Crossing her arms for what felt like the tenth time, Claire tapped her foot impatiently, the sharp echoes bouncing across the gym lobby.

It had taken a couple days of measuring over the past few weeks, but she had finally determined the average amount of time it took Ichigo to get out of the showers after a workout: forever.

Does he just fall asleep in there?

She couldn't say that she knew how it had gotten to this point, but it was now a given that she was a part of the 'Karakura Gang' as they liked to call it. Work, get-togethers and more, she was often finding herself in the company of someone in the group.

Many of them, it turned out, worked out frequently at the gym.

It had been entertaining, getting to know the variety of individuals who seemed to gravitate to Ichigo and picking up interesting facts about their personalities.

Tatsuki was a force of nature, hard-headed and loud. She often carried a no-nonsense attitude, save for when Ichigo decided to rile her up. Though always bantering with him, grilling him over one thing or another, it was obvious to any who knew them that she cared about the man she called her oldest friend.

She also made for a good boss. Tatsuki took a mostly hands-off approach, letting Claire develop and implement whatever teaching strategy worked best for her.

Pay's pretty good, too, she thought to herself, remembering the shock she felt at her last paycheck. Once she had finally gained a grasp of the currencies of her new world, Claire learned that she did quite well for herself.

Orihime and Uryuu were an interesting couple. Clearly complementing each other, the two seemed to cater to each other's social awkwardness. Uryuu's uptight, rigid personality always thawed at Orihime's theatrics and borderline excessive smiles.

Seriously, even Vanille hadn't smiled that much.

Mizuiro and the walking ball of craziness that was Keigo were always incredibly kind yet spontaneously insane, a veritable 'sitcom' of their own. While not exactly a pair that she would seek to hang out with regularly, she couldn't deny that they definitely added an interesting dimension to the group.

Yuzu, the mother hen of the group, was certainly one of the the kindest individuals she had ever met. A heart of gold and a sharp mind to match, the youngest Kurosaki never ceased to worry over the wellbeing of each and every member of their gang. Even Claire.

She still chuckled to herself every now and then at the stern warnings Yuzu had given while holding a wooden spoon as if it were a weapon.

"Claire, don't let my brute of a brother give you any nonsense! We really like having you around, so if he starts to get on your nerves, you just tell me. I will gladly set him straight!"

So much like Serah.

Yuzu certainly drew similarities with the youngest Farron. Sweet smiles, warm words, and a rarely shown side of steel that made even a former warrior-goddess like Lightning tense.

Aside from a slightly abnormal older brother complex that she seemed to have, Yuzu Kurosaki was someone she was always happy to see.

And then there were Karin and Chad.

Claire would never say it aloud, but the two had quickly become her favorites. Though quieter than the rest, when they actually spoke, their words would have the room rolling in laughter.

Just as the rest did, Karin and Chad gave Ichigo plenty of grief. Yet, Claire could always detect something more within their words, something deeper than the general banter that was shared.

Karin, being his younger sister, looked up to her big brother. Her subtle shifts when he spoke, the way she always gave any announcement or news to him first, or even the way she mocked him, were each tinged with respect and at least a little awe.

Chad, who she had discovered was his best friend, clearly saw Ichigo as a brother. Their interactions were more natural than the rest, many of the things they said to each other conveyed through little more than a nod or look.

While glad to know each of them better, spending time with her Karakura friends never failed to remind her of just how intensely she missed her friends—no, her family— from Cocoon, from Pulse.

Her thoughts frequently drifted to them, most often when she was alone. Loneliness was something she thought she had a handle on, yet there were moments where she wanted nothing more than to hear Serah's warm laughter, Hope's gentle encouragements, Sazh's antagonizing of Fang and Vanille, or to see the buffoon that was Snow putting Hope into a headlock.

Claire wanted to know about them, how they were, if they had made friends as she had—were they happy?

Shaking her head, she pushed the worrisome thoughts from her mind for the moment. She had happier things to think on.

While it wasn't always known who she would be hanging out with, or who she would run into, Friday—which happened to be today—would always mean full gatherings at Yuzu's apartment.

Convenient as it was, she would always end up riding to Yuzu's with Ichigo, particularly since his workouts usually finished around the time her shifts did.

Claire found that she truly enjoyed the time spent with him. Being around Ichigo was easy for her, his company often giving her the least amount of social pressure. He asked nothing from her, and seemed to take pleasure in simply hanging around her.

There were also more subtle things, things that were harder to describe that made many of their times together so—meaningful? Genuine?

She sighed, grimacing. Defining feelings was always such a chore, or at least admitting the kind that made her feel so vulnerable.

Still, when she would see his shoulders dip and his posture relax, the man he transformed into never failed to surprise her. The random smiles, the carefree laughter, even the terrible, awful but sort of cute jokes that he would occasionally try to tell were entertaining.

Just a week ago, she had even gotten to see his near-minimalist apartment. He truly was a man that knew what he liked. Sparse furniture and bare walls told a bleak story until she had encountered his living room.

A somewhat cavernous room, it was dominated by a large television, as well as a stand with multiple electronic devices that she had been getting more and more familiar with, even more so that evening.

"I passed your tests, Farron, so it's time to pay up. Go ahead and get comfortable. Sure hope you like sci-fi movies!"

"Um… Sure."

"Oh come on, it's not going to be that bad. You may even like it."

"You're pretty good at retracting credibility from your recommendations. I'm here, let's watch. I'm sure it will be fine."

It had been.

She hadn't explicitly told him so, enjoying the exasperation on his face at her refusal, but she had actually liked the movie he had made her watch. It had been funny, watching him grinning like a kid over a space war movie called 'Star Wars'.

If only he knew what real war amongst the stars was like. Intimidating, Darth Vader might be, but Claire couldn't imagine a Sith as terrifying as Bhunivelze literally rising from the very fabric of the cosmos.

Rides to get-togethers in his car were always exciting, too. A fan of speed, herself, it was a pleasant rush to drop the roof, turn up the radio, and drive far too fast.

She knew that she had traveled in much more exotic fashion, but the engines that humans on this planet drove—the combustible ones—were proving to be awfully fun.

Come to think of it, it's about time for me to look into that…

The reminder of time prompted her to look at a clock on the wall, and she huffed in annoyance.

Amidst all the good things Ichigo was and did, it would be better if he came for his workouts earlier, because his stupid showers took for-damn-ever, and he had no damn sense of urgency! When she was in the military, she could be showered, shaved and ready to go within a matter of minutes!

As in, less than ten…

Soft taps caught her attention, drawing a loud sigh of relief from her as she peeked down a hallway to see Ichigo making his way toward her. Clicking her tongue, she shifted her hips and called out to him.

"You know, you take a long damn time to get ready. What happened, you have to shave your legs today?"

Adjusting his bag over his shoulder as he rounded a corner into the lobby, Ichigo rolled his eyes. Claire loved to bust his chops about how he preferred to take his time showering. She was already preparing a second attack.

"Do you just have a problem with cleanliness in general, or is it that you missed me? OOF!"

Claire blinked as she turned sharply, the corner of her own bag catching Ichigo's unsuspecting stomach.

"Sorry, were you saying something?"

"Agh, demon-woman," Ichigo grunted, his shirt scratching softly as he rubbed his sore abdomen. It would seem that she had started carrying her bokkens in her bag.

"You know, not everyone takes army showers. Some of us actually enjoy getting clean."

Raising a rose-colored brow as they made their way to the entrance, Claire asked, "Demon woman? Exactly how long does it take in the shower before you feel pretty enough to get out?"

Leading them out the front doors, Ichigo smiled. "It works, doesn't it? Mrs. Tanaka—the elderly lady at the hospital I told you about—said that I was a fine looking young man, you know."

"Yes, I am sure that you are the star of the geriatric ward," she concluded, shoving him from behind.

"Geez, can't catch a break with you, can I?" Ichigo muttered as they quickly arrived at his car.

"Just shut it and open my door," Claire scoffed, folding her arms imperiously as she waited by the passenger door.

Sighing in exasperation, Ichigo groused, "Yeah, yeah, your highness. You know, one of these days, you're going to be opening my door."

A sharp chuckle was her response. Giving him the faintest of smirks, she said, "You say that every day, yet you always find a way to lose. What's ironic is that you're the one who made the rule about the loser opening the winner's door. If it's that bad, I might just feel sorry for you and give you a win."

"Kiss my ass."

"While it would certainly be a change from kicking it all the time, I think I will pass."

"Damn, I can't even win in banter."

Sliding her sunglasses on, Claire turned with a single brow raised over the mirrored lenses. Remembering his ramblings from the day when she had refused to comment on his favorite movie, she decided to give humor another try.

"One day, young Padawan. One day."

Ichigo's stunned look and subsequent laughter was quickly drowned out by him opening his car door and igniting the engine. His grin never faltered as he celebrated one of the only victories over Claire he could claim.

XXXXXX

Tatsuki Arisawa grinned to herself as she watched Ichigo's car peel out of her parking lot from the window of her office. Over the last few weeks, she had been beyond pleased to see Ichigo and Claire becoming closer.

There was just something about the pair that worked. Their stubborn, somewhat introverted loner natures, their ferocious fighting prowess, and their sarcastic wits always made for an amusing time.

Having 'taken a page' from Yuzu's book, Tatsuki was now doing what she could to get Ichigo to actually ask Claire on a date. Sure, there was potential for screwing a lot of things up, but something told her that it wouldn't be the case this time.

Their chemistry undeniable, the two seemed too good for each other for them to be anything other than a successful couple. Sure, Ichigo was stupid and would often do something to get his ass beat, but overall he seemed to bring Claire out of her shell far more than anyone else did.

When bantering, the two seemed to fall into their own world. Barbs, snark, and other verbal jabs were traded, and more recently they had taken to slipping idiotic movie references into their conversations. Well, Ichigo had tried once or twice as a joke, and Claire had seemed fine with humoring him.

Getting Yuzu to make Friday nights their weekly hangout had been far more beneficial than she had thought. Aside from getting to see all of her friends more regularly, Tatsuki now had an excuse to put the two together more often. Ichigo's chivalry and Claire's lack of a vehicle were a perfect match for the moment.

'For the moment' is right.

Looking at her current client list, Tatsuki was shocked to see Claire's classes amassing such high attendance. She was booked solid for weeks on end, and the clients kept coming!

Her no nonsense attitude, her undeniable skill, and her inescapably good looks hit some winning combination with customers, and Tatsuki was never one to complain about good business.

Still…

Staring incredulously at the data in her hands, she knew that Claire was rapidly approaching the point that she could safely buy almost any damn car she really wanted, so Ichigo needed to get a move on.

Rolling her eyes at herself, Tatsuki sat back in her chair, a light squeak of protest the only noise in the room. It was Friday evening and all she was thinking about was being some kind of Cupid character.

Kami, I need a life.

The problem was, Ichigo did too.

That's really why she agreed to help Yuzu, if she was honest. Yes, Claire was great—and yes, she was great for Ichigo. Tatsuki would gladly admit that they had chemistry.

But Ichigo…

That idiot seemed to relish in working himself into an early grave. He may have been technically dead, but the bastard was going to burn himself out if he didn't stop and realize that there was a world outside of hollows and sick people.

Ichigo needed a life. Ichigo needed more than his friends – he needed a partner. He needed someone who could touch a part of his life that had been forsaken for far too long. There had been a deeper connection once, but that had ended roughly for him, no matter how 'mutual' he had claimed it to be.

Tatsuki wasn't blind. She saw the small, fleeting smiles when he and Claire were together. The lingering, meaningful glances each thought they got away with. The idiotic way that Ichigo talked when around her.

Seriously, Star Wars references? He's such a moron!

Regardless, whatever the hell it was that they had, it worked, and damn it all if Tatsuki Arisawa would stand aside and let her oldest friend's idiocy ruin a great thing.

Stretching her shoulders and shaking her head, she stood and made her way toward the showers. She wanted to make it in time for some of Yuzu's near-famous cooking, knowing full well that stragglers usually arrived to empty dishes.

Minutes later, once she had finished towel-drying her hair, Tatsuki felt a familiar pulse of energy coming from the basement of the gym. The basement that only certain people knew of.

Shinigami? Who would be coming here, now?

Dressing quickly, she wondered who she would find. There had been some irregular hollow activity, sure, but with Ichigo, Uryuu, Chad and Orihime around, there was little that couldn't be handled.

It didn't really matter, in all honesty, as long as it wasn't a particular shinigami. A shinigami whose past with Ichigo could disrupt the promising future that Tatsuki and his sister were trying to help jumpstart.

Shaking the dramatic thoughts away, Tatsuki opened the locker room doors to find herself looking into two wide, violet eyes.

"Rukia?!"

XXXXXX

Yuzu Kurosaki gasped in panic as she read the screen of her phone. Tatsuki had just messaged her, giving her the single piece of news that she didn't want to hear today.

Rukia was in town.

Darn! Darn darn darn darn damn—eep!

Slapping her hands over her mouth and chastising herself for letting Karin corrupt her vocabulary, Yuzu refocused on the matter at hand.

Rukia Kuchiki was in town on the night that everyone would be coming to her apartment.

It wasn't that she hated the raven-haired woman, far from it, but Rukia Kuchiki was the one part of Ichigo's life that she wasn't sure had been resolved.

Their attempt at dating had been a disaster, and ever since their breakup, the two always seemed weird around each other.

She couldn't describe it well, but when the two were together, they would revert to their old ways, bickering, fighting, and generally acting the way that they did in the build up to their romantic attempts.

Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was only weird to her. Still, what else was she supposed to think? How many couples could go back to acting like nothing had ever happened between them, that nothing had transpired beyond the abnormally strong friendship they had?

Ugh, of all nights, why tonight?!

Tatsuki and Yuzu had been working diligently on 'leading' Ichigo into realizing what was right in front of his face. The romantic potential between Ichigo and Claire was great, but it was clear that nothing would happen on its own. The pair continued to unknowingly dance around any form of breaching the topic, each seeming to be helplessly unaware of the other.

Yet, the way that he and Claire interacted, the way that they would sneak the briefest of glances at each other when they thought the other wasn't looking—it was adorable! They were clearly great friends, each bringing out good in the other, but there was so much potential for more.

How could they not see it?

The answer, in all honesty, was that they had as much work to do with Claire as they did with Ichigo. She seemed as clueless as her brother as to their chemistry, which only made Yuzu want to bring them together more.

The rose-haired woman who had stumbled into all of their lives clearly had a past of her own, and it seemed to keep her guarded from everyone around her. There were fleeting flashes of her dropping her defenses, yet it was Ichigo who seemed to be able to not only trigger those flashes, but sustain them for longer periods of time.

Focus, Yuzu! They could be here any moment!

Knock knock.

Her face slipping into a pout, Yuzu shook her hands to try and rid her mind of her frustrations, then quickly made her way to the door.

XXXXXX

A small smile graced Ichigo's lips as he navigated the winding streets leading to Yuzu's apartment. It had been a pleasant drive, with very little traffic and a striking sunset to grace their view.

Once more glancing to his right, he noticed Claire's tranquil expression, her head resting against the headrest as the wind whipped pink hair around her face. She looked at peace, relaxed.

He would not deny that he enjoyed these moments not just for himself, but for her, as well. Ichigo saw the tension that she carried in her steps, the ever-present burden of memory, of past experiences, and knew how much they could weigh on a person.

He dealt with enough of them, himself.

Yet, the number of times that Claire had been dropping her guard had been increasing in frequency.

They were small things, a gentle laugh here, a smile so brief he'd wondered if he'd seen correctly. Even during time with his friends, Claire would relax, sharing stories with Karin or listening patiently to Yuzu.

The moments were even more frequent when it was just himself and her. Relaxing around Claire was simple, almost natural. Her composed, reserved personality was complementary to his own, and her ability to give just as much as she received—whether fighting, arguing, or simply teasing— was endearing.

Some of his favorite moments were when they rode together to gatherings. The way she enjoyed the sun shining on her face, the wind in her hair, and the way she quietly hummed and nodded to the blaring music.

Maybe not always having this time of day solely to himself was okay.

Could definitely be a hell of a lot worse…

"I know that you have good reflexes, Ichigo, but you're going to have to look at the road at some point."

…but probably couldn't get much more awkward.

Flushing slightly at being caught, Ichigo rolled his eyes, grumbling to himself.

Somehow he always managed to forget Claire's impeccable senses and awareness. The woman had to have eyes in the back and sides of her head. Maybe a sixth sense? Whatever it was, it made for some uncomfortable—

Feeling eyes on his face, Ichigo turned slightly. Seeing Claire's gaze fixed on him, he turned back to the road, only to quickly snap his attention back to her.

Was that…

In the intermittent glances between her face and the road, Ichigo noticed her gently tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, a nearly imperceptible smile on her lips.

She busts my chops more than Rukia and Tatsuki combined, he thought wryly.

"Who do you think you're kidding? You love it," Zangetsu muttered within his mind.

"I just have to make sure that you're real, sometimes," Ichigo called over the rushing air, ignoring his inner spirit. Seeing Claire turn to him, a questioning look crossing her face, he continued.

"You not only humor my movie preferences, but you made a Star Wars reference, you like all of the same music, you seem to love driving fast with the roof down, you're an insane fighter, and you ride my ass more than just about anyone I've ever met. Hell, Chad doesn't even do all that. So, like I said: I have to make sure you're real every now and then."

"…I'm not sure what to tell you."

Rolling his eyes, more at himself than at her, Ichigo sighed, "It was supposed to be a compliment. I'm not that great at them, apparently."

Trying to contain the rising heat in his cheeks, Ichigo did all that he could to focus on the road, and not on his reflection in Claire's sunglasses.

It never ceased to amaze him that he could tell a patient everything about their body, from how it was built to how it worked, yet he couldn't tell a pretty girl something as simple as the fact that he enjoyed being around her.

"Dork," she said quietly—so quietly that he would later ask himself if he had heard correctly.

Seeing the entrance of his sister's apartment, he did what he could to push the embarrassing thoughts from his mind. There were better things to think on.

He could see a few of his friends' cars out front, Yuzu had told him that she was making his favorite dish, and he obviously hadn't been that much of an idiot—the small smirk seemed to still be tugging at Claire's lips.

Taking a deep breath as he stepped out of his now-parked car, Ichigo quietly closed the door, pausing to consider all that he had seen since—

"You know, if you just stand there and zone out all night, Chad's going to eat all of the food," Claire called from Yuzu's doorstep.

How did she…?

Shaking his head, Ichigo chuckled to himself as he walked to join Claire at the door.

XXXXXX

Rukia Kuchiki sighed to herself as she watched trees and buildings zoom by through the window of Tatsuki's car.

The modest sedan was cozy, yet her ride was anything but comfortable. Discreetly reaching to what hung on her chest, she clutched the reason for both her anxiety and confidence.

It had been little surprise to her when Renji had proposed. The man was terrible at keeping secrets, his near-constant nervousness over the last few weeks a clear indicator that he was building up the courage for something.

Smiling softly to herself, she recalled the moment that he had asked, his face so pale and frightened that he had nearly dropped the ring.

It was something she would forever find amusing, especially when she considered how fierce he was on the battlefield. Her fiancé was a more than capable lieutenant, a damn good shinigami, yet putty in her hands.

My jackass.

Now here she was, about to go tell her original jackass that she was going to marry the 'Pineapple Jackass,' as Ichigo liked to call him.

Why was she so nervous?

Hers and Ichigo's relationship had ended years ago, and quite amicably, to be honest. The two were—by some strange miracle—able to revert to how they had been before they had begun dating.

More than friends, yet less than lovers.

It had been a relief, when they had decided to remain friends. Their relationship had been stretched over a dimension, as Ichigo had refused to give up his human life to permanently move to the Soul Society.

Well, that's not entirely true.

Ichigo had offered, hell, he had damn near completed the process when she had learned what he was doing.

It had been hard to bear, seeing the look in his eyes whenever he had thought about giving up his human life, his friends and family. She had become physically ill from the stress of worrying over so many details, so many possibilities for their future.

Though painful, they had let each other go. He letting her remain within her ranks, within the plans she had made for herself over the decades she had been a shinigami. She letting him return to the only life he had known, the life that had been all but stolen from him by forces and wars beyond his imagining.

Still, there was no one she trusted more.

Ichigo Kurosaki was her partner, her truest friend, and she had wanted him to be the first to know of her engagement. She wanted his blessing, his best wishes… his approval.

Though not romantically involved anymore, Rukia still talked to Ichigo about everything. He listened and he cared. He never wanted anything less than the best for her, and she hoped beyond hope that he saw in Renji what she did.

Looking over to the slightly-too-focused Tatsuki, she smirked to herself.

Rukia Kuchiki was no fool. She felt the tension, saw the nervousness that her Karakura friends felt every time she and Ichigo were around each other. It was as if they were expecting the two of them to begin mauling each other at any moment.

How ridiculous!

While it was true that they had been lovers—even truly in love at one point—there were few in existence who could understand the bond and the friendship that truly defined them. The romantic chapter of their lives was over, a sweet, unobtrusive memory that only served to strengthen their friendship.

It was a joy for each of them that they were able to return to what they had been, he a brooding delinquent too stubborn for his own good, and she a 'regal midget' who had full rights to kick his ass whenever she deemed appropriate.

Smiling to herself, she knew that Ichigo would be happy for her. She still wanted to hear the words, to see the excitement in his eyes, but it was comforting to know that she could count on him.

Regardless, he's going to be so pissed when he hears that Byakuya knew before him.

She smiled more deeply, thinking of the unending competition the men in her life had with each other. They were idiots, and she loved them all the more for it.

Feeling Tatsuki's car decelerate, she looked up from her musings to see that not only had they arrived, but Ichigo had beaten them there.

Rukia took a deep breath, summoning her courage as she prepared to tell her best friend about the biggest moment in her life.

XXXXXX

"Are you serious?!"

Stunned, Ichigo watched in amazement as Rukia pulled on a chain that had been tucked in her shirt. Dangling from the end was a glittering jewel atop a silver ring.

It had happened. It had finally happened! That pineapple-headed jackass had actually popped the question, and she was clearly telling him first!

"'Bout time someone claimed your pain-in-the-ass self," he grumbled, doing his best to contain his smile as he looked at Rukia's own, which was becoming less and less friendly with each—

"Ow!" he shouted, grabbing his shin where she suddenly kicked him.

"Who are you to call someone a pain in the ass?!"

Putting his foot back onto the deck outside Yuzu's apartment, Ichigo finally smiled. He couldn't help it – his best friend was getting married!

Walking forward with a begrudging smile of her own, Rukia hugged Ichigo around the waist, her head resting against his abdomen.

"Thank you."

"Thank—what? What did I do?"

"I know we're close, Ichigo, but I was still nervous about telling you. We've had a long history, and I really… It means a lot to me that you're happy about this."

Hugging her back, Ichigo chuckled, "Of course I'm happy. You two are good for each other, and all of your violent tendencies now have a better target."

"Smartass," she murmured into his shirt, laughing to herself.

Stepping back, Ichigo gazed into the eyes of the woman who had so deeply changed his life what felt like a lifetime ago. Her eyes quickly averting, he raised a brow in confusion.

"Ichigo, before we tell the others, I was told to give you a message."

"Oh?" he responded, interested by the sudden bashfulness of the never bashful Rukia.

"Yes. Nii-sama made me promise to tell you, but I am trusting you to understand the why behind it."

"Um, okay?"

Looking to her in confusion, he wondered what could possibly be so bad. Hadn't she just told him she was getting married? This was a happy moment, right?

Then again, the message was from Byakuya. The man seemed to have an all-too-healthy competitive side, and he loved to rub Ichigo's face in any defeat, no matter how trivial.

Taking a deep breath, Rukia puffed her cheeks, met his gaze and said, "His words were, 'She came to me first. Deal with it'."

"Son of a bitch," Ichigo muttered under his breath. "Are you kidding me?! You had to tell Sakura-boy about this first? What the hell, Rukia?"

Click.

"Sorry!" Rukia answered, looking apologetic as she quickly snapped a picture of Ichigo's outraged face with a cellular phone that seemed to magically appear.

"Don't you send that! Don't you dare—"

Swoosh.

"Sorry!" she replied again, her phone giving the telltale sound of a sent message.

"Nii-sama said that he would pay for the entire wedding, our honeymoon, and an estate for us to start out with if I got him a picture of you reacting to the news of him hearing it first! I had to, Ichigo!"

Running a hand through his hair, Ichigo groaned in exasperation.

He should have known something like this was coming. Byakuya had never forgiven him once he had learned that Ichigo and Rukia had become lovers, back when he was in medical school.

Why can't he let that go?

It had been an interesting day, to say the least.

"You insolent fool! How dare you think that you can defile my sister's purity!" Byakuya bellowed, a loud snick signifying the sliding of Senbonzakura's blade from its sheath.

"Hey… you do realize that we both made the choice, right?" Ichigo snapped, grabbing Zangetsu's massive blade from his back.

"Shut up, Ichigo! Nii-sama, please!" Rukia cried, trying to intervene, yet her brother could not take his eyes away from Ichigo.

"Silence! Do you realize what you've done?! Not only have you sullied the body of my young sister, but you have tarnished her name. Once the clan learns of—"

"Oh shut the hell up!" Ichigo shouted, stepping forward aggressively as he pointed his blade at Byakuya.

He was livid, having always complained of Byakuya's endless attempts to adhere to old traditions. Rukia could only assume that it was his exhaustion from the endless fight and outrage at such a blatant statement that inspired the most un-Ichigo-like of moments she had ever witnessed to occur.

"Are you trying to tell me that your clan has nothing better to do than to worry about Rukia's vagina?!"

Oppressive, overwhelming silence fell upon the opulent study within the Kuchiki mansion. Byakuya stood, mouth agape at the audacity of the young man before him.

Snort.

Breaking the tense moment in the room, both men turned to look at the red faced Rukia, nearly doubled over in laughter.

There was no need to question, as hearing her boyfriend say the word 'vagina' to her brother was clearly too much for Rukia to handle.

Standing in shock, Byakuya was torn.

He wanted nothing more than to tear the boy before him to shreds, but in truth, Rukia was a grown woman and had been for some time. She was old enough to know what she wanted, to be responsible… to choose an idiot of a boyfriend as her lover.

How could she be so reckless, though? Did she not realize the level of public stature she had attained, just from being his sister?

Still, that laughter. The fact that she was literally rolling on the floor in good humor. That laughter had not been heard in decades.

Such a sweet sound…

Damn it all! He knew attacking the boy, or forbidding Rukia to see him, would only backfire. He couldn't push her away again, not after he had finally gotten her to see him as the brother he should have always been.

Leveling a murderous glance at the boy, Byakuya could only promise a lifetime of payback, retribution both large and small—anything, everything that would infuriate the boy would be used.

Ichigo Kurosaki would forever regret the day he tested Byakuya Kuchiki's patience.

Looking between his fingers at the ridiculous face of innocence that Rukia was now trying to portray, it still surprised Ichigo just how petty the Kuchiki clan leader could be.

Rolling his eyes, he snapped, "Yeah yeah, whatever, little traitor. Let's just go in so you can tell everyone else."

XXXXXX

The room was deathly quiet for several seconds, its inhabitants looking confusedly at each other before the squealing pair of Yuzu and Orihime had launched themselves at Rukia, demanding to see the ring.

Claire watched with calculating eyes as the woman claiming to be Ichigo's best friend shared the news of her impending nuptials.

It had been surprising to see an attractive young woman arrive with Tatsuki, then make her way directly to Ichigo, grabbing his hand and dragging him outside with her while shouting to the rest that she would be right back.

Not the most common of greetings, even on Pulse.

Rukia, an unusual name, but then every name that she encountered since arriving in Japan had seemed uncommon to her. Ichigo, Tatsuki, Yuzu…

"Good grief," Ichigo muttered, interrupting her thoughts.

Looking to her left, she saw Ichigo—who had flopped down and retaken his seat beside her—rolling his eyes at the near over-the-top joy that Yuzu was showing over Rukia's announcement.

Apparently Renji, a guy that everyone but she knew, had been dragging his feet for quite some time with the marriage proposal. Ichigo himself was smiling about the events, bantering good-naturedly with Rukia about pineapples and midgets, and his curiosity around their potential offspring.

Claire remained silent, observing the room and its occupants. She had yet to be introduced to this woman, something seemingly forgotten in the wake of the news, but it seemed that Rukia's announcement brought quite a bit of joy to the group.

Well, maybe joy wasn't the best of terms. Not for all of them.

Keigo, Mizuiro, and most of the others were all gathered around Rukia, giving their happy congratulations. Around the room, however, she noticed a few other looks. Tatsuki had dropped onto a couch, sharing meaningful looks with Yuzu and Chad.

Looks that weren't so much joyous, but… relieved?

Why would they be relieved? Was it really that big of a deal?

Sure, engagements were good things. Even given the buffoon of a groom, Claire had still been happy for her sister. Had her Karakura friends really been so worried about this pair's relationship?

Weird.

"…That's so strange. Awesome, but strange," she caught Keigo saying as he clapped Rukia on the shoulder. Handing the shorter woman a beer, he continued.

"After all of the crazy things that you've done, I could've sworn that you and Ichigo were going to be the ones getting married. Eh, guess you just have a thing for men with reddish hair, huh?"

What?! Ichigo and this woman were going to get married?

Stunned, Claire wasn't sure what to think of the odd revelation.

This woman—an ex of Ichigo's—yet now his close friend?

Had they been planning on marriage? Yet now he was someone she came to see first to tell her biggest news? The questions piled up, and one stood out from amongst the rest—

Why the hell do I care?

She had her own past, both as Claire and as Lightning. She had her own experiences, even brief dalliances in love—if they could be called that. Even so, why did the sudden revelation about Ichigo's past bring up so many questions in her present?

Her musings were cut short by a dull thunk and loud cry.

"Ow!"

His head rocking back, Claire watched as Tatsuki's half-filled beer can struck Keigo in the forehead, knocking him to the floor.

"W-What the hell, Tats?!" the injured man cried, gripping his head tightly.

"Quit being a jackass! We're here because Rukia wanted to celebrate her engagement with friends, idiot," she groused, giving a quick, worried glance to Claire before turning back to Yuzu.

Okay, now this is getting a little uncomfortable. What is it that I am missing?

"Speaking of friends," Ichigo interrupted, noisily shifting on the couch beside Claire. Getting to his feet, she watched as he turned to her.

"Claire, this is Rukia Kuchiki. She's a friend of ours from—out of town. We've known her for a long time."

Standing, herself, Claire stepped forward, extending her hand. She had no real problems introducing herself to Ichigo's former—whatever—?

Right.

"Hello, Rukia. I'm Claire."

The pretty, shorter woman returned the gesture, grasping Claire's hand. "Nice to meet you, Claire."

"Likewise."

With their greetings exchanged, an awkward silence fell over the room for the briefest of moments.

"Ungh, Tatsuki… You suck," Keigo groaned from the floor, drawing everyone's attention. As he came into a sitting position, snorts and laughter began to erupt when a sharp, red ring on his forehead became evident.

Chuckling quietly, Tatsuki rolled her eyes and turned back to Rukia.

"Claire is pretty new to Japan, but she's an instructor at my gym. She teaches sword fighting and advanced hand-to-hand combat. Checked it out before I left – she's so popular that she's booked solid for the next few months."

A dark, raised eyebrow met the introduction. Looking impressed, Rukia said, "You know a lot about sword fighting and combat? Talk about falling in with the right crowd."

"Yeah, that's what I've found out."

"And you're a teacher? Maybe one day you can help the hopeless case that is Ichigo."

Smirking at the loud groan from Ichigo, Claire kept her laughter in check long enough to hear him mutter a curse as his body flopped back onto the couch.

"Oh get over it, Ichigo. You know that you suck at actual swordplay," Rukia called out, looking around Claire's shoulder to taunt her friend.

"Oh yeah? Tell that to your brother," he muttered in annoyance, crossing his arms and rolling his eyes.

Claire smiled, knowing exactly where the conversation was going, if the expression on Karin's face was any indication.

"Geez, why are you so pissy tonight?" Rukia asked, shifting her weight onto her hip and leveling an annoyed glare at Ichigo. Turning back to Claire, she smirked.

"We can take a seat next to the grouchy one, Claire. Don't worry, he's all bark."

"Is that so?" Claire responded dryly, smirking at the now deadpan Ichigo.

Getting no reply, Rukia walked over to his side, sitting on the couch beside him. Still hearing no answer to her query, Claire watched as Rukia raised a fist and punched Ichigo just above his knee.

"Don't think you can ignore me, jackass!" she shouted, only for a large hand to place itself on her forehead, casually pushing her backwards.

"Blah blah blah, nobody can ignore you, little midget. And I am not pissy, for your information."

"Ah, he is just uncomfortable, Rukia," Orihime interrupted, a thoughtful look on her face. "Ichigo-kun has been acting strangely for a while, now. Ever since he ran Claire over when he met her, and when she beat him in a spar."

Hearing a muffled groan from Ichigo, whose face was now covered by a couch pillow, Claire smiled as she watched a devious grin cross Rukia's lips.

I never thought Orihime would be the one to tell on him.

"You run her over when you meet her, then she whoops your ass in a match?! Oh, Nii-sama is going to love this!"

"This again? Really guys? Ugh, and what is it with you and your damned Nii-sama?" Ichigo moaned, dropping the pillow. "Isn't Renji going to get jealous of your brother complex?"

"Now now, Ichigo. It's okay, I've found that this world is really progressive! Women beat men at all kinds of things these days, so you shouldn't feel too bad!" Rukia cooed, patting his knee patronizingly to the choked humor of the room.

"Ah, shut the hell up, you smartass midget!"

"I'm sure the ladies of the SWA would get a kick out of the big, bad, Berry getting his butt handed to him by the very woman he trampled as an introduction!"

"Aaaannnnd this conversation is now over. Thanks, you tiny pain in my—and now Renji's—ass."

"Uh huh," Rukia acquiesced with a smirk. Sitting up further she reached over, gently rustling Ichigo's hair.

"You need a haircut. This is getting too shaggy again."

Claire smiled at the banter. It seemed that everyone loved to antagonize Ichigo, and knew exactly what buttons to push. It was also clear that—at least when it was pointed out—he was a very sore loser.

However, she felt a gnawing something as she watched Ichigo swat at Rukia's hand.

It was humorous, like a young boy swatting his mother's hand away when embarrassed. There was no true discomfort, no nervousness within each touch. There was an understanding in place.

Their interactions were so natural, so comfortable.

Maybe that was the cause of the knot that was forming in Claire's stomach? Ichigo and Rukia's interactions had been making Claire feel strange all evening; perhaps she had found the root.

Damn it all, this is getting annoying. Why do I care that he's so comfortable with her touch?

Or that he doesn't shy away at all…

Maybe it was the ease of the contact, the depth of relationship required by Ichigo to allow such a thing to occur. Claire had seen more than enough of Ichigo's interaction with people to witness his low tolerance for physical contact.

Still, this woman had claimed a close friendship with Ichigo, so what was bothering her about the contact? Even though they were formerly romantically involved, her emotions didn't feel like jealousy, not that she could tell.

Then what? What was it that was twisting her stomach, tightening her muscles and causing her such discomfort—if it could be called discomfort?

Unexpected and unbidden, it was actually Lumina's voice that rang in her mind.

"You know what's bothering you. No need to deny it!"

Even when she's 'returned' to me, that brat's always got something to say.

No need to deny it? Why would she deny her discomfort? Why should she be bothered that Ichigo Kurosaki was proving to be an incredibly potent salve for the bitter loneliness that would encroach upon her mind?

The answer was startlingly simple. Uncomfortably simple. Rukia's ability to touch Ichigo so familiarly was awakening something unknown to both Lightning and Claire.

Want.

Claire had never known want, never truly known desire before. Ever since her parents' deaths, it had been one strategy after another, countless plans that did little more than occupy her mind.

Lightning had been born from this, her creation flowing from the fear and vulnerability that Claire had been unable to face. Lightning was the form that protected Claire and Serah from the onslaught of an ever-changing life, yet now… things were far quieter.

Which all boils down to the fact that I am beyond 'out of my depth.'

She had touched people before. Hell, she had even hugged and comforted Hope on more than one occasion!

Still, that was… different. Different feelings, almost familial in nature. She had wanted to protect Hope, comfort him in the grueling struggles of his life as his partner, his family. With Ichigo, however, things were more complicated, more—just more.

Perhaps she would work on that. Perhaps it was the next phase of…whatever it was they were.

Did this mean that she was romantically interested in Ichigo Kurosaki?

It wasn't the worst thing she had ever heard of, if she were being completely objective. He was a generous, kind, smart man who was fun and easy to be around, and he happened to be pleasing enough to look at…

Not crucial, by any means, but it's kind of nice.

Mentally shaking her head at herself, Claire returned to the present just in time to hear Ichigo telling their story.

"…so I go in for a lunge. Should've been simple, an easy win. Then Claire runs at me full speed, steps onto my knee and launches herself into some acrobatic flip. She lands behind me and I have a bokken at my neck before I know what's going on."

A quick look of surprise from Rukia informed Claire that what she had done was not usually… done.

"The look on Ichigo's face was priceless. What I wouldn't give to have a picture of that moment," Tatsuki crowed from her seat across the room.

"That's really impressive Claire," Rukia commented. "I hope to get to see these moves myself, one day."

"Are you a sword user as well?"

Rukia nodded with a smirk. Patting Ichigo's head, she laughed, "Sure am. Taught this one here everything he knows, though he's clearly forgetting a lot."

Claire's brow raised.

So, birds of a feather, huh? Looks like everyone here has some kind of fighting background. Well, maybe not the twins, but that would be it. Interesting.

Feeling a faint tickle at her clavicle, Claire raised her hand just as a loud beep rang out.

The room fell silent, turning in unison to the table in the corner where they had left their mobile phones. Tension grew rapidly, and Claire was confused by the quick glances many gathered passed between themselves.

"Ah, it must be someone from the hospital," Uryuu sighed, standing quickly and grabbing his device. With a brief nod to Ichigo, he continued, "If you do not mind, I will step out and call them back. Please, continue without me, I will return shortly."

As the door clicked behind him, conversation immediately resumed.

That was weird.

It must have been an emergency at the hospital. That was all that Claire could think of that could cause such tension with a simple phone notification.

Shrugging the thought off, she settled back into the cushions of the sofa, watching the interactions around the room in amusement.

"It's been a pretty good night, huh?"

Turning her attention to Ichigo, she nodded in response. It had been a fun night, indeed. Though the start had been a little weird, she had relaxed quite a bit from that point.

"You have very interesting friends, Ichigo."

With a smirk, he chuckled and nudged her knee with his own. "They're your friends too, Claire. I can't say that I've seen them take to someone as quickly as they have you, though. It's just your bubbly personality, eh?"

Smirking slightly, Claire gave a sharp poke to his ribs with her knuckle.

"Yeah, that's what I'm known for."

She smiled to herself. Maybe she could do this. Just like with humor, a big portion of this was in making the attempt.

Seems to work thus far.

As Ichigo leaned back to meet her position, they continued chatting, even when Uryuu came back fifteen minutes later, his hair slightly disheveled.

On and on the night passed with pleasant conversations, witty banter, and plenty of laughter to fill the modest apartment.

Sighing to herself, Claire could only be grateful for the sense of normalcy that her new friends provided.

XXXXXX

Yuzu smiled as she dried another dish, thinking happily to herself as the group chatted loudly behind her.

She loved having these get-togethers at her apartment. Playing host was her element, and she never failed to receive less-than-glowing compliments from those who partook in the fruits of her culinary labors.

Or "damn good cookin','' as Ichigo liked to call it.

Giggling at the curious look that Claire had given him when he had uttered that phrase earlier in the evening, she knew that Karakura's latest resident had a thing for her brother, even if the woman didn't fully know it, herself.

It was strange, watching the pair interact. Their relationship bore much of the inherent banter that Ichigo and Tatsuki's friendship did, yet there were also quite a few unspoken moments, more like he had with Rukia.

She seemed to bring out somewhat more of the gentleman in him, if only just. He often waited until she was seated to sit, would get her drinks, and always included her in the conversation.

It's about time he stopped acting like a Neanderthal when outside the clinic and hospital!

Still, it was clear that they needed some kind of push to get them thinking of each other in a less-than-platonic manner. Smart they may have been, but insightful they were not.

Ichi-nii deserves some real happiness in his life, and from everything she's shown us, Claire does too.

Huffing to herself, she frowned.

I'd have more time to plan it if I didn't have to prepare for that silly event with Ichi-nii on Sunday!

Seriously, it never ceased to amaze Yuzu at the nonsense that her brother liked. Every year, he was invited to some Grand Prix-racing-event-thing by the hospital board, and every year he offered to take either her or Karin as a 'thank you' to them. Karin went last year, and though he hadn't asked, she knew he would probably invite her tonight, just to keep things fair.

Sure, it was quite the elaborate event with celebrities, fine champagne, and fast cars, but she really could not care less about sporting events. She watched Karin's football matches out of love, and only attended these events with Ichigo because it made him so hap—

Slapping her cleaning brush down in inspiration, Yuzu yelped at the plume of suds and water that splashed her apron.

That's it! A fancy event that he is always happy about, and it would just be him and her! Why have I not thought of this until now?!

"Claire?" she called from the kitchen, turning around to see that she had the attention of the rose haired woman. Said woman smiled kindly as she rose, presumably to help with cleanup.

She's such a nice woman.

"No, you don't have to come help or anything. I was just wondering… What do you have going on this Sunday?"

Raising a thoughtful brow, Claire pondered a moment.

"I don't believe I have any plans, at the moment. Why?"

"Oh, I just forgot that I had made plans with Tatsuki this weekend. Ichi-nii, you should take Claire to the race on Sunday!"

"The… race?" Claire asked, her brow raised questioningly as she turned to Ichigo.

Rubbing the back of his head, Ichigo looked slightly uncomfortable, cutting a small glare to Yuzu over her shoulder.

"Uh, yeah. Every year, I get invited to a big racing event that happens all around the world, including here in Japan. It's pretty fun, and kinda fancy…"

"Kinda?" Karin scoffs. "There are celebrities, politicians, and more booze than you've ever seen in your life. The racing's okay, I guess. Loud engines and fast cars."

"Exactly! Didn't you say that you liked fast cars, Claire? This would be great for you to go to with Ichi-nii!" Yuzu exclaimed, her smile beaming.

Come on, Ichi-nii, don't be a jerk!

Inwardly rolling her eyes at her brother's lost look, Yuzu gave him a stern glance once Claire's attention was turned.

"Y-Yeah, it could be fun," Ichigo said, looking confusedly at her before turning back to Claire. "That is, if you'd want to go."

Yuzu's hand clapped to her face.

Why? Why must my brother be as dense as a brick?! He's looking at her like he's a lost puppy. Just ask the woman on a date! He hasn't dated a woman in ages, and he needs to get out of his office every now and again.

Not to mention, he and Claire were just so perfect for each other! Even if things didn't work out, it was worth a shot, wasn't it?

Sighing, she knew that a sister's work was never done.

Smirking at Tatsuki as Ichigo finally 'asked,' and Claire finally answered, "Um, alright," Yuzu Kurosaki breathed a sigh of relief.

Try as they might to make it difficult, they were finally making some progress.

She watched as the room slowly returned to its normal tone of conversation, but she could not stop the smile that bloomed on her face as she watched a slightly flushed Claire sink back into the sofa cushions, gently tucking a strand of hair behind her ear as she looked at Ichigo.

XXXXXX

"What a night, huh?" Ichigo hedged, stretching as he stepped out of his car.

"Hm? Oh, yes, you could say that."

Hearing the distracted hum, Ichigo turned to face Claire, who was just shutting the passenger door with a solid click.

She had been distracted the entire ride back to her apartment, lost in her own thoughts.

"Everything okay?"

Her head turned, and her brows were raised high as she clearly came back into the moment.

"Hm? Yes, everything is fine."

Shrugging to himself, Ichigo walked alongside her towards her apartment door. She was a big girl, she'd let him know if she needed something, surely.

"You know…" she started, only to suddenly stop again.

"What's up?" he asked, nudging her shoulder slightly, trying to snap her out of whatever funk she found herself in. Rather quickly, she began speaking again.

"I know that Yuzu asked in front of everyone, and I didn't want to make it awkward, but it's okay if you would rather take someone else on Sunday. I don't want you to feel obligated or put on the spot."

Raising a brow of his own, Ichigo chuckled, "Yeah, Yuzu learned a little too much from Tatsuki, huh?"

"She certainly has her moments, but I mean it. I felt you tense up when she asked, but I didn't want to make it feel uncomfortable there."

"Ah, that," Ichigo sighed as he rubbed his head. "Well, Claire, it's not that I don't want you to go. That's not it at all. I just… I wish that she'd held off on the invite."

"Given the time, I would guess that you've already invited someone. It's no worry, Ichigo, really," she nodded in understanding.

"No!" Ichigo said, shaking his head.

"No?"

"Ah, yeah… No. Look, I haven't invited anyone, but I was going to invite you."

Trying to reconcile his nervousness with the fact that she had already agreed to go, Claire answered in confusion.

"Oh? I mean—thank you, but please don't feel obligated to—"

Ichigo lightly grabbed her arm just as she was reaching her door. Gathering his courage, he said, "I meant that I was going to invite you—as a date."

Claire paused, looking quickly up to Ichigo's face. He was nervous, clearly, but he seemed genuine.

"You're asking me out?" she asked, watching his expression closely.

"Yeah."

Come on, it hasn't been that long, has it?

"You're not the smoothest of guys, are you?"

Okay, maybe it has.

With a sharp sigh, Ichigo murmured, "Nope, can't really say that I am. It's been ages, and I have no real clue as to what the hell I'm doing."

"So you're not sure if you're asking me out?"

"What? No, I am positive on that part."

Am I really that bad at this? he thought to himself, only to frown in aggravation at the affirmations from his zanpakuto.

"Why?"

Ah, now that I can answer.

"Simple. I like you."

For a moment, neither said a word. Ichigo stood tensely watching as Claire seemed to be searching him for something. Whatever it was, he had no clue, but the faint flush on her cheeks was something he took as a positive.

She hasn't actually said no…

"Okay."

Mouth falling open in surprise, Ichigo repeated, "O-Okay?"

She actually said yes?

With a small smile, Claire reached forward, lightly pushing his hanging jaw closed.

"Okay."

And with that, she turned, disappearing into her apartment.

Ichigo could not stop the full-fledged smile that crossed his lips. He may have been awkward, possibly the furthest thing from smooth there was, but it didn't seem to matter too much to Claire.

Sliding his hands into his pockets, he whistled lightly on the way back to his car.

Okay.

XXXXXX

Claire stood, leaning on the other side of her door with a smirk as she heard Ichigo whistling back to his car.

He really is such a dork.

She couldn't explain why she had gone all 'Lightning' and grilled him so much, but from the moment she heard him say that he wanted to ask her on a date, it became far more important to her that he actually do so.

It's been ages since someone has asked me out. I think I am entitled to a little directness and clarification.

Regardless, she couldn't deny the slight surge of relief that she felt when he asked. It wasn't just her who was beginning to feel… something.

Sure, it was no declaration of love, and she was certainly not there, herself. Still, she liked him and he liked her.

There were worse starts.

He was a little awkward, she had to confess, yet the deeper admission was that she found it to be very appealing from him. Always so confident, always the de facto leader of the group, it was nice to see Ichigo be so—human.

Like he could be anything else, she thought, rolling her eyes.

Frowning, Claire shook her head, trying to clear her head and her stomach of the light feelings within.

It's just a date.

Huffing in aggravation at her sister's relentless voice within her mind, Claire made her way into her bedroom. Flopping onto the bed, she took stock of her night.

A great night with friends, the discovery—or proper cataloguing—of feelings, and her first date in literally centuries.

Not a bad day.

XXXXXX

Melbourne, Australia

Settling in for the night, Fang smiled as she watched Vanille wrap herself beneath the lion's share of their deep blue bedcovers with a soft shuffle.

Stingy little brat, she thought fondly.

Climbing into bed behind her, the protesting springs beneath her soon quieted, allowing her to peacefully reach forward, pulling her 'cover hog' to her.

A content hum was the only response from the quickly fading Vanille, but it was enough.

This world ain't so bad.

She had been worried, initially, when they had all but crashed into this new Earth. Not knowing what to expect, she had been uncertain that they could actually make their way in the 'civilized world,' as those Cocoon bastards would have described it.

Still, it had been quite fortunate that she and Vanille had arrived in a place called Australia. The name meant nothing to her, but it was fantastic that many there shared her accent.

Finally, I'm not the weird sounding one.

They shared her love of the drink, too, but that was another matter.

Fang and Vanille had found themselves strangely provided for within this new world, but who was she to look a gift-horse in the mouth?

Regardless of what it could mean, things were peaceful. She had her Vanille, she had quiet, and she lived in a land where men could finally keep pace with her at the pub.

For a little while, at least, she thought smugly.

Life was good.

As she did every night, she sent whatever hopes and prayers she could that her family and friends could find the same peace and enjoyment of their new lives.

She hoped that Hope had found some interesting gizmos to fool around with, something to keep his mega-brain occupied. Also, she hoped that the grumpy old man that was Sazh had finally lightened up with Dajh back in the picture. She hoped that Serah had finally beaten some sense into the harder-than-crystal head of Snow, and she hoped that Noel was finally happy now that he was with Yeul.

Yes, she missed them all, but as long as they were happy, she supposed she could accept it. She could only pray for their happiness in ways that she knew they would find it.

Though, whatever is out there hearing this, I really hope that you get that tight-ass Lightning laid.

Sleepily scratching a faint itch on her no-longer branded arm, she drifted off to sleep, unknowing that in distant lands across her new world, several other faint itches were being scratched.

XXXXXX

Somewhere Over the Pacific Ocean

TapTapTapTapTapTap

Echoing taps filled the otherwise silent cabin of the soaring jetliner. Some were fast, some were slow, yet others were erratic—a strange mixture of the two.

Tap—

The incessant noise finally ceasing, Hope Estheim looked up from his laptop computer, grimacing as he gently pinched the bridge of his nose.

The keyboards on Cocoon were never this noisy.

Leaning back into his seat, he took a brief moment to peer out of the window closest to him. The night was endless, stretching deep and dark into the distance, shy slivers of moonlight barely giving light.

I'm sure Vanille loves this kind of night.

Smiling softly to himself, Hope took the chance to reminisce about his scattered family. He missed them dearly, but held strongly to the desire that they had found as much to interest them in this new world as he had.

So much potential!

The world was quite primitive, compared to the opulence of Cocoon. The technology was at least two, maybe three centuries behind in some cases.

And yet, that had been one of his favorite things about 'Earth'. The mind that he never could seem to turn off had more than enough projects to keep it occupied. His current favorite now rested on his lap.

It was a laptop computer, or at least it had started out in life as such. Hope had found that Earth's technology was quite open to modification and expansion. Within a week of landing somewhere called 'California', he had not only obtained a computer, but had begun modifications of everything from battery efficiency to algorithms for processing facial recognition of large batches of images.

Images that may—or may not—have been obtained legally.

How was he supposed to know the protocols of national security when he had only just learned the name of said country?

Still, the massive loopholes found in the technology had provided him with his first clean hit, and what a hit it had been.

By sheer coincidence, Hope had been looking up information about a place called 'Australia'. From glimpses of television shows and such, it seemed quite the Pulsian mirror, which had captured his attention.

While researching the country—which happened to be a massive island— Hope had found a video of locals in pubs, which had led to the hilarious images of Fang drinking men under the table.

We never fail to make an impact, it seems.

Regardless, it was beyond satisfying to see one of the people he called family.

Speaking of seeing them…

Standing and peeking his head through the cockpit door, Hope asked, "How long before we land?"

A loud sigh met his query.

"You kids never seem to have any patience. We'll get there when we get there, Hope. How about you get some sleep? You know, quietly? That big ol' brain of yours has to slow down sometime."

Hope grinned at the scowling Sazh Katzroy, his second—and far simpler—find.

Scratching a light itch on his wrist, Hope decided to give the man's suggestion a try. Resting in a large seat, he turned and looked out the window once more.

Fang, Vanille, we'll see you soon.

XXXXXX

Soul Society. A land seemingly trapped in time.

The land of eternity was clearly a dated place, modeled closely to what Japan's Edo period had reflected. Buildings, edifices, and the land itself painted a portrait of years long past. Customs and manners matched—with few exceptions—to create an 'ever after' that was defined by whatever soul was in question.

Even so, the Soul Society was not immune to change.

Within only a few years, there had been a brash, orange-haired young man that stormed the Seireitei and literally reshaped much of the land—and mind—scape of the realm that had been in existence for many millennia. Perspectives had broadened, and even the rigid laws of old had bent to his will.

He had been an unstoppable force, a human who protected the realm of the dead time and again.

Ugh, such a pest of a boy. I couldn't even get proper samples, Mayuri Kurotsuchi scoffed to himself as he tapped an unnamed rhythm with his long nails.

Glancing impatiently once more to a glowing screen within his laboratory, the enigmatic captain of the Research Squad returned to his uncharacteristically whimsical thoughts.

Soul Society was truly a fascinating blend of things both new and old. It was always interesting to see the workings of a realm in which strongholds sometimes fell to the forces of change, yet often remained as rotting corpses gilded in the appealing flesh of progress.

For all of its flaws, for all it's shortcomings, it worked.

Mayuri would openly admit that the system was not perfect; in fact, it was egregiously flawed from top to bottom. Some spirits came to find eternal rest in peace and comfort, while others would simply wither away in desolate poverty and grief, forced to join the cycle of reincarnation whether they were prepared or not.

And because of that, because there were such holes within the afterlife itself, therein lay its potential to be so interesting.

Imperfection allowed discovery. Flaws permitted innovation. The afterlife as it was provided a plethora of opportunities to reach beyond, to create more and more, to expand the boundaries of what was possible and to reach amongst the—

Well, it would if my blasted machinery did what I created it to do!

His patience finally evaporated, Mayuri snapped from his thoughts to face the screen that seemed to mock his intelligence.

I will scrap you, you insolent hunk of metal! I will strip you down to bare parts and rewrite your coding from the very begi—

BEEP.

Interrupted from his tantrum, he paused his plots of reconstruction as a printing sheet drew his attention. It was the quarterly report of soul influx, and he certainly hoped it was worth the near insufferable wait.

O-ho.

It seemed that the information could prove quite worth the wait, indeed.

"Akon! What exactly is the range for these figures?" he snapped, not even looking to see if his assistant was present.

A sharp crackle indicated the use of a microphone as the man replied, "Twelve weeks for total, focus is five weeks."

Mayuri froze.

Five weeks? Five weeks?!

"Are you certain this is accurate?"

"Yes, sir. There are over one thousand purified souls unaccounted for at the beginning of the quarter. Konso's are on record, but the souls never made it to Soul Society."

"And the Dangai?"

"Unaffected, as far as we can tell."

Rustling the papers in his hands, Mayuri hummed thoughtfully.

"Very well, dismissed."

It was as if those five weeks had simply not occurred. The months before, the months after, all progressed with a striking regularity. Yet, the glaring hole of those five weeks was—interesting.

As he gazed unseeing at the screen on the wall before him, the intrigued captain pondered on what he had just learned. Though concerning, the numbers were still not quite significant enough to warrant extreme action.

Not when there were samples to be found and eventually gathered.

Whether or not that remained the case, he would have to keep a close eye on things.

Perhaps the afterlife is going to become entertaining yet again.

XXXXXX

Kisuke Urahara raised a curious brow as he clicked on a report within his system.

It had been ages since he had hacked into Mayuri's laboratory, installing his own devices to both intercept and deliver the data received by the current captain of the Research and Development squad.

The theft—or sharing, as he liked to call it—was something he felt to be vital to the survival of many within not only Soul Society, but the living world and even Hueco Mundo itself. In all actuality, the information was only supplementary at best to his own system.

Mayuri Kurotsuchi was not known for his humanity, nor his appreciation for life. As a result, Kisuke had created his own silent system of checks and balances for the ranking scientist.

That, and the tantrums he throws when I correct him with his own information make for such deliciously satisfying moments.

BEEP.

Seeing that his computers had decrypted the borrowed files, Kisuke perused the latest batch of data from the flow of purified souls.

My my.

The numbers that he read were disturbing.

There had been times where the flow of souls had thinned, and even brief windows where there had been none at all. However, there had never been a time when weeks had passed by and not a single konsoed soul had arrived within Soul Society.

The implications were intriguing, indeed.

Correlating the data with the last batch of reports he had generated, Kisuke decided that it was best to begin investigating. Perhaps he would call on Ichigo, to see if the young man had been aware of any irregularities lately. If something nefarious was afoot, it was nearly certain that his former student would be at the center of it.

Not to mention, I hear that he has a new girlfriend. It's been far too long since I have antagonized the boy.

Smiling to himself, Kisuke stood and began to prepare for his latest round of a game he fondly titled, 'Poke the Bear-y.'