Calm After the Storm

Ichigo walked down the familiar street leading to Karakura High with his hands in his pockets. The street hadn't changed, his school hadn't changed, not even the uniform had changed.

Ichigo had changed, though not everyone could see.

It being merely the second week of the fall semester, the air was unusually chilly for late August, promising an equally cold winter ahead. Ichigo, 16 years old now, shrugged off the cold and a few memories along with it.

"Oi, Ichigo! Are you insane? Come inside before you freeze to death and do the enemy a favor!"

"I will in a minute."

Shrugging again at the memories, Ichigo walked for a few more minutes before he saw the gate of his high school. He paused in his walk for a brief moment, taking his hands out of his pockets and running them through his hair (making sure it was still as messy as it was when he had left his house) and rubbed his face tiredly, setting a relaxed look on his face. Gone was the frown that many in his freshman class had thought was permanently etched on his face. He looked like a normal human being now.

The teachers and most of the students who had been in the same class as Ichigo last year wondered what had happened to make him as happy as he was since that first day of classes. Some figured there was a girl involved, others thought that maybe a long lost relative close to death had decided to grant his family a fortune in inheritance. Whatever their theories, they thought it was an improvement to the ever-present scowl from before.

"Hey, I heard that the mission went well today."

"Yeah." Smiling, Ichigo looked over his shoulder at the redhead. "The rookie was caught in the arm, but Hanatarou fixed him up."

Renji raised an eyebrow at the teen and promptly kicked him in the back, dumping him face first in the white desert sand. Said teen looked up at Renji and glared at him.

"Oi!! What the–!"

"Stop smiling, it wasn't your fault the idiot got his arm slashed." Ichigo adjusted himself into a more comfortable sitting position, crossed his arms and looked away from Renji but he did as he was told. Renji sat down next to the teen leaning back on his hands.

"… Idiot."

"Whatever."

Only a select few knew that the smile was merely a refined mask, one that merely got him into less trouble. Most of the time anyway. He let the mask drop when he was alone or when he was with his friends, but with his family or in public he donned the mask.

Ichigo closed his eyes and opening them again he fixed a bright smile on his face. He continued his walk to the school, his hands placed once again in his pockets. Entering through the gate, he saw the group of girls standing in a tight huddle, giggling and sneaking sideways looks at him, but he ignored them and walked straight to a different group on the other end of the lawn that replaced concrete pathways.

His friends sat in a circle, talking about nonsense (as usual) and he dropped his bag down next to them, and settled himself to sitting in his usual spot. They were all there: Chad, Inoue, Ishida, Tatsuki, Keigo, and Mizuiro.

They were all there…

The old group looked at Ichigo and silently regarded the smile on Ichigo's face, then went back to their conversations (or silence in Chad's case).

"Do you really want to know where they have gone?"

"Of course we do!" Mizuiro almost yelled, surprising Tatsuki and Keigo.

Urahara flapped his fan slowly, looking at the three teenagers across from him. He sighed at the thought of what Ichigo would do to him for getting them involved. He snapped his fan closed and turned to the ladder looming at the entrance of the cavernous training grounds and walked away from Ichigo's friends.

"Well, if that's the case," he said brightly, waving his 'cane' in the air, "why don't we enjoy some tea! If you really want to know where they have gone, you will need to understand where they have been.

"And let me tell you," he looked back at them with saddened eyes, "you're lucky their story has had a happy ending so far, even if it is far from finished."

"Hey guys!" Keigo shouted suddenly, effectively cutting their conversations short. "There is this club downtown that is supposed to be awesome! We should go and hang out for a while!"

There was silence for a minute, everybody thinking of the plans they had made for the coming weekend. Soon, they all voiced their agreement to go, in their own ways. Ishida pushed up his glasses, causing the sun to reflect from them and he agreed saying he didn't have anything else to do. Chad simply nodded his head, playing with a blade of grass he had plucked form the ground in front of him.

"I think it would be fun to go!" said Orihime, and she and Tatsuki began to chat excitedly about the snacks they could bring (or not) to the park that they decided they would play at afterwards.

Ichigo smiled and nodded his consent about going as well.

Mizuiro said somewhat slyly, "I wonder if Natsumi and Harumi would like to come too." Everyone looked at the baby faced playboy and sweatdropped. He just had to go and mention his girlfriends, didn't he?

And right on cue, Keigo cried rivers and said piteously, "It's not fair!!" They rolled their eyes at the dramatic scene playing out before them and simply ignored Keigo's shenanigans. (A/N: Yes I actually used that word. I couldn't help it, it's just so… Keigo!) The first bell rang, announcing to the students that if they didn't get going they would be late for class.

Almost immediately following the ringing bell was the unmistakable scream of a hollow nearby and the shriek of Ichigo's substitute shinigami badge. The group stiffened and Ichigo let the smile drop from his face, his old frown replacing it. They all looked at Ichigo and watched him stand and grasp the badge hanging from a belt loop. He quickly untied it and pressed it firmly against his chest, effectively knocking his soul out of his body in a flash of light. He tossed the badge to Tatsuki, who would keep it safe until he returned, and then he was gone in the blink of an eye, using shunpo to quickly reach the hollow before it hurt anyone.

The group stayed silent. Chad wordlessly picked up Ichigo's body and deposited it into the nearby plot of bushes that they had hid his body in before, so Ichigo knew where it was when he was finished with the hollow. If luck was on his side, the hollow would be weak, thus not making him too late to class.

The group silently walked to their classroom, thinking of all that had happened to them; all that had changed in a single year of their lives. They had all seen things that no teenager should. Pain, suffering, death, killing just to ensure your own survival. War.

At the age of 15, they had seen things veterans fives times their own age still have nightmares of.

Jerked from their thoughts, they dashed to class when the second bell rang.

They sat in a circle silently around Orihime as she healed Keigo of his wounds from the recent hollow attacks. It had been an ambush and they had all let their guard down, enjoying the few minutes of the day when they didn't have to think about anything other than joy of a peaceful moment.

"Che..." mumbled Keigo, regarding the quiet group with soft humor in his eyes. "Who had to die to make you all this quiet? I'll have to thank the brainless idiot." They chuckled softly, with a small amount of relief that their friend hadn't changed even after everything. Ichigo stood suddenly and walked off with his hands clenched. Keigo watched him go and called out.

"Yo! Save some for me later!" Ichigo continued walking, then using Shunpo.

A shinigami scout reported the next day of an area in the enemies territory he had seen. The area was said to have been a major camp of hollows, nearly 500 had been there the day before. There were no bodies to be reported, but the typical white sand of the desert had been drenched in blood at least five inches deep.

X X X X X X X X

Ichigo followed the reiatsu of the hollow as it hunted for a soul. He grasped the hilt of Zangetsu, ready to release the bindings when the hollow's reiatsu suddenly disappeared. Ichigo's frown deepened and he quickened his step, worried that he might be too late. He arrived soon enough to see the disintegration of the hollow, but that was irrelevant to the two figures he saw standing in front of him now, one facing him, the other still facing away. His eyes widened in surprise for a moment, then softened and a genuine smile graced his features.

She turned to him, sheathing her zanpakutou and smirked at him.

"Did you get slower or are you just getting lazy?"

"Hey Rukia, hey Renji."


Well, there it is... I will probably continue this, I just need to think about it. I hadn't really thought about it before, just started writing. Oh well!

I will put the disclaimer here: I don't own Bleach, as if it isn't blatantly obvious enough.

And as always, reviews are very appreciated! Let me know if I should continue... I really don't have a clue where this will go, it was supposed to be a oneshot, but it felt right to end here.