Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach. Heck, Kubo's doing such a great job (go 317!) that I'm satisfied just basking in his glory.

Chapter 28: (Foolish) Plans

Only a week had passed since Kaien had regained his memories on that first rainy evening of the season, but in Ichigo's head it felt as if whole months had gone by. He was even having trouble finishing up a simple worksheet as he sat at Rukia's desk listening to some background music through his earphones. It wasn't the downpour of rain that lasted almost all week that set him on edge, but rather Rukia and Kaien's change of behavior after the incident.

He gripped his pen tightly as he thought about Rukia's sudden vow of abstinence and how it suspiciously corresponded with a new exercise regime she'd taken up. It involved nothing but a lot of bending over in front of him and stretching in various enticing positions. Ichigo wasn't aware of any style of fighting that required a person to flex both legs behind their head…

Ichigo would never willingly compare himself to Keigo, but he was finding more in common with the guy as the little midget was pushing his buttons…more like one certain button with her new, 'look, but don't touch policy'.

Ichigo growled a bit to himself. He had the sneaking suspicion Rukia knew exactly how it was affecting him and she was doing it on purpose. Perhaps he went too far in making fun of her at school about their…escapades.

Ichigo ran both hands through his hair and turned the volume higher in order to drown out his grievances. Rukia's antics were annoying and stressful, but what really had his stomach in knots was how Kaien was after his memories returned. Ichigo could deal with mourning and moping, or even an all around depressing aura, as he wasn't always a ball of sunshine himself, but Kaien had been acting…normal.

And that just didn't sit right in Ichigo's book.

For the first few days, Kaien had literally lived on the couch doing nothing but watch the TV screen on Rukia's wall. He sat there the entire weekend and didn't say a word. Ichigo wasn't even sure he was looking at the images on the screen or taking in anything going on around him. But after those two days, Kaien had stood up on Monday morning and told Rukia and Ichigo that he'd be joining them for school like any other day. He smiled, he joked, and he even started to agree that Inoue's food was off. Apparently along with his memories of Miyako, Kaien's sense of taste returned.

At first Ichigo was confused. He didn't understand how Kaien could push all his grief away to the back of his mind and go on like nothing had happened. No person was that strong or pig headed and Ichigo knew a fucking lot of strong and pig headed people. Rukia seemed to believe that Kaien was just trying to be a good role model and act the way a shinigami officer would during times of mourning. She told Ichigo not to question Kaien's behavior because everyone dealt with tragedy differently. She also hit him repeatedly to drive the point home and encouraged him to silently support Kaien instead of acting rashly.

But by mid-week Ichigo's bruises had healed and Kaien's attitude was irking him to no end. Everyone grieved in their own way, and Kaien obviously wanted to put up a brave front, but Ichigo wasn't buying it. He wasn't a typically nosy guy, but he couldn't help feel that something else was up and he needed to know what it was.

With a deep sigh, a sign that he was abandoning his homework for the time being, Ichigo yanked out his earplugs right on cue to hear the front door slam. He frowned as he checked his watch and realized it was too early for Rukia to be home. Pushing himself off Rukia's comfy chair and out the office door Ichigo looked around.

"Kaien?" He called out. Ichigo scratched his head and wondered if the older shinigami had gone to the guesthouse for a midday nap, but his gut told him otherwise.

Ichigo grabbed his jacket and trotted out the door and down the porch to see Kaien headed for the driveway. Ichigo wasn't in the mood to play detective so he ran after Kaien, letting his presence become known.

"Oi! Where are you going Kaien?"

Kaien stopped and slowly turned his head over his shoulder. Ichigo couldn't make out Kaien's eyes as his dark hair shadowed them. "I'm going to Urahara's." he said simply.

Ichigo shoved his hands in his pockets and tried to look relaxed when he felt anything but. "Well…you wanna wait until Rukia gets off work? I think she'd like to go with you if it's something important."

Kaien glanced at the ground and then started walking again. "It'll probably be better to do this while she's not here. You can come if you want though Ichigo."

Ichigo grew even more concerned and scowled before he started quietly after Kaien.

The walk was silent and tense as if Kaien was aware of something Ichigo wasn't. It didn't help his rousing suspicions when they approached the shop and Urahara was waiting for them in a darkened back room.

"I can't say I wasn't expecting you Shiba-kun." Urahara spoke, looking especially eerie without his customary fan shielding his face. "Was Kuchiki-san otherwise engaged?" he asked with his own brand of sarcasm.

"I don't want her here for this." Kaien said.

Urahara waved a hand before the table, motioning for the two to sit down. "Shiba Kaien is most likely trying to spare Kuchiki-san from potentially bad news. That should be in your interest as well Kurosaki-kun."

Ichigo sat, but he in no way felt at ease. He glanced back and forth between the older men who seemed to be staring each other down with unspoken acknowledgement. The silence and stifling aura in the room got to him quickly and he was in no mood for some kind of staring contest

"Enough with this cryptic bullshit!" Ichigo yelled as his patience ran out. "Tell me what's going on!"

Neither Urahara or Kaien seemed affected by Ichigo's outburst, but Kaien finally sighed and looked Ichigo in the eye for the first time. "I think my soul is connected to the hollow that killed Miyako."

Ichigo's eyes widened and his hand inched toward his badge. He didn't like where this was heading.

"No need for zanpakutos." Urahara said lightly. "We're not in immediate danger…I think." He grinned before he started to explain. "I didn't go into the specific details of the hollow's connection to Shiba before because I wanted to wait until his memories had returned and things were more conclusive."

"How conclusive?" Ichigo butted in impatiently. "What kind of connection are you talking about?"

Urahara shook his head at Ichigo's eagerness, but answered anyway. "I explained before that Kaien was here due to contact with trace elements of the hougyoku brought out by you and Kuchiki-san correct?"

Ichigo blinked back at him. He still wasn't clear on Urahara's first little rant. That night he'd been greatly distracted by a flirty Kaien making odd assumptions about Rukia.

Urahara sighed and then actually rolled his eyes. "Why does everyone ask me things and not bother listening to the answers?"

Ichigo felt a smack to the back of his head and glared at Kaien whose hand was still poised for another attack. "Pay attention this time will you?" He nodded at Urahara. "Once more so the kid can get it."

"Like you don't understand it either." Ichigo muttered before crossing his arms.

"Alright." Urahara started to explain again, but without Rukia's (unhelpful) diagrams. "Kaien was taken over by the hollow Metastacia, who bonded their souls and then regenerated in Heuco Mundo after Kuchiki-san killed him. However he was then eaten by the former 9th espada Aaroniero, who was able to absorb both of their abilities. The former espada was also killed by Kuchiki-san, but his remains were used in a last ditch effort by Aizen himself in order to finish off Kurosaki Ichigo."

"Right, right, right." Ichigo interrupted, catching the gist this time. "Lots of mixing of too much power and everything ran together to shit out Kaien here in the mortal realm because Rukia and I happened to be involved in all of it. I got it now." Ichigo was mentally blaming Urahara for being the one to invent all the shit that Ichigo found himself buried under.

"I suppose you could put it that way…" Urahara frowned.

"Can we talk about my current predicament now?" Kaien folded his arms impatiently.

"Yes." Urahara answered. "I figured out when you first arrived in the form of a hollow that your soul was prone to that kind of dark reiatsu. If you were a pure shinigami soul or even a human again then that wouldn't have happened at all. Then I remembered that the hollow who first took over your body was an experiment of Aizen's and I did some research. Metastacia was his name and his ability to join with a shinigami was unlike any other hollow ability I've seen before."

Urahara peered at Kaien from under his bucket-striped hat, and Ichigo could see the sorrow in his usually mysterious eyes.

"Even in death your souls were…and are… still bonded together. You must have known something was wrong on that night Rukia told me about your nightmare."

Ichigo wasn't there, but he remembered what Rukia had told him and then what Kaien had repeated when his memories returned. Kaien saw visions that weren't his own. They belonged to the hollow.

"Yeah." Kaien admitted softly. "Ever since I remembered what happened…I can feel…another presence."

Ichigo felt his own experiences give him determination. "If it's anything like a Vizard's problem. Then I can help. I know what you're going through."

"You don't." Urahara said firmly. "You do have a hollow inside you, but he is a part of your soul. What is going on with Shiba is very different. They are separate entities in different bodies but with a soul link."

Ichigo's face creased into a scowl. "Well then it's less of a problem right? We can just kill this Meta…guy like any other hollow."

"Wrong again." Urahara shook his head and then made a grave face. "As I said, Metastacia's absorption abilities are like none I've ever seen. The link between Shiba Kaien and Metastacia is inter-dependent. You cannot kill one without killing the other."

Ichigo sagged as the statement weighed on him, but Urahara wasn't through.

"You've also forgotten about Metastacia's other abilities. Even if Kaien or the hollow were to be struck down, Metastacia will be able to regenerate in Heuco Mundo taking Kaien's soul along with it, effectively consuming him all over again. And," Urahara began once more to Ichigo's dismay. "And…I'm afraid because of this link, it will be searching you out Shiba Kaien."

Ichigo stiffened at this new threat that he couldn't finish off, but Kaien gave Urahara a deviant smile as if he hadn't heard a thing he wasn't expecting.

"That bastard can come after me all he wants. I can sense him. I know he wants a second chance to feed on me like he failed to do before. But this time I'll get my revenge for Miyako and our comrades!"

"Did you not hear what I said?" Urahara spoke with a slight edge to his voice. "Neither you or Kurosaki or any other soul reaper will have the power to end this hollow permanently. Not to mention you would never again be able to live as you are now."

"I don't plan on coming back." Kaien said with a resolve that hitched Ichigo's breath. "We're going to end this."

"Who is this we?" Urahara asked coyly, knowing full well there was reason Kaien had come to him in the first place.

"You were the one that created the hougyoku." Kaien stated. "And Kurosaki and Kuchiki have had contact with its power. It's because of them that I can get this second chance for revenge."

Ichigo felt a flutter of real fear for the first time. "Wait a minute Kaien. What are you saying?"

"I'm saying if you and Kuchiki had enough traces to bring me out in the first place, then you two should have enough power to kill us both for good."

Ichigo grabbed Kaien by the collar and pulled him to his feet. "Do you know what the hell you're asking?!"

Kaien looked completely sure of exactly what he was implying and Ichigo had never before wanted to hit him as much as he did right then.

"You can't ask Rukia to do that." Ichigo gritted out.

"Why not?" Kaien gave him a sad smirk. "She's already got experience."

Ichigo's fist connected solidly into Kaien's jaw and the taller man stumbled hard against the opposite wall. "Shit Ichigo!" Kaien cursed and rubbed his already swollen face. "I'm completely serious about what I'm asking, but that part was just a joke."

Ichigo wasn't amused and was in fact gearing up to knock Kaien around until the very idea of asking Rukia to kill him for the third time was beaten out of his head.

Kaien stood slowly and held up both hands. He sighed and looked imploringly. "Look Kurosaki," he said solemnly. "It's the only way. You think I want Kuchiki to suffer this way? I can see her guilt when she looks at me and I know that I'll never be able to fix that. But…this has to be done. This has to end."

Ichigo shook as he held back another punch. "Why are you giving up so easily?!" he yelled hoping to reach the man he'd befriended. "Are you that eager to die? How can you spout inspiring shit to people who look up to you and then throw in the towel like this?!"

"I'm a FREAK Kurosaki!" Kaien screamed. "I can feel it! I can feel that hollow! That nightmare I had, those were that things memories of consuming my own wife! I can't ever face Miyako if I know my very existence is tied to the fucker that ate her! I'm not supposed to be here at all! I'm not supposed to be alive! I passed on my heart to my nakama, and that was supposed to be the end of it! I fought for my pride, for my family and Rukia ended it that night! You think I'd let her go through that if I thought that wouldn't be the end of it?! Everything's just gone to shit now! I don't want to die but I can't live like this!"

They both stood face to face panting with the exertion of their yelling. Ichigo didn't agree with Kaien, but he could understand why he was so desperate. They wouldn't get anywhere trying to argue.

Ichigo turned to Urahara who was still sitting in his seat during the screaming match. "There's got to be another way Urahara. You just need power right? What if I use my ma—"

"It's not like that Ichigo." Urahara shook his head. "Power of that consistency needs to be concentrated and controlled so it doesn't destroy everything in an instant."

"What about the power I used when I saved Rukia?"

Urahara gave him a shrewd look. "Do you even understand what happened then?"

Ichigo honestly had no clue and the blonde decided to give him a hint.

"That was instinct, grief, desperation, rage, and a heap of dumb luck. Can you even imagine feeling that way again?"

"No." Ichigo admitted hoarsely. He couldn't. That night was a blur. He'd simply reacted to seeing Rukia die in front of him. There was no way he could go through that again. He'd never let it happen again.

"Look," Kaien said after his breathing had evened out. "I'm not a scientist, that's why I came here in the first place. Do Ichigo and Rukia even have the potential to destroy that hollow bastard for good?"

Urahara took out his trusty fan finally and waved through the thick atmosphere. "I was wondering when you two were going to stop shouting at each other and even ask me if that was possible."

Ichigo and Kaien slumped to the floor in two defeated heaps. "You bastard." Ichigo moaned to no one in particular.

"Luckily for you—the both of you." Urahara corrected himself. "I've been thinking about this predicament since Shiba-kun first arrived. And while yes, I believe that I will need both Kurosaki and Kuchiki-san's hougyoku contamination to make this work, I might have a solution that will satisfy all parties involved. Except of course our hollow antagonist Metastacia."

Ichigo sat up feeling hopeful for the first time that day. "What solution?"

"A weapon." Urahara pointed out.

Ichigo's hope faltered. "You're not going to make another hougyoku thing are you?" he asked irritably.

Urahara pouted. "I'm a scientist not an idiot." He said lowly. "I've been thinking about some kind of weapon that could harness the trace powers of the hougyoku still present in you and Kuchiki-san and release it to the point where it no longer existed or had any ill effects on anyone or anything that it came in contact with."

"You could harness that power to gather and release the remnants of the hougyoku so that it could eliminate the hollow that killed Miyako?!" Kaien caught on immediately.

"Such a bright one you are!"

"So…" Ichigo started slowly. "Kaien wouldn't have to die?"

"Well…" Urahara sobered once more. "I could construct this weapon, but I would not be able to guarantee a perfect success. Theory and application of theory are two very different things."

"What kind of failure are we looking at?" Kaien asked.

Urahara's eyes looked skyward and rolled around. "Failure can be such a broad and ugly word—"

"Urahara!" Ichigo and Kaien cried out in tandem.

"I can't promise anyone in the general vicinity would live." Urahara said quickly. "I can't actually ensure anyone would actually die either. This isn't the type of experiment that I have time to test out."

"It doesn't matter." Kaien said sounding determined. "I'll take my chances." He looked to Ichigo to see if he was alone or not.

Ichigo stared at the store floor. He wanted to help Kaien. He wanted to support him and fight against the sick hollow who destroyed his and Rukia's pasts. But…Ichigo would never risk Rukia's life on some theory.

"Does…Does Rukia have to be involved for this to work?" Ichigo asked slowly, already regretting what he was signing himself up for.

Urahara was silent for a moment. "Assuming that you'll argue with me until my ears fall off…I suppose I wouldn't be able to say her presence was absolutely necessary."

Ichigo sighed and hoped Rukia would forgive him. "Then you can start making that weapon Urahara. If anyone is going to pull this off, I'll do it."

After leaving Urahara's shop and walking back to Rukia's, Ichigo could feel his own personal storm cloud brewing above his head. He wasn't a strategist, that was Ishida and Rukia's territory, but Ichigo sure as hell knew a bad idea when he saw one. And making a secret pact between Urahara, Kaien, and himself definitely topped the list.

Ichigo didn't so much have a problem with confronting a dangerous hollow, and he trusted Urahara not to get him killed…mostly. His real issue lied in the very condition that he'd specifically set, that Rukia was not to be involved in anything they were doing. It was obvious that little mission was doomed to failure. Rukia would inevitably find out and then she would inevitable aim to kill him.

Of course being aware of that fact didn't stop Ichigo from going through with it. He was fully aware that his hero complex would indeed be the death of him.

"So what do you wanna tell Rukia?" Kaien asked easily, as if all of his worries had been lifted from his shoulders.

"What do you mean what'll we tell her?" Ichigo asked icily. "We're not telling her anything." Even Urahara, under threat of having his hat and cane shoved up his ass, was sworn to secrecy. "It's bad enough we're leaving her out of this, I don't think I could lie to her face too." Ichigo rubbed the back of his neck wondering how far he'd have to go to keep Rukia at a safe distance.

Kaien shrugged and glanced at Ichigo. "We have to tell her something if she notices I'm not changing into a shinigami."

Ichigo winced at that reminder. The one condition of the whole plan that would make it difficult to hide the truth, was that Urahara required Nejibana. He said Kaien's zanpakuto would make the perfect vessel to house the 'ultimate weapon.' Kaien was reluctant to give away his main mode of defense and reflection of his whole being, but he was also dead set on finishing the whole ordeal, so he willingly handed it over. That being said, even if Kaien still had his kidou powers to defend himself, Rukia would definitely notice the lack of his zanpakuto. So they decided to keep Kaien from changing into a shinigami to avoid Rukia asking questions.

Ichigo groaned and Kaien slapped him on the back in what he assumed was supposed to be an encouraging manner. "Ah don't worry about it." Kaien nodded confidently. "If she asks, I'll just tell her that I'm not quite ready to charge into battles like I used to. The key to any good lie is using half-truths."

Ichigo snorted with some disdain. "So you're a pro at lying huh?"

"I was a good husband." Kaien stated firmly with steel in his eyes. They softened after a moment and he continued with a scratch to his jaw. "I was a bit stubborn and brash…like someone else I know…but I know I was a good partner to Miyako." He made a confident fist and smiled at Ichigo. "Now I can finally set things right and get rid of this burden once and for all."

Ichigo shook his head slowly as they continued walking, getting closer to Rukia's. Of course Kaien's spirits were high. The man had a goal, a purpose, and a way to give fate a bitch slap for messing up his life. Kaien didn't have a partner/vengeful midget girlfriend he was keeping a secret from. But even the prospect of justice was making Kaien happy and Ichigo wasn't going to back out and take that away from him.

"Alright." Ichigo sighed wearily. "You say whatever you need to if Rukia asks. I'm just concerned with how we both agree not to say a word about this to her, right?"

"Right." Kaien repeated with a stiff nod.

Ichigo turned to Kaien pointing his finger out for emphasis. "And you won't go off on some revenge mission all by yourself talking about pride and shit right?"

"Sure." Kaien agreed again.

"Cause you need me and you need what Urahara's working on to stop it right?"

"Riiiight." Kaien moaned. "Stop nagging me. I know the plan, and I know how to pull off a successful mission. You just need to concentrate on not shitting your pants if Rukia questions you."

Ichigo scowled and crossed his arms as they rounded the bend towards Rukia's driveway. "I'm not going to shit my pants." He grumbled. "I'm just getting the facts straight. We've just got to keep low for awhile." He paused with his hand on his chin trying to figure things out. "I'll take care of the regular hollows like I usually do and you can just sit back and watch. Rukia's busy with her job during the week. Not to mention those shinigami classes she teaches. It shouldn't be too hard now that I think about it." Ichigo nodded to himself trying to bolster his own confidence. "We'll just keep things simple and calm and make sure nothing too exciting happens while—LOOK OUT!"

Ichigo shoved Kaien out the way just in time to avoid a speeding car come within an inch of turning them both into hood ornaments. Ichigo fell on his ass, landing in a mud pit the previous week's rain had left behind, while the car that almost careened into them came to an immediate stop. Ichigo stomped his mud-covered body up to the driver's side door to vent his disapproval.

"WHAT KIND OF IDIOT ARE YOU?! Where did you learn how to drive?! You almost KILLED us!" he roared before the driver even stepped out.

Ichigo did almost shit his pants when it was none other than his father who stepped out, looking not the least bit guilty for his near vehicular homicide.

"I guess I'm the kind of idiot who lets his teenage son shack up with his girlfriend." Isshin declared lewdly as he shoved past Ichigo and made way to shake hands with a flustered, albeit slightly amused Kaien.

Ichigo didn't exactly have a comeback on hand for that little remark, so he settled for scowling and clenching his fists until the blood wasn't able to reach his fingers.

"What are you doing here?" Ichigo hissed with subdued rage.

In classic Isshin fashion, the grown man started bawling and wept into Kaien's shoulder hysterically. "The girls have left me!" he moaned.

"About time." Ichigo muttered.

Isshin promptly ignored him. "For the first year ever they didn't want to join their daddy on the annual Kurosaki Family Music Festival Outing Extravaganza! They're growing up so fast!" Isshin wept.

It took Ichigo a moment to translate what his father was blathering on about before he remembered exactly what festival he was talking about. "Oh yeah, that festival." Ichigo slapped his head as he was reminded. Inoue had brought up the thing weeks ago and once Rukia heard that there was a fireworks display to top off the evening, she insisted that they take Kaien. Ichigo completely forgot that it took place that weekend.

"Karin joined one of the bands performing," Isshin continued. "And my sweetest Yuzu said I would embarrass her in front of her friends!" He dropped Kaien's now drenched shirt to grab a hold of Ichigo's arms. "Can you believe my beautiful angels have abandoned me already! They're taking after their idiot ungrateful brother!"

"Hey!" Ichigo objected before freeing himself from his father's grip and crossing his arms. "Don't blame me for your bad parenting skills. It's your own fault for being so dramatic that nobody wants to hang around you."

"Don't let daddy be all alone!" Isshin pleaded before suddenly taking in his son's appearance. "You can't go dressed like that though." Isshin remarked

Ichigo looked down at himself, decked in a nice coat of gritty, soggy mud. He snarled at the state he was in. "Who the hell's fault do you think this is anyway?" he demanded.

Isshin blew him off and grabbed for Kaien again, who was fortunate enough to miss the mud puddle completely. "No matter. I'll just borrow our friend here and I'll show him the real thrills of one of Karakura's best yearly events. You and my third daughter can catch up to us later." Isshin gave Kaien a cheesy wink and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. "You know we've never had a chance to talk one on one and yet I feel as if I've met you in a previous life."

Before Ichigo or Kaien could utter any kind of approval or rejection, Isshin had shoved Kaien in the car and effectively abducted the man before he could resist. "Make sure you wash up before you bring Rukia-chan!" Isshin waved out the window and backed the car into the same mud, soaking Ichigo-again- from the top of his spiky head to his formerly white sneakers. Then he sped off without another word leaving Ichigo standing all by himself.

"Dammit." Ichigo cursed at his madman of a dad. "How the hell am I actually related to that psycho…"

He shook all the loose mud he could by stomping his way to the house, cursing under his breath the whole way. His footsteps only lightened when he trod into the house, as Rukia wouldn't be thrilled about angry mud prints all over her floor.

As soon as Ichigo carefully shed his clothes, he made way for Rukia's shower turning the heat as high as his skin would allow and stepped under the pressurized showerhead. He let out a long sigh and leaned forward to rest his head against the cool tile as hot water pounded down against him.

He wasn't in a festive mood at all. He didn't want to go anywhere or do anything. Ichigo lifted his head enough to feel the water drip off his eyelashes and then shook his head with a snort. His and Kaien's plan was already tanking. There was nothing calm or simple about a group outing to a very popular and public event; much less one that involved his dad. Ichigo scowled as he mused about his dad and his odd behavior. Well…his odder behavior. It was so strange the way he randomly whisked Kaien away like that. Normally his dad would torture him a bit more about Rukia, having grandkids, or something else asinine, but he seemed to be stopping by just to pick up Kaien.


Ichigo rose from his thoughts and saw Rukia's small shape through the foggy shower screen. "Oi, you back home already?" Ichigo cracked the door open to stick his head out.

"Obviously," Rukia smirked as she sat on the tub across the bathroom and rubbed her feet. "And Ukitake-taicho even gave me a day off from HL lessons so—What happened to your hair?" she blurted.

Ichigo's eyes swept up to peer through the wet bangs plastering his forehead but didn't see anything until Rukia got up and reached forward to pull a gob of mud from his hair.

"Oh that." Ichigo huffed before pulling back into the shower to wash more thoroughly. "Dad came by and decided to give me a mud bath with his freaking car."

He heard Rukia shuffling around outside the shower while she chuckled. "Oh really? I guess that explains it then. Did he do something to Kaien as well? I noticed he wasn't here."

"Yeah." Ichigo called. "It was weird. He said he wanted to bond or something and then dragged him to that music thing tonight."

"Well it makes sense. They really have a lot in common don't they." Rukia replied.

Ichigo paused in his scrubbing as he considered that statement. "Yeah." He agreed softly, finally realizing why his dad took Kaien out on his own. "I guess they do."

"I'm glad then." Rukia announced before jerking open the door and stepping into the shower herself.

"AHH!" Ichigo slipped back in surprise as Rukia stood under the water in his previous spot. "What are you doing?!"

Rukia ignored him and started rinsing her hair. "Your father should really be able to get through to Kaien. He's oddly eloquent when he wants to be." She turned around to face him and Ichigo instinctively looked away.

Rukia laughed. "Oh my Kurosaki-kun! I'm sorry. Sometimes I forget how shy you are." She teased in that voice.

Ichigo's face and other visible parts flamed in embarrassment. He crossed his arms and glared at her, actively keeping his eyes from wandering too much. "You just caught me off guard dammit." He said regaining his composure.

"Yeah…you do seem out of it lately." Rukia's laughs subsided and she stepped closer, adding some soap into her palm. "You've still got mud all over you." She scolded lightly. "Can't you even wash yourself without someone showing you how?" She grabbed his shoulders and turned him around to wash his back. When she was finished she started washing the rest of the mud that Ichigo missed or hadn't gotten to yet. Slowly Ichigo realized he couldn't get any cleaner and Rukia was simply massaging him in the comfortably steamy shower. They were facing each other again and her hands made a path from his wrists up to his forearm, then to his biceps, squeezing the hard muscles a bit more firmly. She massaged all the way to the cords in his neck to loosen him up. The scowl fell from Ichigo's face and his eyes slipped closed as Rukia continued to rub him down slowly. She hadn't touched him like this all week, and it served as a good reminder for Ichigo that pissing her off had worse consequences now that they were together. He'd rather take a kick to the groin over receiving the cold shoulder from Rukia for more than a day.

After a few relaxing moments she suddenly asked, "You want to tell me what's been bothering you now?"

Ichigo's eyes popped open and the tension her ministrations had melted away came flooding back. "Huh?" he responded dumbly.

"You've got guilt written all over your face."

Shit, his mind screamed, but his mouth attempted to keep cool. "I don't have a guilty face." He argued. "This is the face I make when my girlfriend won't let me touch her all week then jumps in the shower with me."

"You realize your hands are on my ass right now don't you?" she responded coyly.

Ichigo blinked, looked down, and sure enough his hands had settled a few inches south of her waist, holding her in an intimate embrace he hadn't been consciously aware of.


"Don't try lying to me Ichigo." Rukia said a little more firmly. "You're feeling guilty, I can tell. You need to stop blaming yourself since you haven't done anything wrong."

Ichigo was genuinely confused now. He couldn't tell if she knew he was lying or not. So he responded with a neutral, "Eh?"

Rukia shook her head. "I know you've been really concerned about Kaien all week, but what happened to him wasn't your fault. You shouldn't feel so responsible for things that are out of your control. Out of all of our control."

Ichigo didn't know what to say. He was unnerved that Rukia had read him so easily, but relieved that she didn't catch on to the true source of his distress. He still found himself at a loss for what to tell her though. Lying to her face—especially while naked in the shower…with his hands still on her bum—was exactly what he wanted to avoid.

"You can't protect everyone from everything." Rukia continued.

Ichigo realized what Kaien had meant before when Ichigo found his own half-truth to stand behind. He looked down at her and regretfully removed his hands from her body to cross his arms and show his resolve. "I can try though. I won't ever let someone suffer if I can prevent it." Even if it means lying to you, he added silently.

Rukia shook her head slowly and smirked at his stubborn stance. "I know you won't. That's why you find yourself in trouble so often." She turned back around and turned off the water ending their shower. "I'm the one who always has to save you when you get caught doing something foolish." She grumbled while wrapping herself in a towel before she stepped out.

Ichigo began to chuckle at the irony of their conversation and reached for his own towel. "I guess I'm not afraid of doing things I know are foolish." He admitted wryly.

Rukia snorted and planted her hand on her hip. "That's just stupid!" she said irritably. Then to Ichigo's surprise Rukia dropped her towel and pushed him to the floor, straddling his bare waist. Ichigo's whole body stiffened wondering what she was going to do. He assumed the 'do not touch rule' was done away with, but he was a bit frightened by the look she was giving him.

Her hand gently grazed the part of his body that had stiffened the most when she pounced on him and then leaned forward so their chests were touching. Ichigo inhaled sharply as Rukia's hand stroked him.

Then she narrowed her eyes. "If you'd stopped yourself from being so foolish last week, then we'd still be in that hot shower right now…" she paused and squeezed him hard enough to draw out a groan and get her point across before continuing, "…instead of having me leave you to take a cold one by yourself." She finished.

And with that she got up and strode out of the bathroom leaving Ichigo a helpless heap of hormones on the floor.

The only thing more uncomfortable than Ichigo's second shower, was the knowledge that he was committing himself to a lot more in the near future.

AN: Yeah...long time no see! ducks the flying projectiles I never quit writing, I just had a hard time doing so for awhile. But I'm back now and while I have my own critiques about this chapter, I'd really love to hear yours! I'm sorry for the long wait, but I'm GRATEFUL to those who reviewed and sent PMs to get me back on track. I probably shouldn't reveal this to people...but guilt tripping me really works! Anyway, I'll just get back to writing since I have a lot to make up for. Thanks for all the support you've given me in the past! (Also, I haven't been replying to reviews while I was on temp. hiatus, but now I'm back, so you can expect me to respond back.) Thanks again!