didn't have the heart to take it away from him. Unfortunately, the clothes I have for him are rather plain and I only bought one set. I had thought he would enjoy choosing his own clothing."

"Oh yes! Shopping is so fun, Ulquiorra. There are so many places around Karakura that have really reasonable prices and a good selection," Orihime cut in, excitement visible on her face.

Urahara raised his fan in front of his face and arched a mischievous eyebrow. "What a wonderful idea, Inoue-san. I think Cifer-san would enjoy shopping with someone who knows what is fashionable for kids in Karakura, you know, to help him blend in. Plus, he is due for an outing. Perhaps tomorrow? I don't want to keep you too much longer today; it will be getting dark soon."

Urahara was putting words in her mouth, but she didn't object. "Ok, I guess I can do my homework tonight." she replied, her confusion evident.

"Wonderful! Cifer-san can buy you lunch for your trouble, don't you think, Cifer-san?"

Ulquiorra looked at the shopkeeper with a bewildered expression.

"It's agreed then! I'm afraid our dear Cifer-san does not know his way around town, so if you would be so kind, Inoue-san, please meet him here around noon tomorrow. Also, Cifer-san receives a generous allowance, isn't that right, Yoruichi-san?"

The black cat sat in the doorway responded, "That's true, so don't hold back in your menu choice. I'll show you out, Orihime."

"Oh, alright, thank you, Yoruichi-san; Urahara-san. I'll see you tomorrow then, Ulquiorra," she stammered as she rose and followed Yoruichi, turning and bowing to the room's remaining occupants when she reached the door.

After she had left and Ulquiorra was set to work helping stock the shop, Yoruichi hopped onto Urahara's shoulder as he worked in his office. "What was that all about, Kisuke?"

"Well, he needs to be socialized and learn about what's normal, which you and I definitely are not. Who better to do it than someone who knows him?"

A moment later, Ulquiorra appeared at the entrance to the office. "I have a question, Urahara-san."

Urahara and Yoruichi looked at each other in surprise at the way Ulquiorra addressed him, before Urahara turned back to take Ulquiorra's question.

Yoruichi shook her head. She had to give Urahara credit – this would be much faster than trying to teach him these things on their own.

Sunday, December 28th

Orihime arrived just before noon. She was greeted by Jinta, who more or less ignored her but shouted up the stairs to Ulquiorra to announce her presence. She waited in the genkan for just a moment before she heard his soft footfalls down the stairs. When he rounded the corner to the entryway Orihime was stunned. If she didn't know any better, she would think he was just a regular guy around her age. His clothes weren't anything special, just jeans and a dark gray sweater with a white t-shirt underneath, but that is what made the image so unexpected.

"Are you ready to go?" Ulquiorra asked with a tinge of exasperation, slipping his arms into a black peacoat. He was clearly ready to get the hell out of there. Orihime could hear Urahara and Yoruichi bickering in the distance, and from what she was able to comprehend it was about Ulquiorra. He quickly bent down to tie his shoelaces, his hair fluttering a bit as he did, and Orihime was hit with a pleasant waft of shampoo fragrance.

"Mmm, what kind of shampoo do you use, Ulquiorra?"

"I do not know, but it has a picture of a wet leaf on it. I find it preferable to the one Yoruichi uses."

Ah, rain scent. I thought it was familiar. "What does Yoruichi-san use?"

"It has a picture of a cat and a dog on it."

Orihime giggled at the thought of Ulquiorra inadvertently using pet shampoo. "Yeah, I think you should steer clear of that one."

Ulquiorra didn't respond, but led the way outside of the shop, hands in his pockets, back ramrod straight, as he took the same long, effortless strides that Orihime had familiarized herself with in Las Noches. Ulquiorra came to a halt once they came to the nearest intersection, looking over his shoulder at Orihime. "I have been instructed to follow you today. This is also the extent to which I have walked before. Please lead the way to the place you have chosen for lunch."

Orihime nodded and walked ahead. "I'm not sure what you like to eat, so I chose something with a lot of variety."

"I believe this exercise is to show appreciation for your help in today's mission. As such, you should select an establishment that is to your liking without regard to my preferences."

"Oh, this place is definitely to my liking," Orihime responded, as she led the way to a large looking place with a sign that read, 'Stamina Taro'.

Before they entered, Orihime explained how it worked: you pay a set price up front and then you can eat as much as you want for 90 minutes. The young woman at the cash register welcomed them as they came in and gave Ulquiorra a long appreciate look up and down before ringing them up.

Once they had their booth number, they deposited their coats there and went to the buffet. Orihime guided Ulquiorra through, explaining what everything was and how he could take a new plate each time he went to get more food, and that he could use as many plates as he could carry per trip, before leaving him to his own devices and filling a plate with sushi, fruity gelatin, seaweed salad, some french fries, and fried chicken, as well as a side of chocolate sauce which she pinched from the sundae station (for her fries, of course).

Ulquiorra was not as well-versed in food as Orihime, but he did know one thing: he really liked cake. He went straight for the desserts, examining each of the offerings carefully. Each was labeled with foreign-sounding names like tiramisu, gateau au chocolat, matcha mille feuille, crème brulee, Earl Grey sponge, and mango mousse. He tried to decide which of the miniature pieces looked best before giving up and getting one of each.

When he returned to the table, Orihime was a third of the way through her plate already, but took a break to let him know that he needed to be careful not to burn himself or anything else on the grill in the center of the table, and that she would choose some meats for them to try when she finished what she was eating. When she finished speaking, she took another bite and then looked up and saw what he had on his plate, and had to swallow quickly to avoid spitting out what was in her mouth. "Whoa, Ulquiorra, that's a lot of dessert. Be careful you don't give yourself a stomach ache."

Ulquiorra looked at her perplexed, and she explained the effects of eating too much sugar at once. He nodded and took her advice, just having one bite of each item and then only finishing his favorite. It was easier said than done, at first. By the time he polished off the tiramisu (he decided it was by far the best), his stomach was beginning to protest.

Orihime shared some of the remaining items on her plate with him, and they grilled thinly slices pieces of beef, vegetables, and baby octopus. Ulquiorra decided he liked the octopus tentacles, but not the bodies. He preferred mushrooms and pumpkin to onion and carrot. He also thought that french fries with chocolate sauce were good, although probably better before eating as much cake as he had. After about forty-five minutes, they were both stuffed and ready to admit defeat.

"Thank you for lunch, Ulquiorra. That was, um, fun."

Ulquiorra felt like he didn't have a frame of reference to properly respond other than to tell her she was welcome, so he did just that. Orihime smiled and nodded in response and they left the restaurant to go to an area several blocks away that had a lot of fashionable second hand clothing stores and cheaper new clothing stores. On the way Orihime decided to do some research.

"Do you have a favorite color?"

"Yes. White."

Orihime chocked back a groan. "Okay, what is your second favorite? And don't say black, that doesn't count."

Ulquiorra paused and thought about it, before becoming frustrated. "Woman, if you'll recall the majority of my existence my world consisted almost solely of black and white."

"Alright then, I'll just have to choose colors for you. You can't only wear black and white. You're not in Las Noches anymore."

They entered the first store, and Orihime went through racks with Ulquiorra on her heel, picking out various garments and putting them in his arms to try on later. "You look to be about a size medium, but you'll have to try these on to be sure," she said offhandedly.

They were both silent for a while as the continued in this fashion. Orihime sent Ulquiorra into a fitting room to try some things on for size. She was right about his general size, but he had to try on several bottoms to get his waist and leg length right. Once that was sorted, they went back to the racks and Orihime picked out things that she thought would complement him, sticking much to white and black despite what she had said earlier, but mixing it up with greens, grays, navys, and browns. She even had him try on some brighter colors, but found they looked garish with his pale skin and inky black hair. Ulquiorra deferred to Orihime for the most part. He was distracted.

Finally he tried on something that Orihime really appreciated. It wasn't anything fabulous, per se, just a dark button-down and a pair of tailored trousers, but the fit was just right. She stood quietly admiring her selection, looking up and down Ulquiorra's elegant figure.

Ulquiorra blushed under her gaze, not sure why he was reacting that way, but feeling self-conscious nonetheless. When she noticed, she murmured, "It unexpectedly suits you."

His eyes darted to hers, remembering he had said the same thing to her about her Las Noches uniform. As he looked into her eyes searching for the significance in her choice of words, Orihime cracked, a half smile appearing on her lips, before she broke eye contact and snuffled out a laugh. She looked back at him and smiled normally.

"You did that on purpose." Ulquiorra accused.

"I did," Orihime smirked. "You shocked me when you said it to me back then. I wasn't sure you would remember. Did I surprise you?" Orihime couldn't hide her glee at the thought of shocking the unflappable Ulquiorra.

"You did." His voice was impassive, but he was unable to hide his deepening blush.

Orihime could sense that Ulquiorra was starting to become uncomfortable. "I'm sorry for teasing you, Ulquiorra, but these clothes really do look good on you. You should buy them," she said encouragingly with a nod.

Ulquiorra exhaled and his redness faded. After a moment he looked up and to Orihime's great shock, he was smiling.

"Thank you," he said as he turned back into the dressing room, smirking at her reaction.

They stopped at several more shops, stocking Ulquiorra up with socks, a few pair of shoes, underwear, pajamas, and enough regular clothes to get him through the rest of the winter and early spring. Although it was getting dark, Orihime walked him back to the shop, fearing he would get lost, and, feeling tired, left him at the door.

After she said goodbye, she turned around to see Uryuu standing across the street, staring at her. At first she was frightened; he had done a perfect job concealing his spiritual pressure.

"What were you doing out with him?" he demanded as he crossed the street toward her.

"Uh, shopping. What are you doing here, Ishida-kun?"

Uryuu wasn't sure himself, except once he had sense the two of them together, he couldn't stop worrying about why, and ended up tailing them all day, not that he was going to let Orihime know about that.

"Er, I happened to see you walking back and I followed to see if you were alright. You are, aren't you?"

"Yes, it was actually a nice distraction, it's been hard lately, you know?" She looked up into his face and the sadness she had shown after Ichigo's intervention showed.

Uryuu nodded, feeling a bit guilty for questioning her motives. He smiled at her pleasantly and offered, "Yeah, let me walk you home, it's dark out," deciding to save his questions for later.

Chapter Text

 

Monday, December 29th. 6:45 a.m.

It was the first day of winter break. Uryuu lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing he was the kind of person who could sleep in. Things had been relatively dull for him without Ichigo around. A new, unremarkable shinigami had been stationed in Karakura and there were no extra hollows to deal with. Orihime had been mostly keeping to herself, with the exception of her occasional visits with a certain ex-Espada who he felt did not deserve to be named.

He tried not to think about those two together. It was infuriating when he did. He understood that Ulquiorra was supposedly purified by Ichigo's zanpakuto, but still… he wasn't sure if it was his Quincy pride or what, but he wasn't going to easily accept the so-called "facts" as Urahara had presented them relative to the guy who had once cut off his left hand and killed his friend. As far as Uryuu was concerned, Ulquiorra didn't deserve forgiveness.

Uryuu understood that Orihime was very forgiving – that she put up with Ichigo's recent failure as a boyfriend for so long was proof enough – but he thought that there had to be limits, even for her. But to his dismay, he had followed Orihime and Ulquiorra around the previous afternoon, and the whole time Orihime acted like they were two old friends. As Uryuu walked her home afterward, Orihime had told him animatedly about how they had had a nice time at lunch and when they went shopping they had even been teasing one another! She went on and on talking about how much he had changed and how they would be seeing each other a lot more often, she thought. It was unbelievable. Surely she didn't think of him as a friend, could she? Or worse, a stand-in for Kurosaki? She only seemed to be happy when she was talking about Ulquiorra these days, so it was a possibility, he worried.

Uryuu was starting to get a headache. He blindly fished around in his bedside table's drawer for a bottle of ibuprofen, when his phone rang. It was his father.

"Ryuuken," he mumbled as he pressed the phone to his ear.

"Uryuu," Ryuuken answered, with an uncharacteristic weariness. "We are ready for you."

"At the hospital?"

"Yes."

"I can be there in an hour."

"Make it 45 minutes. I have a hospital to run too, you know."

Uryuu hung up without another word, and then, groaning, hoisted himself out of bed and into the shower.

Uryuu arrived at the hospital with time to spare. He walked past the check-in station without acknowledging the scrawny middle-aged woman who sat there; everyone there knew who he was and no one dared ask the director's son any questions, except, perhaps, his father's secretary, who would not be in at this hour. Uryuu walked through his father's office straight to a hidden door located to the left of the desk, concealed at the seams by some decorative half-columns. Uryuu knew the dark path well; at the end of these stairs was the place where his father had trained him after he lost his Quincy powers.

Not sure what would be waiting for him on the other side of the door, he knocked first. His father opened the door and looked down at his watch. Seeing his son was on time, he simply looked away without comment. Uryuu glared at the back of his head, until he heard a familiar voice say, "Yo, Ishida!"

"You're looking much better than the last time I saw you, Kurosaki," Uryuu replied. He was glad to see Ichigo's skin had healed and there was no sign of his hollow.

"Yeah, it took a few days for my injuries to heal-"

"You two can chat after I leave," Ryuuken interrupted. Ichigo jumped to the side, and Uryuu eyed Ryuuken as he loosed an arrow toward the spot where Ichigo had stood a split-second before.

"Are you trying to kill him?" Uryuu complained, his father taking a moment to light the cigarette clenched in his teeth before drawing his bow again, squinting his eyes to shield them from the smoke curling toward his face. He missed again, tsking at himself, before answering.

"I'm trying to help him, although I'm not sure why," Ryuuken answered. "This is taking too long." Ryuuken put the bow down, rolling his stiff shoulders, and looking back at Uryuu. "I believe this will be easier," he muttered, before pulling out a Seele Schneider blade and thrusting it toward Uryuu.

Uryuu was pushed backward by an unseen force, and immediately thereafter his view of his father was blocked by Ichigo. Ryuuken leapt into the air and lunged again for his son. Ichigo again interfered. This continued for a few moments, allowing Uryuu the opportunity to make an unbelievable observation: Ichigo was not using Shunpo or Sonido to move as quickly as he did. He was using Quincy Hirenkyaku!

Uryuu's shoulders sunk as he watched his father and Ichigo continue their dance, until finally Ryuuken flicked his spent cigarette away and sheathed his Seele Schneider. Ichigo was bleeding from his forearm slightly, and had a scratch on his cheek. Ryuuken spoke. "Better. Still not good. I have to go to work. You," he looked to Ichigo, "tell him what he needs to know," he said as he indicated toward Uryuu. "When he's up to speed, start sparring."

With that, Ryuuken left the two boys alone.

Uryuu was still sitting on the floor, flabbergasted. Ichigo looked at him and half-grinned, grabbing for some bandaging tape on a nearby cart, before looked down to start wrapping his forearm. "Surprise," he said weakly, looking back at Uryuu with a somewhat contrite expression.


Monday, December 29th. 8:00 a.m .

Orihime had kept her schedule open for winter break. She had hoped that somehow she would have a chance to meet with Ichigo, and she didn't want to have some lesser plans getting in the way of an opportunity to see him. It had been a day and two weeks since his intervention, and she had yet to hear a word on his progress or when they could see each other again, apart from Urahara's assurances that Ichigo was safe.

After he was first taken away, she was mostly numb. A small part of her was relieved that he was gone and couldn't damage their relationship anymore. A larger part felt ashamed of herself for feeling that way. More than anything, though, she dreaded missing him. It took two days, and then she started to feel it: the expansive emptiness that followed her around in his absence. After the war, when he had lost his powers and drifted away from her, it was difficult and painful. Now, after all they had been through as a couple, it felt nearly impossible.

She was still Orihime though, and she knew she had to hold onto the positives. She was glad for school and her friends and the routine there. She was glad for the hope she held onto for Ichigo's recovery. And she was, surprisingly, mostly glad for Ulquiorra.

Ulquiorra had proven himself an excellent distraction. She justified her feelings to herself easily; reminding herself that Ichigo would want her to do her best to keep moving forward while she waited for him. Ulquiorra was the perfect project to keep her occupied to that end, plus it gave her renewed hope: if Ulquiorra could have a second chance, why couldn't she and Ichigo?

So, all things considered, she had been coping fairly well until today. It was dark and cloudy, and she sat on the floor of her living room with no plans and no distractions. She was starting to feel lonely. She let her spiritual awareness extend out, looking for a connection. She hadn't been able to feel Ichigo's presence since he had been taken away, though Urahara had explained he was being housed at a sealed location, so she didn't expect to find him. She sensed Chad almost immediately; he lived nearby and based on the peaceful hum of his reiatsu, he was still sound asleep on this first day of break. She smiled softly and pressed her awareness further afield, quickly finding the quiet tension of Tatsuki's familiar spirit. Tatsuki didn't have a lot of reiatsu, but if Orihime sought it out, she could almost always find it. It was no surprise that it came from to dojo; she had told Orihime she'd be at practice but would talk to her later in the day.

She didn't want to wait until later in the day. She needed someone to talk to now. She searched for Uryuu. He always seemed to have the right thing to say when she was down. He was usually easy for her to find; he had a very strong spiritual presence, though if he wanted to hide it, he could do it perfectly. Still, it would be an unusual thing for him to try to hide it on a Monday morning with no school and no hollow presence. She pushed her awareness farther still, searching for him. As she did, she began to worry. She picked up her phone as she kept searching for his spiritual energy and called him. There was no answer, so she left a voicemail to call her back. She shifted her spiritual focus toward the school, the hospital, the clinic, the station - there was no trace of him. She was more than worried now. She mentally called out to him, like a prayer, wishing for him to contact her. Unbeknownst to her, she simultaneously sent out a strong pulse of nearly panicked reiatsu with it.

Orihime got up and went to the kitchen to distract herself. She set to work putting away the dishes she had left out to air dry the night before. She didn't feel like eating, but made herself some tea. She opened her refrigerator and decided to go through it to throw away expired items. It took about twenty minutes, but the tasks were over all too quickly for her liking, and she felt her unease rise again. She took out her phone and sent a short text to Uryuu, hoping that maybe he was just somewhere without service. After another moment, she walked back to her living room window and pushed her reiatsu out again with all her concentration, searching for Uryuu with a growing sense of fear and loneliness.

She was so focused on finding Uryuu's reiatsu signature that she blocked out all others. As a result, when someone started banging frantically on her front door, she shrieked and pulled back her reiatsu in a poor attempt to hide from whoever was on the other side of the door. The knocking suddenly stopped, and after a moment, she heard a deep, apprehensive voice call through the door, "Woman?"


9:00 a.m. Karakura Hospital (Underground)

"So let me get this straight, your mother was a Quincy, and now you are too?"

"Yep."

"That's funny. That is really funny." Uryuu couldn't help but laugh.

"I get that you are surprised, but I don't get what's funny about it."

"You really don't see the irony? You have always tried to put down anything to do with Quincy culture, and all along, you've been one of us. That is hilarious." Uryuu was amused and somewhat vindicated, but his lingering hurt from Ichigo's past cruel words was still lingering around him. Ichigo noticed.

"Yeah, I was a bit of an ass about it, I guess. Sorry."

Uryuu shook his head, dismissing Ichigo's apology. "Anyway, what has your training program consisted of so far?"

Ichigo took deep breath before explaining that he had received a bit of history and theoretical knowledge from Ryuuken and Urahara, followed by basic reishi manipulation practice, with a focus on footholds. Once he was able to stand in the air, training with Yoruichi started to increase his speed to Hirenkyaku levels. Since then, he had been training with her for part of the day, and the rest of the time with Ryuuken.

"And what has he been teaching you?" Uryuu was curious. His early training had all come from his grandfather. The only training he ever received from his father basically took the form of predator and prey until he was shot through the heart with one of his father's arrows.

"He hasn't taught me any offensive tactics, although I've figured out how to use reishi to increase my hand-to-hand fighting effectiveness." Uryuu raised an appreciative brow at this, before Ichigo continued. "But um, basically I've just been trying not to get killed."

Uryuu laughed. "Sounds familiar."

"I just wish I knew what the goal of all this is. I mean, I'm glad to get this training and to have some kind of spiritual power back. I am really grateful for that. I just don't know how this is supposed to help me control my hollow," Ichigo explained, brows knitting in frustration.

"If I know my father at all, he won't tell you until you figure it out on your own, so don't worry. In the meantime, do you want to try something cool?" Uryuu asked, holding a Quincy cross toward Ichigo.

Ichigo raised his eyebrows as he took the item. "You think I can make a bow with this?"

"You won't know until you try."

Ichigo attempted to put the cross's chain around his wrist. "Um, Ishida, this is kinda small for me," he said as he looked over at Uryuu's wrist with a pitying expression.

A vein on Uryuu's forehead throbbed. "That's because it's meant for a child, dumbass," he seethed as he took the cross from Ichigo, and wrapped the bracelet chain into a double loop, slipping the loop over Ichigo's thumb. "That should be sufficient to keep it in place, just keep your thumb parallel to the ground. It'll help with proper hand position anyway. This cross was one of the first ones I trained on with my grandfather, so it should be easy for you to use." Ichigo nodded and Uryuu began coaching him on manipulating reishi to form simple bows and arrows.


9:00 a.m. Orihime's Apartment

Orihime threw her front door open to see Ulquiorra on the other side, hand pressed to his side and breathing heavily. "What are you doing here?" she asked, spooked.

"I came (pant) as fast (pant) as I could (pant)." Ulquiorra paused, bending to put his hands on his knees and catch his breath. After a minute he stood back up and continued with a bit of confusion, "You appear unharmed."

Orihime hadn't wrapped her head around what she was seeing. "What are you doing here?" she repeated.

Ulquiorra ignored her question, peering over her shoulder to the interior of her apartment. "No other beings appear to be preset. What was the cause of your distress?"

"What?"

"Your reiatsu. It was erratic and distressed. What was the cause?" he demanded.

"Nothing, really."

Ulquiorra studied her expression, looking for a sign that she was hiding something. Unable to come to a conclusion, he decided to find out for himself. He threw Orihime a wary glance before carefully pushing her aside and barging right into the living room, looking around for an imperceptible foe.

"Ulquiorra! You can't just come into someone's house without being let in! And you still have your shoes on!" Orihime cried, looking down at the dirty, wet footprints tracked over the wood flooring and area rug.

Ulquiorra was impatient. He returned to where Orihime stood in the genkan, standing rather close and stared down hard into her eyes, before scolding, "Just what were you trying to do, flexing your reiatsu like you did earlier? You could have summoned a menos."

"I… I," Orihime stuttered, still not having come to grips with what was going on. She took a shuddering breath and looked down at her feet. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. I was looking for a friend's reiatsu, but I can't find it."

Ulquiorra shivered. The door was still open, and he hadn't bothered to put on a coat before he left home. He reached over Orihime's shoulder and shut it behind her, brushing her cheek with his sleeve as he did. His agitation subsiding, he sighed, asking softly, "Perhaps I can assist. May I come in?"

Orihime nodded and stepped inside. Ulquiorra took off his shoes this time and followed. She offered him a seat and she went to the kitchen. She came back with a towel and a bottle of water. She offered Ulquiorra the water and then started to clean his wet footprints off the floor.

"So, who was it you were seeking?" Ulquiorra asked relatively gently, feeling apologetic watching her clean his mess.

"Ishida-kun."

"Ishida… the Quincy?"

Orihime nodded as she began to reject the muddy stain on the area rug.

"There is a reason you cannot locate him. He is with Ichigo Kurosaki today. Urahara-san informed me last night that the Quincy will be assisting with his training. Urahara-san will join them this afternoon."

Orihime's face lit up. "Do you know where they are?"

"Yes."

"Well?" she asked expectantly.

Ulquiorra gave her a perplexed look.

"…where are they?" Orihime prodded.

"I cannot reveal their location."

"Why not?"

"I cannot risk your safety."

"Oh come on, why do you even care, Ulquiorra?" she whined.

"Your safety is paramount, woman! I am tasked to protect it." he scolded again.

Orihime began to laugh. "Um, earth to Ulquiorra, Aizen is dead. You don't have to listen to him anymore."

Ulquiorra looked toward the window. Orihime watched with astonishment as he made a very human, very pained expression, his eyes dropping and cheeks coloring. Her laughter stopped.

"I'm sorry, Ulquiorra, do you mourn him?" she asked in respectful disbelief.

Ulquiorra looked back to her. "No."

His answer sounded short, almost offended. Orihime didn't know what to say.

After a moment, Ulquiorra looked out the window again. "I just need you to be safe," he murmured.


12:00 p.m. Karakura Hospital (Underground)

Uryuu's practice with Ichigo was starting to pay off. Ichigo was able to form a small bow and arrow almost every time he tried, and he and Uryuu had been trying to shoot each other for the last half hour, although Uryuu was going easy on Ichigo. Ichigo had no archery experience, and did not appear to possess a natural talent for it. It was going to take work to turn Ichigo into a decent shot.

As Uryuu watched Ichigo drop the Quincy cross from his thumb for what must have been the 85th time that day, the door to the training room opened. "Ishida-san, Kurosaki-san, I've brought lunch!" Urahara's voice called out as he stepped into the room. He was followed by Yoruichi, and Ryuuken.

Urahara set up a makeshift picnic for the group on the floor of the training room. He had brought some rice balls and tea, which he passed around before he started to speak.

"We are having this little lunch meeting today to evaluate the training so far and make any necessary modifications to the plan. How has it been going, Kurosaki-san?"

"Not bad, I think. I am able to do Hirenkyaku alright, and today Ishida was showing my how to manipulate reishi into weapons, although I need work to improve my aim."

Ryuuken shook his head in disappointment. "I thought I told you two to spar, not play Robin Hood."

Uryuu threw his father an indignant look. "Hey! I was just trying to give him something to level the playing field, a bit. What did you want me to do, just kill him?"

Ryuuken shot his son a look that gave the impression he would be ambivalent about Ichigo's death, then sighed and continued. "I suppose it doesn't matter anyway. Only a pure-blooded Quincy can trigger a mixed Quincy's Blut."

Both Ichigo and Uryuu looked at the Ryuuken in confusion, their mouths too full to ask the questions written on their faces. Ryuuken groaned and got up, walking toward the door and lighting a cigarette. "I don't have time for this, Urahara. You can play teacher today. I'll be back after business hours," he called out before leaving.

Urahara looked back at the boys. "Well, I guess I have some things to explain to you." Urahara took out a whiteboard and some markers. Both boys groaned internally; they knew this was going to take a while.

"As you know, Ishida-san, your mother was not a pure-blooded Quincy, and as a result, neither are you. Kurosaki-san is similar; although his mother was a pureblood, his father is a Shinigami/human. The reason Ishida Ryuuken appears to be trying to murder Kurosaki-san is because he is trying to awaken an ability which is dormant in mixed-blood Quincies, called Blut. The Blut ability is natural in pure-blooded Quincies, but the only way to awaken Blut in a mixed-blood Quincy is through training with a pureblood, triggering it through combat." Both boys nodded their vague understanding as Urahara finished up his whiteboard notes and continued.

"Blut has two main functions, Blut Vene and Blut Arterie, which are defense and offensive functions, respectively. For Kurosaki-kun's purposes, we will focus only on Blut Vene. It is an extremely powerful defensive technique that allows its practitioner extraordinary durability, to the extent that it can protect a Quincy's human body from damage from attacks equivalent to a high-level captain's bankai. It is our expectation that once Kurosaki-san has mastered Blut Vene, he will be able to survive his hollow's attempt to manifest without taking any damage to his human body. That is the first goal in our training. Hopefully you will be able to master this technique as well, Ishida-san."

"Thanks a lot for teaching me yourself, Ryuuken", Ishida thought to himself sarcastically.

"Well that's great, Hat-n-clogs, but what about me being able to stop my hollow from taking over my body in the first place?"

"One step at a time, Kurosaki-san. Without mastering Blut Vene, you would probably not survive the next step."

"Can you at least tell me what that is?" Ichigo semi-begged.

Isshin walked in to hear what was being discussed. He remained quiet as Urahara continued. "Your progress in the World of the Living is limited due to its relatively low levels of reishi. In order to properly use your Quincy abilities to their fullest you will need access to a much richer source of reishi. Sending you somewhere with high reishi density will be to your great advantage. It will reduce your training time by at least 75%."

"And where would that be?" Ichigo asked.

Isshin answered. "Ichigo, within your soul are the powers of a Quincy, yes, but also a human, a hollow, and a Shinigami. The only reason you have been able to survive using these conflicting powers is that they have been with you since birth. Your shinigami power is not really lost, just dormant. In order to truly master all three non-human aspects of your soul, they need to be in balance. The only way to achieve balance is through training in Soul Society. When you reach a high enough level training here, you will go to Soul Society to further improve your Blut, and eventually, revive your shinigami ability."

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 24: That Afternoon

December 29th, 12:00 p.m.

Ulquiorra walked to the supermarket beside Orihime, wearing a coat that had once belonged to her brother. They traveled in silence, as they had spent the majority of the dreary morning at her apartment. This suited Orihime fine; she needed a chance to digest what little conversation that they had had.

It had been awkward, to say the least. If she had to describe his earlier behavior in one word, it would be brooding. She had tried to draw out of him the reason for his odd reaction when she had mentioned Aizen, to no avail. Not that Ulquiorra was ever very forthcoming in the first place. She had tried asking gentle questions that might lead him to open up about what bothered him. She confessed to him that she was glad when Aizen had been sealed away, but she didn't feel any joy when she learned of his death. Ulquiorra either nodded along or acted indifferent to all her attempts to start a conversation, which eventually stopped, and she excused herself to go get cleaned up and dressed for the day.

When she rejoined him in the living room, she decided to try a different subject, asking him what it was like living at Urahara's. Surprisingly, Ulquiorra had a bit more to say, explaining that he found Yoruichi crude but easy to converse with. He also revealed that he was fond of Tessai and sometimes played chess with him. Ururu was mouse-like and tended to avoid everyone, while Jinta was the similar to a mosquito; always trying to elicit a reaction from him. Ulquiorra spoke at length, for him anyway, about the ways in which Jinta tried to annoy him, and Orihime had found herself giggling. Ulquiorra glared at her in response, and she apologized, asking about Urahara.

Ulquiorra explained that besides his obvious eccentricity, Urahara was, both in theory and in practice, like a father to him, providing structure, guidance, authority, sustenance, and protection. Unprompted, Ulquiorra had shared with Orihime that he believed that even without Soul Society's orders, Urahara and himself would have fallen into this relationship due to Urahara's creation of the hogyoku.

Orihime questioned him about how important that could be now that he had been reincarnated. Ulquiorra raised a brow and appeared to contemplate an answer, when Orihime's stomach grumbled loudly. Despite her protests, Ulquiorra insisted she eat, and upon visual inspection of Orihime's nearly empty refrigerator, they decided to do her grocery shopping. This thought brought Orihime back to the present and out of her thoughts as they approached the store entrance.

Ulquiorra stood back, observing the automatic doors as Orihime entered, and then followed after her. Orihime took a shopping basket, and Ulquiorra copied her. They meandered their way through the produce department and turned into the dry goods aisles. As they got to the noodle aisle, Orihime's basket was already rather full, and Ulquiorra offered to carry it while she took the empty one to continue her selections. She gratefully agreed and turned down the condiments aisle, nearly bumping into someone.

"Sado-kun! How are you doing?"

Chad looked at the pair in silence for a long moment, before finally nodding politely to Orihime and answering. "Alright. How have you been, Inoue-san?"

Orihime was moved by his rare articulation, and answered somberly that she was hanging in there, before Chad set his shopping basket down, pushed his bangs to the side, and turned his attention to Ulquiorra. Both Ulquiorra and Orihime's tension rose a bit, unsure what Chad was going to do. They were equally surprised when Chad bent forward into a deep bow.

When he arose a moment later, he had to admit to himself that he was rather amused by the shorter pair's confused expressions, before he explained, "Ichigo is my best friend, and I couldn't save him from himself. Thank you, Cifer-san, for doing what I couldn't. Ichigo is still alive because of you."

"Ulquiorra."

Two pairs of puzzled brown eyes focused on a pair of green.

"Please call me Ulquiorra," he clarified.

Chad grunted in response, and Orihime smiled, saying, "Well, since we are all here, why don't we finish up our shopping together?"

She was happier than Chad had seen her in weeks, and he nodded in agreement before turning back to the shelf of soy sauce.

As they made their selections, Orihime told a story about something funny she saw on television over the weekend, making Chad laugh, and earning a smirk from Ulquiorra, much to Chad's amazement. He listened to Orihime explain patiently to Ulquiorra about the use of specific items when he asked, which he did frequently. He noticed him take the heavier items in her basket and transfer them to his own without bringing attention to it. Chad was once again amazed when he witnessed Ulquiorra gently tease Orihime about her childish tendency to select items based on the cuteness of a product's mascot rather than its cost or quality.

Chad also noticed that Ulquiorra was very respectful of Orihime's friendship with him, trailing behind both of them quietly when Orihime spoke with Chad about Ichigo, and supplying them with what information he had gleaned from Urahara that might comfort them about Ichigo's well-being and progress. When Chad expressed worry about whether Ichigo would be able to defeat his hollow, it was Ulquiorra who encouraged him to believe in Ichigo, stating simply that Ichigo had one of the strongest wills he had ever encountered.

By the time Chad had said his goodbyes and left the store, he was feeling a bit conflicted. He thought to himself that apart from his often formal language and naïveté about living as a human, Ulquiorra was a pretty cool dude, and Chad was feeling a lot better about having the former Espada living in Karakura.

Despite his new appreciation of and gratitude toward Ulquiorra, Chad still held some reservations about him. For example, he was showing an awful lot of interest in his best friend's girlfriend. Granted, Ulquiorra knew her better than the other members of their group, and he was respectful and appropriate in his interactions with Orihime. On the other hand, Ichigo and Orihime's relationship status was kind of up in the air currently, and Chad had seen the way Ulquiorra's gaze followed Orihime; it made him uneasy.

He couldn't in good conscious allow them to go back to her place to be alone together with his knowledge. When he got home, he looked in the phonebook for Kurosaki Clinic.

Ring

"Good afternoon, Kurosaki Clinic. This is Karin speaking."

"Hi Karin, it's Chad."

"Oh. Hi Chad. Um, do you have a medical question?"

"Uh, no, actually, I was wondering if you had Arisawa-san's phone number."

Karin's eyebrows rose slowly. Normally not one for gossip, Karin wouldn't usually care but this was Chad. She'd known him for years and this conversation was not only mysterious, it was the longest string of words she had ever heard her brother's friend piece together in one go.

"Um, sure, just a moment, I'll go get it," she answered with a sly inflection after a long pause.

After a moment Karin came back and provided the number, and immediately after thanking her, Chad hung up and began writing.

From: Yasutora Sado

To: Tatsuki Arisawa

2:14 p.m.

Hey, this is Chad. Sorry for contacting you so suddenly, but I just saw Inoue-san at the supermarket, and I think you should check up on her today if you have a chance.

The reply was swift.

From: Tatsuki Arisawa

To: Yasutora Sado

2:14 p.m.

Hey Chad, how did you get my number? Not that I mind. XD Anyway, is Orihime OK? Do I need to be worried?

Chad thought it over. He didn't want Tatsuki charging in like a bull, as she was prone to do.

From: Yasutora Sado

To: Tatsuki Arisawa

2:18 p.m.

Sorry, I asked Karin Kurosaki for your number, I couldn't think of another way to get it on short notice. Anyway, I think Inoue-san is alright, but I think she needs some company.

Tatsuki responded immediately with a 'thumbs up' emoji, causing Chad a chuckle.


2:42 p.m.

Tatsuki had been toweling her hair when Chad texted her, but after receiving his messages she had decided slightly damp was as good as dry, pulling her hoodie up over her head before putting her jacket on and leaving the dojo. She had swung by a bakery she knew Orihime liked on the way over – she didn't want to show up unannounced and empty-handed. As she walked up to Orihime's door, she thought she heard Orihime talking to herself, much more animatedly than she would normally. 'What's Chad so worried about? She sounds happy to me.' she thought as she rapped on the door.

"Tatsuki-chan! What are you doing here?" Orihime asked in an odd voice after she opened the door, almost as if she had been caught doing something she shouldn't.

"Hi, Orihime, uh, I told you I'd talk to you today after practice, so I decided to do it in person. I brought some cake from Miki's Bakery," she said, holding the bag out toward her.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar face appeared over Orihime's shoulder. Tatsuki's face dropped in shock for a split second before tensing up, preparing to defend herself and Orihime from the unknown, until the face spoke in a deep, soft voice, "What kind of cake?"

Tatsuki's shoulders dropped as she shot a confused look toward Orihime. Orihime just smiled and stepped aside to let her in. Taking the bakery bag from Tatsuki's hands, she said, "Tatsuki, this is, um, my, er, this is Ulquiorra Cifer. He lives with Urahara-san. Ulquiorra, this is my best friend, Tatsuki Arisawa." Orihime hadn't prepared for this and wasn't sure how to introduce Ulquiorra. Was he her friend? She thought so, but she wasn't sure if he did. And she surely wasn't going to introduce him as her reincarnated abductor. She just hoped Tatsuki didn't remember his face from before. She doubted she would – He looked significantly different now and Tatsuki had only seen him briefly as an Arrancar, plus she had been badly dazed by Yammy at the time. She had also only heard his name once or twice, and it was so foreign sounding and hard to remember that Orihime wasn't overly concerned.

"How do you do?" Ulquiorra responded, more interested in the bakery bag than in Tatsuki. He bit the inside of his cheek and followed Orihime into the kitchen, leaving Tatsuki immobile and speechless in the genkan.

"Tatsuki-chan! Come in and let's see what you brought!" Orihime called out cheerfully.

"Yeah, be right there, I'm taking my shoes off…" Tatsuki took a moment to think. She thought that Orihime was altogether much too chipper for Chad to be worried about her mental health, so it must be this new guy that had him worried. She decided to reserve judgment for now and joined the other two in the kitchen.

She watched Orihime and Ulquiorra interact quietly for a few minutes. They definitely seemed to have a good rapport with one another, cooperating well to get tea prepared and plates and utensils for the cake. Ulquiorra seemed to yield to her, always anticipating her movements and making sure he was not getting in her way. He didn't leer over her like a pervert; in fact, his eyes kept flickering back to the box of cake that was now out of the bag.

"So, Cifer-san, you live with Urahara-san. What are you? A ghost? A monster ?"

"Tatsuki-chan!" Orihime admonished.

"Neither," Ulquiorra answered flatly.

"Well, what are you then?" Tatsuki pressed.

Ulquiorra's eyes locked with Tatsuki's . "I will tell you whatever you wish to know, Arisawa-san, under two conditions."

Tatsuki was slightly intimidated by Ulquiorra's intensity at first, but was bolstered by a resurgence of her innate bravado. "Yeah? What are the conditions?"

"One: As her friend, you will not call me 'Cifer-san'. Please call me only, 'Ulquiorra'."

"Ok, I can manage that," Tatsuki said carefully, waiting for the second condition.

"Two: You will wait until after cake."

Tatsuki laughed. Hard. She managed to nod her consent to his conditions though, as Orihime smiled and cut each of the two pieces of cake into three, passing them out.

"Ulquiorra seems to have quite a fondness for sweets," Orihime said as they began eating.

Ulquiorra nodded silently, eating each of the small pieces slowly, savoring each bite. After he was finished, he sighed, looking forlornly at his empty plate.

"So, er, Ulquiorra, as I was asking before, what are you?"

"Right. I do not know what I am."

"Huh?"

Ulquiorra looked at Tatsuki like she was stupid for a moment.

"Well, I am not a shinigami, hollow, or a 'monster', I think. I am an unclassified spirit. Urahara-san believes I am, more or less, what you might call a human spirit, except significantly more powerful.

"Oh yeah? What can you do?"

"I can move faster than Ichigo Kurosaki could as a shinigami."

"Yeah right."

"Believe it or not, it is true."

"What else?"

"Do you recall being in the presence of Sosuke Aizen? Do you recall the pressure his spirit exerted?"

Tatsuki shivered and nodded.

"I have a similar ability. It is suppressed by the specialized gigai I wear."

"Yikes. Anything else?"

"No, for now that is the limit to what I know I can do."

Tatsuki nodded. "So what are you doing in Karakura?"

"Well, I don't really have a choice. I was born in Soul Society, and shortly thereafter I was captured and then exiled to earth."

"Wait a minute, how old are you?"

"Just over five human months."

"What?!"

"I was reborn as I am now. I also retain most of my memories from my previous life. However, this new life is fundamentally different than my life before, and much of my previous life experience is inapplicable."

Tatsuki was quiet for a moment, considering what else she wanted to know. She had a limited understanding of the politics of soul society, so she decided not to ask about his exile. She wanted to stick to things that mattered to her.

"So, how did you meet Orihime?"

Orihime's eyes widened in terror for a moment.

"I met her a couple years ago, actually, before I was reborn," he replied casually, "During the war, we spent several days in each other's company. I died shortly thereafter."

"Wait a minute – you're not - I mean, I thought your name was familiar. Orihime talked about you. You were her caretaker in that bad place!"

Ulquiorra raised his brows at being described as a 'caretaker', but didn't contradict the woman's friend, only nodding in response.

Tatsuki rose and bowed briefly, saying, "Thank you for taking care of Orihime," before rising again and adding, "she told me you protected her many times."

Ulquiorra was being assaulted with two new emotions, humility and embarrassment. He blushed slightly, shaking his head, and responding, "I was simply following orders."

"Well, whatever, she's alive and it's partially thanks to you."

Ulquiorra pursed his lips slightly and looked to the side, unsure how to respond, when he felt a sharp pain in his lower leg.

"Tatsuki-chan! What did you kick him for?" Orihime cried.

"That's for the not nice things she told me about. I don't want to hear about anything like that happening again, understand?"

Ulquiorra just grimaced, holding his afflicted shin gingerly and nodded his understanding.

"Good."


7:00 p.m.

Ulquiorra had gone home shortly after the shin-kicking incident, and Tatsuki had just left Orihime's apartment. She had wanted to talk with Orihime about Ulquiorra for an hour or so, and Orihime did her best to satiate her friend's curiosity, but there was still so much about him now that she didn't know, that they couldn't get too deep into it. Orihime was surprised to learn that her best friend found the former Espada 'pretty hot' and 'decent company'.

After a while, the conversation turned back to Ichigo. Tatsuki was still angry with him about how he treated Orihime before and especially during his intervention, but she did seem relieved to hear that he was making progress and that Uryuu had spent the day with him.

After Tatsuki left, Orihime prepared a simple supper for herself and was getting ready to run a bath when her phone rang. It was Uryuu.

"Inoue-san, I'm sorry I worried you. I just left Kurosaki; we've been training all day," he said somewhat apologetically, but more excited than anything else.

"Yes, I heard from Ulquiorra."

The line was silent for a little too long.

"Ishida-kun?"

"Oh, yes. Sorry, I got distracted."

"So, how is he?"

"He is doing really, really well. He has a lot of work to go, Inoue-san, but I think you'd be really proud of him." There was a smile and evident pride in Uryuu's voice, at least.

Something felt off to Orihime though, and she couldn't put her finger on what it was. She pushed past it.

"So, will you be helping a lot from now on?"

"Yes, I'll be spending pretty much all day everyday training with him over break. With luck, maybe I'll learn some new skills too."

"That's great, Ishida-kun." She wanted to be sincere, but she just wasn't feeling it.

"Is something wrong, Inoue-san?"

"No, it's nothing Ishida-kun. I'm just tired, I think. Tatsuki was here this afternoon and she just left," she countered, sounding slightly more convincing this time.

"Alright. Well, I'm almost home now, so call me if you need anything. I'm planning on training with Kurosaki tomorrow from about 8am, but I'll break for lunch and check my phone this time, OK?"

"Sure, don't worry about it, Ishida-kun. I know you are busy." There was a note of dejection in her voice, he thought.

There was another long pause.

"Inoue-san, I am really sorry. I'll try to be more available, it's just-"

Orihime cut in, "Please don't be bothered about it, Ishida-kun. What you are doing is important. I was just worried because I didn't know where you were. After I knew you were training I was fine."

"Alright. I'll call you again tomorrow to let you know how it's going."

"Thanks. Goodnight, Ishida-kun."

"Goodnight."

Orihime tossed her phone to the side, irritated. Irritated that she didn't know why she was irritated. As she washed her hair and scrubbed her body, she mulled over what it was about her phone call with Uryuu that bothered her so much. By the time she sunk into the tub for a soak, she was no closer to an answer. It wasn't until her fingers and toes were completely pruney that she realized it. Once again, Ichigo was moving on, without her. Making progress, without her. Growing up, without her. Was her fate with him always going to be like this? Someone else would be there for him when he needed strength? First it was Rukia, then the Vizards, now Uryuu. It seemed to her that whenever he had a difficult challenge to overcome, he turned to anyone but her. Did he really think so little of her?

She went underwater a moment to try to gather her emotions. When she came back up for breath, she realized that, at least for the present, she was being ridiculous. Of course Ichigo couldn't turn to her now; she was basically the cause of his problems this time. She got out of the tub and toweled off, and on her way to her bedroom she figured out that she was just projecting her past hurt onto the current situation, and that wasn't fair. She reminded herself that as much as she didn't like it, there was nothing she could do for Ichigo now, so she he should try to push it from her mind. She put her pajamas on and decided to turn on a comedy show and forget the world for a while.


Thank you for reading. Please  let me know what you liked/disliked about Ulquiorra's interactions with Chad and Tatsuki.

Chapter Text

Saturday, January 10th, 8:15 a.m.

Orihime swung her gym bag back and forth as she walked down to the street from her apartment, deep in thought.  A school week had passed since the end of winter break, and she had been keen to talk to Uryuu about Ichigo’s progress, but so far she had been out of luck.   Uryuu had come to school each morning but left before lunch to get extra training time in with Ichigo.  If anything gave her any kind of reassurance it was that Uryuu was a lot more animated than usual; she thought he and Ichigo must be having a good time at least.  Finally, she had been able to nab Uryuu on his way out of school on Friday and made him promise to meet with her and Tatsuki for lunch today.

As for this morning, Orihime had planned to meet with Tatsuki at the dojo to get some long-overdue karate practice done.  In the past she would often practice with Tatsuki, but since high school started it had been increasingly difficult for either of them to find the time to do it.  Luckily this week worked out for both of them - Tatsuki’s competition schedule was slow and Orihime was not busy with a boyfriend or in an alternate dimension - so when Tatsuki invited her to come and spar with her earlier in the week Orihime readily agreed.  As the dojo came into view she smiled; she was looking forward to working up a sweat and getting out some of her growing aggression. 

Once inside, Orihime realized she was early.  She went to the locker room to change, thinking she’d spend a few minutes warming up while she waited for Tatsuki to get ready. However, just as she was about to leave the locker room, Tatsuki entered.

“Oh, you’re here!  Good.  I tried to call you,” Tatsuki said, pulling Orihime back into the locker room with her as she went to change.

“Oh, sorry, I must still have my phone on silent.”

“No worries,” Tatsuki gave a fake little laugh before continuing. “Listen, Orihime, I kinda extended the invitation beyond just us.  Please don’t be mad.”

“Mad?  Why would I be mad?  I mean, I like to spend time with just you but this is a dojo, and not exactly an exclusive one, so the more the merrier, I guess!” Orihime said with a bright smile while checking her phone and seeing three missed calls from Tatsuki. 

She put the phone back into her locker and looked up to Tatsuki’s face. “Good,” Tatsuki replied with a somewhat demure expression, before turning to lead the way back out of the locker room.

Orihime followed without suspicion, but when she saw who Tatsuki had invited, she realized why Tatsuki had acting so carefully before.  She tilted her head up to greet Chad before turning and raising a sly brow at Tatsuki, who blushed slightly in response.  Orihime grinned at her best friend wickedly, until she heard another voice.

“Good morning, woman.”

Orihime twirled around, shocked.  Her mouth hung open, and she blinked a few times before her brain started working again.  “Uh, um, good morning, uh, Ulquiorra.  What are you doing here?  I mean, of course you can be here, but ummm, why?”

“I invited him,” Chad answered quietly before turning his attention to Tatsuki.  Orihime watched in awe as Tatsuki batted her eyelashes up at him.  Orihime couldn’t stand to wait another moment not knowing what was happening between them.  She rushed to Tatsuki’s side and pulled on her elbow, telling the two boys, “Be right back!” in a sweet, sing-song voice.

She didn’t get far before Tatsuki pulled out of her grasp.  They were out of earshot at least, and Orihime could sense Tatsuki’s impatience, so she got straight to the point.  “When did this happen?  Since when are you flirting with Sado-kun?”

“Um, actually, he started texting me the day we met Ulquiorra.  He was the one who told me to go to your place that day because he didn’t like Ulquiorra being there with you alone.  We’ve been kind of texting each other back and forth.  I’ve wanted to ask him out but I was too embarrassed to do it, so I asked him to join us and to bring a friend to spar with. I guess he picked ol’ green-eyes.”  Tatsuki couldn’t keep the blush from her cheeks as she explained.

“Ooooh!” Orihime squealed, excited for her best friend.  “Wait a minute, why would Chad be worried about Ulquiorra being at my place?  He’s not our enemy anymore.”

Tatsuki rolled her eyes and sighed.  “I can’t believe I have to explain that, Orihime.  Come on.”

Orihime raised her shoulders and shook her head no.

“Really Hime?  Get a clue,” Tatsuki said affectionately before returning to the sparring room and calling over her shoulder, “If you haven’t figured it out by then, I’ll tell you later.”

Orihime shook it off, deciding that nurturing Tatsuki’s budding romance was more interesting than Chad’s suspicions about Ulquiorra. Besides, Chad must have gotten over whatever was bothering him because he invited Ulquiorra along, after all.  ‘Alright, Operation Make Chad and Tatsuki a Couple, Begin!’ she thought to herself as she followed Tatsuki, standing beside her and taking the lead.

“I think we should start with some warm-up exercises!  I just recently watched a video online with some great partner stretches.  Let’s do a couple laps around the room, then I’ll walk us through the stretches!” Orihime said, extending her arm like a cheerleader as she started the first lap around the room. Tatsuki and the boys followed after her, confused but willing.

“Alright!  Now let’s pair off.  I’ll work with Ulquiorra, you and Tatsuki can work together, alright Sado-kun?” Orihime directed after the warm-ups were finished.  “First we’ll do a sitting stretch.  Put the soles of your feet together and then grab each other’s hands and pull toward one person, then then after about 15 seconds the other partner pulls toward himself.  If you are feeling extra limber, you can grab further up your partner’s arms!” 

Orihime was completely unobservant of Ulquiorra’s reddening complexion as she grabbed him by the hand and pulled him into position, taking his other hand and pulling him toward her.  Her eyes were glued to Tatsuki and Chad.

Her targets were smiling and relaxed, seeming to enjoy the pair stretches.   She absently pulled Ulquiorra’s arms further toward her, until she heard a quiet grunt.  She whipped her head toward her own partner and released him as soon as she saw his pained expression.  “Oh, Ulquiorra, I’m sorry, did I pull too far?”

“Yes, it appears this gigai requires more maintenance than my spirit body; it is quite tight.  Please go more gradually,”  Ulquiorra pleaded.

Orihime blushed and nodded apologetically, and then allowed Ulquiorra to pull her toward him.  She didn’t notice how he held her hands delicately or how he never took his eyes off of her. “You can pull further, Ulquiorra.  I’m quite flexible!” she said cheerfully, watching Tatsuki laugh at something Chad said.  “Actually, why don’t you grab my forearms?”

Ulquiorra obeyed and pulled Orihime so that her nose was nearly brushing her knees.  He counted to 15 and released as Orihime sighed in satisfaction at the stretch.

“Alright!  Now for the hamstring stretch!  Guys, lie down and lift a leg up for us to grab, and keep it as straight as you can.  Then we’ll push it back gently until you feel the stretch,” then as an aside to Ulquiorra, she added, “Tell me before it starts hurting this time, OK?”

Ulquiorra nodded, somewhat distracted by the feel of her soft hands on his bare ankle.  Orihime grinned and looked back over at Tatsuki and Chad while leaning into Ulquiorra, totally oblivious to the fact that she was pressing her breast into his leg.

Now, Ulquiorra was aware that she was female and he was male.  He was also aware that she was aesthetically pleasing.  What he wasn’t aware of was how his new gigai/human-ish soul would respond to her touch with or without his consent.  She barely got his leg perpendicular to the ground before he whimpered, “That’s enough.”

“Wow, Ulquiorra, you really need to work on your flexibility,” she said disapprovingly as she moved to switch to his other leg.

“No!” Ulquiorra yelped, sitting up, desperate to conceal his body’s reaction to her.  “I’ll do hamstrings on my own.”

“Suit yourself,” Orihime said, unbothered.  She was doing this for the others’ benefit, anyway, she thought as she bent over to stretch her own legs.  She didn’t take her eyes off Tatsuki and Chad for very long.

Ulquiorra found himself unable to take his eyes off Orihime’s backside much either as she bent over in front of him with her palms flat on the ground.

Orihime was about to announce another stretch when Tatsuki interrupted, saying that relaxing time was over; time to start drills.

Ulquiorra was quite relieved.  Tatsuki acted as instructor for the group and called out different drills, so all Ulquiorra had to do was close his eyes and concentrate on his form.  It felt good to train again; to submit to discipline.  He let himself fall into a meditative state, and before long he began performing a series of exercises he used to do as an Arrancar.  He didn’t realize what he was doing until he felt a clap on his shoulder.  He looked up to see Chad looking at him out of the corner of his eye.  He whispered, “Careful man, Tatsuki doesn’t really appreciate kendo.  Stick to her drills if you know what’s good for you…”

Ulquiorra looked forward and exhaled, refocusing on Tatsuki’s drills, thinking perhaps he should find a place to practice kendo.  He missed the feeling of a sword in his hand.

After drills, they all took turns sparring with one another.  Unsurprisingly, Chad lost every bout, being too afraid of hurting the girls to really fight, and nowhere near as fast as Ulquiorra.  Ulquiorra, on the other hand, did not hold back for anyone’s sake, and quickly won each bout, much to Tatsuki’s annoyance.  It wasn’t that she lost that bothered her; it was that it seemed to be over before it even started.  She had been looking forward to a challenge, not an instantaneous thrashing.

Orihime was happy that she had retained most of what she had learned from practicing with Tatsuki before, with Tatsuki said something along the lines of, “Hey, not bad, Hime.”

Ulquiorra, on the other hand, had much higher praise, saying, “You are much more capable than you let on, woman.  I suspect you are yet capable of more than what you have shown us today,” to which Orihime responded with a smile and some pink cheeks.

It was about 11:30 when they finally decided to hit the showers and get ready to meet Uryuu for lunch.  While rinsing off, Orihime gushed to Tatsuki about how much attention Chad paid to her and how well they looked together.  Tatsuki just blushed and brushed it off, but she was very happy to hear it nonetheless.

In the boys’ locker room, Chad waited until Ulquiorra was nearly dressed before asking him a favor.  “Hey man, um, could you come with us to this lunch thing?”

“What lunch thing?”

“We are meeting Ishida for lunch to hear about Ichigo’s progress.”

“I don’t understand why you would want me to attend such a meeting.”

“Well, it’s just,” Chad blushed before he continued, “I want to walk Tatsuki home afterward, er, alone, and I know if it’s just her, Inoue, and me, she will want to walk home with Inoue.”

“I see,” Ulquiorra said quietly, buckling his belt.  When he looked up, his green stare met Chad’s obscured eyes as he asked in all seriousness, “So you want me to be your wingman?”

Chad choked, and then a bright smile spread across his face.  “Well, yeah, I guess.  How do you even know what that means?”

Ulquiorra sighed and shook his head before answering, “Sharing a roof with Urahara-san is a strange experience.  His relationship with Yoruichi-san is… complicated.   He has requested that I serve as his wingman on more than one occasion.”  Ulquiorra looked back at Chad’s face, saying, “I will assist you today, Sado-san.”

“Call me Chad, man.  And thanks,” he said, clapping Ulquiorra on the shoulder again before leaving the locker room.

The girls were pleased that Ulquiorra was coming along to lunch as well, both being aware that this arrangement opened up possibilities for the afternoon.  They walked to the nearby café where Orihime had told Uryuu to meet them.  When they arrived, Uryuu was already there.  He smiled at the girls and nodded to Chad pleasantly as they filed into the café, Ulquiorra bringing up the rear.  Uryuu didn’t notice him behind Chad’s large frame, and started exchanging friendly greetings until Chad took a seat and his view of Ulquiorra was unobstructed.  Uryuu immediately stopped talking, narrowed his eyes, pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and sneered, “And to what do I owe pleasure, Espada-san?”

Before Orihime had a chance to react to her bubbling indignation, Chad spoke up calmly.  “I invited him, Ishida.”

Uryuu’s eyes darted to Chad, unable to believe he was being serious.  He was Ichigo’s best friend!  His train of thought was interrupted, however, by Orihime.  “Ishida-kun, I know you are short on time before you have to go back to Ichigo.  Could you please tell us what’s going on with him? Please?”

Uryuu sighed.  He couldn’t refuse her, especially when she begged.  Plus, the idea that she was desperate to hear about Ichigo placated him to a degree.  He began to tell the group, with Ichigo’s permission, that Ichigo was a Quincy, and about the plan to stabilize his body through Blut Vene.  He explained the mechanics of the technique and boasted that Blut Vene had been triggered in both himself and in Ichigo.  He further explained that Ichigo’s hollow hadn’t made a single attempt to take over his body since Ichigo regained consciousness ‘after what Ulquiorra did to him’.  More than one pair of eyes rolled at that description of the events, but Uryuu continued, informing the group that just a bit more training was needed before the next phase would commence.

“What’s the next phase?” Orihime asked with excitement.

“He’ll go to Soul Society to train, with the end goal being to regain his shinigami powers.”

Orihime deflated.  It had already been nearly a month since the last time she saw Ichigo, and now he was going to go further away for longer?  Her link to him now was tenuous at best.    Her voice was shaky when she asked her next question.  “How long will that take, do you think?”

“It depends on him, Inoue-san, but I expect he’ll be ready by the beginning of the new school year.

“April?” Tatsuki asked in disbelief.

Uryuu nodded and added, “Even if he regains his shinigami abilities quickly, he’ll still need to train while his hollow is active.  He’ll need to practice keeping it under control, for Inoue’s sake and frankly, for all of ours.”

Ulquiorra looked at Uryuu sharply.  “It may well take longer than that, and the three of us know it.”  His voice was stern and heavy.  Uryuu was forced to nod, remembering Ulquiorra’s brutal demise at the hands of Ichigo’s hollow.  Orihime began to whimper.  Ulquiorra shifted his focus to her for a moment.  “Do not be afraid, woman.  If such an event were to occur again, I would burn through this gigai if necessary to stop him from harming you.  I have not tried such a thing but I am quite confident that it would require very little effort.”  He let his eyes slide back to Uryuu as he said the last sentence, the veiled threat in his vow unmissed.

“It’s not that, Ulquiorra.  It’s just that I don’t know where I stand with Ichigo, and I’m afraid that if too much time passes before we are able to reconcile, there won’t be a relationship between us to save.”  Orihime put her hands over her face to hide the tears she couldn’t keep from falling.

Uryuu was about to open his mouth to assure Orihime that she had nothing to worry about, but stopped himself.  Not only was it not his place, but as he thought about it, her realized that Ichigo hadn’t brought up Orihime at all since they began training.  He thought he shouldn’t be putting words into Ichigo’s mouth.

Tatsuki rubbed Orihime’s back.  “Isn’t there any way Ichigo can contact us?  I mean, not even a phone call?”

“No,” Uryuu responded, “The place he is being kept in is completely sealed off from the outside world.  Urahara-san, Dr. Kurosaki and Ryuuken have also expressed that they think it’s not a good idea for Kurosaki to have any contact with Inoue-san for the time being.”

“What do you think, Ishida?” Chad asked.

“Honestly, I think they are being over-cautious.  I’ve been training with him every day for over two weeks. I haven’t seen any sign of his hollow, and believe me; I’ve been as annoying as I possibly can be.”

Orihime giggled through her tears at Uryuu’s self-deprecation.  “I just wish I could talk to him.  But I know what I want is second to him getting better.” Orihime took a deep breath and wiped her tears away, putting on a brave face for everyone else at the table.  “Sorry about that, it was a brief moment of weakness,” she said with increasing false cheer, which all at the table believed too easily, except Ulquiorra.  He watched in disgust as an overly-happy smile crept across her face.  “I’ll just have to stay busy and wait for Ichigo’s triumphant return!” she added with a fist pump.

Uryuu and Tatsuki smiled in response, and Chad gave her a thumbs up.  Ulquiorra crossed his arms over his chest and looked away, fighting an impulse to berate the woman’s friends for their ignorance.

“Well, I’d better get back.  I’ll talk to Ichigo about getting a message to him in the meantime.  Is there anything you’d like me to pass on from you, Inoue-san?” Uryuu asked as he stood from the table.

“Just tell him to do his best, and I’m rooting for him,” Orihime replied in a bright and cheery voice.

Uryuu nodded and left with a smile.  Everyone had been uplifted by Orihime’s cheerful mood.  The rest of the group got up to leave shortly after Uryuu, still in high spirits.  Tatsuki didn’t hesitate to accept Chad’s invitation to walk her home, and Orihime was genuinely glad she did.  She sighed and smiled happily as Tatsuki and Chad began walking in the opposite direction.

When she turned back around, she was surprised to see Ulquiorra glaring at her.  “Ulquiorra, what’s wrong?” she asked nervously.

“These so-called friends of yours.  How can they ignore your anguish?  They choose to believe your poorly-crafted façade.”  He turned on his heel and started marching away, but got about four steps before stopping and looking over his shoulder at her, saying, “Are you coming?  I mean to walk you home.”

Orihime was flustered and stood in place for a moment before catching up with him.  “Ulquiorra, they mean well.  I don’t want to burden them with my troubles all the time anyway.”

Ulquiorra huffed in response, before looking at her out of the corner of his eye.  “You are not a burden, woman.  Quite the opposite.  You not only live independently, but you habitually disguise your own troubles while taking on a supporting role for these ‘friends’ of yours,” he said, before looking forward and adding as an afterthought, “You support me, as well.”

Orihime laughed awkwardly, “Well, I’d like to think you’re my friend, too, Ulquiorra…”

He stopped at this and turned to face her, silently regarding her and what she had just said.  Orihime began to feel self-conscious.

“I am honored, woman.  Thank you,” he began softly, his cheeks coloring slightly as he looked away from her before adding, “As your friend, then, I advise you to be more honest and lean on your friends as much as they lean on you.  Otherwise it is not a reciprocal relationship.”  He looked back at her as she shook her head in denial.

“It’s not like that, though, Ulquiorra.  They always support me.  They always protect me.  I’m useless.”

“Do not lie to me, woman, especially right after telling me I am your friend.” Ulquiorra countered with a harsh edge.  “Your other friends hold you back because it is more comfortable for them to deny your strength than to accept it.  Your power is immense and intrudes upon that of a god.”

“But it’s no good if I can’t even protect myself, let alone anybody else!”

Ulquiorra was suddenly very close to Orihime.  She could feel his breath on her face as he nearly hissed, “You could protect them all.  You allow them to eat away at your confidence.  Your ‘weakness’ gives them a false sense of strength.”  Ulquiorra seemed to become aware of his proximity and took a step back and tempered his harsh tone.  “The Orihime Inoue I knew in Hueco Mundo was strong.  Strong enough to defy Sosuke Aizen’s strongest Espada,” he smirked at that, judging by her reaction that she caught on that he was admitting that he had been stronger than Stark.  “Yes, in my second release I surpassed them all.  And yet, you.  You slapped me and lived to tell the tale.  Talk about strength…”

Orihime’s breath caught as he gave her a roguish grin.  She couldn’t believe Ulquiorra Cifer was cheering her up.  And she couldn’t believe that a small part of her was thinking he was looking pretty cute doing it.  Regardless, she was determined to continue her denial.  “Thanks for trying to cheer me up, Ulquiorra, but we both know it’s only because Aizen ordered you not to hurt me that I ‘lived to tell the tale’,” she replied somewhat lamely.

Ulquiorra’s grin dropped and he looked down at Orihime kindly.  “No, Aizen had nothing to do with it.  You had already captured my interest by then.  You see, your strength lies not in the sting of your hand, but in the conviction in your heart.  It was your steadfast belief in your friends that saved you in Hueco Mundo, and not because of some magical connection between you that pulled the strings of fate in your favor.  It was your incorrigible faith that convinced Aizen’s most powerful Espada that within your heart lay a power more transformative than the hogyoku.” 

He paused, taking a deep breath, before looking at his feet and continuing quietly, “In the end, you were also able to convince that Espada that something did exist that his eye could not see; something worth protecting.  That is what saved you.”  He looked back up to gauge her reaction.

Orihime looked into his eyes and tears began to well in her own.  “You remember…”

“Yes.  I always remembered the events, but I didn’t initially remember why it was so important to me.  It was as I sat in your apartment that gloomy morning two weeks ago that I realized: it was because you made me, who believed in nothing, believe in you.  I don’t know if you know how important that is.  If you can only believe in yourself, you will be unstoppable,” Ulquiorra spoke tenderly, fighting an urge to wipe Orihime’s tears away.

“Ulquiorra…” Orihime had no more words.

Ulquiorra’s nostrils flared as he took a deep, unsteady breath.   Then he released it and smiled.  “Come, woman, it’s not getting any warmer, and after I walk you home I have to get myself home.”

“Oh!  You don’t have to walk me home, Ulquiorra.  I don’t want you to freeze!”

“And risk incurring the wrath of Tatsuki Arisawa?  I think not!” he joked.

Orihime laughed, the tension between them completely dissipated, and the remainder of their walk to her apartment was punctuated with pleasant conversation.

----------

Karakura Hospital

When Uryuu returned to the hospital training grounds, he filled Ichigo in on the conversation he had with their friends at lunch.  Ichigo seemed distracted and not willing to comment on it, especially regarding Orihime.  Uryuu mentioned how Orihime was upset that they may have to wait until April to meet, to which Ichigo responded with merely a grunt.  When Uryuu suggested that Ichigo would probably be fine if he contacted Orihime briefly, just to ease her mind, Ichigo seemed to brush it off, and suggested they get back to sparring.

Uryuu was losing his patience.  He had been instructed not to mention Ulquiorra’s existence to Ichigo, since he didn’t seem to have any memory of Ulquiorra being present at his intervention.  But Uryuu had been watching Ulquiorra like a hawk at lunch, and he had observed that his relationship with Orihime had gone beyond just a curiosity.  He was clearly fascinated with her and she was starting to care about him, in some capacity or another.  Uryuu decided that Ichigo needed to know that he had a potential rival.

“Kurosaki.  Do you consider yourself a fool?”

“What the hell, Ishida?  No.”

“Then why is it that you seem to believe that in your extended absence, no one would attempt to take your place next to Inoue-san?”

“Ishida, I swear to god, if you are contemplating making a move on her again-“

Uryuu stopped him there.  “Ugh, Kurosaki!  You know as well as I do that I spend every waking moment here with you when I’m not at school.  Besides, I have never ‘made a move on her’.”

“Who is it then, Ishida?”

“Does it really matter?  The important thing is that Inoue is getting lonely and unsure of your commitment to her.  All it would take is a few words from you to ease her mind.”

Ichigo seemed to consider it for a moment.  “Do you really think it would be safe?”

“Your hollow hasn’t made a peep since you’ve been here, has it?”

“No, but it seemed like it was especially receptive to Inoue.”

‘Inoue, huh?’ Uryuu thought to himself.  “Well, if it would make you feel better I could stand guard or something.  Or you could just call her from outside the hospital if you’re that worried.”

“I don’t know.  Does she even want to see me after what happened?  I remember what I said to her.  I remember the look on her face when I did.  She probably hates me now.”

“No, I can confirm that she doesn’t.  She misses you.”

Ichigo half-smiled at that, pondering his options.

“You’re right.  I mean, if we are going to Soul Society soon, I owe it to her to at least say goodbye, right?”

“That’s what I’ve been getting at.  You don’t know how long you’re going to be there.”

“Would you help me sneak out of here?”

“Of course.”

“Ok.  We’ll go tonight then.  Still sure you don’t want to tell me who this guy is who’s sniffing around Inoue?”

“Yeah, I’m sure you really don’t want to know.”

“So I know him.”

“Indeed.”

“I’ll figure it out, you know.”

“Oh, I have no doubt.”

“You’re a bastard.”

“Sorry.  As Inoue-san’s friend, I can’t be personally responsible for giving her more reason to worry, and having you terrify her acquaintances isn’t going to help in that regard.  Besides, she is helplessly devoted to you.”

Ichigo laughed lamely.  “I know.”

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 26: What Could Go Wrong?

January 10th, Urahara Shoten

The door slammed shut. The sound of fabric being slapped against the ground could be heard before an irritated hiss filled the entryway of the Urahara residence. The master of the house turned his head slightly from his work in curiosity as he heard the stomping of two gigai-clad feet approach his office. "I hope you did not leave your jacket on the floor, Cifer-san," he called gently, "Ururu really hates that."

Urahara turned fully to face Ulquiorra, who stood in the doorway to his office, apparently quite disturbed, but holding his jacket out to Urahara as evidence that he had committed no such offense to Ururu. "So, Karate practice was a bust, was it? Or is something else on your mind?"

"This gigai is defective," Ulquiorra answered, leveling him a look that would kill, if looks could do such a thing.

"My, my, Cifer-san. Were you badly defeated?" Urahara responded with false concern.

"Certainly not. My opponents so quickly felled that it was laughable. Where combat is concerned, this gigai responds to my impulses flawlessly. However, in certain non-combat situations, it acts autonomously and fails to heed simple and specific commands."

Urahara was almost sure he heard a tinge of fear in the former Espada's voice, and regretted teasing him. "Well, I'm very sorry to hear that, Cifer-san. Have a seat and I'll take a record of the events surrounding the malfunction."

Ulquiorra looked taken aback, and his face colored a rather loud shade of crimson. "Is that really necessary, Urahara-san?" he nearly stammered after a moment.

Urahara's curiosity was piqued. "My dear Cifer-san, was it a biological malfunction? If that is the case it I do apologize; it sounds most inconvenient. It should be easy to remedy, however, and you need not feel any embarrassment. Remember, I built your gigai from scratch, so there is nothing about it that would shock me."

Ulquiorra considered Urahara for a moment, and finally nodded.

"I see. I am sorry to hear it. So what was it? Incontinence? Flatulence?"

Ulquiorra furrowed his brows in disgust. "No! I am perfectly capable of anticipating such events and handling them appropriately."

Urahara looked past Ulquiorra into the hallway, checking that the coast was clear, before leaning in and asking quietly, "Do you have diarrhea?"

"NO!"

Urahara sat back and sighed. "I'm sorry then, Cifer-san. You'll have to explain to me what the problem is."

Ulquiorra looked to the side as his blush came back with a vengeance. Pain shone on his face, and he appeared to contemplate his words carefully before he finally spoke. "There is a, certain, er, anatomical feature, that… acts without notice, intention, or consent… in the presence of certain stimuli…" Ulquiorra had pressed his eyelids closed by the time he finished his explanation, wishing he could disappear. He didn't know why he felt this way. It seemed an instinctual reaction to the situation though, and he was having a hard time fighting it.

Urahara fought to restrain himself, trying with all his strength to not humiliate his charge. It was a difficult task to swallow down the delight and laughter he felt at present, but he succeeded. He nodded thoughtfully, trying to buy time both for him to shake off his glee and for Ulquiorra to regain some semblance of dignity.

"Cifer-san," he started delicately after a few moments, "could you please describe the stimuli to which you are referring?"

Ulquiorra was starting to get annoyed by the confusion he felt. Pride and shame warred as he struggled to find the words that would communicate the necessary information without falling deeper into embarrassment. He finally snapped, looking directly into Urahara's eyes, and blurting, "The woman put her hands on my skin and pressed her breast into my leg as part of a warm-up exercise."

"Ah, so Inoue-san was there. I see. Well, that explains it."

"What explains what?"

"There is no defect in your gigai. You simply experienced a normal biological response. With experience, you will develop skills to minimize the disruption caused by such response."

"Such response? Elaborate," Ulquiorra commanded with authority.

"Your gigai is designed to mimic the experience of being a biological human. While in it, you are subject to the same instinctual urges that humans are. To eat. To rest. To conquer. To survive. To procreate."

"You do not see this as a design flaw?" Ulquiorra asked, genuinely shocked.

Urahara smiled. "On the contrary, my dear Cifer-san. To replicate the human experience in its entirety is the only proper way to house a soul such as your own. While you are a powerful anomaly, your soul is still most closely aligned with human souls. Even without the biological imperatives driven by the gigai, your soul, in its incorporeal form, would eventually submit to similar responses to such stimuli, which is driven by an emotional response native to even most non-human souls, including many hollows."

"And what emotional response is that, if you would care to enlighten me?" Ulquiorra asked with an air of petulance.

"Attraction."

"Attraction?"

"Sexual or romantic attraction, to be specific, but yes. It is generally an unclear force, often intertwined in some measure with feelings of love, affection, and/or lust."

Ulquiorra was suddenly subdued. While he understood the concepts from an academic perspective, he had never considered that he himself would ever be subject to such feelings. He had been the embodiment of nothingness, after all. He sighed to himself, turning his back to Urahara. Of course things were different now. If this short life had taught him anything yet, it was that he still had a lot to learn about his new self and his emotions. He was about to turn back toward Urahara to ask a follow-up question, when an echo from the past floated through his memory:

'I envy because of the heart.

I hunger because of the heart.

I covet because of the heart.

I am prideful because of the heart.

I sloth because of the heart.

I rage because of the heart.

Because of the heart, I lust for everything about you.'

Silently, he walking toward his room, shaking his head at himself. He was a fool for not recognizing what was happening sooner.


Orihime's Apartment

Orihime lay on her stomach on her bed, her phone's screen illuminated as she spoke with Tatsuki on speaker. They had been talking for the better part of an hour already about the events of the day and Tatsuki's impressions of Chad as a potential romantic partner. Orihime had not forgotten Ulquiorra's pep talk or his portrayal of her friendships as non-reciprocal, but she had put that aside for now, much too interested in the romantic tale her best friend was telling.

From Tatsuki's account, it appeared Chad had done everything right. He was quite the gentleman and, although it was uncharacteristic, he put effort into making conversation on the walk home. They had even agreed to go on another date the following weekend.

Orihime sighed, delirious with visions of Tatsuki in a wedding dress. Her reverie was broken, though, when Tatsuki mentioned that Chad told her he hadn't been allowed to see Ichigo either.

"What? Why not?"

"He said Urahara told him his power was too similar to a hollow's, so it was best if they avoided each other while Ichigo is so unstable."

"Oh, poor Sado-kun. He must be lonely. No wonder he reached out to Ulquiorra."

"Um, Orihime, is that why you are reaching out to him?"

"No! I mean, I do miss Ichigo, but me spending time with Ulquiorra has nothing to do with that."

"Oh yeah? Do you really think you would be spending time with him if Ichigo was not in lock-up?"

"Well, to be honest, Tatsuki-chan, Ichigo doesn't really get to decide. I want to help Ulquiorra. He is my friend now, too."

"You know Ichigo probably wouldn't like it, right?"

"He would understand, I think, once he realizes that Ulquiorra isn't our enemy anymore."

Tatsuki sighed. "Hime, listen. You have the purest heart I know. I love you for that. Heck, I think everyone you meet loves you for that. But you have to open your eyes."

Orihime was hurt by what Tatsuki was saying, especially in light of her earlier conversation with Ulquiorra. "What do you mean, open my eyes?" she asked, trying not to be offended.

"Chad didn't send me to your place the day I met Ulquiorra because he was worried about him being your enemy. He sent me there because he couldn't let his best friend's girlfriend hang out at her place alone with a guy who clearly has the hots for her."

Orihime didn't know how to react. "What?! No! First of all, I can take care of myself and make my own decisions. He has no right to try to interfere, especially when the last time I spoke to Ichigo he told me that there was no longer any relationship between us and recommended I go ahead and jump into bed with Ishida-kun!"

Tatsuki gasped in horror; she hadn't heard about what was said at Ichigo's intervention yet.

Orihime continued indignantly, "Second, Ulquiorra has no interest in me that way. We only agreed we were friends today! He just became human – well, kind of human – like a month ago. As a hollow, he was pretty much empty and emotionless until after I met him. It wasn't until he was dying that he even acknowledged that the heart as an emotional connection between people existed."

Tatsuki was reeling. "Hime, hold up – first of all, Ichigo is a fucking asshole! Excuse my language, Hime, but hollow or no I can't believe he would say something like that to you. I am so, so sorry." She paused a moment to allow the heartfelt meaning behind her words to reach Orihime.

"Thanks, Tatsuki. I know he probably didn't mean it at all, but part of me worries that if he could say it, it means at least part of him thinks it. I don't know how to take it. One minute I think, 'of course, it's his hollow, Ichigo doesn't mean it!' and next I feel like everything is over between us."

"Hime, sweetie, I had no idea! Why didn't you tell me?" Tatsuki asked, heartbroken for her friend.

Orihime started to cry a bit. "I didn't even really want to articulate it to myself, much less anyone else, Tatsuki-chan. It hurts too much."

Tatsuki let a few unseen tears fall listening to her best friend's confession. She offered a few generic words of comfort, aware that only Ichigo himself could right the wrongs done to Orihime.

After a few tender moments, Tatsuki shifted focus again. "Anyway, Hime, about Ulquiorra, don't get me wrong, he's a little weird but I actually like him. And honestly, it's your life and I just want you to be happy. But you have to know, he may be your friend, but to him, you are more than just a friend."

"Maybe, Tatsuki-chan, but I don't think it's in the way you think it is. I am just the only person who can bridge the gap between this life and the last for him."

"Orihime, if you saw the way he watches you when you are not looking, you would agree with me. It is so intense. Like, more intense than Ichigo, and Ichigo is pretty intense."

"Tatsuki-chan, if you say the word 'intense' one more time it's going to lose all its meaning."

Tatsuki laughed, relieved that Orihime was still able to find humor in the situation. "You still don't believe me, do you?"

"Nope!"

"Ignorance is bliss, they say. Poor Uryuu. I mean, Ulquiorra," Tatsuki slipped in slyly.

"Ughh, Tatsuki-chan. Ishida-kun is my F-R-I-E-N-D furr-ienn-duh. Next are you going to tell me that Chad likes me as more than a friend, too?"

Tatsuki laughed. "No way, he's all mine! But seriously, Hime, you are like, most guys' ideal girl. You are hot, you are nice, and you are approachable when you don't have a gang of supernaturally charged guardians beside you. You leave broken hearts in your wake whether you want to or not."

"Fine. I don't believe you, but I promise to try not to string anyone along, okay?"

"That's all I ask."

"Good. So tell me about what you and Sado-kun are going to do next weekend?"


Karakura Hospital Roof – Nightfall

Uryuu stood with his eyes closed, his chin-length bangs fluttering around his face in the breeze, searching for the reiatsu of any individuals who might be resistant to his and Ichigo's plans. After a moment, he opened his eyes again and smiled. "Looks like everyone is tucked it for the night. Shall we?"

Ichigo only set his jaw and nodded in response, and the two boys leapt off the hospital roof to the building across the street in a quick burst of Hirenkyaku. They continued silently until they were close to Orihime's building, landing on the street outside. As they did, Uryuu felt a pulse of Orihime's reiatsu; it felt like she was distressed.

"Maybe I should go up first, Kurosaki."

"Why?"

"I just have a feeling that it might be better –

Ichigo was already gone, at Orihime's door. He knocked twice.

"Kurosaki-kun, is that you?" Orihime had sensed his reiatsu as soon as he had landed in the street.

"Yes. Can I come in?"

"What are you doing here?"

"I just want to talk to you."

Uryuu was at his side at this point. "Don't worry, Inoue-san. I'm here too."

Ichigo gave Uryuu an offended look, but his attention was diverted when he heard Orihime unlocking her door.

She opened it slowly, until she saw Ichigo's face, then she sighed and opened the door all the way, allowing him entrance.

"I'll wait out here, just to be safe, Inoue-san, but I'm sure everything will be fine."

Ichigo tsked and rolled his eyes, closing the door behind him, before turning his attention back to Orihime and starting before his lost his nerve. "Inoue, I've had a long time to think about it, and I'm so sorry for what I said that day. I know you aren't that kind of person. I felt attacked and I lashed out at you. It wasn't right…"

Orihime listened silently. It was hard for her to believe this was happening. When he stopped speaking, he looked at her and she let her eyes meet his. All she could do was burst into tears.

"Inoue! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry. Please don't cry!" Ichigo reached for her hand, but she blindly moved it out of his reach to wipe her face before he could grab it.

"Kurosaki-kun, I know. I know it wasn't your fault. I knew it was just your hollow talking," Orihime choked out between sobs. She turned toward her living room, sitting down on the floor at the low table. Ichigo followed, taking a seat on the sofa. Orihime continued to wipe her eyes, willing herself to calm down. Finally, she was able to say in a shaky voice, "I'm just so glad to see you."

At that, Ichigo smiled kindly. "Me too," was all he said, before exhaling through his nostrils loudly.

The pair met one another's eyes and smiled again, this time laughing in mild embarrassment. "So how is your training going?"

Ichigo smiled again and started to fill her in on everything Uryuu had already told her, but she listened with rapt attention, just happy to be in his presence again. After a while, Orihime felt herself relaxing. Staring into his familiar, handsome face, she began to blush recalling what they had done the last time they had been in that room together, before Ichigo had his hollow episode.

Ichigo noticed her flushed face and asked if she was alright. Orihime nodded and got up to sit next to him. "I just really missed you," she said, looking into his eyes.

He looked into hers and saw the adoration there. He let himself enjoy the feeling. He relaxed as he recalled the nights he had spent with her on that sofa, lying in her warm spiritual embrace. He was filled with an overwhelming feeling of fond affection and reached to her, pulling her into his chest, burying his nose in her hair.

Orihime felt redeemed. She took a long, deep inhalation of his scent and melted into his chest, wrapping her arms around his torso. They sat there for a long while, Orihime finally feeling the relief she had been searching for since his intervention.

She felt him breathe the scent of her hair deeply, and she smiled, nuzzling her forehead closer to him. He did it again. And again. She began to notice his arms tighten around her. He breathed again, harder. Again, harder. It was coming faster and his breath was rougher each time. She tried to back up, but his arms were like steel around her. "Ichigo, what's wrong?" she asked, worried.

Ichigo had enjoyed the feeling of her in his arms, and relaxed as he breathed in the familiar almond scent of her shampoo. The second time he breathed it in though, he detected something else. Someone else. Then, he heard a voice inside his head, as his arms tightened around Orihime.

'Ah, ha ha ha ha! So, Ishida was right, another dog has been trying to sniff the Queen's crotch! Can't you sense how his reiatsu clings to her?'

Ichigo shook his head and released Orihime abruptly. She looked up at him, startled. He backed up, as black began to flicker again around his sclera. "No, no, no…" he whimpered, backing up frantically, as the voice inside his head grew louder.

'Claim her now, King. Before the dog comes back and does it himself! When he does, she'll cut us off from her power! Claim her! Do it now!'

Orihime was terrified, watching Ichigo's face contort in fear. She reached out to him. "Ichigo! What's wrong?! Please, talk to me!"

"Don't touch me, Inoue!" He shrieked in response, now on his feet.

Uryuu rushed in at that point, and Ichigo turned to look at him with a pitiful expression. Only his black and yellow eyes gave away what was happening.

"Get away from him, Inoue-san!" Uryuu shouted, grabbing Ichigo by the arm and pulling him toward the door. When he looked down, he saw the pale blue glow of Blut Vene begin to shine brighter on Ichigo's wrist. "We have to go, NOW!" he shouted, and with one more effort, Ichigo pushed his hollow farther to the back of his mind and followed Uryuu out the door without looking back.

Orihime ran to the door behind them, looking around the street outside, but they were gone. She went back inside, closed the door, and wept.


Urahara Shoten

Ichigo and Uryuu arrived at the shop moments later, having traveled as fast as possible away from Orihime. Ichigo still had not silenced his hollow, and his reiatsu was chaotic. Before they announced their arrival, the door flew open, and Ichigo was faced with what was probably the last thing he ever expected to see at that moment: the face of his killer.

Ulquiorra's eyes burned as he beheld Ichigo in his current state, with Orihime's residual reiatsu all over him.

The only good thing about the situation was that Ichigo had been so shocked that he was able to completely forget about Orihime for a moment, silencing his hollow. He began to advance on Ulquiorra threateningly. "What are you doing here? How are you alive?" he demanded, before he got close enough to pick up the building reiatsu leaking from Ulquiorra's gigai; the same reiatsu he had detected on Orihime earlier. 

In the blink of an eye, Ichigo was changing. His hair started to grow longer and his hollow mask began to manifest. Any patch of skin visible was glowing bright blue as Blut Vene worked to protect his body while his hollow roared to life over it. "It was YOU!" a voice screeched, a voice that was both Ichigo's and his hollow's. Lacking a zanpakuto, Ichigo lifted the only weapons he had: A quincy bow, upon which an cero-infused arrow was nocked.

Urahara reached the group at the door just as the Ichigo loosed the arrow, and deflected it with Benihime. Ichigo's hollow was quickly gaining control, and he began charging another cero, sans bow.

"I'm going to need your help, Cifer-san! Please gather your reiatsu!" Urahara shouted, jumping in front of him again to deflect the cero, before turning and placing a gloved palm flat on Ulquiorra's chest. Ulquiorra's gigai went flaccid as his soul was set free. Surprisingly, Ulquiorra's soul was not as Urahara expected. Large, leathery black wings deflected another cero as Ulquiorra advanced on Ichigo, waist-length black hair and long, prehensile tail whipping behind him.

"Don't kill him, Cifer-san!" Urahara shouted, before the pair ascended into the sky above Karakura.

When the fighters stopped, they each took a moment to regard one another. Ichigo looked more or less the same as usual with the exception of the glowing lines on his skin, long hair and hollow mask. Ulquiorra stood before Ichigo in what appeared to be half of his Segunda Etapa release, wings, tail, and blackened eyes that trailed down his cheeks visible, but with the marked exception no fur, horns, or any other visible hollow artifacts, for that matter. He wore the same clothes as his gigai had been wearing, torn to allow for his wings and tail to be freed, the scraps of his black t-shirt covering the spot where his hollow hole would be.

"So we meet again, Ulquiorra. Can't seem to leave Orihime alone, can you? How many times do I have to kill you before I make my point?" Ichigo rasped through his mask, another quincy bow forming at his wrist.

"I would ask you the same question, Ichigo Kurosaki, but I know you are not capable of an intelligent response," he replied, easily dodging the arrow and appearing suddenly before Ichigo, his tail wrapping painfully around Ichigo's wrist, crushing the quincy cross on it.

"No matter, Ulquiorra. I'll stick to a technique you are more familiar with," Ichigo said, pointing a finger at Ulquiorra, and releasing a cero at his face at point blank range.

Ichigo cackled in his hollow's voice, sure of his victory, until he tried to raise his hands, and realized his left was still being strangled by Ulquiorra's tail. As he tried to pull it off, Ulquiorra's face appeared from behind the smoke left by Ichigo's cero, completely unaffected.

"Do you really not recognize me from your intervention? Who do you think it was that stopped you before?"

"What does it matter? Apparently I am a lot stronger now!"

"You deceive yourself," Ulquiorra retorted, "I only exert myself now in order to satisfy the urge to make you suffer as you have made the woman suffer."

"The woman?! You mean Orihime? She wouldn't give you a chance, Espada. You kidnapped her! Besides, she worships me. I could destroy everything she loves and she would still be at my beck and call!" Ichigo ended his speech with a cruel laugh, before adding, "What would sweet little Orihime want with a hollow, anyway?"

"That is the question, isn't it, Ichigo Kurosaki? Perhaps you'll find the answer one day. Sadly, I won't be able to help you; I am not a hollow," he said, ripping the remains of his t-shirt to reveal a clean white chest, with no trace of a hole.

Ichigo keened backward, trying to make sense of what he saw.

Ulquiorra was tired of it, though. "Brace yourself, Ichigo Kurosaki. For the woman's sake, I'll try not to make this hurt too much," he said, and immediately he was before Ichigo, hand on his hollow mask.

Ichigo felt his power drain instantly. Before he lost consciousness, he asked, "What are you?"

Ulquiorra whispered, knowing Ichigo could no longer hear, "I am the Hogyoku."


When Ichigo awoke, it was morning already, and he was in Urahara's training room. He felt exhausted and his wrist was sore, but he was otherwise no worse for wear. He began to sit up and looked around, blinking at the bright lights. His eyes came across a pair of black combat boots standing in stark contrast to the golden sand of the training ground. Ichigo's sight rose up the attached figure, past its black jeans and gray long-sleeved t-shirt, up to the beige, unmarked face of Ulquiorra Cifer. Much to Ichigo's surprise, he just looked like a normal, albeit very bored, guy.

Ichigo groaned and caught Ulquiorra's attention. Ulquiorra narrowed his eyes and squared off his posture at him, growling, "Don't make me get out of my gigai again, Ichigo Kurosaki."

Ichigo turned his face away from Ulquiorra and saw Urahara shuffling toward them. "Ah, Cifer-san! I asked you to let me know as soon as he woke up!"

"I did just wake up," Ichigo interrupted. "What is he doing here?"

"He lives here. He is a member of my household."

"What the fuck, Urahara!? You're bunking with Arrancar now?"

"Language, Kurosaki-san. First, Cifer-san is not an Arrancar, and he has you to thank for that."

"What?!"

"You killed him with your Zanpakuto, Kurosaki-san."

"If that was true, then why is he walking around? Last I checked zombies weren't a real thing – or did I not get that memo?"

Ulquiorra huffed and walked away in annoyance, busying himself out of earshot.

"Very funny, Kurosaki-san. You did kill Ulquiorra Cifer, the Arrancar and Fourth Espada in Aizen's army. However, the Ulquiorra Cifer you see before you is not the same person. Not exactly, anyway. You purified his soul when you struck him down with your Zanpakuto. He was reborn in Soul Society months ago as a plus."

Ichigo was not interested in the specifics. "Whatever. What was he doing here, though?"

"Commander Yamamoto's orders."

"Whoa, so everyone knows?"

"No, his existence is classified. Only the commander, his lieutenant, Yoruichi-san, myself, and you in Karakura know.

"Good. So there won't be many to miss him when I kill him again."

"You will do no such thing. You couldn't if you tried. You should be thanking him, anyway. Last night was the second time he's saved your life."

"What?"

"Your intervention. He was the one who stopped your own hollow from killing you. He stopped me from having to kill you last night. He uses his power surgically; he only uses as much as is necessary to stop you, not to hurt you. He doesn't have to do that. A little gratitude is in order, don't you think?"

Ichigo grumbled quietly and the two went silent for a moment.

"I have one other question. What's he doing hanging around with Orihime?"

"Perhaps you should ask them, Kurosaki-san."

"I'd rather not talk to him, thanks. And I'm sure you know by now how well my last conversation with Orihime went."

"Indeed. Well, in short, Inoue-san has been kind enough to help introduce Cifer-san to the way of life in the World of the Living from time to time. They seem to have developed a camaraderie. "

Ichigo smiled a bit, "She would do that." Then he sighed and put his head in his hands. "I don't know what to do about her, Urahara-san. I thought it would be fine seeing her last night, but it was worse than ever. When my hollow first took an interest in her, it was kind of – I don't know – normal? But what he tried to make me do last night…" He stopped and shivered, gripping his left shoulder with his right hand until his knuckles went white. "I can't be with her like this. I don't want to be with her like this. It will destroy us both."

Urahara tipped his hat down over his eyes and his voice took an ominous tone. "I'm glad we agree, Kurosaki-san. It's sooner than we planned, but I believe the time has come for you to go to Soul Society."

Ichigo nodded silently. He was going to ask for it anyway if it hadn't been suggested.

"Your father and Ishida-san will be here soon to see you off. I've brought a notebook if you'd like to write a note to anyone else. I know you meant to tell Inoue-san goodbye in person, but perhaps this will be better."

"Thanks, Urahara-san."


Later that day, Uryuu stopped by Orihime's house to check in on her and give her Ichigo's letter. She sat with Uryuu for fifteen minutes or so, assuring him that she was alright considering the circumstances. When he finally left, she closed and locked the door, went to her room, and opened Ichigo's letter:

Dear Orihime,

I am so sorry. I don't think I can ever tell you how sorry I am. I never meant to hurt you or let my hollow hurt you, but I did, and I can't forgive myself for that.

I am sure you know that by now I am in Soul Society, to begin training to get my hollow under control. The reason I came by your apartment last night was to see you before I left, because I don't know how long I'll be gone. I hadn't heard my hollow's voice since the last time I saw you, so I thought it would be safe. I was wrong.

I wish I could tell you that everything is going to be alright, that I'll train hard and get better, and things can go back to the way they were. But I can't promise you that. I don't know what's going to happen, and right now, I can't trust myself to be anywhere near you.

This is more than either of us should have to deal with. We are too young to worry about this kind of crap when it comes to dating and relationships. We're supposed to be teenagers getting to know each other and having fun! Not worrying about when my hollow is going to take over my body and possibly hurt you.

I want you to know that up until my hollow started coming between us, I, at least, did have a lot of fun being with you. You are so sweet, and funny, and kind, and beautiful. I meant everything I ever said to you about that kind of stuff. I really wish it could have lasted longer. Despite this hollow crap, I don't regret becoming your boyfriend, Orihime. I hope you don't regret being my first girlfriend.

I'm not saying this is for sure the end for us. I still care about you a lot. But, I can't make you any promises now, and I don't think it's fair to you to keep you hanging on and waiting for something that might never happen. I may never get my hollow under control when it comes to you. And if that is the case, we can't be together.

I wish it didn't have to be this way. I'll miss you, Orihime. If you have a chance at happiness while I'm gone, please take it.

I'm sorry.

Goodbye, Hime.

-Ichigo

Chapter Text

Soul Society

"Again!" Ichigo roared at Yoruichi, spinning a dummy sword in an arc around his hand before allowing it to impale the ground.

"Really, Ichigo? We're not getting anywhere with this, and I'm hungry," the dark-skinned woman said irritably. This was day eight of their training; in the same place they had trained him to achieve bankai over a year ago. They had been trying to instigate some kind of reaction from his hollow by pushing Ichigo to his physical, mental, and spiritual limits, but since leaving Karakura there had been 'radio silence' from Ichigo's inner partner.

Ichigo tugged at his hair. He knew what they were doing was useless, but he was frustrated. Despite the physical exertion of the past several days, he still had steam to blow off.

"Yoruichi," Ichigo began, about to launch into a lecture on perseverance, when he paused, groaning in defeat. "Fine."

"Good! Rinse off, boy-o, I'm taking you somewhere we can both blow off some steam."

An hour later, Ichigo followed Yoruichi into a noisy hut somewhere in the 12th district of East Rukongai. As his eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior, he realized that it was a pub. Yoruichi nodded to the master, who seemed to recognize her with a smile, and she made her to a large table in a back corner of the place with the kind of familiarity that one only has after multiple visits. She threw herself onto a plush cushion on the floor next to the wall and Ichigo looked on in disgust as she lifted her legs up to rest her now-bare feet on the edge of the table.

"We're not in Seireitei now, boy-o. You can relax here, right Master?" she called out to the burly man carrying a tray toward their table with a large bottle of sake and two cups.

The man nodded his agreement as he deposited the items onto the table, before asking, "Just your kept bottle, then, Yoruichi-sama?"

"No, Master, we'll need at least one more, and probably some shochu, and a lot more cups. Also bring a load of Tomoe-san's pickles and some snacks; I'm expecting company."

The master nodded and left, leaving Ichigo staring at Yoruichi with raised brows, waiting for her to fill him in on her plans for the evening.

"Sit down," she demanded, patting the cushion next to her. "There are some friends who have been anxious to see you."

Ichigo, despite being in a bad mood to begin with, actually perked up at the idea of having someone else to talk to besides Yoruichi. He began to walk around the table and was just sitting down when he heard a familiar voice.

"Ichigo!" He looked up, but didn't see anything. He squinted and sat up straighter, trying to see over the crowd, until finally he saw the top of a black head and a hand waving from within a group of taller patrons.

"Rukia, is that you?"

Rukia finally burst through the group and smiled. "Long time no see, Ichigo."

Ichigo's heart exhaled and his soul hummed. He was filled with a rush of happiness at seeing his old friend. She came over to take a seat across from him, and it wasn't long before other familiar faces approached the table: Renji, Rangiku, Shuhei, Ikkaku, Yumichika, and Shinji.

"Hey, this gathering was supposed to be discreet! Who tattled to a captain?" Yoruichi complained loudly between swigs of sake.

Shinji merely blasted her a too-large grin and slunk down in the seat next to Ichigo, answering, "Like any of you could hide anything? Besides, I have my sources," before winking to Ichigo, which only served to confuse him. Being the ranking officer present, Shinji realized with reluctance that he would have to officially start things off, so after everyone had a full glass, he stood. "Thank you all present for your continued hard work, and let's continue to work together well in the future, blah blah blah, and also, here's to Ichigo, may you not be consumed by your hollow and kill us all in our sleep. Kampai!"

Everyone raised their cups, and took a hesitant sip. All, of course, except for Rangiku and Yoruichi - who couldn't care less about decorum and were only interested in getting the party started - and Ichigo, who was having a moral quandary about being underage and holding a glass of liquor.

Yoruichi noticed and turned her head to face him. "When in Rome, boy-o. There is no 'drinking age' in Rukongai. Drink up!" she said, tipping his cup toward his mouth.

Once the issue of legality was out of the way, Ichigo was more than willing to give it a go, ready to escape the frustrating reality of his present circumstances for one night. He swallowed the contents of the entire cup quickly. Despite the slight burn going down, it was not altogether unpleasant, and when Shinji reached over to fill his cup again, Ichigo held it out obediently.

"There we go. This may be just what you needed, kid. You're always wound up so tightly," Shinji said with a teasing lilt, although his eyes expressed sincere concern to Ichigo. Ichigo took the cup to his lips and only sipped this time, deciding to pace himself. He looked around the table at each of the others present. Each face took a moment to look back at him, and despite the superficial chatter they were engaged in, each person looked back at Ichigo with something his soul had been aching for. On Yoruichi's other side, Rangiku spared him a look of affection. Next, on her left and at the end of the table, he saw Shuhei's smile of camaraderie, then Ikkaku's nod of respect, Yumichika's flash of approval, Rukia's reserved warmth, and from Renji, appreciation. Finally he looked back at Yoruichi and saw a rare softness in her gaze. He felt himself choke up a bit, but blinked quickly and took another sip to distract himself from his own tenderness.

The party quickly fell into gossip and flirting and Ichigo was more than happy to listen quietly and just relax for a while. After about twenty minutes, Yoruichi got up from her place beside Ichigo, and Rangiku sidled over to him, offering him a dried persimmon. He took it and started nibbling on the strangely sweet and astringent fruit, as Rangiku leaned in and whispered, "So, tell me the truth, how are things with Orihime?"

Ichigo sighed through his nostrils. So much for having a good time, he thought, before looking up at Rangiku. He downed the remaining contents of his cup and held it out for her to refill before answering, "Not so great, thanks for asking."

"Kurosaki-kun, sarcasm does not look good on you," Rangiku cooed, "I may be Orihime's friend, but I really only want what's best for both of you."

Rukia had overheard and squeezed in between Shinji and Ichigo to join the conversation. "Ichigo, Matsumoto is right. We care about Orihime a lot, but we care about you just as much. You need someone to talk to about these things."

"Well, I broke up with her, so there's not much to talk about," he answered only slightly less defensively.

"I'm sorry, Ichigo," Rukia said softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure it wasn't an easy decision."

Ichigo nodded. He really didn't have anything else to say about it, but Rangiku didn't seem like she was satisfied with his answer. As expected, she had more to ask. "Kurosaki-kun, are you sure this is what you want?"

"None of this is what I want," he said as he furrowed his brows deeper and looked down into his cup, before adding more quietly, "I wonder what it is I do want."

Neither of the women commented on his admission, although it gave them each plenty of food for thought. Luckily for Ichigo though, Rangiku was a lot more emotionally mature than she let on, and decided that he needed more time to figure out how he felt, and changed the topic to something more superficial, drawing Shuhei into the conversation to take the pressure off Ichigo.

After another hour of idle banter and a few more drinks, Ichigo was feeling a lot better about life in general. He was smiling and laughing freely, trading friendly insults with Renji , Shinji and Ikkaku, before falling into a conversation about music with Shuhei. They had just gotten into talking about their preferences between electric and acoustic guitars when Yoruichi stood up and announced it was time to move to the 'second party'.

No one present objected, including Ichigo, who had lost most inhibitions a few drinks ago, and they made their way into the street, which was lit entirely by colorful lanterns with the names of the restaurants, pubs, and clubs lining either side. Yoruichi led them to a yakitori place and again appeared to be well-known to the owner. Soon the party was busy stuffing their faces with various chicken parts on skewers and washing it down with yet more alcohol. When Yoruichi announced the third party, Ichigo's head was starting to spin a bit and he was having a hard time walking in a straight line.

Renji never told anyone about it for fear of being challenged, but he had a very strong alcohol tolerance, and was sober enough to recognize that Ichigo should not be drinking anymore that night. When he saw Ichigo weaving through the street behind Yoruichi, he took him by the shoulders and announced, "We'll meet you guys after a few minutes. We're going to stop at the foot bath, right Rukia?"

Rukia was slightly tipsy, but as usual she kept track of her drinks to not overdo it and embarrass her brother. After Renji spoke, it only took a look at Ichigo's face for her to understand why Renji was trying to separate him from the party. "Oh, yes, my feet are killing me. We'll see you in a bit, Yoruichi-san."

Yoruichi leveled a calculating gaze at the trio and quickly came to the conclusion that a private conversation with these two might be just what Ichigo needed. In an instant her jovial mask was back in place, and she waved a hand as she turned her back to them and told them the name of the next bar as she led the rest of the group away.

Ichigo said nothing during the entire exchange, focusing too carefully on not losing his stomach contents.

Renji helped Ichigo walk over to the outdoor footbath, grateful that there was no one else there at the moment. He waited as Rukia rolled up the legs of her pants and carefully dipped her toes into the steaming hot water and slowly lowered her foot to the bottom of the bath to allow them time to adjust to the heat until the water rose to the level of her knees. She helped Renji with his pant legs and sandals as he held a nearly passed out Ichigo up, and then did the same for Ichigo. Rukia helped Renji guide Ichigo to sit on the bench beside the footbath and as his feet hit the scalding water, his mind was brought back to relative clarity.

"I don't feel so good," he mumbled.

"You don't look so good either," Renji replied.

"Thanks for getting me out of there," Ichigo said, trailing off at the end as his eyes fell closed again.

"There he goes again," a rosy-faced Rukia quipped, getting out of the footbath and taking a bamboo ladle of water from the adjacent water fountain. She brought it over and held it to Ichigo's lips. The coolness from the water under his nose revived him again, and he sipped on it carefully, taking care not to upset his stomach.

The three of them sat quietly for a long while, waiting for a modicum of sobriety to return to Ichigo. Luckily for him, he had food in his belly and youth on his side, and after about twenty minutes he was able to balance on his own and hold eye contact without feeling like Soul Society was going to spin off its axis, or whatever physical properties it was subject to.

"Thanks again, guys. I don't know if I would have survived the third party."

"Yeah, we had our doubts," Rukia laughed gently. Ichigo returned a half-grin and looked down at his legs in the water.

"So, we haven't had a chance to talk to you since your intervention. What's happened?" Renji asked.

Ichigo filled them in about being a Quincy, his training with the Ishidas, and his ill-advised meeting with Orihime. When he got to his fight with Ulquiorra, he glossed over the events. He wasn't able to clearly recall the details of the fight anyway; his hollow had nearly taken over and it was so short in duration. What he strongly remembered were his feelings and those of his hollow, which he kept to himself. He ended his explanation saying, "I can't believe that guy is back," shaking his head carefully, "the last thing I ever expected to see at Urahara's door was the guy who killed me, twice, wearing skinny jeans. It was rather, um, unsettling to say the least."

"I imagine," Renji said.

"I was shocked to see him at your intervention too, but I think Orihime had it the worst," Rukia remembered somewhat absently.

"What?" Ichigo asked, genuinely surprised.

"Oh, yeah, she fainted, right?" Renji added.

"Yes. I didn't get a chance to speak with her afterward but she had been upset by what happened to you, Ichigo, and then seeing him alive was just too much for her. She looked terrified, and then she fainted right onto Ishida," Rukia explained.

"That's a surprise," Ichigo said with more resentment than he intended.

"Really? He was her kidnapper. Why would it surprise you?"

"According to Ishida, he's been hanging around her - trying to get close to her - and she's been allowing it."

"Hmm, how do you feel about that?" Renji asked.

Ichigo looked up and made eye contact with both of them for a minute, unable to find an answer. Finally, he said, "Honestly, I don't know."

"What do you mean?" Rukia asked, her eyebrows knotted together in confusion.

"I mean I don't know how I feel. I know how my hollow feels. He recognized Ulquiorra's reiatsu from when I visited Orihime and reacted violently. He's jealous and possessive; I mean, he really wants to own her. But when my hollow is quiet and I think about my own reaction – I don't know. I mean, obviously I broke up with her so I have no right to tell her who she can spend time with. But besides that, I mean, I care about her and I want her to be safe. There is no way I trust Ulquiorra. If I didn't have my hollow to worry about I would be there to protect her from him for sure. But, other than that… I don't know."

Rukia was concerned. "So you mean you don't care if she gets a new boyfriend right away?"

"I don't know, Rukia," Ichigo started, frustrated. "I don't know how much of what I have felt is from me and how much of it was my hollow. I'm so confused. When it comes to Inoue, I don't know where I end and my hollow begins."

The three were quiet for another couple minutes, just thinking about what Ichigo had said. Finally, Rukia broke the silence. "I hope your training helps you get some clarity, Ichigo."

Ichigo nodded and spared her a weary smile. Renji stood then, mentioning they should head back to the party before someone came looking for them.


Karakura town (Tuesday, January 20th)

Orihime had been acting like she was only half alive since reading Ichigo's letter. No one and nothing seemed able to lift her spirits, much to her friends' concern. This afternoon was no different. She decided to skip handicrafts club after school and was currently walking home alone while it was still daylight. Gray, dreary daylight, she noted to herself. She felt it was appropriate, given her mood.

It also felt like the coldest day of the year so far. She shoved her hands deeper into her pockets and tucked her chin into her scarf, picking up her pace a bit. She didn't notice right away when someone started to walk beside her. She gasped and spun a quarter turn to see who it was when she felt a tap on her shoulder.

"Ulquiorra! You scared me!"

"That was not my intention, woman."

Orihime struggled to catch her breath; the bitter cold of the air felt painful as it clawed its way to her lungs. She readjusted her scarf once more to cover her nose as well as her mouth, and as her frigid trachea warmed up, she finally responded, "Intentional or not, Ulquiorra, you scared me. What do you want?" She cringed slightly at the harshness of what she had just said. What is it about him that always makes me just say whatever I feel without thinking?

Ulquiorra was undeterred. "Come with me, woman," he commanded, beginning to lead the way forward. When he noticed she wasn't following, he stopped, sighing a large cloud of billowy white breath into the air. When she didn't catch up, he turned to face her again, and seeing her standing in her original position, he strode back to her, stopping close enough that she would need to look up to see his face. She continued to look forward, blankly.

"I said, come with me, woman." When she made no response, Ulquiorra relented, adding, "Urahara-san would speak with you."

Orihime's shoulders slumped. She wasn't sure if she wanted to know anything that Urahara could tell her, but she knew she would eventually cave in anyway, so she might as well go now. She nodded and began walking again. The Shoten was close by anyway.

Ulquiorra hadn't heard from Orihime since Ichigo left. Urahara had advised him to leave her alone temporarily, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to stop thinking about her. After learning that Ichigo had written her a letter right after their fight, Ulquiorra began to grow anxious that her avoidance was possibly due to something Ichigo had written. After three days of intense pestering, Urahara finally agreed to summon Orihime to speak.

They arrived at the Shoten several minutes later. Ulquiorra opened the door, allowing Orihime to enter first. Despite her stubbornness to remain as miserable as possible, Orihime found herself grateful to be indoors and away from the cold. She slipped off her shoes, put on house slippers, and allowed Ulquiorra to take her coat, which he did silently, observing her as he always did.

Orihime walked toward Urahara's office, but when she arrived, the door was locked. A note had been taped to it addressed to Orihime. She took it down and read, "Sorry, had to do a thing. Help yourself to tea and Tessai's shortbread. Also, if you have the time and wouldn't mind, please teach Cifer-san how to use the item on the dining table. I'll see you next time!" Urahara didn't sign the note, but rather drew a caricature of himself waving his fan with a thought bubble that said "bye-bye!" in it.

Orihime closed her eyes a moment and took a deep breath. She did not want to smile. She did not want to feel happy. She thought that do so would mean she wasn't sad about her breakup with Ichigo anymore. She felt guilty that she found some amusement in Urahara's note. After beating herself up mentally for a moment, she looked up and asked Ulquiorra, "Which one is the dining table?"

Ulquiorra led the way to the spot in question. On it was a tea set and a plate of shortbread, which Orihime mentally noted to partake in later. Next to those was a box with a picture of a cell phone one it.

"What is this?" Ulquiorra asked, holding up the box.

"Looks like you got a cell phone. Congratulations," Orihime answered with a small smile that didn't go past her lips. She passed Ulquiorra the note Urahara had written and took the box from him. Opening it and taking out the phone, she found an outlet and set the phone up to charge. It was a similar phone to the one she used, and so she didn't have much difficulty setting it up and showing him the basic functionality. After showing him the call and text functions, she handed it to him, and turned her attention to the refreshments.

Ulquiorra started down and the black object in his hands and began to feel irritated. "Woman, please explain. Why would I need to call or text someone?"

"I don't know, Ulquiorra. Maybe Urahara-san wanted to be able to contact you when you are apart."

"Can I contact anyone with this device?"

"No, you can only contact people whose numbers you know or have programmed into your phone."

"I know no numbers. Are any numbers 'programmed into' the phone?"

"Not yet. Oh, how about we put Sado-kun's number in? Oh, and I have Urahara-san's number too, we can put that in there."

Ulquiorra didn't answer but handed the phone back to Orihime. When she was finished and tried to give it back, Ulquiorra didn't take it. Instead, a faint rosy tint began to surface on his cheeks, and he asked, "May I have your number also?"

Orihime didn't answer, but her eyes went wide for a moment and the tips of her ears became hot. Then she answered, "Oh, sure, of course," and entered her own number, chiding herself. Her initial reaction when he asked for her number was to feel flattered. Then she remembered it was Ulquiorra she was talking to, and before everything that happened with Ichigo they had decided to be friends, so, she calculated, it was perfectly natural and not at all interesting that he asked for her number. She passed the phone back to him and stuffed a piece of shortbread into her mouth before she could say anything.

"Thank you, woman. If you'd like, I can walk you home after you've had some tea."

Orihime swallowed her bite down quickly and chased it with a sip of tea, before responding, "No, thank you though, that's kind of you, Ulquiorra. I can make it back on my own."

Ulquiorra nodded thoughtfully, and after a moment replied, "I know you can."

Orihime set down her cup and turned toward the door before Ulquiorra could see that she was tearing up. She didn't know why his small affirmation had such an effect on her.

Ulquiorra walked her to the door and handed Orihime her coat. Orihime changed shoes and turned to say goodbye, but before she could speak, Ulquiorra blurted out, "Would it be appropriate to contact you? I understand that you have been… antisocial recently."

Orihime wasn't sure how to take his question/allegation. At first it sounded like a cute request, then possibly an insult? She smiled anyway, for a moment forgetting Ichigo completely, as she considered that Ulquiorra would have no idea how his words might be construed, and was just being completely straightforward. She decided to be straightforward in return. "I have, haven't I? Well, I can't stay this way forever. You may contact me when I am not in school and before 10 pm, unless there is an emergency, in which case you may contact me anytime, although I recommend you contact Urahara-san first. Also, it's better to text than call most times."

Ulquiorra nodded seriously, committing her recommendations to memory, before she said goodbye and left.

Chapter Text

Orihime left Urahara Shoten considerably lighter on her feet than when she arrived. She had begun to realize that it was still possible for her to enjoy aspects of her life while still mourning the loss of her relationship. In celebration of this small accomplishment, she decided to stop by the bakery on the way home for some donuts.

She arrived home about 10 minutes behind schedule. She quickly put a kettle on and changed into some warm leggings and a sweatshirt, before arranging her pastries on a plate and bring them with a hot cup of tea to her living room. She was just about to take a bite of something with chocolate icing when her phone began to ring. Surprised, she answered without checking who was calling.

"Hello?"

A small, immature voice responded, "Hello? Is this Inoue-san?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"It's Yuzu Kurosaki."

"Yuzu-chan!? Oh, it's so nice to hear your voice. Is everything alright?"

There was a pause after her question, and then a sharp inhalation.

"I just heard something, and I don't know if it's true. Um, I mean, I hope not but, um, I don't know..."

"What is it, Yuzu-chan?"

"Well, I was at the candy store and Jinta-kun told me that you and Onii-chan broke up. But it's not true, right? He is just doing a foreign exchange, and when he gets back everything will be back to normal, right?"

Orihime's heart sunk. She didn't want to be the one to let Yuzu down, but she couldn't lie to her either. "I'm sorry, Yuzu-chan, it's true."

Yuzu seemed to panic. "But why? He is only going to be gone for a few months! I know he can be kind of rude sometimes but he is really very kind. I know Inoue-san is very pretty and popular but Onii-chan is going to be very sad if you dump him!"

Orihime was tearing up at the emotions Yuzu was pulling out of her, her heart tightening in response to her own pain resurfacing. Despite that, she wore a small, pastoral smile. "I know, Yuzu-chan. Kurosaki-kun is a very kind and wonderful person. I hoped we could stay together longer."

There was a pause punctuated by sniffles. "You mean- No, he would never break up with you, he could never get anyone better, it makes no sense!"

Orihime allowed a small giggle to soften the information to follow: "He did. And I think he could, find someone better, I mean, Yuzu-chan. Your brother is very handsome and cool."

Yuzu was growing livid. "So what you are saying is that Onio-chan dumped you so he could play with some exotic foreigners?! I can't believe it, Inoue-san! He couldn't-"

Orihime interrupted, "No no no, Yuzu-chan, It's nothing like that. Kurosaki-kun had his reasons to end our relationship and he was very kind when he did. I don't think it is my place to tell you why he did it, and to be honest I'm not 100% sure myself, but I know that it wasn't easy for him and he only had noble intentions." Orihime wasn't able to stop herself from crying at this point. "I hope we can reconcile in the future but he made it clear he doesn't want me to wait for him to change his mind and that I should move on. I can't though. Not yet, anyway."

"Oh, Inoue-san, I'm so sorry." Yuzu was crying now too.

"Thank you. I'll be alright though, Yuzu-chan, so don't worry about me. When Kurosaki-kun comes back, make sure to take special care of him though, won't you? He always takes care of everyone else and tries to hide it when he's hurting."

"I promise." Yuzu sniffled and dis her best to use a strong voice, " I hope you can work it out later, but even if you can't, I hope we can all stay friends, Inoue-san."

"Oh, of course!"

"I'm glad. Well, I'm sorry for making you talk about such a sad thing. Good night, Inoue-san."

"It's okay. I'm actually glad I could talk with you about it. Thanks for listening to me. Goodnight, Yuzu-chan."

The line went dead, and Orihime sat reflecting on the conversation and her feelings. She was happy to have cleared the air with Yuzu. She smiled to herself as she looked down at her plate of donuts, feeling all the guilt she had felt from her earlier happiness dissipate. For the first time since their break up, she could envision a future in which she was happy, with or without Ichigo, and she was at peace with the idea. She knew it would not always be easy, but she knew she could do it. She brought the chocolate iced donut back to her lips and took a huge bite, the chocolate leaving its mark on her cheeks around her lips. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the sweet flavor, and she resolved that staring tomorrow, she would return to her old happy self.

 

Chapter Text

 

January 30th (Friday)

Ulquiorra sat on his bed, staring at the blank screen he had become so familiar with over the past ten days. He was past wondering why such a benign thing as a cell phone intimidated him so – he had accepted that his experience in 'making conversation' was lacking – but why did it matter so much? He was an analytical being, and as such his tendency was to use visualization techniques before engaging in any confrontation, be it in battle or in conversation. So far, every opening message he imagined sending the woman was unsuccessful when run through his mental simulator. It was unacceptable.

He groaned audibly and fought the urge to throw the object into the wall as his frustration grew unbearable. It had been ten days since he last saw her, ten days since he last heard her voice, ten days since she had granted him permission to contact her at will. And yet, here he was, choking.

It was inexcusable. He was the strong, unflinching, cool, calculating Ulquiorra Cifer. He didn't get flustered. Mostly. Anyway, even if he did, the woman and a finite lifespan; he didn't have an eternity to decide what to say. Ulquiorra took a deep breath and gathered his resolve. Standing, he began to pace his bedroom as his bony fingers tapped on the characters on the screen.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: 09012193774

4:00 p.m.

Good afternoon. I believe your regular class schedule is concluded, so this communication falls within acceptable parameters. Please correct me if I am mistaken.

SEND.

Ulquiorra exhaled in relief; he had done it! He sat on the edge of his bed and relaxed for a moment. Then he thought about what he had written, and anxiety began to creep up his body. He opened the message he had sent and reread it. 'Amateur,' he thought to himself, disgustedHe began tapping again.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: 09012193774

4:01 p.m.

Post Script: Are you well?

SEND.

Now satisfied, he flopped down on his bed and let his expression relax.

xXxXx

Orihime had long since stopped waiting on a message from Ulquiorra. She had anticipated hearing from him within a day or so, but since there had been nothing she figured he either forgot how to use the phone or didn't have anything to say to her, so she decided to forget about it. She had kind of been walking through life in a self-protection mode after what happened with Ichigo – not wanting to be as vulnerable as she usually was – so she really just pushed it from her mind and focused on what she had going on with her friends and school.

Because it was Friday, she didn't have handicrafts club after school. Tatsuki had a date with Chad later that night though, so she had decided to go home with her after school to help her choose something to wear. Tatsuki didn't exactly need help, it was just an excuse to hang out and the company was always nice.

Orihime sat on Tatsuki's bed as the dark-haired girl took out potential outfit ideas from her closet, when she heard her phone buzz in her school bag. She picked it up and looked at it: unknown sender. She decided to ignore it.

Tatsuki had told Orihime that she and Chad were going to catch the early showing of an action movie and then go out for ramen, so their date really didn't require any special apparel. Tatsuki held up a sporty red zip-up jersey jacket and a black sweater with a wide neck side by side. Orihime crinkled her nose at the red jacket and pointed decidedly to the black sweater. Tatsuki laughed under her breath and put the sweater on over the white tank top she was wearing. The sweater fell off to one side exposing the top of her left shoulder. "Ooh, sexy, Tatsuki-chan!" Orihime admired, allowing her words to spill out unfiltered. She covered her mouth, worried she may have offended her generally modest friend.

Tatsuki just smiled and laughed at her. "Thanks, Hime. I know I always act like I don't care about this kind of stuff, but for Chad, I hope he doesn't see me as "just one of the boys." Tatsuki admitted as she pulled out a pair of gray leggings and a pair of tight black jeans.

Orihime nodded in understanding and asked what shoes she'd be wearing. Tatsuki responded with a face that indicated it was a stupid question. "I pretty much only have snow boots and sneakers," she began, before putting on an aristocratic accent, "so tonight, I will be donning my most fanciest of sneaks."

Orihime burst out into peal of laughter, and Tatsuki smiled back widely at her. "The black jeans, then. You wouldn't want anyone to think you are going too casual with the leggings when you are wearing your formal footwear," Orihime responded between giggles.

Orihime's phone buzzed again, and again it was an unknown sender. "Who keeps buzzing you?" Tatsuki asked, trying not to sound too interested.

"I don't know. It says it's an unknown caller."

"Did you give your number to someone, or has someone been trying to talk to you lately?" Tatsuki asked suspiciously. Her best friend was popular, so it was no surprise to her that she would be receiving unsolicited messages.

"Not recently…" Orihime sat deep in thought for a moment before her eyes went wide. "Oh! Ulquiorra got a cell phone a couple weeks ago and asked me to give him my number, so I did. But he never contacted me. I wonder if it's him."

"Well, duh, of course it is! Open it up and read what he says to me," Tatsuki demanded as if it was for her, while pulling on the tight jeans.

Orihime opened the message. "It's two messages. The first one says, "Good afternoon. I believe your regular class schedule is concluded, so this communication falls within acceptable parameters. Please correct me if I am mistaken."

Tatsuki snorted. "He sounds like some kind of dorky professor. 'Acceptable parameters'? Who says that?" she laughed.

Orihime smiled gently but didn't laugh. "He does, I guess. I had told him not to contact me during school or late at night so I guess that's what he means. His second one says, 'Post Script: Are you well?"

Tatsuki laughed a bit harder at that. "Aww, the dorky professor is worried about you, Hime. Man, if that guy would use normal words he would actually sound kind of sweet," she said with an affectionate undertone to her mocking, sneaking a sidelong glance at Orihime to observe her reaction.

"Hmm," Orihime replied thoughtfully. "I think he spends too much time with Urahara-san and reading boring books." She began to type out a reply, when Tatsuki swiped the phone put of her hands. Orihime looked to her in worried surprise. "What's the matter, Tatsuki-chan?"

"You're not going to write him back right away, are you?" Tatsuki asked with wide, disbelieving eyes.

"I was. Why shouldn't I?" Orihime asked innocently.

"Well, he made you wait ten days to write to you. You could at least make him wait ten minutes for a response."

"That doesn't make any sense. I'm sure he had his reasons," Orihime responded with a smile, reaching out for the phone.

Tatsuki pulled it out of her reach. "No. You can't give him the impression that you are at his beck and call, Hime."

"I am not, and I don't think he would see it that way or read anything else into it. He has no reason to be playing games with me."

Tatsuki raised an eyebrow and half smiled, looking at Orihime slyly. "Why my sweet, innocent, little Orihime, I am shocked that you even know what that means!"

Orihime frowned and blushed. "I am not a baby, Tatsuki-chan. I've had a boyfriend. I've had my fair share of male attention, even if I blow most of it off. And I watch TV, for goodness' sake!"

"I'm just teasing, Hime, geez. Still, I guess it's true that we are all growing up, and even if your default expression is that of a baby bunny, you are too." Orihime creased her brows in disapproval. "I'm not trying to be offensive, Hime, it's just sometimes I wish things could go back to how they were when we were in middle school, before all this ghost stuff started happening and things got out of control and complicated, and sometimes when I look at you, I can believe, just for a moment, that none of it did. You're really amazing, you know? I know your life isn't easy, but your smile rarely fails to make it seem like life is good and everything is okay. It just takes me back to simpler times. I'm happy when I look at you and imagine we are younger."

Orihime sighed. She was happy that she had that effect on her friend, but Ulquiorra's words about reciprocity from weeks prior were ringing in her ears. He was right, she thought. She squared her shoulders and looked Tatsuki straight in the eye, and with confidence, but not condescension, she spoke: "I am happy that I can make you feel that way, Tatsuki-chan, but it's not fair that you continue to treat me like a child and ignore my feelings for the sake of your own so much of the time. I'm still getting over my break up with Kurosaki-kun. And while my feelings aren't as raw as they were last week or the week before, I'm still a little sensitive right now. I know you don't mean to, but when you tease me about my looks, or my softness, or your perception of my innocence, it eats away at my confidence and self-esteem. Especially when you know how untrue that 'innocence' is; I have seen and experienced too much darkness. Although I choose to live in the light and only shine that light back to others, it doesn't mean I am ignorant to the dark. I know you love me, Tatsuki-chan, so I thought I should tell you."

Tatsuki looked at Orihime expressionlessly at first, and then Orihime watched with guilt as Tatsuki's perpetually arid eyes started to swell with tears. Tatsuki looked up to the ceiling light and fanned at her face while blinking like crazy.

"Oh, no, Tatsuki-chan, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you sad," Orihime started, trying not to cry herself, until her best friend launched herself into Orihime's arms.

"I do love you, Hime-chan!" Tatsuki whispered into Orihime's hair. "You are my sister, and I'm so sorry. The last thing I want is to make you feel bad about yourself." Tatsuki sniffed a few times and sat back up, pressing her wrists to her eyes and dabbing away the remaining tears. Then she huffed and looked back at Orihime through swollen eyes and smiled. "Now look at us! I'm going to have to get some cold cloths for our eyes." She laughed as she stood to go get them.

"Ok, but first give me back my phone," Orihime said matter-of-factly despite her teary expression, holding her hand out expectantly.

"Alright. But please wait for me to get back before you reply. I don't want to miss anything good!"

"There's nothing to miss, Tatsuki-chan," Orihime groaned good-naturedly. "The 'dorky professor' probably just wants to chat."

"Exactly! Wait until I come back!"

xXxXx

At first Ulquiorra was satisfied at merely having his message sent. But as the minutes clicked by, he grew increasingly anxious for a reply. After five minutes, he found himself compulsively checking his home screen. After ten minutes, he was staring at it, willing a reply to manifest. After fifteen minutes, he was back to pacing the floor, ruffling the hair at the back of his neck in an agitated fashion, and thinking up all manner of improbable scenarios that may be keeping the woman from returning his message. As he pondered the pros and cons of just tracking down her reiatsu and finding out for himself, his phone made a strange twinkling sound. He brought it to his face and saw that he had finally, after an excruciating 23 ½ minutes, received a message.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

4:24 p.m.

I am well, thanks for asking. How are you? I haven't heard from you in a while. Have you been busy?

Ulquiorra was filled with a warm rush of gratification. He was about to tap the reply button, when another message twinkled in.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

4:25 p.m.

P.S. Yes, you were 'within parameters', (laughing smiley)

Ulquiorra examined the yellow circle resembling a human expression intently. Clearly, this woman's skill at text-based communication was at a very high level. He resolved to practice more complicated techniques with Urahara later. For now, he would focus on transferring information.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

4:29 p.m.

I too am well. I have been busy, in a sense. I found myself preoccupied with a certain problem which I have very recently resolved.

Ulquiorra then hesitated, erasing and re-writing the following part of the message twice before finally, smirking, he deciding to keep it:

I desire to meet with you again soon. That is, if your antisocial inclinations have subsided. Please advise.

xXxXx

Orihime read out Ulquiorra's message to Tatsuki, who squealed in response. Orihime shook her head, scolding, "You really read way too much into it, Tatsuki."

"Maybe. I doubt it though. Do you think he was trying to be funny?"

"Funny? Ulquiorra?"

"Yeah. I mean, his last part sounded kind of like he was trying to be funny, or at least tease you. Don't you think?"

"Maybe, but I think it's more likely he just said what he meant."

"I hope not, because that's kind of rude."

"No, when he says things like that he's just calling it like he sees it. He's not casting judgment."

"If you say so. I'm going with the idea that he has a dry sense of humor. Anyway, what are you going to say?"

Orihime started to respond, reading each word as she typed it in a voice that mimicked Ulquiorra's poorly.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

4:33 p.m.

I advise that said inclinations have indeed subsided and your proposal to meet is agreeable. Please indicate your general availability.

SEND

"Hime! He'll definitely think you are making fun of him now! Not that I mind, though; I thought it was hilarious," Tatsuki giggled.

"He might, but I don't think it will shake him. Teasing one another is kind of our 'thing'."

"Oh, you have a 'thing' now, do you?"

"Tatsuki-chan," Orihime whined in response, looking down at her buzzing phone. She didn't read it out loud immediately, but reread it three times before looking up at Tatsuki sporting a deep blush.

"What did it say, Hime?"

Orihime shook her head. She was too embarrassed to read it out loud, despite still believing that it meant nothing more than its face value. She handed the phone to Tatsuki to read for herself.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

4:34 p.m.

I am always available for you.

Tatsuki's face went red as well. "Holy hell, Hime! If you can't admit now that this guy is into you, you are a lost cause!"

Orihime whined. "I know it looks that way, Tatsuki-chan, but with him I really think he is just being oblivious."

Tatsuki rolled her eyes. "Are you free tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"I know you are. That is the message I just sent to him."

"What?!"

The phone buzzed almost immediately. "He said yes. You two can figure out the details after you get home, but I gotta go. I told Chad to meet me at your place so I can walk you home since it is getting dark, so let's go."

Orihime was still too embarrassed to speak much, so she followed Tatsuki downstairs silently.

xXxXx

Ulquiorra sat on his desk chair waiting for Orihime's reply, when he heard a soft rap on his door. "May I come in, Cifer-san?" Urahara asked through the closed door.

"Yes," he replied, looking up from the phone.

"Oh, you have figured out how to use that. Good," Urahara said, eyeing the phone before shifting his focus back to Ulquiorra. "I'm just stopping by to let you know that I will be going to Soul Society again for a while. Yoruichi will stay there as well, so when Tessai is out, please watch out for the kids, alright?"

Ulquiorra only nodded.

"Thank you. There is some cash in my office drawer if you need it. Also, you will be able to communicate with me via the main monitor there. It is quite user-friendly but if you have any difficulties, either the kids or Tessai can show you how to work it. Also, I know I don't need to tell you this, but stay out of trouble. I am not supposed to be in Soul Society, so if something happens I may not be able to help."

"I understand, Urahara-san," Ulquiorra said with a respectful nod.

"I can see why you were his favorite," Urahara said under his breath, thinking of Aizen. Ulquiorra was able to catch it though, rolling his eyes in response.

Ulquiorra shook off his mild irritation and asked, "If I may, are you going to assist Ichigo Kurosaki?"

"Yes."

"Good luck. You will need it," Ulquiorra bade gravely.

"I know," Urahara answered, casting his gaze downward. His posture was not that of a man confident in his mission as he closed the door and left.

xXxXx

Chad met the girls outside of Orihime's apartment, and he and Tatsuki waved goodbye to Orihime without seeing her upstairs, which suited Orihime fine. She ran up the stairs, let herself in, and locked the door behind her. Stepping out of her shoes, she dropped her coat and bag by the floor, and jogged to her room, before pulling out her phone.

She re-read the message from Ulquiorra:

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

4:34 p.m.

I am always available for you.

She couldn't help but internally squeal a little bit. Even though she was intellectually convinced that he meant nothing deeper by it, she couldn't control the pounding of her heart at the inadvertently romantic vibe the message conveyed. Ichigo had sent her cute, flirty messages with hearts and smileys that warmed her heart, but never anything like a declaration of devotion, which, if seen in a certain light, Ulquiorra's message seemed to be. Orihime had been feeling down for a long time, and her self-esteem was at a low point. A bittersweet smile grew on her face and she shook her head, deciding to allow herself a delusion for a short while. It would be just like reading a shoujo manga, she reasoned, only she and Ulquiorra would be playing the parts. When Ulquiorra would inevitably stop sounding so charming, then it would be like the volume was over and she could close it and continue her evening having enjoyed a nice story. She nodded to herself, confidence and excitement building, as she began to type a response.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

5:15 p.m.

So, what would you like to do tomorrow? The weather should be clear but cold. (sun emoji) (snowman emoji)

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

5:17 p.m.

I only desire your company. You may select an activity you would enjoy.

Orihime's eyes widened in disbelief. Did he realize how he came across at all? She laughed to herself as she blushed again, and started a response. This time, she thought she would insert herself more deeply into the heroine's role, and play along with the make-believe.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

5:20 p.m.

Well, actually, I missed talking to you. (blushing smiley)There are lots of things we could go do but somewhere quiet would be ideal. What do you think?

Ulquiorra's heart pounded in his chest. Did she mean her words? A powerful emotion was galloping within him, trying to break through his chest, and his face was unbearably warm. He found himself breathing more heavily than normal, his eyes darting back and forth, trying to make sense of what was happening. The blushing icon. The expressed wish to speak, with the implication that it be somewhere relatively private. The confession that she missed speaking with him. Could it be possible that she meant it all? He laid down on his bed and stared at the ceiling as he put a name to his feeling: hope.

He sat up suddenly decisive. If the woman was receptive to him, he would not hesitate to strike. His instinct in battle would surely serve him in the realm of human relationships, he reasoned.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

5:25 p.m.

Urahara-san has requested that I 'watch out for' Jinta and Ururu while he is out. Tessai-san is also occupied tomorrow. If it pleases you, I invite you to join me here at the Urahara residence. We can speak freely here with minimal interference.

"Aww!" Orihime interjected as she read his response. Ulquiorra the babysitter? She giggled to herself, supposing it was fitting; he had basically been her babysitter in Hueco Mundo after all.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

5:27 p.m.

That sounds good! By the way, it's awfully nice of you to agree to babysit. (blushing smiley) What time do you want me to come over?

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

5:29 p.m.

I will arrive at your residence at 10:30 a.m. to accompany you. I have an errand prior to that time.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

5:30 p.m.

Oh, you don't have to pick me up! I can come by myself. But 10:30 is fine (smiley)

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

5:31 p.m.

I am perfectly aware that you are capable of traveling on your own. During our sparring session I was impressed with your hand to hand combat skills, for a human. My offer to accompany you is merely a matter of convenience. Your residence is adjacent to the supermarket.

There it was, Orihime thought, sighing slightly, as she perceived the impersonal motivation for his invitation shattering the romantic fantasy. Still, she was not disappointed; he had complimented her. For someone who was so unexpressive, he had a knack for building up her self-esteem. Whether it was intentional or not on his part was not the point. He seemed to do it without effort. It was heartwarming.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

5:33 p.m.

Okay, I will wait for you at 10:30. I'll talk to you again then. (smiley). Good night, Ulquiorra. (moon emoji)

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

5:35 p.m.

I look forward to it. Good night, Orihime.

Ulquiorra had hesitated slightly at using her name. Even in his thoughts he referred to her as 'woman' or 'the woman'. To him, she was really the only one in the world worth noting, so there was no need to specify. However, when he had typed it out he felt it appeared impersonal. He had thought nothing of using her given name. He used given names with all persons not in a position of authority over him.

Orihime's face become hot and her heartbeat sounded loud in her ears. When did he become so charming? Could he have possibly intended it? Could he have possibly meant the things he had written? And why had he used her name!? She shook her head. Of course not, she was being stupid! Besides, she was still had feelings of love for Ichigo, even though they weren't together anymore, so how could she possibly even be interested in Ulquiorra's intentions?

All her speculations were silly, she decided. She knew Ulquiorra was only her friend, and he was naïve about human communication. Anything she had read between the lines was entirely a figment of her imagination. This was not a shoujo manga, and he was not trying to woo her. She set her phone down and resolved to herself to never play such a foolish game again.

A/N: Sorry for the delay in posting, I had a family emergency yesterday. Please let me know what you think, and thanks for reading!

Chapter Text

 

Saturday, January 31st, 9:30 a.m.

Ulquiorra stood blindly before the full-length mirror next to the door, more interested in observing the mid-frequency currents of nervous energy now flowing through his gigai than his reflection. He had taken great care selecting his clothes today: a dark blue Henley and black jeans. He had played with the shirt's three buttons, ultimately deciding to leave the top two undone. Once again he felt his living world inexperience hindered his ability to objectively evaluate his appearance, but he felt his attire, at least, was acceptable. His confidence was bolstered by the fact that the woman had chosen all the pieces; it was just a matter of putting them together in pleasing combination.

Given the foregoing, he reckoned his clothes weren't the cause of the mildly unpleasant sensation he was currently experiencing. He refocused his attention to his reflection and noted that his hair had grown longer during the month plus that he had lived in the gigai, and it flopped around his shoulders in a shapeless curtain. Displeased, he slid open his bedroom door and walked the two steps across the hallway to Ururu's room, knocking twice on her door.

Ururu opened her door, mildly surprised. "Yes?" she whispered.

"By what means are you able to bind your hair?" Ulquiorra asked with a distinct lack of delicacy.

Ururu silently turned her head and pointed to the elastic band keeping her ponytail in place.

Ulquiorra narrowed his eyes for a moment and nodded. "Could you do something similar to my hair?" he asked in a way that sounded more like an order. His uncertainty was setting him on edge.

Ururu nodded and disappeared into her room. She returned a moment later with a brush and hairband. She waited expressionlessly for a moment, then looking down and blushing slightly, she asked, "Could you sit down? I can't reach."

Ulquiorra nearly startled at his obliviousness. "Oh, of course," he answered, before sitting with his back to Ururu on the floor of the hallway.

She gently began brushing his hair, and he closed his eyes, finding the sensation pleasant. All too quickly for him, he felt a slight tug and heard Ururu's soft voice say, "All done."

Ulquiorra opened his eyes and reached a hand behind his head, feeling the hair gathered at the base of his skull in a short ponytail. He turned his shoulders around, meeting Ururu at her eye level. "How does it look?"

Ururu only blushed brightly and nodded vigorously before disappearing into her room and slamming the sliding door shut behind her. Ulquiorra didn't understand her behavior but he did understand the soft warmth emanating from within him in reaction to her. He smiled to himself, stood, and approached her door. Without opening it he spoke in a clear voice, "Thank you, Ururu."

After a pause, he heard a soft, "Hnn!" in acknowledgement from the other side of the door.

Satisfied, he returned to his room to check out Ururu's handiwork. She had neatly tied his hair back, but not too tightly; it was not plastered to his head, and some pieces toward the front had already fallen loose, dangling in front of his nose. It looked kind of ridiculous, he thought, to let so much hair hang in front when the rest was tied back. He played with the loose pieces a bit, finally deciding to just pull them all to one side and tuck the ends behind his right ear, creating a side part. Satisfied, he appreciated his how his exposed forehead changed his look. His eyes then caught a glimpse of the digital alarm clock reflected in the mirror, and he decided it was time to get going.

His "errand" had just been an excuse to pick up the woman at her residence, of course. There were supermarkets much closer to Urahara Shoten than the one near her home, and although Urahara's refrigerator wasn't especially well-stocked at the moment, Ulquiorra and the kids could have made do with its current contents for a day or two. Nevertheless, Ulquiorra took 5000 yen from Urahara's desk, put on his peacoat and a gray scarf, and started walking.

At the store he picked up some basic sundries: a bag of prewashed romaine lettuce, a few oranges, milk, cup noodles, some prepackaged bentos, and some assorted mini cupcakes from the bakery department of which he had grown fond. Although the trip had been unnecessary, he figured he may as well make the most of it and buy some items that may come in handy if Tessai didn't get back in time for dinner. Ulquiorra could boil water and operate the microwave, poorly. Those being the extent of his cooking abilities, it was only practical to invest in items that required little preparation. He took his selections to a register and paid the cashier, completely oblivious to her conspicuous eye-batting, received his 2048 yen change, and left toward Orihime's place. He glanced at his phone: 10:13 a.m. In his anxiousness, he had completed his shopping too quickly. He decided to circle the block one more time to avoid arriving early.

xXxXx

Despite her resolution that Ulquiorra was strictly a friend, Orihime couldn't completely shake the feeling that she ought to put some extra effort into her appearance today. She played it off as practicality: 'One must always put one's best foot forward!' and 'If someone sees us walking together I don't want to look poorly in comparison!' were among the phrases she used to quell her self-doubt relative to her motivations.

She wasn't entirely wrong to be concerned about her appearance anyway; she had helped Ulquiorra shop for his wardrobe, so she knew it was much nicer than her own. She had decided to go with her newest pieces, thinking at least they wouldn't look shabby. She stood before her full-length mirror in darkwash jeans and ivory turtleneck sweater, feeling less than satisfied. She thought she looked a bit drab. She looked through the dish on her dresser that held her non-hairpin accessories: a floral handkerchief, the silver necklace she had bought with Rukia, a beaded bracelet, a couple fabric hair-ties, and the i.d. bracelet she got from Ichigo for her birthday. She took the latter out and examined it, expecting to be hit by a wave of loss. Surprisingly, she merely felt annoyed. She sat on the edge of her bed, still staring at the object, and recalling how good her relationship with Ichigo had been until she received it. The day he had given it to her was the day after his hollow had first manifested - the beginning of the end of their relationship. Her brows knit and her face reddened as she angrily recalled how every day after that one was actually another step toward their ultimate break-up. She couldn't put all the blame on Ichigo - she knew there were powers at work that were beyond his control - but she couldn't forgive him right now either. He had lied to her; used her, and she had moved past the initial crushing sadness over their breakup enough to feel wronged by his actions. She raised her chin indignantly and marched the bracelet toward her closet. She had saved the box it came in and found it on a shelf, stuffed the offending object back inside, and pushed it deep behind a pile of sweaters where it would be out of view.

Returning to her mirror, she ran her brush through her hair, taking a small section near the front and tucking it behind one ear, pinning it in place with both hairpins, when she heard a knock on the door. "Just a minute," she called, pulling her silver necklace over her head and giving herself one last look in the mirror. Satisfied, she grabbed her phone and left all her previous irksome thoughts behind her as she left her bedroom.

"Hello?" she asked before opening the door, looking at her phone to check the time. It was 10:31. He must have been exactly on time.

"Hello, woman." Ulquiorra's rich voice penetrated through the door.

Orihime opened it and smiled, until she saw how red his nose was. He looked uncomfortably cold. "Oh, you look like you are freezing! Please come in a minute and warm up," she insisted, stepping aside so he could comply.

Ulquiorra did not protest. His walk around the block had placed him against a frigid headwind coming off the river. The cold, damp air had made its way to his bones. He stepped inside, silently setting down his groceries and closing the door behind him before wrapping his arms around himself. "This gigai is perhaps a bit too sensitive," he said, granting Orihime a tiny, self-conscious, smile.

Orihime giggled and gestured toward the sofa. "Have a seat and I'll make you a cup of tea. Oh! You could turn on the kotatsu. The dial is on the side close to the bookshelf. Is there anything in your bags that needs to stay cold?"

"Thank you. Er, there is milk, but it should be fine. This shouldn't take long," he answered, sitting with his back to the sofa and pulling the kotatsu blanket up to his shoulders. He found the dial and set it to maximum power. Before Orihime came back with the tea, his feet were already toasty and the rest of his body was starting to thaw as well.

It only took Orihime a couple minutes to return with two cups of tea, setting one in front of Ulquiorra, and then awkwardly standing with her own cup in hand at the side of the kotatsu. Ulquiorra took his cup gratefully and held it under his nose, allowing the steam to warm it up. It was just what he needed. He sighed contentedly, catching Orihime's attention.

She watched, somewhat mesmerized, as he brought his cup down to his mouth a moment later and took an unhurried sip. His long black eyelashes fluttered twice before slowly raising, allowing his shimmering emerald irises to peek out from beneath the black fringe.

Ulquiorra noticed that the woman stood still to the side of him. Although he was loathe to take his face away from his cup, his interest in her overruled his other desires. He dragged his eyes over to her feet first. She stood with one overlapping the other, two of her small socked toes wiggling slightly under the black fabric. His sight then rose up her long legs, which her dark, modestly fitted jeans made look even longer than usual. When his gaze met the swell of her hips, he quickly skipped up to her face, already familiar with the effect that area of her anatomy had on his own. He smiled awkwardly at her cloudy, unreadable expression, and asked gently, "Why do you not sit?"

Orihime was startled out of her trance. Blinking twice, she nodded as she said, "Oh, yes, sorry, I kind of spaced out for a minute there…" before taking a seat on the far side of the sofa. She tucked her toes under the kotatsu blanket and started to relax - Ulquiorra did not seem to have notice that she had been studying him. He looked back down at his cup to take another sip, and she took the opportunity to observe him again. Now warm, he tugged on his scarf a bit, revealing his hair style. Before she even recognized what she saw, she asked in a loud, surprised voice, "Did you do something to your hair?"

Ulquiorra raised an eyebrow at her and slowly turned his head in her direction, worried that it displeased her. Her voice and expression were indecipherable. When her eyebrows shot up and her cheeks turned pink, he understood that she had just been curious. He smiled, allowing a short 'hn' of a chuckle to escape through his nose. In response, her eyes took on a more mirthful light, although her eyebrows indicated yet more surprise, pulling together as she tucked her chin in a comical expression. Ulquiorra felt a strange sensation in his gut. His diaphragm was spasming, and his cheek muscles pulled his lips up enough to reveal his teeth. He heard his own voice leave his throat in short, unfamiliar, bubbling bursts. He was laughing.

Orihime's heart felt like it was going to burst. With the sound of his laughter, all the darkness in her heart born from his death was washed away. Ulquiorra was alive and had found his heart. Her soul was sure of it now. She began to giggle, and the grin that overtook her face was of the blinding, ear-to-ear variety that left no doubt that she was truly happy in that moment.

Ulquiorra's laughter died down and a gentle sigh escaped his still-smiling lips. His eyes softened as he watched her. She had never looked more beautiful.

Orihime caught him looking serenely at her out of the corner of her eye as her own giggling calmed down. "What's that face for?" she asked playfully.

Ulquiorra cleared his throat. He was not ready to answer her question honestly. "The purpose of my face is mostly to protect the muscles and blood vessels underneath, but it also serves to enhance non-verbal communication," he deadpanned.

Orihime looked at him slack-jawed for a moment, totally shocked by the abrupt change in his demeanor and his answer, until he cracked. Her reaction had been too funny; too cute. He couldn't hold in his smirk at her gobsmacked expression.

Orihime saw the smirk creep across his face and drew her mouth into a sour expression. "You!" she accused.

"Me?" he asked with an air of innocence, taking another sip of tea.

"Yes, you! When did you start being funny?" she asked, trying to put on an angry face but failing after about two seconds.

Ulquiorra did not answer, but looked down and shut off the kotatsu. He pushed the blanket off himself and stood, taking his cup with him. He gestured toward Orihime's cup with his other hand, which she handed to him, confused. He walked silently into her kitchen and deposited the cups into the sink. He returned to the living room to see Orihime still sitting on the sofa, still very much perplexed.

"When I found out you like to laugh," he finally answered, matter-of-factly. "Let's go," he added, turning his back to her and making his way to the genkan.

Orihime didn't know what to think about that admission, so she nodded mutely as she grabbed her purse and put on her coat. Ulquiorra slipped on his shoes, picked up his bags, and was about to let himself out first, when she finally regained her voice, saying, "Wait."

He released the doorknob and looked down at her as she paused in zipping up her ankle boots. She wondered to herself what it was she wanted to know. After a beat she decided she would figure it out later, looking up at him and asking only, "you never answered my question about your hair."

xXxXx

"I need to explain something to you," Urahara said, looking hard at Ichigo. They had been sparring for over three hours already, and all it served to do was tire them both out to the point of irritation. Ichigo threw his dummy sword to the side, not bothering to watch as it got bent around a rock. "Have a seat, Kurosaki-san," Urahara demanded in his usual softspoken manner that somehow left no room for argument.

Ichigo stormed over to the aforementioned rock, sparing the now ruined sword an impassive glance. He sat crossing his ankle over his knee, and resting an elbow at the juncture. "What is it?"

"You seem to misunderstand. All this time, have you believed your shinigami abilities were completely gone?"

"It's not called 'Final Getsugatensho' for nothing," Ichigo replied, louder than necessary.

"Kurosaki-san, have you forgotten? Your father is a shinigami. Despite not being able to access your abilities, they can never be lost. They are omnipresent. If the shinigami part of you died, you would be dead."

"Huh?"

"Did you know that hollows are poison to Quincy?"

"Again, huh?"

Urahara shook his head. "I'll give you the short version. Quincies kill Hollows because Hollow energy is poison to them. Your mother was attacked by a hollow before you were born and was dying. Your father saved her by binding his shinigami soul to her body, which acted as an antidote to the hollow's poison so long as the bind held. As a trade-off, your father could not use his shinigami abilities until your mother's death."

"I don't follow. What does that have to do with me?"

Urahara sighed in exasperation. "Your hollow power and your Quincy power were passed down to you from your mother. Your shinigami power was passed down from your father, and your mother by proxy. Without the shinigami component, the hollow part of you would kill the Quincy part of you, and you would die."

"Ok, I get how I got here, but how do I recover my shinigami abilities?"

"You don't. Your abilities are merely dormant. Obviously, our attempts to reawaken them via physical means have been fruitless, but that is just a matter of methods. Now it's time to move to Plan B."

Ichigo's face perked up at this. "What is it?"

"Well, honestly, it is something I had hoped to avoid, because it carries a great deal of risk. You're going to have to get back to your inner world and figure it out the answer on your own."

"Why didn't we try that first? It seems simple enough. What is the risk?"

"Kurosaki-san, without your zanpakuto, you'll be facing your hollow in your inner world unarmed. He may be able to subjugate your consciousness with his own before you find your answers."

"You mean he'll make me the horse?"

"Pardon?"

"I mean, he could take permanent possession of my body?"

"Precisely."

Ichigo looked away thoughtfully before looking back to Urahara with a cautious expression. "Do you think I can do it?"

Urahara tipped up the brim of his hat enough so that Ichigo could see his eyes clearly. "I don't know, but I have prepared you as best as I can. Every person's inner world is unique, with its own laws and properties. I do not know whether you'll be able to use your Quincy abilities against your hollow, but I have hope. You'll recall when you and your friends first came to Soul Society to free Rukia-san, you were the only one of your friends to travel here in spirit form. You had left your actual body in Karakura with Kon."

Ichigo nodded, waiting for him to continue.

"Your friends traveled through the senkaimon in their physical bodies, as you have now. As a body passes through the senkaimon, its composition changes carbon and water and the other building blocks of a physical body into spirit particles so it will be compatible with life in Soul Society. A garganta performs a similar process, so when Inoue-san and the rest of your friends went to Hueco Mundo, they underwent the process again. This time, it has happened to you. What I never needed to tell any of you before is this: in this altered composition, you'll be able to enter your inner world the same way you could when you were separated from your physical body. My hope is that the weapons on your physical body will follow you into your inner world, so you won't be completely defenseless. The Ishidas have kindly lent us some items for this purpose."

"Ok, I'm not sure I follow, but it'll be similar to how it was when I trained with the Visoreds, right?"

"Kind of, except, now you'll have to try to summon your zanpakuto and keep your hollow contained, and if you're lucky you'll have your Quincy powers to draw on. If not, you'll have to improvise. I must once again tell you that this has the potential to be extremely dangerous."

"Got it. Is there any way you can stop it once it starts?"

"I can kill you."

"I'd rather you didn't."

So would I."

Ichigo stood. "Alright, hat-n-clogs, let's get on with it."

"Very well. Please find a comfortable spot to sit, and then begin your meditation."

xXxXx

Karakura, approximately 11:00 a.m.

Orihime and Ulquiorra had just arrived at the Urahara Shoten. Ulquiorra took her coat and led her to the main living area near the kitchen and offered her a seat at the dining table while he put the groceries away. Orihime sat and smiled, recalling how during their walk Ulquiorra had told her the adorable tale of little Ururu doing his hair for him, and why. She had offered to set an appointment for him to get his haircut with her stylist, which he accepted gratefully. She had called while they were walking and had it scheduled by the time they arrived.

Orihime looked up and started – while she had been reminiscing Ulquiorra had finished his task and now stood across the table staring into her eyes. "Oh! Sorry, I spaced out again, Ulquiorra!"

Ulquiorra merely half-smiled and asked, "Tell me, woman, how have you occupied yourself since our last encounter?"

Orihime cast Ulquiorra an amused look before answering. "I've kept busy with school and my club activity. Sometimes I hung out with Tatsuki-chan. The rest of the time was just studying and housekeeping, I suppose."

"What is a club activity?" he asked, genuinely curious.

"Oh! I forgot, you wouldn't know. Well, a club activity could be any number of things, but basically it's a group that meets after school to practice a particular activity. Tatsuki-chan is a member of the Karate Club, obviously," Orihime giggled and paused to gage Ulquiorra's interest in her explanation. Ulquiorra appeared interested, so she continued. "Ishida-kun and I are in the Handicrafts Club together. We sew things and help to make decorations for various school events."

Ulquiorra furrowed his brows slightly, looking a bit disturbed. "You and the Quincy practice these activities alone?"

"No, there are a lot of other girls in the club. Ishida-kun is the only boy."

Ulquiorra's expression relaxed a bit at that. "What other clubs are there?"

"Well, there is flower-arranging, and cooking… oh, and there are lots of music-related clubs and drama club. And of course, there are a lot of sports, like baseball and soccer and karate, as I said before, then there's kyudo, judo, and kendo…"

Ulquiorra perked up at the last item she listed. "Students at your school may study sword fighting as a 'club activity'?"

"Yes," Orihime said and nodded as if it were obvious. Ulquiorra felt a slight pang of envy. Although it was from another lifetime, he missed Murciélago.

Ulquiorra let too much time lapse before responding for it to go unnoticed by Orihime. "Is something wrong, Ulquiorra?"

"No, nothing is wrong. I was merely remembering something from my past life."

"Oh, what is it?" Orihime asked, interested.

"My zanpakuto," he replied without inflection.

"Oh, do you miss it?"

Ulquiorra was stunned at her question for a moment, but then reminded himself that it was natural; the woman was quite perceptive. "Yes, but only sometimes."

Orihime nodded thoughtfully. She was just getting to know Ulquiorra as a friend and didn't want to pry too much, so she left it at that before changing the topic. "What have you been up to since last time?"

"Nothing noteworthy. I did contact Chad a week ago, and sometimes we correspond via text-"

Orihime interrupted. "Wait a minute – you texted him a week before you texted me?!" She was clearly vexed.

Ulquiorra's eyes went wide and he took a step back, completely unprepared for the woman's displeasure. He opened his mouth to speak but was silenced again by a swift change in the woman's demeanor. Instead of looking angry, she suddenly looked dejected. Ulquiorra began to panic a bit, unsure what to do. He did not like to be the cause of her distress. "Woman… woman, have I offended you?" he asked very carefully.

Orihime's eyes slid back to his and he saw hurt in them. Immediately he was consumed by a dreadful emotion, one that felt like an enormous weight had been tethered to his heart and was dragging him down to the depths of hell with it. He wasn't sure how he knew, but he knew this feeling: guilt.

"Please do not look at me that way, woman. It was not my intention to offend you. Corresponding with Chad was just easier." He watched in horror as Orihime's expression grew more pained. Desperate to make it stop, he said his next words without thinking, "I am sorry, please desist with your pitiful expression. I only meant that I had nothing to lose when corresponding with Chad. When it came to corresponding with you, the stakes were higher."

Orihime was confused by his wording, and felt a little like he was putting her down at first until she heard the bit about higher stakes, but she wasn't sure what he was getting at. "What do you mean the stakes were higher to correspond with me?"

Ulquiorra sighed and turned his back to her. "It means, although I find Chad's company pleasant, if I offended him and lost his company, it would be a recoverable loss. However, if I displease you," he paused, turning around and looking into her eyes, willing her to understand through his lack of eloquence before continuing, "I risk losing your company permanently, which loss I would find unacceptable."

Orihime blushed in spite of herself. She was still a bit puzzled by what he meant, but was able to ascertain that he had just admitted that she was important to him. She took a few deep breaths, and then said, "Ulquiorra, I'm not sure I know what you mean, but if you are worried that I will stop being your friend because of a misunderstood text, then don't be. I would certainly give you a chance to explain yourself if you said something that could be misinterpreted." She paused, smiling for emphasis, before continuing, "Besides, I lost you once, and I am not interested in letting something as petty as a mixed message allow me to lose you again so easily!"

It was Ulquiorra's turn to blush now. It was unbearable. He had to change the subject. He turned and looked to the kitchen clock. "The children will return soon for lunch. If you don't mind, would you help me to prepare the midday meal for them? I have purchased a variety of prepackaged meals but I am unsure how long it will take to properly reheat them. If you agree to assist me, I will allow you the first choice of the meals," he had to pause to take a breath here. He had been babbling.

"Oh, really?! Thank you! Of course I would help you anyway, silly!" she answered before he could continue, bounding over to his side as he opened the refrigerator. He pulled out the meals and she examined each one.

"Hmm, curry rice… no, with this white shirt, I'd be likely to spill on myself and stain it," she said as she passed on the first bento she pulled out of the fridge. "grilled fish, pass… Ooooh, rice balls and octopus-shaped sausages! I'll take this one, if it's alright," she declared as she brought her desired bento to herself.

Ulquiorra was about to answer when Jinta swaggered through the door, Ururu following close behind.

"Hello Jinta-kun, Ururu-chan!" Orihime sang to the room's new occupants.

Ururu nodded to Orihime and sat at the dining table while Jinta ignored Orihime, going straight to the fridge and trying to push Ulquiorra out of the way. Ulquiorra scowled and stood his ground.

"Hey, move over and let me see what you picked up for lunch, shorty!" Jinta shouted.

"Who said I picked up anything for you? And who are you calling short?" Ulquiorra shot back, already seething.

"Truth hurts, doesn't it?" Jinta teased, "Oh, sorry, I guess I shouldn't be making fun of you in front of your girlfriend," he mocked, adding kissy noises.

Ulquiorra ignored his taunt but his reiatsu was starting to leak in dangerous quantities. Ururu silently went to a drawer and pulled out one of the necklaces that had been used during Ichigo's intervention, pulling a chair over to where Ulquiorra stood and slipping it over his head. He didn't even seem to notice.

"You are the most obnoxious brat I have ever had the misfortune of knowing in two lifetimes," Ulquiorra finally hissed at Jinta, his reiatsu now being safely recycled back to himself.

Orihime was horrified. She stood and was about to interrupt when Ururu placed a hand on her forearm and pulled her to the side. She put a hand to her mouth, indicating that she wanted Orihime to come closer. Orihime complied, and Ururu whispered, "This is how they show affection to one another. Jinta-kun and Ulquiorra-kun fight like brothers."

Orihime's eyes widened and she followed Ururu back to the dining table. By the time she sat, Ulquiorra and Jinta had finished bickering, and Jinta was already heating up a bento in the microwave, telling Ulquiorra about some other kids they had run into while they were outside. Ulquiorra nodded along, showing mild interest. When the microwave beeped, Jinta stopped talking and took his bento to the seat next to Orihime and sat down, starting to eat immediately.

"Ururu, I purchased the meatball spaghetti bento for you. Is that agreeable?" Ulquiorra asked from the refrigerator. A small smile escaped her as she nodded in response. Meatball spaghetti was her favorite.

"Woman, if you please, I require your assistance," Ulquiorra called out from in front of the microwave.

Orihime grinned and joined Ulquiorra, taking the spaghetti bento and putting it into the microwave for the proper time, and delivering the meal to Ururu when complete. She smiled and whispered her thanks before digging in.

By the time Ulquiorra and Orihime had finished reheating their meals the younger two were finished. "We're going back out. Smell you later, turdburger!" Jinta called, pulling Ururu along with him to the front door. Ururu merely looked back and waved with her typical morose expression.

"Wow, that was… dynamic," Orihime said, bringing her bento back to her seat at the side of the table.

"To put it mildly," Ulquiorra agreed, joining her on the adjacent head chair.

"I have to say, you and Jinta-kun really do act like siblings," she said longingly, starting to eat.

"Does this sadden you?" Uquiorra asked, perceiving her wistfulness.

Orihime then told him about her brother, working backwards from his death to his escape with her from their abusive parents, and circling back to him turning into a hollow. By the time she was done with the story, they had finished eating.

"You are truly an incredible woman, Orihime."

"What?" Orihime asked, stunned by his bold words.

"You have experienced much tragedy, and yet you among all people I have met have the strongest heart." He paused, looking her over briefly, before returning his eyes to hers. "You have always fascinated me."

Orihime blushed profusely. "You have it all wrong, Ulquiorra, I'm boring! I'm not strong like Sado-kun, or skilled like Tatsuki-chan. I'm not brave like Kurosaki-kun or as smart as Ishida-kun. And I am definitely not as powerful as you!" She laughed awkwardly, trying to play down his apparent praise.

"You are the one who is wrong, woman. You have been conditioned throughout your life to think little of yourself, but you are powerful, strong, brave, and smart, and with some more training, you could become more skilled," he countered matter-of-factly, in a way that minimized Orihime's embarrassment.

"I guess I could practice karate with Tatsuki-chan some more, but I'll still never be-"

Ulquiorra cut her off. "No. Not karate. Come with me," he said decisively, taking her by the hand and leading her to Urahara's office, opening the door to the underground training area. He released her hand, saying, "I believe the phrase is, 'ladies first'."

"You really want to train with me?!" Orihime asked, cautiously hopeful.

"Yes. You have your hairpins. Urahara-san left this," he said, holding up the soul separation glove, "and this," he pointed to the reiatsu dampening necklace. "Let's go."

Orihime beamed and began climbing down the ladder with enthusiasm. Ulquiorra followed, sealing the door behind them.

xXxXx

Ichigo opened his eyes to his inner world. At first all he saw were the sideways skyscrapers and gray, drizzling skies. He stood up and looked to his wrist – the Quincy cross Urahara had provided was in place. Slightly relieved, he began looking around. He didn't have to look far – a half-turn – before he found himself eye to eye with his white-faced counterpart.

"Looking for something?" its shrill voice asked, swinging a black metallic object past Ichigo's face, before laughing maniacally.

Ichigo took a step back and his eyes focused on what he suspected: his zanpakuto, in the hands of his hollow. Immediately, he conjured a bow and began to draw an arrow, when his hollow spoke again in its watery garble, "Believe it or not, King, this time, I'm on your side," he paused as a distant roar could be heard. "We need to talk, but not here." The hollow took Ichigo by the shoulder and they were instantly transported to an underwater version of Ichigo's inner world.

Ichigo started to panic, until his hollow spoke again. "This water isn't real, you can breathe, idiot King."

Ichigo continued to hold his breath until he was close to the point of passing out, then inhaled sharply. His hollow had been right, he could breathe just fine.

"What are we doing here, and why do you have my zanpakuto?" Ichigo shouted.

"And people say horses are stupid. Newsflash, King, I am your zanpakuto!"

Cliffhanger! Sorry for the delay. I have had one interruption after another and my family member is still in the hospital but is slowly stabilizing. Please let me know what you think.

PS: I had to go back and change a couple details from earlier in the story that would conflict with this chapter, specifically hollow Ichigo's soliloquy in Ch. 14, but if you don't remember, don't bother going back and reading it because it is only a minor fix.

Chapter Text

I posted Chapter 30 in the middle of the week, so if you missed it, please go back and read it before reading this one! Also some loosely lifted TYBW elements in this chapter, so spoiler alert if you've not followed the manga.

Chapter 31: Training Day

Ichigo's Inner World

"I am your zanpakuto!"

Ichigo floated in the underwater version of his inner world, brows knotted in confusion. After a moment, he shook his head briefly and replied, "No, Zangetsu is my zanpakuto. You are my hollow."

The hollow looked at Ichigo with a half-smile and narrowed eyes. "You know what they say about assumptions, right partner?"

"Huh?"

"When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me."

Ichigo groaned silently.

"No? Have it your way, King," the hollow said, disappointed, slashing at Ichigo.

Ichigo barely dodged, powering up his blut vene and conjuring a bow.

"You're not going to get far without my speed, partner," the hollow called out from behind.

Ichigo took that as a challenge. Smirking, he took off toward the desaturated copy of himself in a burst of hirenkyaku. He landed behind the hollow before the hollow noticed, and drew an arrow on him, arrogantly announcing his presence: "Shows how much you know." He loosed the arrow. He missed.

From a distance, he heard the hollow's watery laughter. Ichigo lowered his bow, frowning in offense. The hollow's laughter died down as it approached Ichigo at a moderate pace, its expression changing to one of pseudo-sympathy.

"Poor King, you really don't have a clue, do ya?"

Seething, Ichigo flexed his shoulders in a subconscious effort to make himself look more intimidating.

The hollow only laughed in response. "How many times do I have to tell you, partner? I AM YOU. You can't scare me."

Ichigo had grown beyond irritated. He had been training unsuccessfully for weeks, and his patience was gone. He charged at the hollow.

The hollow put out a hand, catching Ichigo by the forehead and tossing him to the side like it was nothing. When Ichigo crashed into a building, the hollow shunpo'ed over to him, kicking him onto his back. "That's enough now, partner. Can we have that little chat now?"

Ichigo opened his hate-filled eyes and trained them on his hollow, but said nothing. The hollow took that as his invitation to speak. "So, you'll notice there have been some changes around here, none so noticeable as that old creepy guy's absence."

"Yeah I noticed! What happened to Zangetsu?" Ichigo said, before he was cut off by a coughing fit.

The hollow waited, casting a disappointed look in Ichigo's direction, until his coughing had stopped. "That's what I have been trying to tell you. Why did you assume the old dude was Zangetsu?"

"What?"

"You assumed he was. Why he never corrected you, I'll never know. Anyway, what I've been trying to tell you this whole time is that I am Zangetsu. I have always been Zangetsu."

Ichigo shook his head in disbelief. "If that's true, who was the old man?"

"Hell if I know. Some geezer pervert if you ask me. Something to do with your Quincy power. He was getting real excited when you and the Queen got together, but then he fucked off to god knows where. Maybe he was consumed by the neighbor upstairs."

Ichigo was not following again. "Who?"

"You heard him, sounds like a rabid bear. He's the reason we're down here."

"Hold on hold on hold on. You're Zangetsu?"

Zangetsu tsked in disgust, and knocked Ichigo out with the hilt of the zanpakuto.

xXxXx

Urahara's Training Grounds

"I've never used one of these before," Orihime admitted, looking at the red fingerless glove currently on her hand, "but I think Rukia-chan used to just put it on and slam her palm into Kurosaki-kun's chest, like this," she said, winding her arm back and preparing to strike Ulquiorra in the sternum.

Ulquiorra grasped her wrist gently right before she made contact. "I don't believe that amount of force is necessary. Just firm contact," he informed her, his voice wavering slightly in relief.

"Oh, alright," she said, "I wonder why Rukia used so much force if it wasn't necessary."

Ulquiorra thought it would be unwise to share his opinion about why one would want to inflict pain on the former shinigami and replied, "I do not know. Now, I'll sit over there and save my gigai some jarring before you try again. Follow me."

Ulquiorra walked behind a rock that would provide his gigai some protection in the event that the training session got rambunctious and sat against it. "Do it."

Orihime bit her lip and nodded, kneeling beside Ulquiorra and raising her palm toward him. Somehow, in this small, sheltered place, and with Ulquiorra in a more vulnerable position, her unhurried movements felt intimate. She blushed and raised her eyes to him shyly, before releasing her lip from her teeth and asking, "Is this alright?"

Ulquiorra's eyes darkened slightly as he nodded. He had sensed the change in the atmosphere between them, as well. His breathing shallowed as he watched her hand make gentle contact, and then he was suddenly freed. He stood up from his gigai and stepped aside. Orihime was still looking at the gigai somewhat horrified – the life had been literally sucked out of it. She squeaked in surprise when Ulquiorra spoke from above her shoulder, "Come, woman." He turned his back to her, smiling as he walked toward the open area ahead, amused by her response.

Orihime stood, but did not follow before taking a deep breath of relief. "I thought you would look different, for some reason," she finally said with a sunny smile.

"Would you prefer it if my appearance was different?" he asked, stonefaced. He looked exactly as he did in the gigai. He didn't let on, but her statement made him doubt his presentation.

"Oh, no, I think you look fine like that," she answered casually. Ulquiorra's lips thinned and eyebrows lowered, unappeased. He had hoped for better than a thoughtless 'fine'.

"So, how should we start?" she asked, not noticing his displeasure.

Ulquiorra set aside his bruised ego for a moment. "First, come to me," he ordered. She obeyed, and when she stood before him, he slowly walked around toward her back, his eyes never leaving hers. She watched him until she could no longer see him in her peripheral vision. She paused a moment before turning around, and when she finally did, he was gone.

"Ulquiorra?"

Suddenly she felt something around her neck. Her reflexes kicked in, and she spun around poised to attack whatever had touched her. Once again, Ulquiorra grasped her wrist gently and redirected her forward motion upward and away from his face. "Well done, woman. Had I been human, you would have connected," he said with an appreciative half-smile. After Orihime's breathing and heartrate began to slow, she returned the smile, pleased with herself. Ulquiorra lowered the arm in his grasp and brought his hands up toward her face. Now she could see what had touched her neck: the suppression necklace he had taken from Urahara's office. He brought it over her head, and then, very carefully, and trying not to make any extraneous contact, he slipped his right hand between her turtleneck collar and her cinnamon hair, pulling her mane up over the necklace so that the chain laid flat against the back of her sweater. Orihime blushed in response to his gentle actions.

Although Ulquiorra was suppressing his reiatsu well on his own, Orihime had been enveloped by it until the necklace was in place. What surprised her about it was how light and soft it had felt; nothing like it had in Soul Society or at Ichigo's intervention. It seemed to caress her in warm, soothing pulses. After the necklace had been put into place, she found that she missed it. She didn't have time to ponder on it for long, however, because a moment later, Ulquiorra thrust himself several yards backward, and taunted, "Training will be completed when you do make contact. Come at me."

Something in the way he said it, or in the arrogant gleam in his eyes, or both, ignited Orihime's competitive spirit. She lunged into an offensive position and called out for Tsubaki.

"What is it, woman? You've no killing instinct now. Why bother calling me?" Tsubaki grumbled, his tiny foot kicking her in the shoulder.

Orihime brushed it off and looked at the little sprite in irritation, although her voice was sweet when she scolded, "Tsubaki-kun, that's not what I had in mind and you know it. You know what I want you to do."

Tsubaki groaned. "This is a waste of my potential, woman!"

Orihime shot a pleading gaze in his direction.

"I could have killed you one hundred times by now, woman," Ulquiorra's bored-sounding voice called across the field.

Orihime narrowed her eyes at Ulquiorra. How dare he say something like that so flippantly! "Koten Zanshun!"

She watched as Tsubaki zoomed through the air toward Ulquiorra's location, except, as her eyes followed to that spot, Ulquiorra wasn't there anymore. Before Tsubaki could even turn around, she felt a pulse of warmth behind her, and heard Ulquiorra's silky voice just behind her ear, "You missed."

Orihime swirled around breathlessly, her mouth open in a silent scream. Ulquiorra breathed hard through his nostrils, trying not to laugh at her. Tsubaki returned to the pair, flying past Orihime and grabbing hold of Ulquiorra's ponytail. "Do you want me to cut it all off? I could make him bald!"

Orihime's wits returned to her, and she smiled again, answering, "No, Tsubaki-kun. Just one strand, please."

Before she even finished what she was saying, Tsubaki yanked hard, pulling a hair from Ulquiorra's ponytail out, and before flying back to Orihime's hairpin, he dropped the hair in Ulquiorra's hand.

Orihime smirked. "So, I guess that counts as contact," she gloated good-naturedly.

Ulquiorra narrowed his eyes at her, "A technicality."

Orihime's smile grew wide. "A win, I think you mean!" She giggled and pumped a fist in the air.

"Don't think I'll release you with such a petty victory, woman," Ulquiorra said darkly, but his eyes were bright when Orihime's met them.

Orihime smiled at him warmly, "I hoped you'd say something like that. I'd have been disappointed if we were finished so soon."

Ulquiorra's cheeks dusted a soft rose, and Orihime didn't miss it. She thought it was cute and her smile brightened further than he thought was possible. "Er, right," he said, his voice cracking slightly, before he cleared it and continued, "Next we'll work on tactics. Have you ever used your offensive ability to try to cut something other than your opponent?"

Orihime tilted her head quizzically, as she tried to guess what he was getting at. She slowly shook her head negatively when she couldn't think of a time when she had tried what Ulquiorra suggested.

"As I thought. Now, imagine your enemy under that cliff," he pointed to an outcropping of rock in the distance. "Cut through the rock to imprison or crush your enemy."

Orihime nodded. With nothing on the line, it would be fun, she thought. She focused on the rock and called out, "Koten Zanshun!" Tsubaki flew out as fast as a bullet, slicing through the cliff. A loud boom rumbled the ground and dust flew up in all directions.

Ulquiorra looked at her to see her eyes wide with wonder. "I did it!" She looked at him, excited. He gave her a nod of approval. "I did it, Ulquiorra!"

Ulquiorra could not help but smile. "Indeed. Next, try it while trying to escape from a pursuer. I'll give you a ten-second head start. Go."

Orihime started running, as Ulquiorra counted down from ten out loud. As soon as soon as he finished saying, "One," Orihime felt a pair of strong arms pull her off of her trajectory.

"Try again," Ulquiorra said harshly, setting her back down on her feet.

Orihime didn't wait. She took off again, this time with a plan. Right before Ulquiorra got to one, she called out her shield to buy her more time. Ulquiorra crashed into her shield, surprised. However, when he looked at her through the shield, his eyes smiled. She saw, and spared him a smirky glance in response. Before she knew it, he was past the shield and stood before her, finger touching her forehead. "Cero. You lose."

Orihime groaned. "It's not fair, Ulquiorra. You are way too fast. I'm just a human, you know."

"I do. Try again," he demanded.

They repeated this exercise several more times, and each ended without success for Orihime. Each time he ordered her to try again.

Orihime's mouth set in a firm line and her eyes narrowed in determination. This time, she had a new plan. She streaked toward an overhanging rock and called Tsubaki. Just as she was under the rock, Tsubaki cut it.

Ulquiorra's heart stopped as he watched the rock begin to crumble over her head. In an instant, he had pushed her down and was on top of her, shielding her body with his from the falling rocks above.

"Ulquiorra!" she shrieked. This was not part of her plan. She watched helplessly as the first of the crumbling rocks pelted his back. She squinted and called her shield just in time to protect him from the larger chunks that fell next.

When everything finally went quiet, she opened her eyes to see him hovering above her with a pained expression. "Ulquiorra! Are you alright?"

Slowly, he brought his expressionless eyes to her. Slowly, those expressionless eyes turned angry. "What were you thinking, woman! You could have been killed!"

Orihime heard the panic in his voice, and her eyes softened. She waited for his breathing to calm down before she responded. "No, Ulquiorra, I was ready to call my shield when you interrupted; I would have been fine. My goal was to lure you toward the rocks, but I figured you would have escaped them anyway…" She saw his eyes change from anger to something nearly unrecognizable on him: fear. She began to tear up, and gently, she placed her hands on his shoulders and pushed him off of her. "I'm sorry, my plan wasn't good. Are you hurt anywhere?"

Ulquiorra sat up silently and looked away from Orihime. He rubbed a sore spot on his shoulder, and then he heard her call her healing fairies. It felt like heaven.

"No. Your plan was perfect, woman," he admitted, and after a moment he looked at her apologetically. "I'm sorry I overreacted."

Orihime smiled and shook her head. "No, I should have known. This isn't the first time you've protected me."

Ulquiorra's brows knit together. He couldn't recall doing such a thing before. He let her see his confused expression.

"You must not remember. In Hueco Mundo, you protected me against other arrancar, and even against Kurosaki-kun. You never would have admitted it though, I think. You probably didn't even realize it at the time."

"I did?" He asked, dubious.

"Mmhmm," she answered, nodding her head as she pulled back her healing powers. "There we are, good as new." She walked over to where he sat, and knelt before him, searching for his eyes. "Look at me," she asked gently. "Please? I want to make sure you're alright."

He slowly rose his shocking green eyes up, and let her see how he felt in that moment. Relieved. Afraid. Proud. Emotionally exhausted. "I think that is enough training for one day, woman. You have done well."

Orihime beamed at him. He sighed, allowing that smile to wash away his tension.

xXxXx

Ichigo woke up to the sight of Zangetsu, the hollow, pacing back and forth, swinging his zanpakuto around like a toy. Ichigo groaned and stood, catching Zangetsu's attention. "Look who's up? Are you with me now? You know who I am?"

Ichigo grabbed his head and nodded gingerly.

"Alright," Zangetsu replied. "So, now you know the first thing. The second thing is that big bastard upstairs. He is the reason you can't keep your shit together."

"Who, or what, is he?" Ichigo asked in a rough voice.

"Fuck if I know, King. You made him. Well, you and Queen. See, me, I mean, you and me, we're the same. He is different. He's new. He came along after."

"You're not making any sense. After what?"

"After you let me out!" Zangetsu shrieked. "After that, she started 'restoring' you or whatever you like to call it. The more you two do that, the bigger and more ornery that guy gets."

Ichigo was suddenly livid, "Oh, so you're going to blame it all on us now? You were the one telling me to do those awful things to Inoue."

Zangetsu's face held a wounded expression. "Oh, dear, King. You really can't take responsibility for anything, can you? Like I keep trying to tell you: I am you. That voice was your own. You were jealous."

"Maybe I was, but I would never, ever, even think something like that, much less say it!" Ichigo argued desperately hoping it was true. If those thoughts had come from himself, he was no better than the monster upstairs.

"Well, I wasn't the one who thought it. I'm your instinct, remember? Your instinct wants the queen, and any other number of women, no doubt, but not like that. That would be his influence," he said, pointing up.

Ichigo shook his head. He still didn't understand, but at least this was a starting point. "So, what do we do? How do we get rid of him?"

"I'll help you with that next time, partner. Take some time off first, get some rest, and come back here when you're refreshed and really ready to fight. But whatever you do, stay away from the Queen."

Before Zangetsu even finished speaking, Ichigo was being pulled back to consciousness. He opened his eyes and looked around; he was back where Urahara had left him. He stood up and looked around, spotting the shopkeeper napping a short distance away. Ichigo's movements seemed to disturb him, and he tipped his striped hat up his head, looking in Ichigo's direction.

"So, how did it go?" Urahara asked, genuinely surprised that the entire process had gone so peacefully.

"I guess I'm supposed to take a break."

Urahara raised a confused brow. "For how long?"

"For a while. He told me to get 'refreshed and ready to fight.'"

"Who's he?"

"My zanpakuto."

xXxXx

Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you think!

Chapter Text

 

Ulquiorra had walked Orihime home an hour or so after their training session ended. They had first spent some time afterward talking about what she thought were her combat weaknesses and some general strategies to overcome them. Despite the misunderstandings they had during their first session, both parties expressed the opinion that they had found the activity enjoyable and agreed to continue Orihime's training on a regular basis. To start they agreed to every Saturday morning and at least once a week after school.

On his walk back home, Ulquiorra recalled the training session. Despite trying to focus on her improvement plan, his mind kept wandering back to the intense fear he had felt when he saw the boulders begin to fall over her head, and the profound relief he experienced when he realized she was safe. Although he had reacted with anger, it had taken a great deal of self-restraint not to clutch her to his chest and bury his face in her hair. The mix of his roiling emotions, the exhilarated look on her flushed face, her delicate, alluring scent in his nostrils, and the feel of her soft body under his had all collided into a singular moment of clarity; he understood without ambiguity that he wanted to protect the woman at all costs, that his attraction to her was not just a biological function of his gigai, and that more than anything, he wished for his feelings to be returned.

This epiphany did not come as a complete surprise to him. After all, in Soul Society he had expressed freely that she was the only thing from his previous life that he still cared about, and to learn about her hold on his psyche was his driving motivator. However, while in Soul Society he grossly underestimated the vast reserve of emotion he now had at his disposal. His eyes had been slowly opening to the brilliant palette of feelings his new life offered only since taking up residence in Karakura. By the time Ulquiorra went to bed that night, he felt as if he was drowning in them.

The next day offered more of the same. He could not shake the image of Orihime's blushing cheeks, the twinkling sound of her laughter, or the warmth of her reiatsu from his mind. As he went about his daily tasks, he often found himself feeling morose or listless. He didn't feel like eating, turning his nose up even at the cupcakes he had purchased. Only when he would take the time to remember something she had said, or the scent of her shampoo as he momentarily held her during training, would the smile return to his eyes. He missed her.

Once he understood what it was that bothered him, he wasted no time to try to rectify the situation. Although it was late, nearing the time designated by the woman as 'too late', Ulquiorra took out his phone and began tapping at the screen.

February 1st

9:44 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

Good evening. I have spent today performing mundane tasks and desiring to communicate with you. Unfortunately I had not the presence of mind to recognize it until now. I apologize for my late text, but I fear I will be unable to sleep if I do not make an attempt to contact you. Are you well?

Ulquiorra sighed as he pressed the send button. He was not overly hopeful he would receive a reply that night. He laid on his bed and closed his eyes, wishing he could just forget about her until morning, when his phone chirped at him.

9:53 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

Awww, that's so sweet!(heart) I missed talking to you too. (blushing smiley) I had so much fun yesterday! (bicep curl emoji) I'm a little sore today, though. I haven't worked out like that in a long time! Today I did my laundry and studied for an exam I have tomorrow. I was just taking a break now. What kind of 'mundane tasks' did you get up to today? (lol).

9:57 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

Nothing interesting. Tessai-san returned late last night, so I had few responsibilities today. On what subject is your exam?

9:59 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

Japanese history. It is pretty interesting, but there are a lot of names and dates to memorize, so it just takes time and repetition, which is kind of dull (sigh emoji).

10:01 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

I see. I apologize for sending a text past 10:00 p.m., but I wish you success on your exam. Goodnight, woman.

10:02 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

Don't worry about it! You started before 10 so it's ok. Thank you about my exam (blushing smiley), but you know I have a name, right? I'll give you a hint: it's not woman (eyeroll emoji)(laughing emoji).

10:04 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

I am aware you are named Orihime Inoue. I also understand 'woman' is not a common form of address in this world. However, when I think of you, I refer to you as 'the woman', so that is what I call you.

10:04 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

Why?

10:06 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

From my perspective there are no other women worthy of my consideration, so why specify? And also, habit.

Orihime blushed hard at reading his message, but laughed at the last part.

10:08 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

Hmm, well, I guess your answer is slightly charming, so I'll let it slide for now. (lol). Well, I better go to sleep (moon emoji). Goodnight, Ulquiorra. Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite!

10:08 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

Goodnight, woman.

xXxXx

February 2nd

Orihime said goodbye to Tatsuki after classes let out for the day feeling pretty good about life. Her exam went well, she thought, and in handicrafts club they would be making Setsubun masks, which she had been looking forward to all afternoon. She was just turning into the clubroom when her phone buzzed. She took it from her pocket as she walked to her seat and looked down.

3:30 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

I believe your classes are finished, and I apologize in advance if I am mistaken, but I must know: how did you perform on your exam?

Orihime laughed to herself, muttering to herself, "He sure has a flair for the dramatic," before tapping a reply back that it had gone well, and taking her seat.

Uryuu took his usual seat beside her at the large, square project table, as an upperclassman began to explain the paper mache process. His attention was otherwise occupied however, his head tilted slightly toward the cheerful redhead to his left. He watched as she held her phone on her lap and read something that made her giggle quietly, before tapping out another reply. Usually he was pleased when she was in a good mood, but her behavior was unusual today. He heard her gasp quietly, and narrowed his eyes in disapproval as she blushed down at the glowing screen below the table. Whatever she was up to, he was sure he probably wouldn't like it.

"Inoue-san," he whispered.

There was no response.

He cleared his throat. "Inoue-san," he whispered again.

Still no response. She merely smiled at her stupid phone again.

He nudged her elbow. "Inoue-san!" he hissed.

"Oh, what is it, Ishida-kun," she replied sweetly, not looking up at him.

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing." Her screen went dark and she raised her eyes to his, smiling. This put Uryuu at ease for a moment, until the screen illuminated again a moment later, causing Orihime another brilliant blush and goofy grin.

No. He did not like it.

Once they got working on the paper mache, she put her phone away, asking Uryuu several questions that she would have known the answer to had she been paying attention to the instructions earlier. Uryuu groaned and gave her disapproving glances before explaining each time. By the end of the session, Orihime had taken to asking some of the girls sitting near them instead. When club was finally over for the day, Uryuu left the room wordlessly, waiting for Orihime in the hallway.

After saying her goodbyes to her fellow clubmembers, Orihime left the room and ran into Uryuu. "Oh, Ishida-kun, you scared me! Are you alright? You've been scowling all during club! I thought either you must have a tummy ache or you were trying to channel an ogre so you could make your mask more authentic," she rambled.

"No, Inoue-san. I'm not alright. I'm worried. Why were you so distracted today? Who was messaging you on your phone?"

Orihime considered telling him the truth, but was hesitant, and didn't know why. "I'm texting a friend. We're trying to set up a, er, a workout schedule!" she said with a huge grin. It wasn't a lie, which pleased her.

"And which friend is this?" Uryuu asked innocuously.

Orihime saw right through his attempt to be cool. She sighed and answered, "Ulquiorra, alright? Don't be mad, Ishida-kun. I know you don't like him but he really is very nice when you get to know him."

Uryuu rolled his eyes and starting walking down the hall dramatically, but with the expectation that she would follow. She knew him well enough to understand, and did. "This is just great, Inoue-san. Now I have to worry about you getting in trouble with a hollow that you are setting up a 'workout schedule' with? What kind of workouts do you two do, anyway? Kickboxing? Yoga? Jazzercise?" he asked, wiggling his fingers in a jazz-hands gesture for effect.

Orihime laughed in spite of herself. "No, he is helping me train to improve using my Shun Shun Rikka at Urahara's training ground, silly.

That made more sense to Uryuu than he cared to admit, and he was temporarily silenced, until Orihime opened her mouth again, "Besides, he's not a hollow and you know it."

"Once a hollow, always a hollow, Inoue-san," Uryuu ground out somewhat cruelly, only having Ulquiorra's face in mind when he said it. He soon regretted his outburst though, as Orihime stopped in her tracks and took a sharp intake of breath.

"You don't really mean that, do you Ishida-kun? You don't mean to tell me that you believe that my brother Sora could never have a second chance, do you?" she asked with tears beginning to gather in the corners of her eyes.

Uryuu groaned, turning around to see her lower lip beginning to tremble. He approached her and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "No, of course not, Inoue-san. It's just, I don't like the way that Espada looks at you."

Orihime's head snapped up, her hurt feelings seemingly forgotten. "You too, Ishida-kun? Why do people keep saying that? Ulquiorra is just my friend!"

Uryuu made a sound of disgust. "Really? That is all that is going on between you two? You're just friends? If that's the case why don't you just train with Tatsuki?"

Orihime looked at him kindly, before answering, "You know why, Ishida-kun. All of you treat me like I'm going to break. That's why I like training with Ulquiorra. He challenges me. He pushes me past my weaknesses. I am actually making progress with him."

"So that's all it is then? A stern trainer?"

"No, of course not! I like his company. I told you before that we get along well and he is fun to be around. Why are you acting so suspicious anyway? Last I checked I was free to hang out with whoever I want," Orihime cut herself short, not liking the way her voice was taking a sharp tone with him. She raised her eyes back to his, smiling gently, "the point is, Ishida-kun, there is really nothing to worry about, and I would appreciate it if you would trust me a little more, alright?"

Uryuu knew he was defeated. He sighed and nodded, and she began to walk ahead toward the school's exit.

"Who knows, Ishida-kun, maybe he can help you too!" Uryuu rolled his eyes at her as she changed her shoes. "Anyway, I gotta get home early. I'll see you tomorrow," she called out as she ran outside to escape him. She just wasn't in the mood to deal with anymore accusations today. She jogged her way to the school gate and turned toward her route home when she nearly crashed into someone.

"Be careful, woman," the familiar baritone rumbled.

Orihime's eyes went wide in surprise, "Ulquiorra, what are you doing here?" she asked, taking him by the elbow and pulling him toward the shrine a bit further down the block. The last thing she needed was for Uryuu to see them together, giving him a reason to subject her to further scrutiny tomorrow. Within fifteen paces they reached an entrance to the shrine grounds, and she pulled him with her behind the fence.

"Woman, why have you taken me here?"

"Sorry, Uluiorra," she answered, looking around to check that the coast was clear. Sure enough, she saw Uryuu just come through the school gates and turn the opposite direction of them. All she needed to do was wait for him to get to the end of the block and he would turn out of eyeshot. She sighed in relief as she brought her head back to toward her Ulquiorra. "I was just trying to make sure Ishida-kun doesn't see us."

"Why?"

"He was giving me a hard time today about spending time with you. I don't know why he has a problem with it," she answered, shaking her head.

Ulquiorra was glad that she didn't know why. He saw the way the Quincy had watched her when they had lunch with Tatsuki and Chad weeks ago. He remembered how he had tried to protect Orihime in Hueco Mundo. Uryuu Ishida had every reason to dislike Ulquiorra Cifer, and Orihime's ignorance relative to same meant he had one less rival for her affection.

Orihime's irritation passed as she asked Ulquiorra, drawing him out of his thoughts, "So, what are you doing here?"

"You did not answer my last text, which I sent over an hour ago. I was worried," he replied in a thick voice, tilting his head ever so slightly closer to hers.

She shrunk, feeling his presence invade her personal space, but not exactly disturbed by the sensation. Her nose and cheeks colored slightly, and she looked up at him from under her eyelashes, answering, "I'm sorry, Ishida-kun distracted me with his badgering, and we were doing paper mache. It's a messy project and I didn't want to get my phone dirty."

Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed at this. He did not enjoy the thought of another stealing her attention from him. He took a step closer to her, testing her tolerance. She did not retreat this time, but looked up into his face, blush intensifying. Ulquiorra's thoughts strayed from the Quincy as he looked into her eyes, but caught himself before he got completely lost in the dark pools. "Forget the Quincy. May I walk you home?" he nearly whispered.

Orihime's mouth was too dry to answer and she nodded dumbly, still unable to take her eyes off Ulquiorra's. Luckily for her, he slowly pulled his gaze away from her and back toward the sidewalk past the shrine entrance. Uryuu was nowhere in sight. "Come with me, woman," he said.

"Déjà vu," Orihime murmured, still somewhat dazed.

Ulquiorra took a few steps and waited. When she finally followed, he asked her what she meant.

"That's one of the first things you ever said to me," she answered softly, unable or unwilling to break the intimate atmosphere that had begun between them.

"I assure you this time I have no intention of delivering you to an evil mastermind," he answered with a slight smirk, looking sidelong at her until she looked up and noticed that he was joking. The tension between them evaporated and Orihime smiled brightly.

"So, what did you do today?"

xXxXx

Orihime's apartment

5:50 p.m.

The walk home with Ulquiorra had been pleasant. They had a nice chat about nothing special. But something felt off-kilter to Orihime. As she changed out of her school uniform and into some lounge clothes she tried to identify what it was. She prepared herself some noodles with pork, maple syrup, and red chili pepper, and sat to watch television while eating, but was unable to concentrate on the program. She replayed the walk home in her mind again, and started to take away the conversation, and then she finally saw it. The long eye contact. The intensity of his gaze. The lack of personal space. The way he always came between her and a potential threat, be it an oncoming light post or a male pedestrian. However, she was still somewhat distracted by the television, and didn't take the time to consider the implications of her realization. Absent-mindedly, she began to imagine Ulquiorra as a romantic prospect. She began making a mental list of the pros and cons. He was definitely not a normal human; he spoke archaically, his cultural and social awareness was lacking. He wasn't properly educated and was basically on probation with Soul Society. Then she realized that those things weren't really all that important. After all, a lot of her friends met those same qualifications. Ulquiorra did, however, have a lot of good points. He made her feel smart and strong and confident. He was strong and confident, himself. He had proven himself a good person in this life, saving Ichigo twice. He made her laugh a lot. She didn't even take into account the fact that although his eyes didn't hold the fire that Ichigo's did, they were so beautiful in their own right, and held a kind of mysterious, reserved intensity that intrigued her.

The television show concluded and her bowl empty, Orihime stood and realized what she had been thinking. Shaking her head at herself, she decided it was all silly. It's Ulquiorra Cifer. All those nonverbal cues were probably in her imagination, and even if he was exotic and handsome and attractive and fun to be around, they would never have that kind of relationship anyway. She dropped her bowl in the sink and did her homework, took a bath, and got ready for bed secure in her conclusions, drifting peacefully off to sleep.

A/N: Sorry this is a bit shorter than usual and there is not much action. I decided to split up my plan for this chapter into parts because each really deserves its own, I think. I hope you liked it anyway, please let me know!

Chapter Text

This chapter is for LylithB who drew some gorgeous fan art inspired by ch. 32 and posted it over on Tumblr. My interactions with her hold a very special place in my heart, as I've hinted at before, but I wanted to take the opportunity to thank all of you reading, commenting, fave-ing and following: your interest and support brings me so much joy, and I appreciate each one of you. As a gesture of my thanks, here is a brief little omake chapter that tells part of ch. 32 from Ulquiorra's perspective.

3:30 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

I believe your classes are finished, and I apologize in advance if I am mistaken, but I must know: how did you perform on your exam?

xx

3:31 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

You're right, classes just ended. My exam went well, I think, thanks for asking! (Blushing smiley)

xx

3:33 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

As expected from one so stubbornly determined.

Ulquiorra smirked as he tapped the send button, hoping to get a rise out of the usually peaceful healer.

xx

3:34 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

Hey, it takes one to know one! (Tongue out smiley)

xx

'Oh, so she wants to challenge me? Very well, I accept,' Ulquiorra thought to himself.

3:36 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

You are right about that. When I set my sights on something, or someone, only death can stop my pursuit, as you well know.

xx

3:38 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

Um, are you talking about Kurosaki-kun? (Chin scratch emoji)

xx

Ulquiorra was confused for a moment. 'What could she mean - oh', she probably was referring to how he had died at Kurosaki's sword as a result of his pursuit of the shinigami. That is not what he meant, though, and he wondered momentarily whether he should back down and just let her misunderstanding go unchecked. No, he had gone this far. Only the meek retreat, and Ulquiorra Cifer was not meek.

3:41 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

Wrong. Guess again, woman. There, I've inadvertently given you a hint.

xx

3:43 p.m.

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

From: Orihime Inoue

(Laughing smiley) be careful, Ulquiorra, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were flirting with me! (Lol) (lol) (blushing smiley)

xx

3:45 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

This is the first instance in which I might advise that you are overconfident in your beliefs.

Ulquiorra bit his lower lip, waiting anxiously for her response. As the minutes ticked by, he began to fill with dread. Had he been too forward? Was she avoiding him? His face grimaced as he began to pace his room.

After several minutes, he found himself downstairs, pacing the rooms there. He began absentmindedly organizing a stack of newspapers, but still no answer came and his anxiety only grew.

"Damn."

He strode to the genkan, threw on his coat and shoes, and left for Orihime's school. If she meant to reject him, she could do so in person.

Chapter Text

Orihime’s breaths came in shallow draws as she fought her own anatomy in an attempt to lengthen and bow her torso.  The tension in her legs caused them to tremble, further disturbing the equilibrium in her breasts, which were heated and swollen as they pressed up against something hard and warm.  Whatever was on top of her moved against and inside of her.  She gasped as she felt wet lips press against her neck briefly and then heard her name whispered on heated breath: “Orihime”.

Suddenly she felt the tension snap, and a moment later she was left feeling blissfully relaxed. A hand took hers softly, and she cracked an eye open as she brought it to her cheek, absently noting the length and fairness of its fingers.  She sighed in satisfaction and looked down not to see the expected spiky orange head resting against her chest, but a mop of soft black.  The head moved, turning its face to hers and opening its eyes.  Sparkling emeralds revealed themselves to her as she sucked in a sharp breath.

xXxXx

Orihime sat up suddenly in her bed disturbed, out of breath, and in need of a shower.  She brought a trembling hand to the side of her head as she tried to make sense of her dream.  She stared blindly at her bedspread, alternating between shock and shudders of shameful appreciation as she and recalled the details of the dream.  She had had dreams before of Ichigo, faceless men, and even some of her other male friends, but they were never as explicit or vivid as this one, and never had she woken up in the middle of the night with the evidence of such a dream still fluttering in her core and soaking her underpants.

Orihime shook her head to clear away the images of the dream; recalling them did nothing to provide her with any sort of understanding and only made her bodily concerns more apparent.  She looked up, and noting that it was still dark outside, picked her phone up off her nightstand to check the time.  When she did, she was surprised to see that she had one unread text message from the previous day.  She opened the message to read:

3:45 p.m.

To: Orihime Inoue

From: Ulquiorra Cifer

This is the first instance in which I might advise that you are overconfident in your beliefs.

‘Eh?’ Orihime thought to herself.  The message didn’t make sense on its own.  She went back to reread her previous message:

‘…be careful, Ulquiorra, if I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were flirting with me!...’

In her sleepy, post-orgasmic state, it didn’t all make sense right away.  But as her brain slowly put the pieces together, her face reddened in mortification.  It couldn’t be!  Had all her friends been right?   Did Ulquiorra actually look at her that way?

And, if that was true, what could he have been thinking when she dragged him into that private alcove at the shrine after school, blushing and not backing down as he got close enough to touch her.  What must he think of her acting that way after he more or less confessed to flirting with her?!?

And what did her dream mean?  Was she completely over Ichigo?  Was she attracted to Ulquiorra?  She couldn’t even think about it right now.  The only thing she was sure of was that something significant had changed, and she didn’t know if she could ever look at Ulquiorra innocently again.

It felt as though the world was spinning too fast for her. She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, trying to rein in her muddled thoughts.  She looked outside again; there was a trace of light in the sky now.  She looked again at her phone; in her eagerness to read Ulquiorra’s message, she had overlooked the time.  It was now just after 6:00 a.m.  At least she had gotten a decent amount of sleep before being woken up in such an indecent manner, she thought.  Although it was earlier than she usually started getting ready for school, the idea of staying in her current state repulsed her enough to get out of bed and into the shower.  Her only comforts now were the knowledge that no one else would ever know what she had dreamed about and that she didn’t have plans to meet Ulquiorra again until Thursday.

xXxXx

Soul Society

Evening

After telling Urahara about his hollow’s recommendation for rest and rejuvenation, Ichigo soon found himself at hot springs inn in Rukongai with the exile and Yoruichi.  They were joined by Shinji, Rangiku, Rukia and Renji shortly thereafter, and he now sat in a small banquet room watching his companions get wasted.  Ichigo partook in small quantities that night, heeding the ‘rejuvenation’ part of the recommendation as well as the rest part.  Despite not joining the group in their excess, he was still enjoying himself.  After finally making some progress this week, he felt like he had some room to breathe. 

He had decided to really try to make sure he was in top shape before returning to his inner world, meaning not only should he be healed, well-fed, and rested, but also that he had his head on as straight as possible too.  The latter part of that equation seemed the most daunting, but Ichigo had faced enough hurdles in the past several weeks that he had begun to feel a bit numb toward adversity.  To that end, then, he was determined to try talking to someone tonight about his troubles, no matter how embarrassing or emasculating it felt.

After the group’s banquet was finished, the party went to the hot spring.  It was a large outdoor natural bath that was divided down the center with a bamboo fence, one side for men, one for women. The fence provided modesty but allowed for conversation to be carried through it.  After showering off, the partiers made their way to the spring one by one, melting into the steaming water.  Yoruichi and Rangiku hadn’t let the party stop when they left the banquet hall, ordering some bottles of sake which they floated on a wooden tray in the bath.  As a result, the busty pair spent much of their time in the bath passing small bottles of sake through a small gap in the fence back and forth with the men, much to Shinji and Kisuke’s delight.  Bathers on both sides of the fence took the opportunity to sneak peeks from time to time.

Ichigo sat away from the fence, on a rock near the gurgling spout that delivered hot water to the bath, muffling the sound of the others’ voices. The sulfuric smelling liquid came nearly to his shoulders and his face was covered with a small white towel.  He was not bothered by the revelry around him, content to just be in the presence of fun while he let all the stress in his body dissipate. He sat like that for a long time, and before he noticed, Renji had been taken to his and Rukia’s room after passing out from the heat.  Shinji had offered to take him, leaving only Ichigo and Urahara in the men’s side of the spring.  After about twenty more minutes or so, Yoruichi left and Urahara excused himself, presumably to entertain one another in private.  This left only Ichigo on his side and Rukia and Rangiku on the women’s side.  Ichigo thought to call it a night as well, before he heard voices beckoning him to the gap in the fence.

“Say, Kurosaki-kun, come and have a drink with us.  We’re not tired yet,” Rangiku called pleasantly. 

“Yes, Ichigo, come chat with us!”  Rukia agreed.  Ichigo found that he did not object to the suggestions, and waded his way over to the gap in the fence, mindful of keeping his privates covered with the white towel as he went.

Sitting down, Ichigo ventured a discreet peek through the gap, getting a look at Rukia’s shoulder as she sat with her back toward the fence.  The view was suddenly obstructed when Rangiku thrust a hand holding a small sake cup toward Ichigo.  “Cheers!” she said softly as she withdrew her arm, allowing Ichigo a rather clear view of her ample bosom as it bobbed in the water like a pair of grossly oversized apples. Ichigo cleared his throat awkwardly and decided it best for the ‘rest’ part of his plan to turn his back toward the women while they conversed this way.

Rangiku started.  “So tell us, Kurosaki-kun.  What’s on your mind tonight?”

Now that it was just Rukia, who knew him about as well as anyone, and Rangiku, who had proven to him to be a sympathetic and discreet listener, Ichigo felt eager to confess.  “Well, first of all, I’d like to apologize to you two.  The last time we spoke I nearly bit your heads off.”

The woman stayed quiet, but nodded in agreement.  Ichigo waited for a bit before continuing.  “Well, the thing is, at that time I was really frustrated.  Not only because I wasn’t making any progress with my training, but because of Inoue.”

“Orihime-chan?” Rangiku asked, not sounding entirely surprised.

“Mm,” Ichigo grunted affirmatively.  “I know I broke her heart, and I feel like a piece of shit about it.”

Rukia chimed in, “Ichigo, it’s true that she is probably hurting, but aren’t you as well?  And did you not end things with her for noble reasons?”

Ichigo forced a bittersweet smile.  “I did.  And I am, but not as much as she is, I’m sure.”

“How can you be so sure of that?” Rangiku asked.  She didn’t have an ounce of antagonism in her voice.  She really was on his side tonight, and she wanted him to know it.

Ichigo sighed, regret evident.  “She told me she loved me.”

Both women gasped. They remained silent for a moment as they figured out what he was implying.

“And you don’t love her, Ichigo?” Rukia finally asked.

Ichigo sighed again. “To be honest, Rukia, no, I don’t.  Not yet, anyway.  But I think I could have.  I could see us dating and then going off to college together and who knows, from there.  Whenever I thought of my future, I saw her in it, but I screwed everything up.  I pushed things too far, too fast with her.”

Rangiku’s heartstrings played a melancholy song, pain for both the boy on the other side of the fence and her friend in Karakura thrumming in her chest. She closed her eyes, asking what needed to be clarified, “Did you sleep with her?”

“No, but I let her think I wanted to.  She wanted to,” He put his head in his hands, pushing on his eyes.  “I wasn’t there yet.  I knew I wasn’t there yet.  But I played along anyway, just so that I could get her to restore me.  I led her on and then rejected her.  I’m such an asshole.”  He pushed on his eyes harder as his breathing got rougher.

Rukia’s heart felt heavy as well.  “You know, Ichigo, we all pushed you together.  Remember your birthday party?  We knew you wouldn’t ask her out without some pushing.”

“I know, Rukia.  But it the end, I’m responsible.  I just went with the flow without thinking about the consequences.  And to be fair, I really did like her.   I do like her.  A lot.  I’m just not ready for her.”

“She was ready for you though…” Rangiku thought out loud.

“…yeah,” Ichigo said, shame thickening his voice.

“Well, Ichigo, perhaps this is for the best then.  As you know, you two need to be separated now, anyway, for safety’s sake.  And if I know Orihime, I’m sure when you are ready she’ll welcome you back,” Rukia said, trying to encourage him.

“She might, but do I want her to?  She should be angry with me.  I broke her heart.  I broke Orihime fucking Inoue’s sweet, generous, little heart,” Ichigo caught himself raising his voice and quieted down before continuing.  “What kind of person does that to someone like her?  What kind of person would she be if she just waited around and took me back? She could have anyone.  I want her to have some kind of self-respect, you know?”  he trailed off, then added, “And one thing about the whole thing always bothered me.  Why was she so eager to get serious?  Why would she be so willing to, you know, with me?”

Rangiku took addressed his last question.  “You have to understand, Kurosaki-kun, Orihime-chan’s situation is much different than yours. She loved you for a long, long time before you got together.  She has also been all alone for a long, long time.  She has been mostly independent for a long time. She doesn’t feel the need to ‘stretch her wings’, so to speak.  Also, her future doesn’t have the safety net of family to fall back on unless she makes one for herself.  I am not saying she is trying to ensnare you, Kurosaki-kun.  She just is very aware of her vulnerability and loneliness.   To her, you represent everything she’s always wanted:  love, family, and stability.  And just to be clear, she loves, or at least loved, you for you, not because of something you could potentially give her.  She was content to stay by your side as forever even if only as your friend.  But the other things may explain why she was so ready and willing to get so serious so fast.”

Ichigo didn’t really understand.  “But don’t you think she shouldn’t?  She should want to have some fun before growing up and getting tied down.  It’s not like I want to her to play the field, or anything, but if she had the opportunity to study somewhere far away, or go backpacking through Europe with Tatsuki, or blow all her money on wasabi and plushies, don’t you think she should make sure she has the freedom to do that while she still can?  I just don’t understand.  I didn’t want her to get into a situation she’ll regret, especially not with me.”

Rukia chimed in.  “I can see that you still care about her very much, Ichigo, but I think you should let her decide how she feels and what she wants.  And when it comes to her relationship with you, she may move on.  She may wait.  Either way, you have to accept and respect her decisions, just as she must accept and respect yours.”

Ichigo didn’t respond, so Rukia brought up an thought that she had been toying with.  “You know, sometimes you meet the right person at the wrong time.  Renji and I went through years of separation and a strained relationship after he joined the 6th.  It was only after you brought us back together, when I was about to be executed, that we were able to make it work.  My point is, timing is really important.  You are young, and you do have a lot to do before you settle down.  You have your hollow to deal with now as well.  You’re not wrong to want to wait to be so strongly attached to someone.  You never know if in the future things might turn around for you two.  And who knows, maybe you weren’t meant to be, but don’t beat yourself up because it didn’t work out now.   These things just happen sometimes.”

“Thanks, Rukia.”

“But Ichigo, I just want to make sure you understand, she might not remain single.  She may find someone else that makes her happy.  Are you going to be alright if that happens?”

“I hope so.  I have to be.”

xXxXx

Orihime was very quiet in school on Tuesday.  She was irrationally afraid that if she attracted too much attention, everyone would figure out her secret. 

Wednesday was the same, although now there was the added pressure of knowing that the next day she planned to meet the subject of her scandalous dream.  By the end of the day, Tatsuki had had enough of Orihime hiding behind her hair and startling every time someone spoke to her.  She was determined to figure out what was up with her.  Tatsuki’s mom was out of town and Chad had to work that night, so she cut out of karate early and dashed over to the handicrafts clubroom as club ended.  She arrived just as Orihime was powerwalking toward the exit.

“Hey, Orihime!” Tatsuki shouted before Orihime reached the stairs.  “Wait up!”

Orihime yelped and turned her attention toward her best friend, although her feet would not stop her descent.

“What’s the hurry Hime?  Big date tonight?”

Orihime’s face flushed maroon, her eyes widened in shock. 

“Wait a minute, I was just kidding.  Do you have a date?”

“No!” Orihime protested, finally finding her voice.

“Well something is up with you.  How about you come home with me for dinner?  My mom’s out of town so I need the company.”

Orihime pouted.  She knew it would be nearly impossible for her to say no to Tatsuki, especially when she had put it like that, but she didn’t want to talk about what was bothering her.  Finally, she sighed and nodded in defeat.

xXxXx

The two girls stood side by side doing the washing up after dinner; Orihime washed as Tatsuki dried and put the clean dishes away.  Dinner had been relatively quiet on Orihime’s end; Tatsuki filled her in on how well things were going with Chad, and every time she asked Orihime about herself, Orihime had conveniently stuffed her mouth full of more food.

But now, as Tatsuki put the last plate away, there was nothing for Orihime to hide behind.   “Come on, we need to talk, Orihime,” Tatsuki said, leading the way to the living room.  Orihime obeyed, tucking herself into the corner of the sofa and pulling one knee up to her chin, hugging it tightly, waiting for the anticipated interrogation to begin.

“So, what’s been bothering you this week?  You’d been doing so well recently and now it’s like, well, it’s not exactly the same as when you broke up with Ichigo, but you are super distracted and acting like you are hiding something.  What gives?”

Orihime closed her eyes and took a deep, steadying breath, before she answered, “Well, actually, nothing happened, it’s just…” she couldn’t continue.  She didn’t know how.

“Just what?  Did somebody say something to you?  Has Ishida been harassing you about Ulquiorra?  I noticed him being all judgey lately.”

“Well, actually, you’re right about that,” Orihime said, furrowing her brows, suddenly offended by the memory.  She hadn’t really considered how rude it was until Tatsuki brought it up.  “That is a big part of it, I think.”

“I figured.  I mean, I know you don’t think so, but Ishida at least likes you a little, and he is kinda friends with Ichigo, so I guess it makes sense that he wouldn’t like you hanging out with a new guy, but that doesn’t mean he has the right to tell you what to do!” Tatsuki argued passionately, piggy-backing on Orihime’s irritation.

“Right!?” Orihime said, encouraged by Tatsuki’s outrage.  “He can’t tell me what to do!  He doesn’t have to like it, but he doesn’t need to lecture me!  I am older than him!  Ok, only by a couple months, but still, who does he think he is?  It’s like he feels superior to me or something!”  Orihime’s voice had risen quite a bit as she went on.  Complaining about things was cathartic, she was learning.  “Besides, it’s not like he always makes the best choices.  He was the one who told Kurosaki-kun to visit me while he was training, and we all know how well that turned out.”

“Yeah!” Tatsuki interjected, very much enjoying and encouraging her friend’s continuing rant.

“And if what you say is true and he does like me, then too bad for him!  It’s not my fault that he never expressed an interest in me before Kurosaki-kun did first.  It’s not my fault that he still doesn’t say anything and Ulquiorra does!”

“WHAT?!?!”

“What?”

“Ulquiorra does?”  Tatsuki asked with an excited squeal.

“Wait, what?  No, he didn’t say anything…” Orihime attempted to backtrack poorly.  Her body language screamed that she was lying as she looked down at her fingertips, bringing them together and apart, and chewing on the inside of her blushing cheeks.

“Liar!  What did he say?” Tatsuki asked with an excited grin.

Orihime’s cheeks flared scarlet and she took a deep breath.  “Well, he didn’t exactly say anything directly, but he kind of admitted to flirting with me.”

“Oh, is that all?” Tatsuki asked, only partially deflated.  “I thought it would be something more interesting than that.  Why are you so embarrassed about it?”

Orihime huffed in defeat.  “It’s not what he said, it’s that it’s him.  If you knew him from before, you’d know that’s quite a leap for him.  But really, the biggest deal isn’t that he said anything, it’s me.”

“What do you mean?”

Orihime looked at her friend with a pained expression, agonizing how to tell her that she was considering the remote possibility of giving up her long-held affection for their mutual friend - Tatsuki’s best childhood friend - for the same man who killed him in his past life.  Orihime closed her eyes and took a bracing breath.  “I told Ichigo I loved him.”

Tatsuki’s face held an expression of deep confusion.   “What?  I thought we were talking about you and Ulquiorra.”

“I need to confess this to someone first, Tatsuki-chan.  Please?”

Tatsuki nodded, suddenly quite earnest.

“I told Ichigo I loved him.  I told him, and he didn’t say it back.  I didn’t worry about it too much at the time, because I thought he would do it the next time or something like that, but he never did. Lately, I’ve been wondering: how long should I wait for him to say it?  Forever?  A week?  A year?  I don’t know.”

Tatsuki did not respond, waiting for Orihime to continue, and not really knowing what to say.

“Well, what do you think, Tatsuki-chan?”

“Oh,” she answered, startled.  “Um, I guess it depends.  What do you think?”

“Well, I used to think forever.  I promised him five lifetimes of love before I went to Hueco Mundo.  Did I ever tell you that?”

“You did what?” Tatsuki asked, incredulous.

“I did.  He was asleep; he didn’t even know I was there, but I went to him and told him I would love him for five lifetimes.  What kind of person says something like that, and then when he’s gone for a couple months, even considers being interested in someone else?” Orihime’s tears were threatening to spill over her darkened cheeks as she confessed what she felt was her most grievous sin.

“Orihime, that was almost two years ago.  A lot has changed since then.  You don’t have to hold yourself to a vow you made alone and in secret anyway.  And before you say it, I know you still love Ichigo, well a part of you still loves him at least, and maybe a part of you always will.  But he was the one who broke up with you. You are allowed to try to be happy, Hime.  Even if it’s with someone else.”

Orihime started to sob. “But Tatsuki-chan, I don’t know if I can.  And then, of all people, the one who has made me happiest is Ulquiorra Cifer!  It’s unbelievable.  How can I betray Kurosaki-kun that way?”

Tatsuki started to cry in sympathy.  She grabbed Orihime by the shoulders and held firmly until they made eye contact.  “It’s not a betrayal, Hime.  You’ve got to understand that.  You are not in a relationship with Ichigo anymore.  You can be with whoever you want.  Besides, you were the one who offered your love to him, and he didn’t take it.  I don’t know what he was thinking, and I’m not saying this to hurt you, but obviously his feelings were not as strong as yours.  You have to give yourself a break and stop blaming yourself for everything that went wrong.  You were honest.   He was the one who kept lying and fucking things up.  And who cares if the person who makes you happiest is Ulquiorra, or Uryuu, or Keigo, for that matter?  You deserve happiness, Hime.  More than anyone I know.”

Orihime threw her arms around Tatsuki’s neck and wept, pained sobs wracking her small frame as she allowed the guilt she had been holding onto soak Tatsuki’s shoulder.  After several minutes, she finally pulled back, sniffling and reaching around for a tissue.

“Hime, you may as well use my sleeve at this point,” Tatsuki joked through a half smile, pointing to her damp shoulder, and using said sleeve to wipe her own eyes.

Orihime gave a choked giggle, and smiled through bleary, puffy eyes.  She found a tissue and wiped her face, then inhaled and exhaled dramatically.  “Thanks, Tatsuki-chan.  I should have talked to you sooner.”

Tatsuki merely shook her head in an ‘I told you so’ fashion, then pushed herself away from Orihime as if to change the mood.  “So, tell me about Ulquiorra.  Do you like him?”

Orihime looked up at her a bit shyly.  “I think I am starting to…”

Tatsuki gave her a pleased smile and squeezed her hand.  “Good.  He’s pretty hot, you know.  Not my type, but daaaamn,” she said with a far-off, appreciative gaze.

Orihime giggled and blushed again, “I know,” she whined.  “There is something about him that is just so…” she trailed off, absently tracing her lower lip.

Tatsuki raised an eyebrow knowingly.  “Sexy?”

Orihime hid her face in her hands and refused to respond.

“I knew it!  I can’t blame you, I mean, I saw him move at the dojo, he has great control and stamina, and the way he was doing his warmup drills shows he knows how to handle his sword…” she teased.

“Tatsuki…” Orihime whined from behind her hands.

Tatsuki laughed.  “Sorry Hime, you’re just too easy to tease.”

Orihime looked up at her with an angry expression, which was not even close to being believable, and both girls burst out into laughter.

“So when will you see him again?” Tatsuki asked, trying to steer the conversation in a direction that was somewhat less emotional.

“Tomorrow after club.  We’re going to continue my Shun Shun Rikka training.  But first, I’m taking him to get a haircut.”

“Good, I bet he could use one by now.” Tatsuki sighed, glad to see her friend acting normally again. 

 “Yeah, I just don’t know how I’m going to face him now.  I mean, before I was in denial about being attracted to him, but now, I won’t know what to do with myself.”

“Just do what feels right, Hime.  You’ll figure it out,” Tatsuki said, and she believed it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 35: Appointment

February 5th, 4:00 p.m.

Orihime had classroom cleaning duty after school and used that as her excuse to skip out of handicrafts club. She had no intention of going in any case; she had an appointment. Rather, Ulquiorra had the appointment, but she had agreed to accompany him.

Presently, she was walking toward the school gate, and spotted the man in question. She smiled and raised her arm to wave at him, when someone grabbed it. Orihime swung her face to the right, and saw Chizuru wrapping her left arm around Orihime's right one and pulling herself closer, slinking her free arm across Orihime's belly.

"Where are you off to in such a hurry, my princess?" Chizuru purred, as her wandering hand began to trace its way north. "My parents are gone for a long weekend; you could come home with me and we could have a pillow-fight. And don't worry, you don't need to go home for pajamas. Since no one else will be there, we won't even need them!"

Orihime's face flushed and she tried to step back. Chizuru's behavior was bold, even for her. Orihime wondered if Ichigo's extended absence had encouraged her, but she didn't have to think about it long before she noticed Chizuru's expression lose its amorous glaze and morph into something a bit closer to unbridled terror. Then Orihime felt it: Ulquiorra was letting some distinctly unfriendly reiatsu leak from his gigai. She hadn't noticed it at first; he was being very precise with its intended target.

"Unhand the woman, trash," Orihime heard Ulquiorra's smooth, deceivingly calm voice from somewhere close to her left side and above her head.

"Y-you're not supposed to be here, you're not a student here!" Chizuru managed to sputter out.

"And you are not supposed to make the woman uncomfortable. Regardless, I am leaving and she will have to decline your invitation," he said the word with unmasked derision. "She is previously engaged."

Chizuru slowly dropped her hands and took a step back. As she did all traces of Ulquiorra's reiatsu vanished. She blinked rapidly and looked at Orihime, worried. "You really have a date with this weird guy?"

Orihime's eyes opened wide as she tried to think fast for a way to deny it while not being rude to Ulquiorra. Luckily, she didn't have to, as Ulquiorra chimed in, "We have an appointment at the hair salon and we will be late if we do not leave now. Come, woman," he ordered, pivoting on his heel and marching back toward the school gates.

The way he said it made it sound very pedestrian and Orihime found herself feeling slightly disappointed at his lack of enthusiasm. Still, she was grateful she wouldn't have to explain anything further to Chizuru. "That's right, Chizuru-chan, we can't be late or Hikaru-chan will be angry," she said with an apologetic grin before turning and trotting after Ulquiorra, leaving Chizuru mildly confused but placated behind the school gates.

Orihime had to exert herself to catch up to Ulquiorra, and when she did, she found his mouth set in a grim frown. He noticed her head bobbing in and out of his peripheral vision, and reduced his speed slightly until she was able to keep up with him more easily. He slid his eyes toward her and saw her observing him.

"What is it, woman?" he asked without inflection.

"I was going to ask you what was bothering you. You seem upset."

"I am upset. You allowed that impertinent piece of trash to molest you."

"Chizuru-chan? She's not trash, Ulquiorra. She's my friend. That's just how she is."

"I beg to differ," he replied, sounding suspiciously perturbed and increasing his pace again.

Orihime sighed and jogged back up. When Ulquiorra didn't slow down, she said, "Hey," with a bit of irritation in her voice. When he didn't respond or slow down, she grabbed his coat sleeve, finally getting his attention. He tilted his chin slightly in her direction and slid his eyes to meet hers without trying to disguise his displeasure. "What is the matter with you? Do you want me to just go home?" Orihime demanded, unimpressed with Ulquiorra's behavior.

At the thought of her leaving his blood ran cold. He was merely caught up in his own feelings, which he did not understand. He stopped and turned to face her. "I do not wish for you to leave. I do not know what is the matter with me, but I do not wish to offend you."

"Well, calling my friend 'trash' and accusing me of letting her molest me is rather offensive, Ulquiorra," she scolded.

Ulquiorra sighed and looked down at the sidewalk. Then he spoke in an uncharacteristically small voice, "I apologize, woman. I was unnecessarily harsh. The only explanation I can offer you is that the sight of that… person… attempting to seduce you was unpleasant, especially when you did not appear to reciprocate her interest."

At that Orihime couldn't help but smile a bit, "Why, Ulquiorra, were you trying to defend my honor?" she asked, teasingly.

Ulquiorra's cheeks grew slightly warm as he bit the inside of his cheek and nodded, before turning and beginning to walk again.

Orihime giggled and joined him, glad that their misunderstanding had been cleared up and flattered that he cared, despite his poor reaction to the situation. She had to allow him a bit of a learning curve, she reasoned. As a former Hueco Mundo resident, he hadn't had a lot of opportunity to become educated on proper human behavior. Not wanting to let him wallow in shame, she changed the subject. "So, have you decided how you want to get your hair cut?"

Ulquiorra glanced at her like she was speaking in tongues. "What do you mean? Doesn't the stylist know what to do?"

Orihime giggled again. "No, silly! The stylist knows how to cut hair, but she won't decide how to do it for you. You have to tell her what you want your hair to look like."

"Oh. I hadn't considered it," he paused for a moment in thought. "It is at an impractical and unflattering length now. I would like that to be rectified."

Orihime nodded. "Sure, but is there a particular style you would like?"

"Style?"

"Yes, like, do you want to go kind of natural and floppy like Sado-kun's hair, or scruffy like Urahara-san's hair," she paused to smile at Ulquiorra's look of distaste at that suggestion before continuing on. "Or kind of spikey like Kurosaki-kun's hair, or sleek like Ishida-kun's…"

"What is your preference, woman?" Ulquiorra interrupted.

Orihime blushed at being suddenly asked to tell him what she thought was attractive, and attempted to avoid it. "Well, it depends on the person."

"Well, we are talking about me, are we not?"

Orihime's blush deepened as she looked away from him, mumbling an inaudible answer.

"What was that?"

Orihime fell back a step so that he wouldn't be able to see her face as she said, "I always like Ulquiorra's hair!" in an embarrassed squeak.

Ulquiorra stopped walking and looked over his shoulder at her with a sly half grin, amused at her shyness and pleased that she liked his hair. He did not want to press his luck and risk making her irritated with him again, though, and simply said, "Thank you."

Orihime still avoided eye contact but nodded as she regained her place at his side and they continued walking in silence for a few minutes. Finally, with the salon in sight, Ulquiorra spoke, "Given that my vocabulary lacks the proper words to describe hair styles, I will allow you to direct the stylist. If you don't mind, that is."

Orihime nodded her agreement, and a moment later they were opening the door to the salon.

"Hiiime-TAAAAAAN!" an overly enthusiastic man who reminded Ulquiorra of Szayelaporro Granz in body type and mannerisms called out as they entered. A moment later, Ulquiorra relived the feelings he felt when Chizuru had pawed at Orihime as the man clasped her by the elbows and kissed the air next to each of her cheeks. The Szayel look-alike released Orihime and turned to face Ulquiorra, looking him up and down appraisingly before looking slyly at Orihime. "So, who is this fine specimen you have brought for me today, Hime-tan? Hmm?"

Ulquiorra was alarmed now. Specimen? The man reminded him more of Szayel with every passing second. He took a step toward Orihime and was about to take her by the arm and run for it, when Orihime spoke. "This is my friend, Ulquiorra Cifer. Ulquiorra, this is Hikaru-chan, and she is the best hair stylist in all of Karakura!" Orihime beamed at Hikaru with affection.

Ulquiorra cautiously stepped back and nodded in acknowledgement to Hikaru, who smiled back at him radiantly. It was then that Ulquiorra noticed how femininely Hikaru presented, a face full of immaculate make-up, clothing in tasteful, soft fabrics that hugged his figure, and delicate jewelry around his neck and in his earlobes. Hikaru must have been nearly thirty-five years old, but his skin was well-cared for, 'or her skin', Ulquiorra thought to himself, making a mental note to ask Orihime about it later. Nevertheless, as he observed Hikaru and Orihime interact, he was put at ease by their natural smiles and affectionate banter, and decided as long as she wasn't a threat to Orihime it didn't matter one way or another.

"So, is this handsome fella your friend, or your boyfriend, Hime-tan?" Hikaru's words pulled Ulquiorra out of his musings and fiercely into the present as he looked to Orihime for her response.

"Eh? Hikaru-chan! Isn't that a bit…" she trailed off, blushing furiously. Ulquiorra's heart flip-flopped and his delicate nostrils flared slightly when she did not immediately deny it.

"Don't worry honey, I'm just teasing. You sit there and I'll be right back. Ulquiorra-kun and I can get acquainted while I wash his hair," she said, pulling Ulquiorra by the elbow toward the shampoo chair across the salon and guiding him into it.

"So, Ulquiorra-kun, how long have you known Hime-tan?" Hikaru asked sweetly as she began to spray his scalp with water set at the ideal temperature and pressure. Ulquiorra shivered in pleasure and melted into the chair, finding himself more receptive than usual to questioning.

"I met her about a year and a half ago."

"Oh yeah? Have you been friends that whole time?"

"No, and we weren't friends at first. I met her at… work," he improvised. "I terminated my employment shortly thereafter and I did not see her again until I came back to Karakura in December."

"Oh, I see. And was it a happy reunion?"

"It was for me."

Hikaru smiled and began to shampoo Ulquiorra's scalp, the smell of essential oils and the feel of Hikaru's massaging fingertips overwhelming Ulquiorra's senses. "By the looks of things, it was happy for Hime-tan, too. Her ex-boyfriend was no good for her in the end. I haven't seen her this perky since last summer."

Ulquiorra's brow furrowed slightly. He was not pleased that Ichigo had mistreated Orihime, obviously, but the thing that stuck out to him as interesting was that Hikaru had referred to Ichigo as Orihime's ex-boyfriend. Orihime didn't really talk to Ulquiorra about Ichigo and had never expressly told him that their relationship had ended. It was welcome news, and as Hikaru rinsed off the shampoo and started to condition Ulquiorra's hair, the traces of tension in the former Espada's face melted away. He had nearly drifted off when Hikaru roused him with a warm towel being draped and dragged over his head. "Time to rise and shine, lover-boy," Hikaru drawled, raising the seatback on the shampoo chair and leading the way to the cutting chair next to Orihime.

Orihime bit her lower lip to stifle a giggle at Ulquiorra's staggering walk and blissed-out expression as his body appeared to liquefy and pour itself into the cutting chair. "How was the shampoo, Ulquiorra?" she asked with glee.

"MmHmm, good," Ulquiorra managed to say in his mellow state. He more or less ignored Orihime and Hikaru talk about how to cut his hair, and he remained nearly catatonic until he heard the sound of metal scraping. His eyes snapped open wide and his customary rigid posture returned as he regained a state of high alert. However, a glance in the mirror informed him that it was merely Hikaru's scissors opening and closing, not a sword being unsheathed, and his posture relaxed to more of a neutral state.

"Jumpy, are we? Anyway, what did you say your job was, Ulquiorra-kun?" Hikaru asked as she began to trim away the longer hair in the back.

Ulquiorra improvised again. "Security guard."

"You don't say? Aren't those guys usually kind of lazy and useless? I don't get the impression that that's the kind of security guard you are."

"Former security guard, and no, that's not the kind I was," Ulquiorra answered flatly.

"I thought so. So what are you doing in Karakura these days?"

"He's a student!" Orihime interjected, starting to get nervous.

"Really? Where? Certainly not a high school student like our Hime-tan; you appear a bit mature for that."

"I'm between schools at the moment," Ulquiorra countered, not wanting to commit to a story that would later be too difficult to maintain.

"I see," Hikaru responded dubiously, turning her attention to Orihime and chatting about nothing in particular. After about twenty more minutes of clipping, razoring, blow-drying, and product, Hikaru held up a mirror for Ulquiorra to examine her work.

Ulquiorra examined his reflections in both mirrors quietly for several minutes. By the time he spoke, both Orihime and Hikaru were rather apprehensive. However, despite his silence, Ulquiorra was pleased to see that the style Orihime had chosen as her favorite and that Hikaru had, admittedly, expertly recreated, was a slightly neater version of the shaggy, layered hair of his unreleased arrancar form, sans bone helmet, of course. His expression warmed and his eyes smiled as he turned to Orihime and asked, "This one?"

Orihime looked to the side and nodded, embarrassed. Ulquiorra smiled, pleased with her reaction, and then turned to Hikaru to thank her and compliment her on her skill. Orihime recovered from her embarrassment as Ulquiorra paid and said goodbye, and as they were leaving the salon, Hikaru pulled Orihime aside and whispered in a gruff, warning tone to her, "If he is still single in a month, he's mine."

Orihime's eyes widened in shock as Hikaru straightened up and resumed her cheerful farewells, and Orihime waved robotically until they were outside and on their way to Urahara's place for her and Ulquiorra's planned training session.


Again, life is getting in the way of my best-laid plans to write, hence the short, late chapter this week. That and this Hikaru character kind of derailed my 'plans' for this chapter. Anyway, hope you liked it, let me know.

Chapter Text

Chapter 36: Truth be Told (Part 1)

Ichigo sat cross-legged in the sand, eyes closed, palms relaxed on top of his knees. Despite his earlier preparations and peaceful façade, he was terrified about what would greet him when he entered his inner world. He took a deep, steadying breath, and watched behind closed eyelids as the darkness deepened and listened as the sound of not-quite-water filled his ears. He opened his eyes and found himself seated in his underwater inner world, face to face with Zangetsu, previously known to him as his hollow.

"Wassup, Buttercup?" the spectre drawled at him, leaning heavily on Ichigo's zanpakuto.

"I'm ready. Shall we?" Ichigo asked as he got to his feet, anxious about getting to action.

"Shall we what? Dance around and tell each other bedtime stories?" Zangetsu asked sarcastically.

Ichigo winced a bit, "No, I mean let's not waste more time. What do I have to do to get that back?" he asked, pointing at his zanpakuto.

"Ah, so you do have a goal in mind. Not quite the one I'd hoped for but it'll do for now," Zangetsu said before he stood and waved his free hand, and suddenly Ichigo's inner world began to transform. The water drained from the sky and the sideways buildings crumbled away to reveal the white sand desert of Hueco Mundo, its crescent moon hanging stationary in the starless sky. "Your quest begins here. All you have to do is answer my questions honestly." Zangetsu paused as what appeared to be a million zanpakutos raining down from the pitch black heavens, each impaling the sand below with a clang. Ichigo cowered and covered his ears, the deafening sound feeling like it would tear through his skull. A moment later Ichigo's ears reverberated loudly as he observed the moonlight glint off the multitude of swords before him. Zangetsu waited for the ringing to subside before adding, "The more truth you reveal to me, the more truth will be revealed to you. We'll start with an easy one. What's your name?"

Ichigo furrowed his brows in frustration. "Really? We're going to play games at a time like this?" He was silenced when he heard a whirling from behind him and ducked just in time to avoid having his head severed from his neck; a sword from somewhere behind him seemed to have taken offense to Ichigo not taking this activity seriously.

"This is not a game, partner. Each of these represents a zanpakuto who has become lost to its master. They take this activity very seriously. Now, what is your name?" Zangetsu ground out, his usual mania bridled by a harness of focused intensity.

"My name is Ichigo Kurosaki."

In response, a path of swords several yards deep evaporated before him, creating a path wide enough for Ichigo to walk through easily.

"Very good! That wasn't so hard, was it? Now we just continue this way until we get to the truth. Only then do you get your zanpakuto back," Zangetsu advised.

Ichigo blew a breath out his nostrils, ready to get on with it. "Alright, Zangetsu. Next question!"

"What is your favorite color?"

Ichigo couldn't help it. He glanced sideways at Zangetsu and raised an eyebrow in disbelief. This time he barely jumped backward in time to avoid being castrated by a sword that sprung up from underfoot.

"Ah, um, blue?" Ichigo pleaded internally that he was correct, as he stood poised for another attack that didn't come. However, no further path opened to him.

"Seems like it's only a partial answer, partner. Better be more specific." Zangetsu scolded patronizingly.

"Uh, midnight blue." Ichigo said hopefully. A moment later, another path, this time leading slightly to the right, revealed itself.

"Well done, partner! Let's keep going!"

They continued this way, Zangetsu asking a string of inane questions, including, "what do you like to eat on a rainy Tuesday?" (curry) and "which English word is the hardest for you to pronounce?" (squirrel). As the day wore on and Ichigo began to lose patience there were more and more close calls with zanpakutos that did not take kindly to Ichigo's lack of sincerity.

Zangetsu finally told Ichigo that he was done for the day after a close brush with death that had come from his inability to admit which sister he loved more; finally confessing that it was Yuzu by a hairswidth.

"We start again tomorrow, and bear in mind that this will be quicker if you stop lying to yourself," Zangetsu said, his voice fading out as Ichigo was sucked back into consciousness.

"So, how was it?" Urahara asked, looking up to Ichigo from his paperwork. He had brought a portable desk down to the training ground after Ichigo's training started becoming more of a babysitting gig.

"Trippy," Ichigo answered as he rubbed his temples, more confused than ever.

xXxXxXx

Orihime was uncharacteristically quiet during their walk toward Urahara Shoten, and Ulquiorra found himself increasingly bothered by it. As they stood at an intersection waiting for a walk light, he pulled out his phone to check the time; it was about quarter after six. He slipped his phone back into his pocket and the walk light illuminated. He began to cross, only to glance to his side and find Orihime not there. He quickly returned to the curb, where he found Orihime looking down the street perpendicular to their path, her mind a million miles away.

"Woman?"

No response.

"Orihime?"

"Huh?" she asked distractedly, still not looking toward him.

Carefully, Ulquiorra took her chin between two fingers and pulled her face toward him. He released it and asked, "What are you thinking about? You have been distracted since we left the hair salon."

Orihime shook her head, "Sorry, Ulquiorra, I don't mean to be, it's just something Hikaru-chan said as we were leaving."

"And what was that?" Ulquiorra asked, worried that Hikaru may have warned Orihime against him based on her reaction to his 'security officer' job.

"She told me if you were still single in a month you were hers."

"Come again?"

"She said, and I quote, 'If he is still single in a month, he's mine.'," Orihime repeated, using her most growly voice at the end.

Ulquiorra straightened up and looked to the side briefly before looking back to Orihime with a raised brow. "Are you sure?"

Orihime nodded seriously. Then, in her silence, she allowed her stomach to change the subject as it growled angrily.

Ulquiorra grew a teeth-baring grin, and despite his best efforts to control himself, he began to laugh at her. Before long the laughter became uncontrollable, and as if taking a page out of Orihime's book, he grasped his belly with one hand and the traffic pole with the other as he began wheezing a breath here and there between snickering fits. "Me… that imposter octava… and your face… and growwwwl…" he eked out the words as he tried to catch his breath. When he finally got control of himself, he stood back and faced Orihime, who looked in equal parts amused, offended, and shocked by his behavior.

Ulquiorra pursed his lips together, surprised at himself. He cleared his throat, and in a much more dignified manner, said, "My apologies, woman. The hair stylist is delusional."

"Hey, you could do a lot worse than Hikaru-chan, Ulquiorra!" Orihime retorted, turning her chin up at him.

"I am sure you are correct. However, my affections are not so easily won," he said with warm, kind eyes, in an effort to soothe her. It had a different effect on Orihime though; her knees buckled slightly as she blushed and swooned internally at his gentle expression.

"Eh, heh heh, um, Ulquiorra?" she asked awkwardly.

"Yes, woman?" he replied slowly in honeyed tones, still giving her the warm fuzzies at the soft set of his eyes.

Orihime's stomach growled in response. "Do you mind if we put off training for today and get some food? There's a place right down this road…" she trailed off as she looked back to where she had been staring before the conversation started.

Ulquiorra grinned brightly and nodded once. "Lead the way."

xXxXxXx

A week later (February 12th)

Orihime and Ulquiorra's impromptu dinner date was pleasant but unremarkable. Orihime had been ravenous and Ulquiorra was amused by her appetite, and insisted on paying for both of them in return for Orihime's assistance at the hair salon.

Their training session the following Saturday morning had been productive; Ulquiorra had moved on from just tactics and started her working on manipulating her current techniques to use in different applications. Her shields could protect, as she knew, but Ulquiorra suspected that they could also be used to pick up and move items, including people. He hadn't told Orihime this though, having had her only try to conjure a shield above and below her and then moving it up and down. By the end of the training session, she had exhausted a great deal of reiatsu and needed a nap before she went home. Ururu had been home, and had been kind enough to set out a futon in the common tatami room for her to rest on.

Orihime had EIKEN English testing at school the following week and was too busy to speak much with Ulquiorra. However, she sent him a smattering of text messages throughout the week which kept him from tearing down the walls. Testing was finished today, however, and Ulquiorra left rather early, anxious to meet up with Orihime at the school and walk her back to the shoten for training. Handicrafts club had also been suspended for the week due to testing, so they planned to meet right after school got out at 3:00.

When he saw her recognize him, her face lighting up and her pace increasing to a jog toward him, his heart swelled with gratification. She seemed anxious to see him, so much so that she rocked on the balls of her feet to keep herself from falling into him when she stopped. He half-expected her to launch herself into his arms, and was slightly disappointed, although unsurprised, when she didn't. He couldn't stop himself from reaching out his hands to help steady her, however, and let them linger on her upper arms longer than necessary before releasing her and suggesting that they go.

Orihime blushed and beamed at him. She had missed him more than she expected since Saturday, and as they walked she kept catching herself closing the distance between them, allowing their arms or the backs of their hands to brush before taking a step back toward her half of the sidewalk. She cheerfully told him about her testing and how all her friends were doing until they walked through a row of shops. There, she began to get a bit agitated, her brows arching together in apparent despair, and a quiet, "Oh no," escaping her lips.

"What is the matter?" Ulquiorra asked, worried that it was something serious.

"I was focusing so much on my test that I forgot Valentine's Day," Orihime whined dejectedly.

"Valentine's Day?" he asked in response, the word sounding vaguely familiar from a television talk show.

"Yes. It's not until the 14th, but that's a Saturday so I'm sure all the girls will be bringing chocolate to school tomorrow. Would you mind if we stopped somewhere for me to get something?"

"I don't mind, but would you mind explaining this custom to me?"

Orihime smiled and nodded, and launched into an explanation about how girls give chocolate to boys on Valentine's Day and how boys return the favor a month later on White Day. She went on to explain the difference between obligation chocolate and sincere chocolate, and how lots of girls use the day to confess their feelings. She explained how today she was only buying obligation chocolate for the boys in her class, but that she wanted to choose something a bit nicer for Uryuu and Chad because they were such good friends.

Ulquiorra nodded as he listened to her, noticing the red and pink hearts decorating each of the shops. Some shops also displayed images of winged, fat, naked babies. An odd custom, Ulquiorra thought, although it did seem that it played well into the concept of the heart as a bond between comrades that Orihime had tried to explain to him at Las Noches, naked babies notwithstanding. He just never expected for the physical representation of such bond to be made of chocolate.

He had let his mind wander while Orihime looked intently into shop windows, so he was startled when she jumped and squeaked. In her excitement, she grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him into a shop. "Can you believe it? I can't believe it! They have Don Kanonji chocolates here!" she squealed as she squeezed Ulquiorra's arm and bounced up and down.

Ulquiorra's face flushed a bright shade of magenta as Orihime continued to squish his arm deeper between her breasts as she pointed at the items in question, waiting for him to respond. When he didn't make any other response besides his blushing after several more seconds, Orihime furrowed her brows and leaned even further into him, asking seriously, "Do you not know who Don Kanonji is?"

Ulquiorra was unable to speak, but shook his head.

Orihime released his arm and crossed hers in front of herself so that each of her palms faced opposite shoulders, and recited, "The spirits are always with you! Bo-ha-ha-ha!"

Ulquiorra was baffled by her words and disappointed at the loss of contact. His confusion won out in the end though, and he simply raised a perplexed brow at her and shook his head again.

"You need to come over and watch some shows with me sometime, Ulquiorra. I'll show you what's good on TV!" she lectured.

"Tell me the date and time and I will be there. I'll even bring cake," he replied, eager to take her up on the offer.

Orihime responded with a coy smile. "So willing? Most people fear my choice in entertainment. You, my good sir, are indeed brave," she teased, elbowing him in the ribs softly for emphasis. Before he realized it, Ulquiorra opened his fingers and allowed them to trail down the inside of Orihime's forearm toward her hand as she took her elbow out of his side. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then fell in disappointment as he pulled his hand away at the last moment, right as he made contact with the skin of her wrist, leaving her wondering if it was on purpose or not.

She was sure of one thing, though: she wanted him to hold her hand. That he might not want to do it left her feeling very troubled. She looked down, brought her hand to the back of her neck and scratched it as her cheeks dusted pink and she pouted slightly as she thought about the possibility.

Ulquiorra was perceptive enough to recognize that somehow things had become awkward. He cleared his throat and looked resolutely at the display of Don Kanonji chocolate and said, "How many of these must you purchase? They are not inexpensive."

Orihime shook her head out of her funk and concentrated on the display as well. "Hmm, let's see. Well, There's Asano-kun, Kojima-kun, Momohara-kun, and of course Ishida-kun and Sado-kun. Kurosaki-kun is gone so I don't need to get him anything. I want to get Ishida-kun and Sado-kun this slightly bigger box with the picture of Don Kanonji's face. I can get the smaller boxes for the others.

Ulquiorra quickly calculated the cost of the items and frowned. He knew from Urahara that Orihime lived on meager funds, and buying these gifts for her classmates would likely mean she would skip a meal or two this week. Orihime appeared to still be considering her options, and while she was distracted, Ulquiorra quickly picked up the items she had been considering, and without a word, took them to the checkout counter, leaving Orihime behind.

When she finally realized he was gone, she whipped her head from side to side, only to see him walking back toward her from the cashier, carrying a red paper bag with the name of the shop emblazoned on the side. "You bought something, Ulquiorra?" she asked, surprised.

"No. You did. Let's go, it's getting late."

"Oh, sorry, I guess I was being pretty indecisive. So what was that, 5,200 yen? Oh, did the price already include the tax?" She looked into her purse and saw that she only had 4,000 yen and her face dropped.

Ulquiorra saw her downturned face turn red, and he could guess why. Before she had to face him embarrassed, he took action. "Come along, woman," he said matter-of-factly, reaching for her hand and pulling her out of her spot.

"Wait, Ulquiorra, the money –"

"We have training scheduled on Valentine's Day. I am merely ensuring that you will have adequate funds to buy me the most spectacular Don Kanonji obligation chocolate to be found in Karakura. I won't abide the small box, woman," he teased, chancing a glance back to her and their joined hands, before adding gently, "besides, I am in your eternal debt. You taught me about the heart. The least I can do is help you teach others." He was rewarded with a tiny smile and radiantly blushing cheeks as a suddenly shy Orihime looked sideways and nodded.

xXxXx

Saturday, February 14th

Ichigo closed his eyes in frustration; trying to keep his temper in check was proving to be the most challenging part of this exercise. He had been answering Zangetsu's questions every day for up to fifteen hours a day, and the field of swords before him still stretched on past the horizon. The task had grown increasingly difficult as Ichigo was forced to consider every aspect of his life and tried to extract the truth from each angle. Zangetsu had continued to throw in an easy question from time to time, such as what was his biggest regret, to which he easily answered the death of his mother, and who was his favorite author, which was obviously Shakespeare.

However, Zangetsu had warned him that starting today, the questions would get tougher, and he hadn't lied. Ichigo was being forced to face some of his darkest thoughts and was revealing things about himself that he had buried or denied until now; things that were dirty and wrong. Things that made him feel sick to his stomach. Things like admitting that he would have gladly had unprotected sex with Orihime in the cabin last summer if Rukia hadn't interrupted, regardless of how it would affect her. Things like how if he was honest with himself, he still regretted not doing it. Things like admitting that when he was younger, he masturbated to a fantasy of a sparring session with Tatsuki that took a turn for the sexy. Things like if he had to choose between the two, he would kill Mizuiro instead of Keigo.

If Ichigo found encouragement in anything, it was that Zangetsu's line of questioning was beginning to become more focused, and Ichigo felt like there was some kind of pattern he wasn't able to discern; like Zangetsu had some kind of goal in mind. On top of that, the paths carved out by each answer were much wider than their predecessors. Ichigo's motivation to complete the task became evident as both he and Zangetsu renewed their focus.

"Now this one isn't going to be as easy as before, partner, and I want you to think hard before you answer. Why did you go to Hueco Mundo?"

Ichigo was about to answer that it was to save Orihime, of course, but he paused, taking Zangetsu's warning to think first under advisement. Ichigo tipped his chin down, bringing a crooked finger to his mouth as he frowned in thought. He stayed that way for a long time.

After about five minutes, Zangetsu interrupted, "I'll give you a hint: it's not what you are thinking, or what you were thinking."

"A compulsion…" Ichigo thought out loud, and before he even looked up, a large swath of swords evaporated before him.

"I didn't think you'd get it that fast, partner. I'm impressed," Zangetsu said, bringing Ichigo's attention to the present. "So, you felt a compulsion to go to Hueco Mundo. And you just went with it. And you used Queen as your excuse-"

"Inoue was not just an excuse. I cared about her wellbeing, and I never believed she was a traitor!" Ichigo argued, and another swath of swords evaporated.

"Well, you're getting ahead of me now, partner. I know what your truth is; you don't have to argue about it with me. As I was saying, Queen was your excuse to everyone else to go; you believed in her and they believed in you when you said it. However, something else was calling to you; beckoning you to go into the world of hollows. What was that?"

"My own hollow?" Ichigo stood on alert, worried he would receive punishment if his answer was not technically correct, but nothing happened.

"Close. Not wrong, but not quite right. Guess again," Zangetsu prodded.

"The guy upstairs?" Ichigo asked, not entirely sure that was the right answer but he had a strong hunch that it was, and immediately thousands of swords evaporated, leaving him in a vast, empty space, lined with swords at a great distance.

Zangetsu began to clap. "Bing bing bing bing bing! Tell him what he's won, Johnny! That's right, partner, you get the rest of the day off! You'll meet me over there tomorrow!" Zangetsu's voice began to sound muffled as he pointed to the swords in the distance.

"Wait! Zangetsu! What does that mean?" Ichigo shouted, only to see Urahara hovering over him after he blinked.

"Hello, Kurosaki-san. What does what mean?" the shopkeeper asked with a concerned undertone in his voice, then looked at his pocket watch.

"If I knew, I'd tell you, but apparently I had some kind of breakthrough; Zangetsu gave me the rest of the day off."

"Just as well, Kurosaki-san. I need to get back to the World of the Living and check on some things. It's still before noon; I can get there, do what I need to do and return before tomorrow morning. Yoruichi-san can keep you company until then," Urahara said as he stood and stretched. "In the meantime, it's been awhile since you had a break; I could request some company for you."

"I'm actually not in the mood to see anyone. Yoruichi is fine, but I just need to decompress."

"Suit yourself, Kurosaki-san. See you tomorrow."

"Yeah, see you."

xXxXx

As had become their habit on Saturday mornings, Ulquiorra arrived at Orihime's apartment at the precise time she would have left to meet him at the Shoten. For a moment after she heard the knock at her door, she wondered to herself whether they had arranged for him to pick her up or if he had decided to do it on his own, but quickly realized that at this point it didn't need to be explicitly set up anymore; they had an informal arrangement.

The idea that they had a tacit agreement curled the right side of her mouth up into an impish little smile. She opened the door still wearing the expression.

"Is there some kind of conspiracy afoot, woman?" Ulquiorra said with a suspicious half-smile of his own as he came into the genkan and closed the door behind him.

"Maybe, maybe not… that's for me to know and for you-" Orihime abruptly stopped when Ulquiorra brought a thumb to her lips, pressing gently for a lingering moment and then pulling away, leaving her speechless.

"Is this what I think it is? Have you been unable to resist the temptation of Don Kanonji obligation chocolate? Is this the final remnant of what was once destined for my palate?" he teased dramatically, revealing the chocolate now on his thumb. He narrowed his eyes at her and continued in a more resigned voice, "You leave me but one choice, woman," and a warm pink blossomed across Orihime's cheeks as he opened his mouth and slowly dragged the very thumb that had just caressed her lips across his tongue, his eyes never leaving hers.

Orihime's gaze slipped to his mouth and without thinking, she sighed audibly, the primitive part of her brain awoken by his sensual display. Her heart beat harder and her belly grew hot when he closed his eyes momentarily and hummed in approval. It took her much longer than necessary to look away from his mouth, and when she finally did, she spoke in a thick, husky voice she didn't recognize, "Would you come in for a moment, Ulquiorra?"

Ulquiorra simply nodded and started to untie his shoes, hanging his coat on the rack and following Orihime to her sofa. Orihime cleared her throat and asked him to wait a minute, disappearing into the bathroom.

She braced both hands against the sink and looked at her face in the mirror, shocked at what she saw. Her complexion was rosy, her eyes were dark and glassy, and she could not stop her breaths from heaving. Memories from her erotic dream attempted to creep into her thoughts and she fought them down only with the seductive vision of Ulquiorra licking his thumb. Orihime shook her head and slapped her cheeks. Clearly being alone with her thoughts was not helping, so she opened the door and went to the kitchen.

She had not bought Ulquiorra any obligation chocolate for Valentine's Day. Despite not having established a romantic relationship, she felt that their bond definitely fit the criteria that defined a relationship as special: he was her trainer, her friend, her supporter, her protector, and they had known each other across lifetimes. If any relationship deserved sincere chocolate, theirs did, she thought. She had spent the previous evening making him heart-shaped chocolate-covered cake bites, and had just tested one for taste as he had knocked on the door. They were a bit conventional for her tastes, but not too dull; she had remembered that he liked tiramisu and had added a coffee liqueur flavoring to the cake to mimic the espresso and rum flavors of the original.

She quickly took the remaining sweets out of the refrigerator and put them into a cute pink heart-shaped box and tied it with a red ribbon. She quickly made sure there were no chocolate smudges left on her hands or face and turned to the living room, hiding the box behind her back as she took a seat on the sofa next to him.

"Happy Valentine's Day, Ulquiorra!" she announced with a cheesy grin, producing the box from behind her back and thrusting it toward his hands.

Ulquiorra chuckled and took the box. As he looked down, his expression dropped momentarily, then became hopeful as he brought his eyes back to Orihime's. "This is not Don Kanonji chocolate," he said softly.

Orihime smiled and shook her head. "No, it's not. I didn't think obligation chocolate was appropriate. You've done so much for me and we've become, um, very good friends, so I wanted to make you sincere chocolate. Open it and try one!"

His chest swelled with happiness and he smiled at her before he opened the box, and was about to put one of the sweets into his mouth when he paused, asking, "I guess you've already tried it? I ask only because if it is really delicious I have no intention of sharing."

Orihime giggled and replied, "You guess right. Now try it!" She watched with innocent excitement this time as he brought the treat to his lips and put the whole thing in his mouth.

He chewed expressionlessly for a moment and then closed his eyes and the bliss-filled expression he had worn after the scalp massage at the hair salon revisited his features. He slumped back onto the sofa and swallowed, opening his eyes halfway and sliding them toward Orihime before closing them again, smiling as he whispered, "Perfection."

The thing about homemade chocolate is that it has a very low melt-point, and has a tendency to rub off easily on places like mouths and fingers. Ulquiorra was unaware of this, and in his post-cakebite reverie he naively brought his chocolate-coated thumb and index finger down toward his pant leg. Orihime watched and overreacted, lurching forward and stealing his hand away from his leg with both of her hands in order to protect his jeans.

Ulquiorra had managed to resist her pulling enough to not hurt her, but in her haste, she overcompensated and poked herself in the face with his chocolate-covered digits, transferring half of the smudges to her nose and the corner of her mouth. He curled his three clean fingers under her chin to steady them both, and didn't remove his hand from her face as Orihime said, "Oops, went a little overboard, but your jeans are safe!"

"My savior," Ulquiorra said softly, his eyes darkening and his complexion taking on a pinkish hue. He paused for a brief moment, considering all the ways that his statement was true and studying the new chocolate marks on her face, before bringing his eyes to hers and saying, "I hate to waste it..." He gulped before continuing just above a whisper, "Can I? I just want to try something…"

Orihime's blood was racing as he slowly leaned toward her, still cradling her chin. She could barely breathe, and when he asked that vague question, all she could do was muster was a very breathy, "Yes."

He gently wiped the chocolate on his thumb off on the corner of her mouth, immediately bringing his face to the spot and licking it clean. Before retreating, he took a short gasp on her skin, stealing her breath away. He pulled back just inches, wiped the other mark on her nose off with his dirty index finger and transferred the chocolate to her plump lower lip. He took a moment to observe her heated expression and allow her hot, shallow breaths to wash over his face before bringing his lips to hers with impossibly light pressure. When she didn't retreat, they both took the opportunity to memorize the soft warmth of the other's lips, before Ulquiorra's tongue came out again, tracing the surface of her lower lip and guiding it into his mouth gently, before delicately sucking the chocolate off.

Orihime whimpered, overwhelmed by the sensation of his silky tongue and supple lips against hers and his scent, which was a clean mix of rain-scented shampoo and something deeper and undeniably Ulquiorra. Without thinking, she closed her eyes and pushed into the kiss.

Ulquiorra was completely stunned by her surrender. A low, short moan escaped his nostrils before it caught in his throat, and the hand that had been cupping her chin reached to the back of her neck, its fingers delving into her satin hair.

Orihime opened her mouth in a breathy invitation, and despite his inexperience, Ulquiorra's body knew what to do. He released her lower lip and tilted his head slightly, panting into her mouth three times as he fumbled to set down the box of chocolates still in his hand. After depositing the gift on the table, he brought the hand up to thread into the hair above her ear, and after pulling back once more to look into her heavily-lidded eyes to make sure this was all real, he closed the distance and brought his hungry lips to hers, his tongue gliding into her welcoming mouth to move against her own in a dewy slither. She tasted as he expected. She tasted like home.

Orihime never anticipated the way she felt when his lips first touched hers. Of course there was underlying lust on her part, she was prepared for that after the dream she had. What she hadn't expected was the heart wrenching poignancy. Her arms gathered around his neck and held him close in an effort to soothe both of their souls as their kiss connected them in a steaming, undulating dance of lips and tongue.

Orihime was not alone in feeling overpowered by emotion. Ulquiorra suspected it before, but he was sure of it now: he could not live without this woman.

They finally broke their kiss for the need to breathe, their mouths still connected by a glistening thread, and still close enough to steal each other's breath. Orihime, still feeling the heaviness of the emotion between them, could not bear the separation for long and pressed her lips back to his briefly. Ulquiorra, likewise, placed another desperate, loosely-closed-mouth kiss on hers. They continued to peck at each other's swollen lips gently, he cupping her face in both hands and riding out the powerful feelings that were consuming them both as best as he could, until finally, feeling weakened by it all, he rested his forehead against hers and closed his eyes, content to just listen to her breathe.

Orihime's arms slowly loosened their grip from his neck and retreated until her palms rested lightly on his shoulders, and after taking a deep breath, pulled her forehead away from Ulquiorra's and looked at him. He slowly returned her gaze, providing her with an expression of pure adoration, his eyelids still heavy and his breathing still unsteady.

Suddenly, reality came crashing back in on her and her eyes widened slightly. She had just kissed Ulquiorra Cifer! They were sitting here together alone in her apartment, she had given him sincere chocolate and then they made out! 'Now what happens!?' She was panicking and awkward as she slowly slid away from him on the sofa, her face beet red. She wanted more, but she was afraid. "Um, Ulquiorra? I think we should get going," she suggested softly.

Ulquiorra stared at her dumbly for a moment, then looked down into his lap, finally bringing his eyes to the box of chocolate still on the table. "Thank you for the gift, woman," he said in a flat voice not much greater than a breath, before picking it up, standing, and making his way toward the door without looking back at her.

Her heart lurched. His body language was off. Then the realization hit her: he was interpreting the abrupt change in atmosphere as her rejecting him. She wasn't sure how she felt, but she knew without a doubt that she didn't regret kissing him. "Ulquiorra, wait!" she cried out, lunging for him as he began to pull the door open.

He stopped and looked at her, and she nearly sobbed. They were not teal, but now there were real tear tracks marring his cheeks.

"No!" was all she managed to say before she launched herself into his chest and wrapped her arms around his waist, planting a firm kiss under his jaw. His rigid posture relaxed, and he brought his empty hand to the small of her back and took a shaky breath. "I don't know what this means, but I don't want you to leave me," she said in a small voice.

Ulquiorra blinked the tears out of his eyes as he looked down at her and kissed the top of her head, replying in a hoarse voice, "Never."


Thanks for reading and sorry for the delay! I really REALLY wanted this chapter to be perfect! Please let me know what you think! Love JK

Chapter Text

Chapter 37: Truth Be Told Part 2

After their emotional first kiss at Orihime's apartment, Ulquiorra walked hand in hand with Orihime back to the shoten. His mind was in turmoil; how was he going to train her when he was completely unwilling to let go of her hand? This was not hyperbole; the thought of releasing it physically sickened him. He wanted nothing more than to go back to her apartment and hold her until he died. He did not know what to call these new, intense feelings, but although they unnerved him, he accepted them wholeheartedly. This was his life now.

As they walked, he would, from time to time, look over to her and a small smile would grow on his face. This woman, the one beside him, had not rejected him. She had returned his kiss, and she had saved him from despair. He was aware that things between them were unsettled, but for now, those three facts remained. He couldn't articulate how that made him feel, but he didn't care to anyway. He only cared about being here with her now, and feeling her small hand in his, and knowing that for the next several hours, he would have her to himself.

Orihime was slightly more troubled, and knew she would need time alone to sort out her emotions. She knew one thing for sure, though, and that was that the kiss that they had shared was loaded with much more significance than she had expected. The usual ingredients for a kiss had been there, for sure - attraction, curiosity, fondness, lust; these elements were all present – but there was something there that was much more powerful; something she had never experienced with Ichigo. It had been life-changing, almost holy, in its reverence. It frightened her, because as she looked up into Ulquiorra's adoring face as he walked her to the shoten, she knew that she had the power to destroy him.

'Still,' she thought to herself, looking down at their joined hands, 'this feels right,' and a small smile graced her lips as they rounded a corner and the shoten came into view.

Once they got inside and down to the training grounds, Ulquiorra discovered that he hadn't thought about what they would do once they arrived, now that their circumstances were so irrevocably different. Usually, at this point he would get out of his gigai and they would start exercises, but it felt wrong this time. He had only let go of her hand long enough for her to climb down the ladder, and he was already feeling anxious. He decided that before any training could be done, they would have to redefine their goals for today's exercise. Certainly, he still wanted to help her gain self-esteem and improve her skills, but for the moment he was honestly overwhelmed by the constant need to touch her – 'That's it,' he realized. He just needed to kiss her again, and again, and again, until it didn't feel like the memory would fade away if he ever took a break. Feeling somewhat relieved at this discovery, he smiled and approached her from behind, threading his arms around her waist and burying his nose into the crook of her neck, breathing in her warm, apply scent, and placing a petal-soft kiss there. 'Ah, yes. This is it,' he thought to himself, finally feeling whole again.

Despite her concerns about their relationship, Orihime felt comfort in his gesture and leaned into his embrace, letting her head fall back onto his shoulder. Once again she marveled at the fact that it was Ulquiorra Cifer who was making her feel this way. 'And what way is that?' she wondered. She still wasn't sure, but at the moment it felt very warm and protected. She melted into him like it was the most natural thing in the world. There was no resistance from him, only acceptance. It was a very new experience for her, and she couldn't help but yield to it.

Ulquiorra noticed how her initial tension quickly faded away and smiled to himself, allowing his embrace to tighten for a moment before gently reorienting their bodies to face one another. He took another deep breath in through his nostrils as he cupped her cheek with his right hand, his long fingers grazing the sensitive skin under her ear. He felt a strong urge to declare something to her, but was unable to find the words. Instead, he touched the tip of his nose to hers, and after taking a long moment to let his viridian eyes absorb hers, he trailed the tip of his nose across the side of her nostril to her cheek until his lips found hers again. When they made contact, a shuddering hum escaped him and the hand still on her side gripped her more tightly.

Orihime's breath was stolen again and she didn't notice her inhibitions leaving her. She didn't think twice about threading her fingers into Ulquiorra's impossibly soft, thick hair and kneading the base of his skull. It never occurred to her how he might react when she opened her mouth in invitation toward him and allowed him to back her up against the wall without any resistance. She was lost in the deep desire to connect with him; to let him in. She didn't notice her reiatsu starting to expand and envelope them both in a warm honey glow as her back made contact with the wall and his tongue invaded her mouth.

Ulquiorra was suddenly feeling less than prudent. The effect of Orihime's unbridled reiatsu had a numbing effect on his rational mind and amplified his strongest feelings, namely, his growing need for her. When Orihime had invited his tongue into her mouth he did not waver, but plunged in with enthusiasm. The taste of her wet, soft tongue set his blood on fire, and he pressed his hard torso into her body in a crushing embrace, nearly crumbling at the sensation of her soft curves melting into the unyielding topography of his body while his tongue explored the ridges on the roof of her mouth. As he sucked Orihime's tongue into his own mouth, Orihime let loose a long, sensuous moan, and trailed her hands from his hair down to his shoulders, raking the path with her fingernails, pressing their bodies even closer.

All logical thought had left both of them. Orihime responded with an enthusiastic whine as Ulquiorra's left hand made its way down the side of her hip, and as it grazed the top of her thigh, she happily lifted it so it could rest in his palm easily. She raised up to her tiptoes on her other leg and tilted her hips forward. When she felt his hardness brush against her heat she threw her head back and gasped, and allowed her lust-filled gaze to meet Ulquiorra's dark, heated stare. His usually pale face was flushed with color and his eyes were glassy and fierce, but still held a universe of adoration for her. Orihime felt a twang in her heart and nearly sobbed, but stopped herself by crushing her lips back into his and ignoring the tears that were prickling her eyes and changing the flavor in her mouth. She began desperately rocking her hips toward him in an attempt to escape the thoughts that threatened to invade her mind. The more she focused on the physical sensation of being with him, the better she was able to shut out the crushing emotion that it was causing in her.

Ulquiorra had never anticipated the sensation of Orihime's contact and cried out, overwhelmed with the instinct to reciprocate. However, fear had made an appearance in the back of his mind momentarily, and he pulled away from her mouth to catch his breath.

Orihime was not fazed. Her reiatsu increased and she dove for his neck and latched onto his pulse point, suckling enough to make a small red mark. That was all it took to erase the tiny voice of reason that had tried to enter Ulquiorra's mind and he ground his painfully hard length against Orihime's core, causing them both to whine in agony.

Orihime's fingers quickly found their way underneath Ulquiorra's shirt to trace the tense muscles in his mid-back and scraped their way across the sides of his ribs as he licked a line from her clavicle up to her jaw, growling in appreciation at her sweetness. His right hand found the side of her clothed breast and began to sink his fingers into it when they heard a foreign sound.

"Ahem."

They nearly froze. If anything, Ulquiorra pushed into Orihime further in an attempt to hide her, but the damage was done. Anyone with an ounce of spiritual awareness could easily perceive the swirling, golden sphere enclosing them in chaotic energy and Orihime's leg wrapped around Ulquiorra's waist, her rear wedged between Ulquiorra's grip, the rock wall, and his rigidity.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. Where are your manners, Cifer-san? I do hope you at least offered Inoue-san a more comfortable seat. It's just hospitable," Urahara broke into a chuckle as he watched Orihime's reiatsu dissipate. He continued under his breath, "Poor girl, I believe that is the hardest seat in the house." He laughed out loud at himself as he turned his back to the now wide-eyed, pale-faced couple, to allowing them a moment to recombobulate.

Orihime lowered her leg and gently pushed Ulquiorra back a step, smoothing out her hair and adjusting her clothing. The dampness between her legs would soon become uncomfortable, she realized, and cringed. Then she looked at Ulquiorra, whose gazed was fixed somewhere about a mile away. Her eyes fell upon the angry red mark in the crook of his neck, and she realized there was no way it could be hidden by his recently cut hair. She cringed again, harder this time.

After holding his breath for what felt like an impossibly long time, Ulquiorra sighed loudly. His erection had disappeared quickly after Urahara had announced his presence but the ache in his groin continued. He finally refocused on present company when Orihime shifted and met his eyes for a moment before starting to walk quickly toward the ladder.

"Excuse me, I just have to, um, wash my hands," she said looking firmly at the ground as she sped toward the ladder.

"No hurry, Inoue-san. I need to have a word with Cifer-san," Urahara paused as Orihime afforded him a worried glance. "No need to worry, Inoue-san, I'm a romantic, and I've walked in on much worse, believe me," he added and smiled as her face bloomed red and she began hoisting herself up the ladder. "I'll be leaving again later today so don't try to escape without saying goodbye!" he added, turning his attention to Ulquiorra and waiting until Orihime had reached the top of the ladder and closed the door behind her before he spoke again.

"So, how long has this been going on?"

"This?"

"Your physical relationship with Inoue-san." Urahara was not one to mince words when he was on a tight time schedule.

"Since approximately 10:00 a.m."

"Today?"

"Yes."

A low whistle came from Urahara. "You don't waste any time, do you?" He didn't wait for a response. "Have you told her?"

"Told her what?"

"About the hogyoku."

Ulquiorra's shoulders dropped. He hadn't even considered how that inconvenient fact might be received, and he worried that it wouldn't be received well. "No, I haven't."

"As a friend, I advise you to tell her before things between you two get too serious."

Ulquiorra nodded somberly. "Do you think there is a chance she will accept me after she knows?"

Urahara smiled kindly, "It's up to her, Cifer-san, but I do know that Inoue-san is a very understanding person."

Ulquiorra appeared lost in thought after that, so Urahara decided to change the subject. "So what have you and Inoue-san been up to prior to today?"

"We've been training. That is the reason we are down here."

"Oh?"

"Yes. Orihime is improving her control and tactics quickly. She is quite talented."

"It would appear so," Ulquiorra said, eyeing Ulquiorra's hickey, to which Ulquiorra was too naïve to catch.

"Are you implying something?" he asked suspiciously.

"Oh, no, not me, Cifer-san. I would never." Urahara said, hiding his mouth behind his fan.

Ulquiorra was familiar enough with the shopkeeper to know there was something that was going over his head and glared at him until the door to the underground reopened and Orihime joined them again.

Orihime had done her best to dry herself and cool off in order to try acting normally with Urahara. "So, how is Kurosaki-kun's training going?" she asked cheerfully, not noticing Ulquiorra's narrowing eyes.

"Ah, I'm glad you asked Inoue-san. He seems to be close to regaining his zanpakuto. He's on track to return at the beginning of the new school year," Urahara replied, taking in Ulquiorra's tense reaction from beneath the brim of his hat.

Orihime's reaction was not what anyone expected, though. "Oh. I see. Good for him, right?" she replied halfheartedly. Then she chuckled and added with a bit more cheer, "It has been quite a long time since anyone has seen him. I'm sure his sisters are missing him. I'm glad he'll be back soon."

If Urahara wasn't mistaken, Ulquiorra quietly scoffed at that. "Well, I've got to get to my office and check in with Tessai and the kids. It was good seeing you two, and if you're not around by the time I have to leave, I'll be seeing you soon!"

"Goodbye, Urahara-san!" Orihime bade happily. Ulquiorra simply grunted in response.

After Urahara left, Orihime released a deep breath. "Phew! Do you think he knew what we were doing down here?" she asked with false innocence.

"Yes," Ulquiorra answered coldly, his green eyes boring into her unblinkingly.

"What's with you, now? Do you regret it now that we've been caught?" Orihime asked with a slight edge to her voice. She wasn't accustomed to this side of Ulquiorra's personality since her time in Hueco Mundo.

"No, but you may regret it soon. I have something I must tell you."

Something in the way he set it caused a chill to run up her spine and she took a small step back, bracing herself. "What is it?" she asked hesitantly.

"You know that Aizen is dead."

"Yes…"

"Do you know the cause of his death?"

"No," she replied as more of a question than an answer.

"The hogyoku consumed his reiryoku and left him a lifeless husk."

"Oh," she said with a look of repulsion. "That sounds terrible. But that means the hogyoku can be sealed away on its own now, right?"

"No, it cannot. After the hogyoku drained Aizen of his spirit energy it also escaped its own physical form and took a new vessel as pure spirit energy."

Orihime's eyes grew wide as she anticipated what he was going to say next. "You…"

"Yes."

Orihime turned to the side, unable to process this new information all at once.

"So you have the hogyoku inside of you? Like Aizen did?"

"No."

"Well, which is it, Ulquiorra?"

"It's not the same now. It's not a little sphere anymore; it has no physical form. And unlike with Aizen, it has not attempted to exert its own will on me. It doesn't speak to me. The souls that comprise it do not have their own voices. It has become one with me. Honestly, if anyone forced me to define what I am, the most accurate answer would be to say that I am the hogyoku, and the hogyoku is me. We are one and inseparable."

"That's like what Aizen said," Orihime responded, shaking her head.

"But he was wrong," Ulquiorra took a step toward her, desperate for her to understand the differences between his circumstances and those of Aizen.

"But its power…"

"Is my own. The way I was able to neutralize Kurosaki. The way I am able to be so specific, so controlled. The way I can imagine what exact power I wish to yield and have it immediately available to me. These were powers beyond my capability as a hollow. What I have displayed until now is not the limit to my power. I am not sure there is a limit."

"Your power? You mean the hogyoku's!" Orihime shouted, starting to become agitated.

Ulquiorra's worst fears appeared to be coming true. He lunged forward and grasped Orihime by the wrists, gently, but forcing her to look him in the eye. "No, mine. If the hogyoku should ever be separated from me, I believe I would die. Urahara-san agrees and believes that in the process, the hogyoku would also be destroyed. Can't you see? We have merged into one being."

"But why you?" Orihime asked, worry evident in her voice and in the tight knit of her brows.

"Do you remember the overwhelming force of my reiatsu on the dome of Las Noches?" Orihime nodded before he continued, "I retained it after my reincarnation. I believe Rukia Kuchiki confirmed it to you, and it was felt strongly throughout Soul Society on the day of my reincarnation. The hogyoku required a host with strong enough reiatsu to not be destroyed by it if it was not contained within a sphere. However, I believe that is only a partial explanation."

"What else?"

"I evolved over an unknown period of time from a mindless hollow to a Vasto Lorde. Although I could not consume souls as a Vasto Lorde and did not wish to as an Arrancar, I consumed thousands of souls as a simple hollow and a Gillian. The souls of those thousands of hollows were purified on my death. The hogyoku is comprised of the souls of ten-thousand shinigami, which I now carry, plus one confused, unclassifiable, plus," he paused, pointing to himself.

"I've spent much of this lifetime thinking about the reason I was chosen. I can only think that the souls that comprised the hogyoku wish to be purified, as my hollow soul was. After I was purified, the hogyoku recognized me." Orihime looked at him with a confused expression.

" It created me as an Arrancar, and I believe it recognized my reiatsu after I allowed it to flow unrestricted after my rebirth. It also was able to recognize that my reiatsu was powerful and stable enough for it to merge with my soul and not destroy me. In essence, the hogyoku wishes to purify the souls that comprise it."

"How?"

"I am no longer a hollow. I am not a shinigami. While merged with me, the shinigami souls that comprised the hogyoku will not be subjugated by a dominant shinigami soul as they were with Aizen, but exist in tandem with my plus soul, living in a state of dormancy unless I call upon them. It is rather like having a zanpakuto, but instead of one sword spirit, it is ten-thousand, all willing to do my bidding. In exchange, I believe that on my eventual death, those ten-thousand souls will be purified and be able to move into their next lives, free from the binds of the hogyoku."

"And what of your soul, Ulquiorra?" Orihime asked carefully.

"It's unclear, but I believe I would be born again in Soul Society with no memory of this life, as humans do."

Orihime's brows began to worry a bit at that thought.

Ulquiorra sensed her distress. "I will tell you something now in the strictest confidence," he began before stepping toward her again, placing his palms on her shoulders and lowering his voice to a near-whisper. "And I preface this confession with the disclaimer that this is only a thought that I cannot shake, untested and unproven, but I believe it strongly: If I wished, I could become unquestionably human. At the snap of my fingers, I could turn this gigai into a real human body, yet whether I would retain the ability to access the power of the hogyoku is questionable. I also don't think that it is necessary, given that Urahara-san has designed the gigai to mimic the true human experience, but lately, I have wondered whether the benefits of this arrangement outweigh the costs," he kissed her forehead briefly and pulled back again to look into her eyes. "However, I never want to find myself in a position where I am unable to protect you, especially from Kurosaki."

Orihime scoffed and looked downcast. "Isn't that why we're training me? So that I can protect myself?" Her voice sounded hurt.

Ulquiorra gathered her into an embrace and pressed his lips to her ear, before responding, "Of course. You know I have great faith in your abilities. However, if I have the opportunity and the means, I will always protect you. You should know this by now, woman," he said with a warmth to his voice that had been absent since beginning his admission about the hogyoku.

Orihime nodded and smiled. "I know, Ulquiorra. And I'm sorry if I worried you, and I can't promise that in the future it won't become an issue, but I know you, and if you say the hogyoku doesn't affect you the way it affected Aizen, I believe you. You've given me no reason to doubt you. Besides, Aizen stuck it in Rukia for who knows how long and it never took control of her!" she added with an encouraging grin.

Ulquiorra was moved by her capacity to accept him, and tears pricked the corners of his eyes for the second time that day. He smiled gratefully and dipped his head down to hers to capture her lips again but was met with her fingertips. His brows knit together in confusion as Orihime gently pushed his mouth away and said, "Now, there's something important I must tell you. I don't want you to get the wrong idea because I really, um, really enjoyed what we were doing before Urahara-san interrupted us, but I'm glad that he did. I thought hard about it while I was upstairs. I don't want to rush too fast into a physical relationship with you, Ulquiorra. With Kurosaki-kun, I let my hormones set the pace and we ended up hurting each other. I don't want to do that again. I don't want to hurt you, and I don't want you to hurt me."

"I would never hurt you, Orihime." Ulquiorra said with a fierce protectiveness to his voice and fire in his eyes.

Orihime blushed and tried not to swoon. "I know you wouldn't intentionally, but if I learned anything from my relationship with Kurosaki-kun it's that people with good intentions sometimes hurt each other anyway if they're not careful. I want to be careful this time. So, no more kissing today. And no more of whatever it was that we were doing before for a long while either. Got it?"

Ulquiorra bristled at her demands but took a deep breath and answered calmly, "As you wish."

Orihime rewarded him with a blinding grin. "Good. Now what did you have planned for today's training?"

xXxXx

February 15th, Soul Society

Urahara had woken up early that morning, anticipating that it would be a long day. Ichigo was similarly anxious and had woken up just after dawn. Urahara spent a few moments setting up some extra kido spells in the event something noteworthy were to happen later in the day. Both men were anticipating it.

Ichigo got into the meditation position he had taken each morning since his inner-world trial had begun and breathed deeply until he was back in the false Hueco Mundo desert, on the edge of the line of swords he had created the day before. Zangetsu appeared to have fallen asleep on the ground waiting for him close by. Ichigo approached carefully and nudged him in the shoulder with his foot.

"Well, good morning to you too, Sunshine. Let's say we pick up where we left off?" Ichigo nodded and Zangetsu pulled himself up and continued, "All right, where was I? Oh yeah, the upstairs neighbor and his connection to your trip to Hueco Mundo. To recap, you wanted to rescue the Queen but you felt a compulsion to go that went beyond that. Sound familiar?"

"Yes, get on with it!"

"Calm down, I'm getting there! My next question deals with the compulsion. Now, I understand that you're not great at putting feelings into words, so I'm gonna help you out. Don't say I never did'ya a favor, 'kay?"

Ichigo rolled his eyes and tapped his toes impatiently.

Zangetsu narrowed his eyes. "No gratitude, eh? Anyway, I'll ask you a question and you can choose between the answers that I'll supply. Here we go. Your honor was not what compelled you to go to Hueco Mundo. Nor was your desire to protect. Were you compelled by your own curiosity, or was it from a force bigger than you?"

"Bigger than me." Ichigo nodded eagerly as he answered and was rewarded as a third of the swords to his right disappeared.

"Very good. Next. What was that force? Was it God? Was it something unknown? Was it your hollow?"

Ichigo pursed his lips for a moment, unhappy with the question. "It was my hollow." A third of the swords to his left disappeared.

Zangetsu nodded in approval. "Next, we'll talk history a bit. Your mother and father, the circumstances under which they came together were unusual, don't ya think – wait, don't answer that. The short answer is yes. Your hollow would be a good source of information about that. Now, if you wanted to get that information, who do you think would be the guy to ask, me, or the guy upstairs?"

Ichigo was certain he was close to the truth now. He leveled a steely glare at Zangetsu and answered firmly, "The guy upstairs."

"You seem confident," Zangetsu smirked as all the swords to Ichigo's left disappeared. They now stood at the end of a long row of swords. "Now, that means that they guy upstairs is your hollow, not me. Then who am I?"

"You are my Zanpakuto," Ichigo answered impatiently. They had already discussed that.

"Correct. I didn't even give you the multiple choice options…" Zangetsu said as the line of swords shortened by half. "So the guy upstairs is your hollow, not me. He was always here, by the way, but he wasn't able to cause much of a ruckus before a certain event. Which event was it? Your entrance into Hueco Mundo, or your death?"

Ichigo's eyes widened in shock. Yes, he should have died in his fight against Ulquiorra on the dome of Las Noches, but he hadn't actually died. At least he didn't think so.

Zangetsu was impatient and interrupted Ichigo's thoughts. "Which was it, your entrance, or your death?"

"My death?" Ichigo answered it as a question, and a cold river or fear snaked its way down his spine as all but three swords disappeared.

"Yeah! Now he's gettin' somewhere!" Zangetsu shouted gleefully.

Ichigo's eyes watered and nostrils flared as he fought to keep tears from falling down his face. He had never felt so alone before, nor such a heavy sense of dread. Somehow, he knew that the worst was yet to come.

"We're so close now! Now we've established that you did, in fact die. Then how is it that you are alive? Was it because Queen called out to you? Was she able to reject your death? Or was it because your hollow wanted to live, and you just happen to be his vessel?"

Ichigo rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and sniffled, and his voice sounded tortured as he answered, "My hollow wanted to live."

"Righto!" Zangetsu cheered as another sword fell into oblivion. "Your hollow had always been weak, but had been growing weaker as your shinigami powers grew. When you entered his homeland, Hueco Mundo, he slowly grew more powerful. But there was something else there that allowed him to manifest and possess your dead body. Something restorative. What do you think that was? The hogyoku? Or Queen Bee's Shun Shun Rikka?"

Ichigo didn't even open his eyes as he answered, "Inoue's Shun Shun Rikka," voice dripping with shame. He was finally beginning to understand how he had been letting his hollow feed off of Orihime's power unchecked. The second to last sword fell.

"Good boy! Now, last but not least, who do you think started calling her 'Queen'? Me or Mr. Grumpy-pants upstairs?"

"Upstairs." The last sword fell. It was quiet. Ichigo opened his eyes and saw that Zangetsu was gone, but in his place was one last sword: his zanpakuto.

Ichigo rubbed the palms of his hands on his eyes before bringing them up to grasp painfully at the roots of his hair, pulling as he pitched his head back to shout a wail of regret into the black sky. He fell to his knees and choked on his tears, pounding curses into the ground, before roughly grabbing Zangetsu by the hilt and using it to steady himself up to his feet. He looked down at himself to see that he now wore a black shinigami robes. In his mind, he heard Zangetsu's voice tell him, "You were supposed to stay dead. The only reason you are alive is because of him. You have three choices now: fight him, submit to him, or die as you were meant to do. You know which one I'd recommend."

Ichigo hardened his expression as he watched the illusion of the Hueco Mundo landscape fade away to reveal a stormy version of his regular inner world. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his robes, nodded, and answered in a thick voice, "Fight."


Sorry for the delay, needed inspiration.  xoxo!

Chapter Text

 

Ichigo braced himself.  It was quiet as he took in the sideways landscape of his inner world.  The skies were dark with static storm clouds but no rain fell; no lightning flashed.  It seemed that the entire world was waiting in dread, and his skin was crawling with it.

He told himself to be steady and took a deep, centering breath.  He looked to his left and right, attempting to locate the monster.  “Where the hell is it?” he asked himself a minute later, easing his grip on Zangetsu and letting the muscles in his shoulders gradually release their vice-like tension.  He began wondering what he was so worried about until he whirled around to face an earsplitting roar, reflexively dropping into a defensive position.  A shockwave of reiatsu threw him off of his feet.  He rolled sideways and sprung up to behold a terrible vision: a hollow, a head and a half taller than himself, with long, lean, animalistic legs and a thick neck and shoulders emphasized by three plates of obsidian armor.  The armor covered it perfectly from its neck down to its cloven feet but for the dinner-plate sized hole in the center of its chest, which appeared to be filled in with some kind of whiteish connective tissue.  It was missing one arm at the shoulder, and the other was nothing but a blade after the elbow.

The hollow roared once more, and Ichigo gasped as he focused his horror on its bleached bone-mask of a face; a monstrous, noseless skull with two identical rows of spade-shaped teeth and wide slits for eyes, from which only a glint of light reflected. Long white hair flowed down the hollow’s back from the base of its black bull-horned helmet.

He shuddered, holding the hilt of his zanpakuto for reassurance as the hollow again released its oppressive reiatsu with a howl.  He was tossed backward, and didn’t have time to dodge as the hollow streaked toward him, jaw retracted, prepared to bite.  He swiped Zangetsu to the side of the hollow’s mask and both were sent hurtling in opposite directions. 

The hollow found traction and turned, hissing before kicking off the ground in a blur back toward him.

 “Bankai!”

He heard a soft grumble from somewhere in the recesses of his mind, “Finally”.

“Getsuga Tensho!” he wailed and slashed at the hollow.  The hollow deflected the attack with its sword arm while charging a glowing red cero between its horns. 

He noticed too late and was struck in the shoulder.  His body was propelled into the side of one of the surrounding skyscrapers.  He coughed and sputtered, looking to see that he was not substantially damaged.  He rose to a crouch and brought a hand to his face, intent to pull down his own mask.

Sorry partner,” Zangetsu’s distorted voice floated through his consciousness.  It was only after he spoke that Ichigo noticed nothing was happening under his palm. 

“What?!” Panic was quickly rising in him.  He knew that without his mask, the battle was already lost.

The mask – that was a gift from him, not me,” Zangetsu said, before adding reluctantly, “I kinda borrowed it from him too…

Ichigo shouted, “Don’t you think that information would have been useful to share before coming up here?”  He didn’t wait for a response before he desperately charged a spirit arrow and nocked it with the same hand that held his sword against a glowing bowstring.  “Getsuga Tensho!” he cried again, slashing his sword and releasing the arrow so both attacks struck their mark at once.

The hollow took the hit about two cars’ lengths away from him.  At the moment of impact, Ichigo lost his footing and was only able to watch the sky as it filled with violent aquamarine and black streaks of energy until his shoulder hit the ground behind him with a thud.  He scrambled back to his feet in time to see the hollow fall to its knees. 

Nice one, partner.  Now strike!”

He didn’t need to be told twice. 

Arrows rained down on the hollow’s still form, followed by a crescent of powerful black spirit energy.  The resulting dust settled quickly.  The hollow lay prone on the ground where it fell, but the tissue in its hollow hole was beginning to undulate and bubble out of its back.  Ichigo raised his sword over his head to cut the hollow’s mask, but paused when Zangetsu interrupted, “Wait a second, partner.  Can you hear it?”

He shook his head.  All he could hear coming from the hollow was soft gurgling and hissing.

I’ll try to interpret for you.  It’s not very eloquent.  It seems to want to make you a proposition.”

“A what?” Ichigo asked aloud, followed by a grunt of surprise as the hollow rose to its feet a swift motion.  He braced himself for attack.  The hollow clashed its sword-arm against his blade, but the power behind the blow was lacking, to Ichigo’s surprise. 

Zangetsu continued as Ichigo and the hollow exchanged diminished blows, “It says it wants what you want.”

“What the hell is it talking about?” he yelled as he parried another thrust, pressing his sword into the hollow’s blade until the hollow relented, spinning around and finding an opening.  It slashed at his back, missing by several inches.  A smirk crossed Ichigo’s face and he slashed back, landing a blow on the hollow’s armor with a clank.

“It’s got something to tell you,” Zangetsu interrupted as the hollow staggered back to square off against Ichigo and stilled. “You inherited this hollow from your mother, and it has been growing within you since you were born.  Until you lost your spiritual pressure, its own power was… quelled by yours.  As your power fell out of balance, its own grew.  When you died, it was strong enough to take possession of your body.  It was not strong enough to take the form you see now, but it was enough to reanimate your body after it heard Queen calling for you.  It chose to save her because she is ideal.  It tried to destroy your rivals for the same reason.”

Ichigo’s hand shook as he drew his sword and pointed it at the hollow.  A bead of sweat rolled down his temple, but his blood felt cold.  He knew he would not like the answer to his next question.  “What does it want with Inoue, and what ‘rivals’?”

“Shit,” Zangetsu hissed as the hollow appeared before Ichigo in an instant, the tip of its blade resting against his cheekbone.  A slow, scraping, rattly growl escaped the hollow’s teeth, and it brought its face within inches of Ichigo’s before dragging the blade down the side of his face, carefully scratching, but not breaking, his skin.  When the blade ran out of surface, he hollow opened its mouth wide and screamed at Ichigo with enough force to blow his hair up off his face.  Ichigo stepped back, and Zangetsu found his voice again. “King, remember our exercise downstairs?  That was practice.  This is real.  Be careful with your questions, and be especially careful with your answers.  You can’t lie to it, so don’t pretend to be ignorant.  You’ll only piss it off.”

 “So it is talking about Ishida and Ulquiorra?”

The hollow snorted its affirmation.

“But-”

Zangetsu cut him off before he could argue, “Don’t even start!  We see what you see, even if you live in denial.  We’re aware that those two have designs on Queen, even back then.”

“Fine, whatever, but is this really all about Inoue?”

“It has seen her power.  It has felt it.  When she began restoring you, she was actually restoring it.  Any spiritual energy not used on healing your injuries went directly toward feeding it.”

‘It can’t be,’ Ichigo told himself.  His eyes began to water as a sharp pang of regret cut through his chest.  Still, more than anything, he feared the truth, and he desperately scoured his mind for an alternative; something that would shift the blame away from him.  “So it wants Inoue to keep me uninjured and to feed its power?”

The hollow rushed Ichigo again, this time releasing enough reiatsu to knock him down.  Ichigo sat, panting in terror, and looked up at the hollow as it screamed, the sound of metal scraping against metal layered over a bull’s roar.

“No, you fool!  It has chosen her as its next host!”

Ichigo’s eyes searched the space in front of him.  Although was unable to comprehend what he had heard, tears were beginning to streak down the side of his face. “Host?” his voice cracked as he asked the question.

Zangetsu didn’t respond.  The voice Ichigo heard in his head now was much more hollow; nothing more than a monotone, menacing whisper.  The hollow’s voice was crystal clear to him now as it answered, “Why do you think your instinct to mate with her is so strong?  Only one as powerful as she could bear my new vessel.”

“Vessel?”

“Yesss.” It hissed, and continued in a stilted cadence, “You are on the cusp of manhood.  You will soon reach your peak as a human, and then you will wither and die as a human.  I must be passed to a new vessel before your death or I shall perish.  Orihime Inoue is my chosen host to incubate a new, even more powerful vessel for me.”

“You mean,” he couldn’t even ask, his throat constricted, and he couldn’t breathe.  After a moment he choked and his eyes flooded until the tears began running down his cheeks and out his nose. 

“That’s right.  The child of the great Ichigo Kurosaki and Orihime Inoue, the woman with the power to defy god’s will.  No other vessel could be more suitable.”

“No.” Ichigo hiccupped, shaking his head in lament.  This wasn't right. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. He said it again, denial rising up from within him more strongly this time, “No!”

“Yesss,” the hollow hissed again. “You may resist now, but the wheel of fate is already in motion.  You cannot stop me.  I will have her and your child.”

“No!” Ichigo howled.  He sobbed and dropped Zangetsu, shoulders lurching as he buried his head in his hands.  “No.  No, no, no, no, no!” He sniffled and looked back at the hollow with wet, red eyes.  This was all its fault.  Slowly, hatred began to mingle with the sorrow they held.  His lower lip jutted out and his brows quivered.  Tears continued to leak out of the corners of his eyes, even as he tried to refocus.

Although the hollow could not change the expression on its face, its voice became slightly more alive and it almost sounded like it smiling as it said, “Deny it if you like.  You cannot stop me.  You do not have the resolve.  You are weak.  So easily you have already succumbed to the temptation of her flesh.  If not for your innocence getting in the way you would have taken her by now.   It is only a matter of time.  She herself has proven more than willing.”

That was it.  Something in Ichigo’s mind snapped when the hollow talked about Orihime that way.  His chest exploded with fire.  He snorted his tears away and took up Zangetsu, flashstepping toward the hollow and piercing it through the already distorted tissue filling its hollow hole, firing a silent getsuga tensho.  The hollow shrieked and doubled over.  The tissue in the hole began to expand out of its back, filling up like a balloon.  In pulses it grew larger and larger until it was the size of a truck, then exploded into ashes. The rest of the hollow’s body lost its shape and its armor fell in a heap on the ground, its hollow mask broken in two.  The only thing that remained where the hollow had stood was a wisp of white energy, which quickly snaked away into the distance. 

Still clutching Zangetsu in his trembling hands, Ichigo fell to the ground and closed his eyes, spent.

Zangetsu waited before speaking to him again at a subdued volume, “Congratulations, King.  Your shinigami power is restored.  You managed to completely subjugate White.  We can even use the mask again.”

Ichigo raised one corner of his mouth into something resembling a smile, though he thought he heard sorrow color Zangetsu’s voice.  It was appropriate, he thought.  He, too, felt grief, despite reaching his goal. “So I didn’t kill it, did I?”

“I don’t think you can, King,” Zangetsu paused, then in a much more characteristic, antagonizing tone, added, “Although somehow you managed to reduce him to nothing but a shadow.  He is as weak now as you were a year ago.”

“Thanks a bunch,” Ichigo managed a half-hearted chuckle, then sighed, his brows furrowing as he remembered why he was brought back from the dead.  “Do you really think everything between Inoue and me was because of that monster?”

“Tch,” Zangetsu’s voice scoffed, before continuing, voice dripping with derision, “You are so fuckin’ stupid.   care for her, and I am part of your soul, so of course you do, too.  I mean, it wasn’t wrong when it said there is no woman better suited to be its host, and it did its best to manipulate you into nearly sucking her reiatsu dry, but that’s all it was for White.  If White’d been calling the shots, you would’a knocked her up by now. That and powering itself up during her ‘restoration sessions’ with you were all it was interested in.  But that’s not you.  I mean, she’s hot as hell; of course your body was willing, hollow or no.  But King, you’re still just a kid; you aren’t ready to have one.  So to sum up, yeah, White had a limited influence, but the hand holding, the making out, and  vomit-inducing flirting you were doing with her: that was all you.”

Ichigo whined in a wistful way and as he dragged his calloused palm down his face fell to reveal a more somber expression, his trademark scowl worried.   “None of that matters anymore though, does it?  There is no way we can ever be together again.”

“Well I don’t know, King.  It could be possible, but if you ever got her pregnant,” Zangetsu paused.

Ichigo continued where he left off, “That will never happen.  I couldn’t do that to Inoue.  Unless I can find a way to kill White, I can never have kids.  Not just with Inoue, with anyone,” Ichigo’s voice fell quiet as he began to resign himself to a life of celibacy.

“Now, now King, you could probably have kids.  I mean, if the woman isn’t spiritually aware she wouldn’t be able to host the hollow, so it wouldn’t be passed on, right?”

“You don’t sound so sure about that.  But even if you’re right, then what, I live half of my life a lie?  Keep the fact that I’m a shinigami a secret from her?  What kind of life is that?  No. I will have to die while I’m still the hollow’s vessel – I’ll never be able to have children.  It’s the only way to end it.”

Zangetsu was silent, but a wave of sadness fell over Ichigo that didn’t seem to belong exclusively to him. Ichigo screwed his eyes shut further, breathing deeply.  He wanted to be brave.  He finally got his power back; the power to protect the people he cared about.  He resolved to do just that, no matter the personal cost.

Ichigo could feel his guts starting to grow hot and uncomfortable within him.  He knew he had to calm himself or fear and desperation would take over.  He concentrated on his breathing.  ‘In, 2, 3, 4, 5, out, 2, 3, 4, 5. In, 2, 3…’

“Kurosaki-san?”

Ichigo opened his eyes to a yellow sand landscape and closed them again.  He was emotionally and physically exhausted.  He threw his forearm over his eyes and replied, “Hey Hat-n-clogs.  I got my Zanpakuto back.”

Urahara’s voice was merry as he said, “Congratulations!  A celebration is in order then, before your triumphant return to the World of the Living!”

Ichigo kept his eyes covered and sighed heavily.  “Yeah, that’s great.”


 

Thank you for reading!  This chapter was a struggle and was subject to lots of revision.  Let me know what you think!  xoxoJKR

Chapter Text

Urahara only gave Ichigo a day and a half to recover his energy before organizing a small ‘secret squad’ party in Rukongai in the same bar as the first had been.   The squad consisted of the some of the same members as before; Shinji, Rangiku, Yoruichi, and of course, Renji and Rukia.

Ichigo was doing alright; making small talk and faking smiles, sipping on whatever he was offered.  None present were fooled by his act, but none tried to pry, either.  They offered their congratulations and heartfelt smiles, despite being able to sense his troubled aura.

A couple of hours into it, he decided he needed a break from the charade and broke away from the group.  He eventually made his way outside around the side of the pub, where he presently leaned against the side of the building and stared up into the night sky.  He sighed heavily, watching his breath crystalize and twist up into the heavens.  When he could no longer see it, he brought his gaze down to the ground, but found a pair of dark violet eyes blocking the view.

He squeaked and opened his eyes wide as he attempted to crawl backwards up the wall.  “Rukia!  What are you doing out here?” 

“I could ask you the same question,” she responded under suspicious brows.  He had been so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t sensed her approach, despite her making no attempt to mask her reiatsu.

He sighed again.  “It’s nothing to worry about, Rukia,” he said with a scowl.  He couldn’t look at her.

“Whatever it is, Ichigo, it’s not nothing.  I can tell that much.  You don’t have to tell me about it if you don’t want to, but I want you to know that if you need to say something to someone, I can be that someone.  You’ve known me a long time now.  You know you can trust me.”

He looked at her from under his worried brows, his lips a thin line.   “I know.”

“Well, if you’re not feeling like talking we can just sit out here,” Rukia said with a small smile, turning her back to the wall and sliding down the side, wrapping her arms around her bent legs.

Ichigo produced a wistful sigh and slid down the wall to sit beside her, bending the knee next to her and stretching his other leg out in front of him.  He tilted is head back to look at the sky again before beginning in a gentle, careful voice, “It’s a long story, Rukia, but the take-away is that my life can never be what I might have imagined.”

“How so?” she asked with concern in her voice and on her face.

Ichigo slid his eyes toward her without bringing his head down, and on seeing Rukia’s expression he allowed a lop-sided smile to tug at his lips, although his eyes remained sad. “Well, I found out that my hollow is not really my hollow. He just acts like one and borrows hollow powers, like I do, from my real hollow.”

“Real hollow?”

“Yeah.  There is an actual, real hollow living inside of me right now.  Like a parasite.  No, not like a parasite, like a virus.  And the thing about viruses is that before they kill you they need to be passed on to another victim.”

“I’m not sure I follow, Ichigo.”

“The hollow told me that I am its “vessel”, and that before me, my mother was its vessel.  It wants to be passed on to someone else in the same way.”  He dropped his chin to his chest and took a shaky breath before turning his face toward her, eyes full of resigned determination, and declaring, “I won’t let that happen, Rukia. I will die before I pass that hollow onto a child.”

“Oh no, Ichigo,” Rukia stopped.  She would lose her composure if she continued.  Her heart twisted in her small chest and her eyes stung, but she did not cry.  She pursed her lips and shook her head.  It wasn’t fair.

Ichigo looked back down at his feet and covered his eyes with his hands, pressing hard to keep himself from crying.  In a tight voice, he confessed to her, “You know, I never really ever thought about having kids. But now that I know I never can…”

He didn’t continue.  He didn’t have to.  She understood. She watched as his chest began to tremble.  She felt a stabbing sensation in her throat and one of the tears she had been withholding escaped.  She wiped it away quickly and rose to her knees, wrapping her tiny arms around his broad shoulders and bringing her cheek to rest against the top of his head.  She squeezed.  He didn’t resist. His breathing became more and more strangled, and soon he was sputtering and hiccupping.  After a moment he, too, wrapped his arms around her and held on, accepting her support as grief took him.

Rukia didn’t pull away when she saw Renji turn the corner and observe them for a moment.  Ichigo didn’t notice.  She gave Renji a heavy look, and he simply nodded and walked away. 

After a few more minutes, Ichigo calmed himself and released her.  She sat back on her heels, letting his shoulders go, but took his face into her hands and looked him in the eyes, her own shining with compassion, and said in a firm voice, “If there is any way around this, I will do everything I can to help you.  Urahara will do everything he can too.”

Ichigo wiped his eyes and smiled at her.  “Thank you, Rukia.  But the only way to make sure the hollow dies is for me to die while I’m still the vessel,” he paused as her face fell a bit, then grinned and stood, adding, “don’t worry though, I kicked its ass!  If it tries to come out again, I will do it again.  Right now it is almost powerless.  As long as I can keep it inside of me, everyone else is safe.”

Rukia sighed and stood as well.  “I just don’t want you to give up hope until you’ve exhausted all options, Ichigo.  But no matter what, I believe in you and I know you’ll do what’s right.”

Ichigo nodded and smiled at her gently.  “Thanks, Rukia.  Let’s go back.”

They ran into Renji as they came to the entrance of the pub.  “Hey, I was looking for you two,” Renji said as if he hadn’t seen them previously.

Rukia acted irritated.  “Renji!   We were looking for you!  Honestly, you are such a lug sometimes.  Go on ahead, Ichigo, I don’t think any of us will stay out much longer.  Shinji is going to take you back to the fifth division barracks tonight so when he is ready to go, the party’s over.  We’ll be right there.”

Ichigo cast a suspicious glance in her direction, then raised his brows and shook his head, deciding to just heed her directive.

After the door closed behind him, Renji put his arms around Rukia and pulled her into a brief hug before bending over to ask, “What was that all about before?”

Rukia sighed and looked up at him with sad eyes.  “All I can say is that his powers were returned at a very heavy cost.  Let’s go back,” she said, pecking him on the cheek discreetly before scurrying back inside.

Renji stood and smiled, watching her approach at the group like nothing was wrong.  If he was in her position, he didn’t think he would be able to carry on like she did, but he knew that she took protecting Ichigo seriously and he admired her strength in doing so.

xXx

As the party was breaking up an hour or so later, Renji brought up the rear with Ichigo.  He patted Ichigo on the back, and Ichigo looked at him in surprise, until Renji said, “You know, you can have faith in Rukia to keep your secret.  She won’t even tell me, though I wouldn’t be dumb enough to ask her to.  That being said, I can tell by the way both of you were acting tonight that you are carrying a heavy burden.  I want you to know that whatever it is, I’m always on your side, Ichigo.  If you need anything, I’ll support you.”

Ichigo nodded once, looked at the taller man with humble eyes, and said,   “Thank you, Renji.”

xXxXxXx

The next day found Ichigo woken up early by an unseated member of the fifth division.  He was fed and reclothed before being escorted to a meeting of the Gotei 13 captains in the main hall of the first division barracks. When he was shown in, Shinji already had the floor.

“As I was saying, Kurosaki Ichigo has been training with Urahara Kisuke in the World of the Living to regain the powers he lost during the winter war, and has been successful in his efforts.  I motion that he be reinstated as substitute shinigami for Karakura town.”

Ichigo perked up at this.  He had been training all this time just to manage his inner hollow, and now that it was at least temporarily defeated he felt rudderless.  He had not thought about going back to his shinigami duties in months, but now the idea filled him with hope.  This could be his purpose!  His eyes sparkled as he silently implored the other captains to second Shinji’s motion.

“I object,” all eyes snapped to Byakuya.

“On what grounds?” the captain commander inquired.

“Before the loss of his spiritual pressure, the ryoka’s powers were unstable.  I will not consent to his appointment as substitute shinigami until he is able to demonstrate that his power has stabilized.”

“Very well.  You will assist with this demonstration, Captain Kuchiki,” the old man ordered.  Anyone paying close attention would have noticed Byakuya balk slightly.  “Captain Kurotsuchi will monitor the ryoka’s reiatsu to ensure it remains within acceptable parameters.  How long will it take you to prepare your equipment?”

Mayuri’s eyes bulged in excitement; he had always wanted an opportunity to study Ichigo.  “I could have my laboratory prepare my equipment in as little as 48 hours.”  It was not enough time to prepare to his heart’s content, to be sure, but Mayuri didn’t want to push his luck.  48 hours should have been enough time to design and manufacture a spiritual tracking device that would be able to follow Ichigo into the World of the Living and be imperceptible to Kisuke Urahara.

“The demonstration will begin in one hour.  That is all,” the captain commander banged his staff to adjourn the meeting and immediately retreated into his private quarters.  The other captains were also wise enough to disperse before Mayuri had a temper tantrum.

xXx

Much of the rank and file of soul society came to witness the demonstration, which to the disappointment of many, didn’t take very long.  Byakuya was annoyed at having to do it and went straight to bankai in order to get Ichigo to pull out his mask, which he did without incident.  They fought for about eight minutes, and then the captain commander called for them to stop.  Much to Mayuri’s chagrin, Ichigo’s reiatsu was exceptionally stable, especially for him.  After reviewing the results, Yamamoto officially reinstated Ichigo as the Soul Society-sanctioned shinigami substitute in a lackluster decree, consisting of him raising a hand and making an informal announcement, then telling everyone else to get back to work.

Ichigo was escorted back to the sixth division by Renji and Byakuya to the senkaimon housed there.  It wasn’t inaccurate to say that Byakuya was in a rush to get him out of Soul Society, and when He, Renji, and an unseated member of the sixth division reached the end of the senkaimon there was no fanfare to send him off.  Renji said “see you later, Ichigo,” with a grin and ran back before Ichigo jumped out the other side.

He didn’t have very far to fall as he landed in the yellow sand of Urahara’s underground training facility.  Urahara was already waiting.

“Welcome back, Kurosaki-san.  I trust your journey was pleasant?” the shopkeeper asked from behind his fan.

“Yeah, it was real special,” he answered sarcastically, but then became serious and added, “I’ve been reinstated as shinigami substitute for Karakura.”

“Oh, Hirako-san was successful then, good,” Urahara snapped his fan shut, “I imagine now you are anxious to get back to our friends and family.  I could organize a welcome party?”

“No, thanks, Urahara.  I’d like to keep it quiet, my return that is.  I’ll let Ishida know that I’m back on hollow duty but I’ll see the others as it comes up.” He wiped the dust off himself and bowed to the older man.  “Thank you for all of your help.”

“Not at all, Kurosaki-san.  Give my regards to your family, will you?”

Ichigo nodded and started up the ladder.  He was anxious to get home and take a shower.  He was glad that as he walked through the shoten, he didn’t run into anyone.  His happiness was shortlived, however.  As he opened the door to the storefront he nearly collided with one of the last people he wanted to see.

Ulquiorra regarded Ichigo with cold eyes for a long moment.  “You’ve returned, Shinigami.”

Ichigo narrowed his eyes at Ulquiorra.  He didn’t expect a warm welcome from the former Espada but he certainly wasn’t anticipating the waves of hostility rippling his way.  “Yeah,” Ichigo began.

Ulquiorra stepped toward Ichigo in an obvious display of aggression.  “What is your intention, Kurosaki?”

Ichigo took a step backward and shook his head, pivoting away from the man, and said,  “I don’t need this right now.”

Faster than Ichigo was able to realize, Ulquiorra had moved to block his path.  “You will answer me.”

“Or what, Ulquiorra?”

Ulquiorra allowed his reiatsu to flare briefly before reining it back in.  Ichigo flinched, in spite of himself.  Despite his regained powers, he was still no match for the reincarnated anomaly standing before him.

Ulquiorra hadn’t had a plan to try to intimidate Ichigo, and he began to question his motives.  “I intend to ensure the woman’s safety,” Ulquiorra said mostly to himself, his confusion seeping into his tone.

Ichigo sneered.  He couldn’t help himself.  “Liar.  You’re afraid she’s going to see me and come running back,” both males’ reiatsu were flaring now.  “I know you think now you’re her little friend or whatever, but-“

“Ah, Cifer-san.  There you are.  I need you in my office, now,” Urahara interrupted in a jovial tone that was not reflected in his eyes.  Neither of the agitated males moved nor dialed down their spiritual pressure.  Urahara narrowed his eyes and flared his own reiatsu for a moment, breaking the spell the other two seemed to be under. 

Ulquiorra’s pulled back his reiatsu entirely, and Ichigo almost staggered at its absence.  “Watch yourself, Ichigo Kurosaki,” was all Ulquiorra said before turning and marching back inside.

Urahara approached Ichigo and put an arm over his shoulder.  “I know you are anxious to display your newly regained power, Kurosaki-san, but I must remind you not to provoke Cifer-san.  You caught him off-guard today, but he is usually rather placid.  However, neither you nor the rest of Karakura-town would live long enough to discover the extent of his power if you make him irrationally angry, so I strongly advise that you not try.”

“Tch, whatever Hat-n-clogs.  I’ll leave him be if he stays the hell away from me,” Ichigo said as he stalked away.

xXx

When Ichigo got home, he was grateful to find that he was the only one there.  He took a long shower and got into some fresh, human, clothes and then laid down and closed his eyes.  He was too overwhelmed to sleep but he tried for about an hour until he heard his sisters come home.  He sat up and picked up his phone off his bedside table to look at the time.  Much to his surprise, there was a message from Orihime.

February 19th, 3:32 p.m.

You’re back, Kurosaki-kun?  Are you alright?  I felt your reiatsu really strongly just now.  Does this mean you did it?  You have your shinigami powers back?

Ichigo tapped out a reply:

February 19th, 5:16 p.m.

Yeah, I’m back.  It’s good to hear from you, Inoue.  And yep, I’m alright and I have my powers back!

Her reply was immediate

February 19th, 5:17 p.m.

Oh, I’m so glad! (smiley)  Welcome home, Kurosaki-kun.

Ichigo smiled to himself and settled into his pillow to write a reply when he recalled the memory of what his hollow said to him about wanting her.  He reconsidered his response and wrote:

February 19th, 5:20 p.m.

Thanks, Inoue.  Well, I’m back on hollow duty, so I’ll be busy, but I’m sure I’ll see you around.  By the way, I ran into your ‘boyfriend’ at Urahara’s. 

His stomach clenched immediately after he sent it.  Why was he doing this?  He had to keep his distance from her but he didn’t have to be a dick about it.  Besides, he thought, it’s not like Ulquiorra was really her boyfriend.  He just had a crush on her or something.  His phone buzzed and he looked down at it:

February 19th, 5:22 p.m.

Oh, he said something to you about that?  I’m so sorry, Kurosaki-kun, I didn’t want you to find out that way…  I mean, we’re not officially a couple or anything, but I wanted to talk to you about it in person, not like this! (crying emoji)

Ichigo dropped his phone.

“What the FUCK!?!” he roared.

His sisters screamed downstairs.

“Shit!” he hissed, jumping off his bed and running down the steps.

He turned the corner into the kitchen to see Karin and Yuzu huddled in the corner, Karin brandishing a butcher knife toward him. 

“Karin, Yuzu, it’s just me.  I’m sorry I scared you.  I got home while everyone was out.”

Karin dropped the knife and stood in the kitchen with her jaw hanging open.  Yuzu burst into tears and ran into Ichigo’s arms.

“Welcome home, Onii-chan!” she sobbed, as Ichigo patted her head and looked over to Karin with apologetic eyes.  It was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 40:  Shots Fired

February 19th

Bang bang bang.

“Urahara-san!”

Bang bang bang bang bang bang bang.

“If you do not open this door in the next three seconds I will break it down!”

He raised his fist again, preparing to lower it back onto the door, when it flew open.

“What is the matter, Cifer-san? Urahara asked, exasperated. 

Ulquiorra staggered back half a step to avoid hitting the shopkeeper in the face, and stood before him in an obvious state of distress.  It took a moment for him to collect his thoughts and calm his breathing before he growled, “How could you just let that shinigami walk out of here!”

“What am I supposed to do, Cifer-san?  Keep him prisoner here?”

“Yes!” Ulquiorra shouted his answer with wide, imploring eyes and trembling hands.

Urahara rolled his eyes and sighed, making no attempt to disguise his irritation.  “What is this all about, Cifer-san?”

Ulquiorra was unable to control the volume of his voice, and didn’t care to try anyway.  “You cannot just let him walk out of here unsupervised!  He cannot be trusted!  What if he goes after Orihime?   I’m trapped in this gigai; I wouldn’t make it in time!”

Urahara narrowed his eyes at Ulquiorra and appraised him.  “What is it you are worried about, Cifer-san?  That he will attack her again?  Because I can assure you he has successfully subjugated his hollow.  It is no longer a threat.”

Ulquiorra brought his hands to his head and tugged at his hair, turning to the side and pacing back and forth, growling, “No longer a threat.  No longer a threat!?  How can you say that!?”  He turned back to face Urahara and threw his hands to his sides.  “Of course he is a threat!”

Urahara opened a drawer, took out a suppression necklace, and approached Ulquiorra carefully, trying not to spook him.  “There, there, Cifer-san, you must try to calm down, you risk damaging your gigai,” he said gently.  Ulquiorra stopped momentarily, bowing his head and allowing Urahara to slip the necklace over it.  He raised his head and looked at Urahara as he panted, trying to calm down.

“Now, why do you think he’s a threat when you know his hollow is controlled?”

“Whether or not his hollow is controlled is irrelevant!  He’s shown a pattern of disregard for the woman’s wellbeing.”

“But Cifer-san, Kurosaki and Inoue had a very nice relationship before the hollow began to gain control of Kurosaki’s mind.  Now that the hollow is not a problem, the two of them should be able to coexist without issue.”

“Of course it’s an issue!  Can’t you see?  They can’t be together!” Ulquiorra shouted again, stepping toward Urahara.

Urahara backed up and crossed his arms over his chest.  “Ah, I think I know what this is about.”

“Do you?” Ulquiorra asked without filtering the malice from his tone.

Urahara nodded and smiled.  “You’re in love with her.”

xXxXx

Ulquiorra spent the rest of the evening holed up in his room at Urahara’s insistence; his emotions were running too hot at the moment.  Love.  Yes, he had heard of it.  He had read up on it.  It had previously occurred to him that it might be an appropriate word to describe his attachment to the woman.  However, now that he risked losing her to Kurosaki, again, the once nebulous idea was in stark focus. 

Despite being more or less grounded, Ulquiorra was unable to sit idly by for long while his rival was out doing god-knows-what.  He picked up his phone to see that he already had a message from Orihime.

From:  Orihime Inoue

To: Ulquiorra Cifer

February 19th,  5:29 p.m.

What did you say to Kurosaki-kun?  He said he saw “my ‘boyfriend’” at Urahara’s.  What did you tell him about us?

Ulquiorra felt a stinging sensation zip through his chest and pressure inside his head.  Was she angry?  It seemed that way. Further, she had already spoken with the shinigami?  He had only been back a couple hours!  Anxiety started creeping its way up his body, starting with his toes.  He tried typing out a response, but his mind wouldn’t cooperate and he found himself unable to form any coherent thoughts.  He could not continue as he was feeling.  He closed the messaging app and called her.

Ring

Ring

He felt like he was going to be sick.

Ring

“Hello?”

Her voice was not angry.  Ulquiorra’s throat tightened but his body relaxed somewhat.  He tried to speak, but no sound came out.  He coughed and cleared his throat, finally able to say in a gravelly voice, “I received your text.”

“And?”

He was desperate to mend the perceived rift between them.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t say anything.  I only asked him what his intentions were, and warned him that I intended to ensure your safety.”  The words came out quickly, and her silence only prodded him onward.  “He called me your ‘little friend’.  I do not know what he meant by that.  Urahara-san interrupted and separated us right after that.”

Orihime sighed on the other side of the line.  “So you didn’t tell him about us?”

“No.”

She sighed again.  “I should have known,” she muttered.

“I’m sorry, woman.  I do not know what I did to trouble you-”

Orihime interrupted.  “Don’t worry about it, Ulquiorra, it’s not your fault.”

“What happened, then?” he asked, a tentative feeling of half dread, half relief seeping through his veins.  He could hear her breathe hard and then a muted thud, as if she had allowed herself to fall onto her bed.

“He called you my “boyfriend”, and I didn’t deny it.  I guess I kind of confirmed it, as far as he’s concerned.  Not that I think you’re my boyfriend,” she started to backpedal, embarrassed.  “I told him that we haven’t really decided anything but that I meant to tell him about us in person.  I didn’t want him to think…  I don’t know what I didn’t want him to think.  I guess I just wanted to be able to tell him in person.”

Ulquiorra didn’t know what to say.  He had a question though.  “What’s a boyfriend?”

Orihime squirmed in discomfort.  “Er, a boyfriend is a guy who is, um, well, when a guy and a girl like each other a lot and want to be together as a couple, then they talk about it and decide to be boyfriend and girlfriend?” she said with rising inflection.  “They agree that their relationship is special, and different to just a friendship.  It’s like Sado-kun and Tatsuki-chan.”

“So is it simply a matter of status and affiliation?  Like Espada and fraccion?”

“No, they also do things together that they don’t do with anyone else, um, romantic things.”

“Please clarify.”

Orihime wanted to crawl into a hole.  She covered her eyes in an effort to stave off the impending humiliation.   “Um, things like hold hands, and hug, and kiss.”

There was a brief pause.

“In that case I propose to be your boyfriend.”  He said it so intentionally.  It was a declaration.  Orihime could not breathe.  There was silence on the line until she finally managed a sharp inhalation.  He waited a beat more before adding, “Do you accept?”

Orihime felt torn.  Her first impulse was an enthusiastic ‘yes’, but something was holding her back.  “Um, I think, Ulquiorra, that it would be better if I didn’t answer right away.  I want to say yes, but I’m afraid that if I do we’ll end up rushing into something we’re not ready for.”

There was a long pause.  “It’s him, isn’t it? He said you would forsake me when you learned of his return,” Ulquiorra’s voice sounded hollow.

Orihime’s heart lurched in her chest.  It physically hurt her to hear him feeling so pained.  “I don’t want to be with him anymore, Ulquiorra.”

“Then say yes.”

“I can’t, not yet.”

Ulquiorra was beginning to feel desperate. “I need to see you,” he said in thickened voice.

“You'll see me on Saturday for training.  It’s only a day and a half away.”

“I need to see you now.”

“Why?”

“I miss you.”

Tears pricked her eyes and her heart began to soar.  “I miss you, too.”

Ulquiorra sighed, relieved to hear it.  “I will pick you up after school tomorrow.”

Orihime whined.  The more he offered the more she wanted to give in. “I wish you could, but I already made plans with Tatsuki to go home with her and eat dinner at her house.”

Ulquiorra released a long breath through his nostrils.  “Fine.  I will see you on Saturday,” he complained, before adding in an unusually gentle tone, “Good night, Orihime.”

It was all she could do not to squeal.  “Good night, Ulquiorra.”

xXxXx

February 21st

Orihime had allowed Ulquiorra a hug and a quick peck on the lips before they got started on her training.  His plan for that day was for her to continue practicing something they had started earlier in the week: levitating herself on her shield.  So far she had only lost concentration once, falling the 18 inches to the ground but landing on her feet.   She was currently working on increasing and decreasing altitude, and it was going well. 

“Woman, see if you can catch me,” Ulquiorra called out.  He stayed in his gigai, finding it easier to just stay in it if there was not a particular reason leave it.  Regardless, he was very fast and Orihime had a hard time controlling her shield, often not able to go fast enough, stop, or maneuver in time to keep up with his twists and turns.   They kept it up for another ten minutes or so when Ulquiorra called for a lunch break.

“So, is it enjoyable?” he asked her as she took the last bite of a cucumber and ham sandwich.

She looked at him with a puzzled expression but said nothing on account of her full mouth.

Ulquiorra chuckled.  “Riding on your shield.  Is it enjoyable?”

Orihime smiled through her bite and nodded enthusiastically.

“I would like to experience it.  Let’s see if you are strong enough to carry two,” he said, daring her.

Orihime wiped the corners of her mouth and stood, putting her hands on her hips.  “You act like it’s going to be a challenge.”  She laughed, adding, “Let’s go!”

Ulquiorra set their garbage aside as she conjured her shield and lowered it parallel to the ground. 

“Hop on,” she said and waited as he stepped onto it carefully, one foot at a time.

“This doesn’t hurt you at all, does it?” he asked, testing out the feel of the shield’s surface, shifting his weight from one foot to another.  It was warm and felt a bit like standing on the surface of spongey turf after a rain as his feet sunk into it slightly.

“No, I can’t really feel you on there, other than the weight of your spiritual pressure.  It’s lovely, by the way.”

Ulquiorra looked at her with a bemused expression.  “Lovely?”

Orihime nodded and smiled.  “Yes.  It has a particular quality.  It’s strong and, um, soothing.  It has a scent like, um, how do I describe it?”

“Rain?  Because that is just my shampoo,” Ulquiorra interrupted.

“No, Mr. Funnybones.  Not rain, although I do love the smell of your shampoo.  It’s more exotic, like one of those scented candles at those expensive home interior shops.  Almost like the way green shiso tastes; herbaceous but with like, a juicy, woodsy undertone…”

Ulquiorra almost rolled his eyes at her.  “You’re going off on a tangent.”

Orihime gave him a wry smile.  “I’m trying to pay you a compliment, but if you don’t want one…”

“Oh, no, you can tell me that you think I am lovely all you like,” he interrupted again, this time with soft eyes.

Orihime stepped onto her shield and stood on her tiptoes, giving him a quick peck on the cheek before turning to face forward.  “I will then.  But first, hold on tight!” she said, raising her arms in front of her and levitating her shield.  When it was about four feet off the ground, she started to move it forward.  As she tried to increase their speed, it lurched forward a bit, causing Ulquiorra to lose his balance and reach out, grabbing her by the waist for stability.  He didn’t let go after he regained his balance.

“You alright back there?” she asked with a giggle.

“Yes,” he answered, trying not to alert her to his increasingly dry mouth and accelerating heartrate.

“Alright, then, here we go!” she shouted, leaning into her shield as it rose at an angle, speed accelerating.  His grip on her waist tightened.  She took them on a spin around the main clearing of the training grounds before swooping under an outcropping of rocks near one side.  “Wahoo!” she shouted, and despite his fear for her safety, Ulquiorra would be lying if he said he didn’t feel exhilarated.

All was going well until she was making her second pass through the main area and went high to go over a tall rock.  She had been so focused on getting over it that she didn’t notice that they were getting dangerously close to the sky-painted wall. When they grazed it, she was able to stop immediately, but the suddenness jostled Ulquiorra, whose grip on her waist caused her to fall backward into his lap and lose concentration.  Her shield dissipated beneath them in an instant and she shrieked as they began to plummet to the ground.  Ulquiorra kept his grip on her, keeping her on top of him as they fell. He took the brunt of it on his back when they made contact with the ground.

Orihime had the wind knocked out of her lungs, and laid on top of Ulquiorra for a minute while she wheezed for breath.  When she finally could, she sprang up on her hands and looked down at Ulquiorra in horror.  He looked broken.

“No!  Ulquiorra!” she said in a frantic whisper as she searched for his vital signs.  Just as she brought a hand to his neck, his eyes opened wide and he gasped for air.  His eyes moved around, wild with terror, until they found hers, and then he reached for her head with one hand and pulled it down to his face in an urgent kiss.

She pulled back a moment later and rocked back on her heels.  She was completely uninjured.  She could not say the same for him, and he grimaced as he looked down at his ribs.  More than one was sticking out at an odd angle, and blood was seeping through his shirt and out of the corner of his mouth.

“Woman, if you wouldn’t mind,” he paused to wince and whimper, “please heal me.”

Orihime wanted to slap herself for not doing it right away. She called out her healing dome over his ribs and organs, concentrating on that life-threatening area first.  She sat in deep concentration for what felt like a long time.

After she felt like he was starting to improve, she looked at his face apologetically.  “I’m sorry, Ulquiorra, it’s not healing as fast as it could be because you’re in a gigai.  It works much faster when it’s just a spiritual body I’m healing.  Are you starting to feel any better?”

Ulquiorra took a deep breath and coughed.  “Yes, it’s significantly improved, but it still hurts.  I think the organ damage is healed; just the muscle and skeletal damage remains.”

Orihime nodded.  “I’d really like to get you somewhere more comfortable.  Would it be alright if I moved you?”

Ulquiorra looked at her face with a fearful expression but said nothing.

“I promise I won’t hurt you.  I have had this idea before, where I combine my shield and my dome and create kind of an ambulatory pod.  You should only feel weightlessness.  I just want to get you up to your bed so you can be comfortable; healing the rest of your injuries is going to take a while.  The damage to your gigai is more extensive than I originally thought.”

Ulquiorra managed a tiny smile.  “Do it.  I trust you.”

Orihime expanded her healing dome over his entire body and conjured her shield under him, then carefully levitated him up to the door to the shoten.  Once she opened the door, it was a bit trickier, maneuvering him around furniture, through hallways, and upstairs, but she was focused and determined.  When she got to his room, she pulled back his blankets and set him down on the sheets, allowing her shield to fall away and keeping the healing dome going.

“How do you feel?” she asked nervously.

He smiled at her through half-lidded eyes.  “Increasingly well.  You were right, I felt no pain during the journey and it is much more comfortable here.”

Orihime smiled in relief.  “Is there anything I can get for you?  Water?  A warm towel?”

Ulquiorra shook his head at her suggestions, then asked in a hopeful voice, “You could join me?”

Orihime’s cheeks flared red and her eyes went wide.  “Ulquiorra!” she said, scandalized.

Ulquiorra closed his eyes and smiled, trying not to laugh.  “I did not mean to insinuate anything.  I am still far too injured to move.”  He opened his eyes and looked at her affectionately, “I just want to be near you.”

Orihime could not refuse him.  He was so vulnerable and sweet at that moment.  She carefully sat on the side of his bed and took one of his hands.  He tugged on it slightly as he asked, “You can lie down and continue to heal, right?”

“Mm-hmm,” she said as she nodded and then lowered her upper body onto the mattress and pulled her legs up as well, careful not to touch or jostle him.  Once she was settled, he released her hand and snaked his under her neck, pulling her face into his clavicle.

“I would like to lie here like this…”

Orihime took a deep breath, wrapping herself in his smell.  As she began to relax, the memory of seeing him so broken on the sand of the training ground revisited her mind.  She gently nuzzled into his chest and said in a choppy whisper, “Oh Ulquiorra.  That was so terrifying.  I thought I was going to lose you again.”

“I’m not going anywhere without you, woman,” he said in a sleepy voice, letting his cheek fall to rest on her head.

“Thank you.”

xXxXxXx

Ulquiorra had fallen asleep after a few minutes of lying together.  After about another hour, she had finished healing him, and felt an urgent need to use the restroom.  She snuck out of his room quietly and padded over to the facilities.  After she was done, she checked in on him and found him still fast asleep, so she went downstairs.  It wasn’t long until she ran into Urahara.

“Well well, Inoue-san.  A little birdie tells me your relationship with our Cifer-san has become a bit more serious.”

“What do you mean, Urahara-san?”

He flashed his brows at her.  “You were spotted coming out of his bedroom.”

“It’s not what you think.  He was injured during our training and needed to lie down while I healed him.”

“Oh,” Urahara replied, his shoulders falling.  He was a little disappointed for his permanent houseguest.  “Still, Inoue-san, I am aware that your relationship has become romantic, regardless of whether or not you have, uh, committed yourself to him.  That being the case, I think it would be in everyone’s best interests if you had a little chat with Kurosaki-san, to avoid potential miscommunication and conflict.  Just a suggestion.”

Orihime nodded.  “That was my intention, Urahara-san.  He already kind of knows, but I need to speak with him about it properly.  He has not returned my last text, though.”

“When was that?”

“Thursday.”

Urahara sighed.  “I suggest you call him or go to meet him in person.  I would hate for misunderstandings to fester.”

“You’re right,” she looked down at her feet, not exactly looking forward to it.

“If Cifer-san is healed, I think you should go at once.  I will explain that you had to leave when he wakes.”

“Thank you, Urahara-san.”

“Not at all, Inoue-san.  Let me know how it goes, will you?”

Orihime nodded and left.

xXx

She waited until she was only a couple of blocks from her house before she called him.

Ring

Ring

“Hello?  Inoue?”

“Yes, it’s me.  I wanted to talk to you.”

Ichigo’s sigh came through to her loud and clear. “Actually, Inoue, this isn’t a good time-”

“It’ll only take a minute, I promise.”

“Ori- Inoue, I know what’s going on.  I’m with Chad; he told me you are training with him.  You pretty much told me that you two are seeing each other.  I don’t need to know the details.”

“I- Kurosaki-kun, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean-”

Ichigo interrupted.  “It’s fine, Inoue.  We broke up, remember?  I told you to see other people.  You could have picked someone who is not my former mortal enemy, but hey, whatareyougonnado?”  he said, his sarcasm biting.

Orihime was quiet for a moment.  “I’m sorry.”

He sighed, and trying to be kinder, said, “What’s done is done, Inoue.  I’m not mad at you.  I just am not ready to talk to you right now.  I hope you can understand that.”

“I understand,” she replied in a tiny voice.

“Good.  I’ll see you again when school starts up in April.   Take care, Inoue.”

The line went dead.

xXxXx

Later that evening when Ulquiorra woke up, he found a note from Urahara explaining that he had sent Orihime home.   He immediately texted her, but she didn’t respond.  He waited until after dinner to call her.

“Hello?”

“Good evening.  You didn’t reply to my text,” he said with a worried tone.

“I’m sorry, it’s been a rough afternoon.”

He furrowed his eyebrows.  “What happened?  Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she said quietly.  If he heard correctly, he was able to detect that she had been crying recently.

“You are not fine.  You are distressed.  What happened?”

Orihime sighed.  “I called Kurosaki-kun to explain what is going on between us.  I wanted to apologize for not being able to tell him about you and I in person, and I wanted to find out how he was feeling.  He told me that he didn’t want to talk to me,” she said with a sad little pout.

There was no response.

“Ulquiorra, are you there?”

“I want you to stay away from him. He can't be trusted.”  She understood from the cold tone of his voice that it was not a request.

She furrowed her brows, irritated.  "You can’t tell me what to do, Ulquiorra.  Whatever happened with his hollow has been fixed, and he was my friend for a long time before we were ever a couple.”

Again there was silence.

Her ire only increased.  “What's your problem?" 

"Nothing,” his tone was inscrutable.

Silence again.

She huffed.  “Well, since I’ve got you on the phone, I guess it’s a good time to tell you that I can’t see you again until the school term is over.”

Ulquiorra’s eyes went wide, and he felt pressure at the base of his throat where his hollow hole used to be.  He was only able to gasp quietly.

Orihime hummed, pleased to have his attention.  “Since you don’t seem to be able to trust me, I’ll tell you that Kurosaki-kun is not coming back until the new school year.  I can’t see you because I have exams all week and I have to study.  The end of the term is March 2nd.”

Ulquiorra quickly did the math.  “That’s nine days.”

“Yeah, just a little over a week,” she said, her voice softening in response to his worry in his.

It didn’t help; he was starting to panic.  “No, that’s not acceptable.  I have to be able to see you, or talk to you, if only for a short time.  Can I at least walk you to and from school?”

 “I’m sorry, Ulquiorra.  I’m not trying to distance myself from you, but this is really important for my future.”

“Please, woman,” he didn’t know how to finish his question because he wasn’t sure what he was asking for.

“I suppose you can walk me to school, but not home. I just know that if you walk me home we’ll be tempted to spend more time together and it will cut into my study time.”

Ulquiorra relaxed and his voice began to return to normal.  “It is agreed then.  I will see you on Monday morning, then.  I remain receptive if you change your mind.”

Orihime giggled at how easily he was placated.  “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Ulquiorra  chuckled as well, and when it died down,  he added, “Thank you, woman, for today.  Not just for healing me.”

“What do you mean?”

“For lying with me.  Comforting me.”

Orihime blushed.  “I enjoyed that part, too.  I’m sorry I was responsible for you getting hurt.”

“Nonsense.  That was the second most exhilarating experience I’ve had since living in this gigai.”

Orihime laughed.  “Really?  What could be more exhilarating than a free fall?”

His voice darkened.  “Kissing you.”

Pause.

“Ulquiorra, you are going to get me into trouble.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Would you stop flirting?”

“No.” There was a smile in his voice.

She laughed for a second and paused again.  “I can’t wait for exams to be over.”

“Neither can I.”

“Goodnight, troublemaker.”

“Goodnight, Orihime.”

xXxXx

March 2nd

On the last day of school, Ichigo had made plans with Chad to hang out at his place and unwind with action movies and junk food.  He arrived at school just as it was getting out and ran into a very hurried Orihime.

He put his hands out in front of himself and they landed on her shoulders to stop her from slamming into his chest.  “Whoa, there, Inoue, watch where you’re going!” he scolded gently.

“Oh!  Kurosaki-kun!  I’m sorry I didn’t see you there,” she blathered as she got her bearings.  She took a deep breath and looked up into his face.  Although her feelings for him were different, he was still as handsome as ever, and she found herself blushing.  “It’s very good to see you looking so well, Kurosaki-kun,” she said bashfully.

The familiar attraction welled up in Ichigo as well.  He put a hand behind his head and scratched the back of his neck.  “You look well, yourself, Inoue.”  He looked down at her with a guarded smile.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’m meeting up with Chad.  Have you seen him?”

“Oh, yes, he was right behind me!  He probably got held up by Asano-kun, you know how he is.”

They shared a laugh at that, and when it ended, things started feeling mildly awkward again.

“Well, I better get going, Kurosaki-kun.  I have training today.  I’ll see you again soon, I hope.”

“Yeah, see you around, Inoue.”

He watched as she trotted off with an abstract smile on his face.  It felt good to see her and not feel heartbroken or painfully awkward.  She was kind, as always.  That helped.

He was about to turn around to the school gates when he saw him.

He saw them.  He was reaching out to her.  She reached back.  They embraced.  Then he dipped his head down toward her face and he couldn’t see them anymore.  He just saw red.  Before he knew what he was doing he was yanking Ulquiorra away from her by the collar.

“Kurosaki-kun!” Orihime yelped before Ulquiorra even knew what was going on. 

Ichigo got his enraged face right into Ulquiorra’s and barked, “Stay away from her!”

Ulquiorra’s face remained impassive but for the slight narrowing of his eyes. “Make me,” he challenged, his voice seething.

Orihime pulled on Ichigo’s elbow, but he ignored her.  As the two males glared at each other, she released an exasperated grumble and put a shield between them, causing them both to jump back in opposite directions. 

Ulquiorra immediately began to apologize to her, but Orihime stopped him.  “No, Ulquiorra.  He attacked you for no reason.”

“What the hell, Orihime?” Ichigo yelled, not caring about who was watching, which at this point was much of the student body.  “Are you serious about this guy?  Why does it have to be him?”

Tears began to form in her eyes, but she didn’t let them fall.  “You were the one who broke up with me, Kurosaki-kun.  You did.   Not me.  You don’t get a say in who I go out with now,” Ichigo opened his mouth to interrupt, but she doubled down. “And yes, I am serious about him.  He has been nothing but kind and respectful to me.  He doesn’t treat me like a liability.”

Ichigo took a step backward and shook his head. “You’re crazy, Inoue.”

That was just rude.  Orihime had had enough.  She rolled her eyes at him and said coolly, “Leave us alone if you’re going to act like this.  I expect more maturity from you, Kurosaki-kun.  I’ll see you around,” she said, linking her arm in Ulquiorra’s and leading him away.  She didn’t make it around the corner before those tears in her eyes started to fall.

Chad jogged up beside Ichigo as they walked out of sight.  “What happened?”

Ichigo shook his head.  “I can’t believe she’s seeing that asshole.”

“Ulquiorra?” Chad asked.

“Who else?” Ichigo said, looking at Chad like the larger man had a screw loose.

“I never met him before he started living here, Ichigo, but while you were gone I got to know him a bit.  He’s not that bad.  You should give him a chance.”

Ichigo looked at him with betrayal.  “What did you say?”

“Ichigo, you are my best friend.  And I understand you not liking the guy.  He did technically kill you.  I understand if you don’t want me being friendly with him, and I will avoid him if it makes you feel better; I don’t know how I would feel if I was in your position.  But Inoue is right.  You broke it off with her.  You can’t tell her what to do.  And I think it might ease your mind if you knew that he is good to her.”

“Well you think wrong,” Ichigo said, not believing what he was hearing.

Chad smirked.  He knew his best friend better than Ichigo thought he did. “Tatsuki likes him too.”

“Please just stop,” Ichigo whined.

xXxXx

Ulquiorra was quiet for most of the walk to the shoten.  He understood that Orihime had complicated feelings for the shinigami and he didn’t begrudge her that, but there was still the issue of their unresolved relationship status that bothered him.  His fears were slightly alleviated when she stood up to Ichigo and told him that she was serious about their relationship, but it wasn’t enough.

After their last overly-exciting training session and a week-plus break, they decided to review fundamentals.  Orihime stood with her back to a large boulder on one side of the room and had been practicing using Tsubaki to cut through rocks on the other side for a little over ten minutes when Ulquiorra came to stand close to her ear and asked, “So, have you given any thought to my proposal?”

Orihime smiled slightly.  “Of course I have.”

“You know I dislike ambiguity,” he said, turning her head toward him as Tsubaki returned to her hairpins.

Her face was apologetic.  “I know, and I’m sorry, I’ve just been so busy with exams that I haven't had enough time to think about it.”

He slowly brought his lips to her in a soft, brief kiss, then whispered, "What is there to think about?"

"Everything,” she said with a knowing smile.

Before she knew what was happening, Ulquiorra had her caged against the rock behind her, his hands resting against it on either side of her head.  He brought his burning green eyes down to hers and searched their umber depths for the answers he sought.  In a somewhat detached, quiet tone, he let his thoughts find an unfiltered voice, “I would submit myself and all my power to you.  The Hogyoku would submit to you,” he paused to kiss her again, just a lingering peck, before finding her eyes again. 

Orihime’s body felt heavy with the onset of arousal, and responded in a breathy voice, "That's what I'm afraid of.  Our connection is very powerful.  If we don't take it slow it could burn us alive."

Ulquiorra’s eyelids lowered a bit.  “I would be willing to take that risk."  He kissed her again, tasting her lips this time.

Orihime’s cheeks were splashed with red.  "I'm not.”  She pushed him back a step, gently.  “I’m not willing to risk destroying what we’ve built between us.”  She stepped out from under his gaze.  “Maybe for a while we should suspend training down here and just go out on some normal dates.  In public," she added with an embarrassed smile.

He regarded her for a moment.  "Does that mean we're “dating”?"  he asked with a gleam in his eyes.

Orihime’s smile widened into a grin.  “Yes it does.”

“Does that mean you’ve accepted my proposal?”

Orihime’s grin took on a shyer color, but she continued to smile as she nodded.

His chest swelled.  A weight fell off his back.  He stood taller and his shoulders dropped.  He took the few steps between them and picked her up in a swooping motion and pressed her to his chest.

“Ulquiorra?” she asked, her voice muffled against his shirt.

“Yes?”

“What are you doing?” she asked after she managed to free her face from the fabric of his shirt.

“Celebrating with my girlfriend,” he said as he grinned, a tiny dimple appearing on his left cheek, before capturing her lips again.


 

Thanks for reading!  Drop me a note if you like, I love hearing from you!  XOXO-JKRob

Chapter Text

HELLO! LONG TIME NO SEE. Sorry about that. I have been busy, if you have not seen my profile. I have been working on a collaborative ulquihime story and it has been taking up a lot of my time. I LOVE IT, FYI, The story is called Love Letters to a Song, and it's a sexy, modern day romance that uses lots of Bleach characters as just normal people doing normal things and all the drama that comes from their loves and friendships. I really hope you give it a chance and let us know what you think. You can also find links to LLTAS and all my other stories on my Tumblr jkrobertson.


Cultural Notes:

Yoshoku = Western-style foods, like pasta dishes, modified to suit Japanese tastes.

Kampai = Cheers

Osama= King

Chapter 41: Cold War

April 6th

It was the first day of their senior year of high school. Orihime was wearing her hair differently. Ichigo noticed. He didn't talk to her in the morning, but at the lunch bell, he paused at her desk and asked if she'd be joining everyone on the roof. She looked surprised but nodded.

He sat across the way and spent the majority of lunch time staring at her with a blank expression. He wanted to talk to her but he didn't know what to say or how to start. After two-thirds of the break had passed, he felt a nudge in the ribs. He looked up to see one of Chad's eyes poking through his bangs.

"You should talk to her sooner than later."

Ichigo nodded. He knew it was true. He stood.

"Inoue, can I talk to you a minute?"

Her eyes widened and her eyes shifted nervously. "Me?"

"Yes," he said, his eyes softening. She was still as cute as ever, despite her creepy boyfriend. "We need to talk. Just for a minute."

"Okay," she said and stood carefully, following him to the stairwell.

Once there, each took a position leaning against the opposite wall from the other, kind of looking down at their shoes. At first there was a long, awkward pause.

Then they both tried to speak at once.

"Inoue—"

"-Kurosaki-kun"

They both stopped and Orihime smiled awkwardly while Ichigo chuckled. He was first to speak. "Inoue, listen, I'm sorry I've avoided you until now, I just needed to figure out some things."

Orihime nodded but did not interrupt.

"Anyway, it's not your problem, but I think I ought to tell you that there are some things about me getting my powers back that are more complicated than I expected, and as a result, we can't get back together."

He watched as her eyes grew anxious. She wanted to interrupt him. Badly. He was glad when she didn't, because he knew it would probably break his heart either way.

He continued before she got up the nerve. "I know that it's no longer an issue, I mean, I know about you and him. And I'll be honest, I don't like it, and it's not because you're moving on, it's truly because it's him. So, just to be clear, we're not going to be hanging out as a group together, understand?"

She dropped her head and nodded.

Ichigo sighed in defeat. "That's not exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. What I really wanted to say is that we have a lot of close mutual friends. It would be a shame for our group dynamic to suffer because of what happened between the two of us. Besides, we were friends for much longer than we were dating. I hope we can be civil, if not go back to being friends the way we were before."

It was Orihime's turn to sigh. "You know we can never go back to how we were before, Ich- Kurosaki-kun. I never -wait, that's not true. I did always think of you as a very dear friend, but I also always had romantic feelings for you. That has changed. So no, we can't go back to how we were. But I think we can be friends," she said looking up to him with a hopeful smile.

He managed a half grin, squinting his eyes and scratching the back of his neck, chuckling nervously. "I, uh, I see. That is actually news, Inoue. I didn't know it had been going on for that long. Sorry I was an idiot." He paused and looked up to the door. "We should get back. I don't want them to think we're arguing or something."

She nodded. "Just one more thing, Kurosaki-kun," she said, then stepped up to him and put her arms around his waist, giving a gentle squeeze. "I'm glad you're back to yourself." After a moment, she stepped away and nodded. "Ok. Now I'm satisfied. You?" she looked up into his eyes. They were covered in shadow.

"Yeah, it's all good, Inoue."

xXxXx

June 6th

It was a night like any other, except it was a Saturday, and instead of being out with friends or on dates, Uryuu Ishida and Ichigo Kurosaki were zooming around Karakura exterminating hollows. It had become a bit of a standing engagement; a hollow would show up, and the two of them would race to see who could get it first. Then they would spend some time up on a rooftop somewhere complaining about life or their other friends; specifically, one other friend.

"I saw them together the other day again," Ishida said with derision dripping from his mouth. He sneered into the night sky like it had offended him. "It is enough to make you sick. He just parades around town with her on his arm like it's totally normal."

Ichigo groaned, as he did every other time this conversation started. "What can we do about it, Ishida, she's with him now. We have to get over it."

"How can you say that, she was your girlfriend! She went from you to that."

Ichigo stood up and stretched. "What do you expect me to do about it, Ishida?"

"Fight for her! Try to get her back!"

"If it bothers you so much, Ishida, why don't you fight for her?" Ichigo asked, sick of having this same conversation with him every other day.

Uryuu scoffed. "You know she never saw me in that light, don't rub it in."

"You never even tried, so don't blame her. Not that I really want you to try."

Uryuu shook his head, then paused. Another hollow had appeared in Naruki town. "Last one there buys coffee," he said before taking off in that direction.

xXxXx

August 31st

It was the first day back to school after summer holidays. Orihime said goodbye to her friends and ran to the school gates as fast as she could, right into the outstretched arms of Ulquiorra. He caught her and steadied them both, taking a quick glance at who might be looking before planting a quick kiss on her hairline and releasing her to hold her hand and escort her to work. He didn't particularly care that among those who were watching were Ichigo, Uryuu, Chad and Tatsuki.

Uryu and Ichigo were in front, and both made disgusted faces at the display of affection before them. Their frequent bitch sessions about Orihime and her boyfriend had made both of them somewhat bitter. Uryuu turned his head in Ichigo's direction, asking in a not exactly discreet voice, "So, do you think they are, uh, you know…"

Ichigo scoffed and shrugged his shoulders. "Probably, knowing her. She was always a bit of an eager beaver."

Not a moment later Ichigo yelped and staggered, as he felt pain in the back of his knee. "What the hell, Tatsuki?"

"Don't you 'What the hell, Tatsuki' me, Ichigo. Don't you go talking about my best friend that way!"

"Chad, can you restrain—"

"No," Chad answered calmly.

"And why not?" Ichigo spat. "They clearly have no problem showing everyone how 'close' they are. It's not our fault that they're so obvious about it."

"You listen here, Kurosaki. You are being a sad little prick, you know that? I happen to know that in fact, no they aren't. Ulquiorra is very good to her and treats her with respect, which is more than I can say you did. Orihime is much more reserved now than she was before anyway, thanks to you." She paused and took a breath, before continuing in a calmer voice, "You would know that she's not like that, Ichigo, if you didn't fuck everything up."

Ichigo was feeling sorry for himself and self-righteous. "Oh, is that what she tells you?" he yelled. He didn't care who heard at that point.

Tatsuki yelled right back. "No! You know, all she ever does is stick up for you! She still acts like you are some selfless hero. You should be grateful! Not standing here in the school yard calling her a slut because she moved on after you dumped her!"

Ichigo shrunk away from Tatsuki, the first seeds of shame starting to take root in his conscience.

xXxXx

That same day after Ulquiorra dropped off Orihime at her part-time job at the bakery, he received a text as he was walking toward the shoten.

It was from an unknown number. He tapped his screen and read:

Hey Security,

I don't know if you've heard, but a little birdie told me that it's Hime-tan's birthday in a couple of days. I wanted to make sure she wasn't disappointed again this year. Give me a buzz if you need any ideas, lover-boy.

XOXO- Hikaru

Hikaru? How did the hairdresser have his - oh yes, he had to provide his contact information when booking an appointment. Ulquiorra now had a standing appointment every fourth Tuesday.

He had another question.

Hikaru:

I was not previously made aware of said occasion. Please advise what is customary. I await your communication.

Regards,

Ulquiorra Cifer

He didn't have to wait long for a reply.

OOOOOOOOH! Security, sweetie, you are running out of time! You better just come over! XOXO

Ulquiorra rolled his eyes. Why the hairdresser insisted on these stupid nicknames was beyond him. Despite it being the last thing he wanted to do at the moment, he turned and started toward the hair salon.

Five minutes later, Ulquiorra was being ushered through the storefront of Hikaru's salon by the hairstylist herself. Her deep, sing-songy voice welcomed him, "Well, hello, Handsome. Come in and have a seat; we have a lot of things to catch you up on."

"We?" he asked, looking around and seeing no one else present.

"Just me and you, baby. Sit here. Now listen, it's Hime-tan's birthday on the third. Last year her loser boyfriend forgot and it broke her heart. This year you've got to make it up to her."

"Why should I make up for the faults of Kurosaki?" Ulquiorra asked, not really following the Hikaru's logic.

"That's not what I mean. You just… listen. I'll tell you what to do. You do it. Otherwise you can give up on her and just stay here with me. That would be just fine," Hikaru purred while standing behind Ulquiorra, sliding her hands from Ulquiorra's shoulders down to his chest.

"Person, desist immediately!" Ulquiorra commanded as he stood up from his seat and stepped away from the hairdresser.

"Alright then, listen well..."

xXxXx

September 3rd.

Ulquiorra had learned what was customary from Hikaru. He had selected a gift and prepared a reservation. He had enlisted Tatsuki's help for the rest.

He was hoping this event might help his relationship with Orihime. It had grown stagnant. Recently they had fallen into a routine where he would pick her up from school and walk her up her part time job at the bakery near her house, holding her hand and sometimes sneaking a quick peck on the lips before watching her trot away. On weekends they would go shopping or out for coffee and they would always say goodbye on a doorstep, never inside. They hadn't done any training in months, except on the rare occasion that Tatsuki was free to come with. Orihime had set a firm boundary, and private interludes seemed to be on the other side of that line.

Ulquiorra was frustrated. He was irritated. He kept it hidden from Orihime, though. He didn't want to remind her of the ways Kurosaki had treated her, and he was respecting her decisions.

He was desperate for change and if he had to accept help to bring it about, he would, despite his misgivings relative to some of Hikaru's more ridiculous ideas. For example, he was expected to entertain the birthday girl and all of her friends, at his expense, no less. And he was expected to invite those pompous 'friends' of hers, Ishida Uryuu and Kurosaki Ichigo.

It was an outrage!

But it was expected, and if Ulquiorra Cifer did anything well, it was meeting or exceeding expectations.

xXx

At 6:00, Ulquiorra sat in a spacious private room of an inexpensive yoshoku restaurant. A sign hung on the wall wishing Orihime a happy birthday. A cake sat in the middle of the large table. Gifts from himself and other residents of the Urahara Shoten sat on a smaller table to the side. Now all there was to do was wait for the birthday girl, no, birthday woman - she was 18 now - to arrive.

He was about to stand and leave the room to see if anybody was milling around outside when a noisy group breached the entrance led by Tatsuki. A group of other kids he didn't really have any feelings for one way or another followed, and then came the individuals with which he had previously had meaningful contact. Orihime, first and foremost. He smiled at her surprised face and welcomed her to join his side with a small tilt of his head. She bounded over and sat beside him, saying "You did this? You didn't have to do this!" His cheeks colored and he felt satisfaction.

Following her were Chad, to whom he tipped his head in cordial welcome, and two others for whom he held no love: Ichigo Kurosaki and Uryuu Ishida. He fought the urge to sneer, instead focusing his attention on his woman.

Ishida and Kurosaki afforded him no such civility in return. Uryuu scoffed and found a spot in the corner of the room to sit and Ichigo joined him.

Hikaru came a moment later and took over the flow of the party, and directed the guests to take a glass for a toast, the grabbed Ulquiorra by the asscheek, causing him to jump to his feet. Everyone looked at him expectantly.

Ulquiorra scowled and looked at Hikaru with clear disdain. "What do you mean to accomplish?"

Hikaru rolled her eyes and flipped her pink hair. "You are supposed to give a speech, congratulating Hime-tan on her birthday. Go! Everyone is waiting," she said, before turning to the side and grumbling toward another guest, "I guess nobody gets looks and brains…"

Ulquiorra's eyes swept the room. His heart started to beat more powerfully, and he felt a lump rise in his throat. He swallowed down hard on it and raised his glass, mimicking what everyone else in the room was doing. "Ahem. It is Orihime Inoue's birthday. She is eighteen years old. Congratulations. That is all." Then he sat down and everyone waited for an awkward beat before someone said "kampai" and everyone started eating.

He looked to Orihime and gave an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, I didn't know a speech was required. I hope you found it satisfactory."

She smiled at him and put a hand on his arm. "It was perfect. Thank you, you know I would have been happy-"

She was interrupted. Hikaru stood and bopped her over the head and called out a number, then went around the room doing the same. She was both taking a head count and assigning a number. When she returned to her seat, she gathered a bunch of disposable chopsticks and started writing numbers on them, once for each guest. When she had finished, she put all the chopsticks into a cup, number side down, then stood in the middle of the room.

"Attention, everyone! Now, you may all continue eating, but this is a party, not a banquet, so we will have some entertainment! Tonight's first activity is a game, called "Osama". If you don't know how to play, the rules are simple: One person is the king, or "Osama". Each of you has been assigned a number which corresponds to one of the chopsticks in this cup. I will be king first. I can choose one or two chopsticks from this cup, and then I can command whomever I have chosen to do anything I want. You cannot refuse! Is that clear?"

Hikaru proceeded to call numbers and order guests to do embarrassing things, like sing a song, or do a dance, or pass a breadstick from person A's mouth to person B's mouth; all kinds of things that make high schoolers squirm in discomfort. Then, finally, she pulled Ulquiorra's number.

"I'm number 4," he said dully.

There were sniggers from the occupants of the corner of the room. Orihime shot a venomous look toward Ichigo and Uryu.

"Oh, wonderful! It's Security's turn. Alright, I command for you to give Hime-tan a kiss!"

The occupants of the room gasped. Public displays of affection were not done.

Ulquiorra, not having been raised in Japan, much less not having been raised on Earth, had no cultural reference from which to frame Hikaru's command. He didn't know how scandalous this was. He had kissed the woman many times. What difference would it make to do it in front of other people?

He turned to his left to face Orihime, put his hand behind her neck, and pulled her toward him, pressing his lips on hers and kissing her firmly. He heard the sucked breaths and snickers. He didn't care. It had been some time since he had been able to do this. He tilted his head and deepened the kiss.

He was suddenly being pulled away by two sets of rough, angry hands.

He vaguely heard Orihime call his name as the door to the party room was slammed shut behind him. Uryuu and Ichigo did not stop pulling until they were outside in the alley behind the restaurant, where they deposited him against the wall of the next building.

"What do you think you are doing?" Uryu scolded in a screechy voice.

Ulquiorra dropped his brows and looked between the two boys in front of him for a minute, attempting to figure out just how stupid they were. He huffed and changed his expression to that of someone trying to explain something to a child. "I was kissing the woman. It is something I have done multiple times to the woman's and my mutual enjoyment. Do you have any other ridiculous queries or can we get back inside to my girlfriend's birthday party?"

"Your girlfriend?" Ichigo scoffed.

A small, smug smile pulled at the corners of Ulquiorra's lips. "Indeed. I was told you are familiar with the concept, shinigami."

Uryu was clenching his fists. He was livid. Stepping into Ulquiorra's space, he shouted, "How dare you touch her at all, much less do it in public!"

It was Ulquiorra's turn to scoff, "Says the boy who has been harboring a poorly concealed infatuation with her since before my death. I saw the way you looked at her on that dome. You're just too much of a coward to -"

Crack.

Ulquiorra's hand went to his jaw, where he had just been backhanded by the Quincy. His lip rose in a sneer and his reiatsu started to leak out of him in sharp, dark pulses.

Ichigo and Uryu's eyes widened, and Ichigo reached for the battle pass in his pocket as Uryu dropped a Quincy cross onto his palm. Neither of them ever expected to experience what they saw and felt next, and their confused expressions spoke for themselves as Ulquiorra's reiatsu was slowly being infused with Orihime's, even though she was nowhere to be seen.

This is new, Ulquiorra thought to himself and smirked, still not able to let go of the one-upsmanship he had been engaging in. "You see? She is connected to me," he snarled, the implication that she was not connected to them crystal clear.

Ichigo was the first to make the assumption, and his face contorted into a disgusted grimace. Uryu was not far behind. "Don't tell me that you have… Oh god, don't tell me that you, that you and her," Uryu whined, backing up as he did.

Ichigo was not as discreet. "You've been fucking her?!" he roared before lunging at Ulquiorra, hands reaching for his throat.

Ulquiorra dodged and weaved between the two young men, ending up behind them, his eyes narrowed in rage. How dare these two disturb the woman's party and throw baseless accusations around. He took a deep breath through flared nostrils, trying to calm down. It wouldn't do to have Orihime upset by him fighting.

Ichigo turned around, shaking his head. "You know, I shouldn't be so surprised. She was always pretty much begging for it. Better you than me, I guess. Slut."

That was it. Ulquiorra's gigai started to vibrate and the loose gravel on the pavement trembled as his reiatsu level began to increase uncontrollably. He pulled back a fist and shot it toward the shinigami's chest, only to be shot in the arm by a Quincy arrow.

Ulquiorra recoiled and hissed his displeasure as blood began to squirt out of the wound.

"Shit," Ichigo said, taking in the sight of the blood and starting to get nervous. Despite his hatred, he knew that Ulquiorra was under Urahara's protection and there would be consequences for this.

Uryu did not care at all. He drew back another bow as Ulquiorra squared off on him, and just before he released it he was thrown back into the brick wall behind him together with Ichigo.

"Ulquiorra!" a frightened voice rang through the alley, and the golden barrier that had pushed back Ichigo and Uryu shrunk to a small dome encasing Ulquiorra's bloody arm. "What are you doing!" she cried, accusing the other two.

"Fuck this," Ichigo said, turning to leave and pulling Uryu along with him. Orihime watched them leave silently.

Orihime turned her attention back to her healing dome after Uryu and Ichigo were out of eyeshot, and kept quiet as she focused on healing Ulquiorra's gigai for a few minutes. When the skin had healed, she looked up at him and asked, "What happened?"

Ulquiorra looked at her apologetically. "I'm sorry, woman. I have disturbed your party."

She shook her head. "This was their doing, not yours. I can't believe they did that! He promised me he would try to be civil."

Ulquiorra flinched. "He is making promises to you?" he asked with a single raised brow. He was jealous.

"Well, more like telling lies, I guess," Orihime muttered, checking Ulquiorra's arm. "It doesn't matter. He told me he wasn't going to get along with you but I thought that he could keep it in check for my birthday at least."

Ulquiorra didn't like how sad she sounded. He took both of her hands in one of his and tipped her chin up to look him in the eyes. "It was the Quincy who really started this. I think they are a bad influence on one another," he said, giving her a lopsided smile. "They think we have, uh, been intimate." he admitted, looking to the side.

Orihime blushed and looked down at her feet. She didn't want to tell him what she was thinking. It was complicated. She decided to change the subject. "Maybe we should go back… People will think-"

"Are you afraid that people will think we have been intimate?" he asked, slightly hurt, but not wanting to make her feel anxious about it. "I can tell them they are all mistaken if you want me to."

"No, I'm not afraid of that. People will think what they want no matter what, it's just, I guess I don't like how Kurosaki-kun and Ishida-kun think they have any say in it."

That pleased him. He offered her an arm and said, "Let's get back to your party."

xXxXx

In the end, Ulquiorra decided not to give Orihime her birthday present at her party. He walked her home after the celebration was over and asked if he could come in for a minute, explaining he had a gift but thought it best not to spark rumors by giving it to her in front of her friends.

She agreed and closed the door behind him and went to the kitchen for a couple glasses of water and saw him sitting on her sofa with a small box in his hand. "Come here, woman," he said to her, patting the seat beside him.

She followed his instructions and sat, setting the glasses of water on the table before turning toward him.

He wasted no time. "Happy birthday, Orihime," he said, presenting her with the box.

She smiled and took it, opening the paper carefully and lifting the lid to reveal a startlingly familiar silver bangle bracelet. She cocked her head up and looked at him, "Is this…. How could this?"

Ulquiorra chuckled. "It's not. The bracelet I gave to you when I first took you to Hueco Mundo was made of spirit particles. This bracelet's similar appearance is coincidental. There is more though; look under the paper.

Indeed, there was a square of white tissue paper folded up under the bracelet, and upon inspection Orihime saw that it was connected to the bangle by a small pair of chain links. She tore the tissue paper to reveal a silver charm in the shape of a heart. She was speechless.

"I know what it is, you know; the heart. I know it's not Valentine's day boxes or this little piece of metal. I know it's not always the organ in your chest," he paused and took her hand, slipping the bracelet over her wrist and admiring it. "It's here in my hand, after all." He smiled at her after his little speech, mentally patting himself on the back. That was pretty damn smooth for a guy who'd only been alive for about a year.

Orihime's eyes misted over and she threw her arms around his neck. "I love it, thank you."

Ulquiorra did not go home that night.


 

Thanks for reading! I'm sorry this chapter spanned a long period of time and seems a little disjointed, but we've got to move along or this story won't go anywhere~! Drop me a note if you like, I love hearing from you! Xoxo JKRob

Chapter Text

It had started out innocently. Orihime hugged him, admiring the bracelet he had given her. She was enjoying this feeling of closeness between them; one she had denied for too long now, she was realizing.

Ulquiorra's arms had come around her waist and returned the embrace. It was a sweet and comforting gesture, but soon it became a little uncomfortable for him, twisting as he was, seated on the sofa and turning his upper body toward her. To alleviate the strain on his spine, he pulled her onto his lap.

This was uncomfortable for her. Now her seat was on his legs and hers went off to the side, her spine twisted to maintain the hug. And she really liked the hug. She didn't want to break it. There was only one solution: she would have to straddle his legs. She twisted her hips and stepped down onto the floor before lifting her knees to rest on either side of Ulquiorra's thighs, then settled her seat back onto his legs. There, that was better. Much more comfortable.

Also much more contact. Her breasts were squished into his shoulders. She thought this would surely make him uncomfortable. She pulled back, just enough to see his face. Big mistake. She saw how the green of his irises shrank under heavy lids. He looked hungry.

He saw how her cheeks were just beginning to turn pink and how her lips parted, the glistening inner surface visible in the low light. She exhaled as he inhaled her warm, sweet breath. He didn't plan for his left hand to trail up her spine and grasp the base of her head, but it did.

He pulled her head down so their lips met. He was not prepared for her reaction. He had tasted her only hours earlier at her party, but he suddenly felt ravenous as she opened her mouth and his tongue found hers of its own volition. He wanted to taste every part of her mouth. As his tongue explored, his hands grasped her hips, desperate to still the motion she had started while he was distracted by their kiss.

Orihime's brain had shut down in response to his kiss. The connection between them inside their mouths was insufficient and her hips had begun a slow roll up his thighs to his hips on their own, and when she reached her destination, she returned to the point of origin just as slowly, only to do it again. It felt good. She felt his body start to react to hers and her spiritual energy began to seep out of her, encouraging him to let go of his mental restraints and go with the flow.

He didn't know if it was intentional on her part, but it was quickly having an effect on the state of his now semi-erect cock. This did not come as a huge surprise to Ulquiorra. He had been researching relationship stuff; love and sexual relationships. He knew what the potential outcome of their current circumstances could be. He was very much interested in following that path. Her reiatsu was beckoning his. It made the line between them blur; their feelings were clearly on display, and so far, she was most certainly willing.

It was all the encouragement he needed. His hands slipped under her shirt. Her skin was so incredibly soft. He moaned as his fingers glided over her ribs and outlined the curve of her breasts.

Orihime pulled her shirt off over her head without any fanfare.

Ulquiorra's lips trailed kisses along her neck and chest, not stopping as he reached the top of her breasts.

Finally Orihime reacted with a gasp. Until now she had just been on auto-pilot, but his wet lips on her body summoned her wits back to her. She was not terribly surprised when she realized that she definitely wanted this, Looking into his eyes, she rocked her hips over his erection with purpose.

Holy shit. Ulquiorra's wide eyes found hers and saw her determination and need. Her motion caused a friction he had not yet experienced. He felt the change in her reiatsu, a sudden charge as if it had been ignited. The former Espada grabbed her hips, his fingertips sinking into the soft surface, and pushed himself up into her. A tiny half smile played on his lips as she whined softly in response.

Everything was perfect. She was perfect.

He pulled down the straps of her bra as he continued to roll his hips into hers. He smoothed his hands over the curve of her shoulders and continued to pull her bra down to her waist. He wasted no time, filling his hands with her breasts and groaning in satisfaction. If he thought her body was soft before, it was nothing compared to her taut, heavy, silken tits that he now fondled; the pads of his fingers detected the even softer still nipples as they explored the rise and curve of them. It was not until his second pass, when he felt a hardening if that coin-sized area, that he stopped nibbling at her throat and pushed her back to sit on his knees, taking the opportunity to drink in the sight of Orihime topless.

The intensity of his spiritual pressure softened. "You are so beautiful," he said, his eyes full of adoration and his voice scarcely more than a whisper.

The electric, frenzied drive in Orihime's reiatsu dampened at his words, and her molten gaze softened to one of heart wrenching affection. She brought a hand to cup the side of his face and rubbed hi