He woke up among burning flames and hazy memories, blinking his way toward consciousness with a flutter of blond lashes. Everything was so bright, yet warm and comfortable. Ichigo could not remember feeling so well in months, here, his head toward the ceiling and nothing to plague his mind, unfocused as he was. A slow, satisfying sigh escaped his lips in a murmur.

It starts like any other day.

Meaning to stretch himself like a lazy cat, he started to move his shoulders back, but suddenly stopped.

Well, almost…

This morning, something was different. His relaxed face looked down with mild wonder, discovering a weight he had not felt before, sprawled over his unaware body. Thin, wispy locks of raven hair escaped his coverlet, shining in the sunlight a few inches from his chin. Something in the boy's mind clicked, making him gaze in speculation as if whether or not he was dreaming.

Now that I think of it, that crazy man that serves as my dad has not been up and about to kick me in the face this morning…

Not too sure about what exactly was going on, or what might have happened the night before, he breathed in carefully, not wanting to wake her, and brought his arms around her light form, protective as ever.

All hell broke loose a few minutes later, as he was slowly falling asleep again, when the alarm went on in sharp beeps.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

She didn't remember where she was, or what she might have been dreaming about, but it all came to a rapid, brutal stop when she landed on the floor, hard. Choking a scream back, dignity be saved, she opened round eyes in surprise and tried to get up in quick motion, resulting in momentary spots in her vision.

Rukia glanced around, not too sure where she stood, and then her mind registered the place as Ichigo's room. Said person was also half-mangled in his sheets, a leg thrown off and confusion evident on his drowsy features. Yet, she had to make a double-take to think clearly and fast, as the sole vision of him made her boil from the insides and remember flashes of what had transpired mere hours ago.

"Ichigo?"

The beeping stopped when his hand landed sharply on the alarm. He shook his orange locks, still half-absent, and then looked up at her.

"Ugn.. sorry."

Something peculiar happened just then. His innocent look flew away in a second, replaced by a slightly perplexed expression she had never seen before, as if he was considering something. His face looked flustered, or maybe it was a trick of the intense sunlight. Both stood there, not quite gaping, but neither could exactly piece the events back together.

Suddenly feeling out of place, uncomfortable, she looked at the clock, then back at him, not trusting herself to speak. He followed her motion, his expressive brows reflecting the shock at how late he was. Ichigo jumped out of bed and grabbed his uniform in a hurry.

Still clothed in black shinigami garb and not quite corporeal herself, Rukia simply jumped out of the window.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

The light was simply staggering with its piercing intensity. The hot weather didn't help; making mirage wavers across the asphalt everywhere he looked. Ichigo walked, eyes half closed and aimed down, toward school.

"ICHIGO! Oi, Ichigo!"

Frowning a bit, he lifted his head toward the shadowed grounds of the school, where the building towered its presence under the hammering rays of that blasted sun. He had to squint, but could still make the figures of Asano and company near the entrance, if only by the hyperactive boy's frantic bounce.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

From the tree-laden lawns, the girls giggled and talked of everything and nothing, just enjoying the bright, new day as usual. A tall, hair-clipped head followed the boy's entrance on the school grounds, her gaze intense and speculative.

"Something's changed."

Tasuki eyed her with curiosity, not quite following the air-headed girl's thinking.

"What changed?"

"Him. Kurosaki-kun."

The short-haired karate champion followed her gaze toward Ichigo, analysing what could have given her this impression. Perhaps it was because she had known him for so long, despite the distance that stood between them down, but she could indeed sense he was… different from his recent gloomy self.

"I think you have a point, Inoue. I wonder what happened…"

The bubbly girl simply smiled, emanating her unique aura of happiness and contentment in reply.

"What happened didn't matter. As long as he is well."

Tasuki merely nodded, fully in accord with that statement.

………………………………………………………………………………………………

Classes had come and gone in the blink of an eye to him. He couldn't remember anything the teacher had said this morning, his being a growing chaos of thoughts and feelings he was only beginning to sort out.

He now stood on the roof, alone despite lunch hour. For once, his pesky friends, or more precisely, Asano, had decided to use another spot to break their fast, leaving him to his own contemplations.

Might have been something about Chad's remark after all…He always knows everything.

He grabbed the metal rail, looking on toward the horizon, gaze lost in pale, feathery clouds and infinite blue. His subconscious fed his mind with flashes from his breakdown, his struggles, his other self… and what had finally saved him.

"Maybe I forgot what made me what I am. Perhaps I couldn't see what was in front of me all this time…"

He could picture his companions, those who had stood with him in foreign Soul Society, despite the danger.

"Pride be damned, I'd never have gone so far without them."

He remembered her astounded expression, when he had come, flying in full cloak and black cloth galore, to cloud her peaceful execution with promises of saving her no matter what. The single, outraged image of her shouting her head off for him to run made him chuckle out loud.

"Even then, I couldn't get better without you."

His hand went up to scratch the unruly, spiked hair; a habit he always had when he was thinking hard. Frowning, he rambled on, relieving himself by speaking out loud, where nobody could hear him.

"Ah, who am I kidding, I could never be alone for the life of me."

Thinking back on the last weeks, he could clearly see where his weakness of spirit had come from.

With no eyes to see me, nobody to pester me, make me angry, give me reason to shout at, or laugh… no wonder I let go so easily.

He sighed with contentment, his mind finally clear, devoid of doubt or anguish. There would always be more battle, more blood, more blades and flourish, but never another day in defeat.

"As long as they… she… is around."

He pictured her frantically running silhouette in the back of his mind and smirked.

"And even if you run away, no matter if it's to the ends of hell and back, I'll catch you by the scruff of the neck and bring you back kicking!"

A soft hand grasped his arm, neither hard nor delicately, making a bold statement to his last trailing sentence.

"You won't have to."

He didn't flinch nor did he look away from the sky. He simply grabbed her by her school vest and placed her between himself and the ramp. Crossing his arms over her shoulders, holding her close to him from her back, he left his chin touch the top of her head, her hair flailing in the wind toward his face.

"I sure hope not, Rukia."

Her hands went up to cover his, their fingers mingled in warm embrace, and she exhaled, smiling, following his gaze toward yonder.

----- The end.