Author's Note: This story has evolved in ways I could never have anticipated. I wrote the first section (a little less than 1,000 words) on a whim, never knowing that it would grow into what it has become. Anyway, I'm pleased with it, and I hope you will enjoy it, too. If you wish to express your enjoyment or lack thereof for my work, feel free to review. Constructive criticism or praise is accepted with gratitude.

Disclaimer: Bleach, and all related characters, plot ideas, locations, abilities, (ect.) are the property Tite Kubo and affiliates. I claim no rights to any copyrighted works. I certify that my ideas are all original. Any similarity to actual people, locations, events, books, anime, manga, movies, other works of fanfiction (ect.) are entirely coincidental.

-oOoOo-

Fighting the Rain

-oOoOo-

He sat in the place that he had come to think of as his. The spot by the river where he had failed and his mother had died. For years he had come here to brood, to wallow in self-pity and regret. Now he simply came here to think. He could no longer blame himself for what had happened, but whenever something in his life went wrong, it seemed that this was the one place he could always go. It had become a part of him, something that he could hold on to when everything seemed about to fall apart.

The rain that fell from heavy, grey clouds, swelling the river until it rose over its banks, threatening to swallow Ichigo's privacy in a torrent, seemed appropriate for his current mood. And despite the fact that the raindrops felt like icy needles piercing his skin wherever they touched, Ichigo felt oddly comforted by them. The rain was numbing, somehow. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that it had been raining then, too, when his mother had been taken from him. It seemed to Ichigo that every tragedy in his life was accompanied by rain.

There was another reason that the frigid rain didn't bother Ichigo. It masked the tears that he felt secure enough to shed as long as he knew nobody could tell. When he was with his family or friends, Ichigo felt that he had to hide his true feelings; it was a drastic change from his childhood days when the slightest thing could make him bawl his eyes out. No longer did he display such weakness for anyone to see. Only here, hidden from the world by a curtain of rain, did Ichigo finally feel strong enough to cry the tears that had been building inside of him all day. The tears fell with the rain, both mingling on Ichigo's face, as he fell to his knees.

There was a hand on his shoulder that didn't belong there. Nobody was supposed to know he was here. Certainly nobody was supposed to have followed him out into the rain. Ichigo's muscles tensed, but he did not move from where he was kneeling in the mud, nor did the hand move from his shoulder. It was a small hand, and the touch was both delicate and firm. Unable to as much as turn his head to see who it was, for his body had betrayed his mind and decided that it refused to move, Ichigo tried to guess which of the females closest to him had followed him based on the sensation of the touch alone: Yuzu… Karin… Tatsuki… Orihime… Rukia. In 

any case, it didn't really matter. Ichigo was not in the mood to deal with anyone. Perhaps if he ignored them long enough and continued to scowl into the rain, they would eventually give up and go away.

"Ichigo…" Still he could not move, but now he had a voice to match with the touch of the hand on his shoulder, and he knew who was standing behind him without having to look. "Ichigo, I'm sor—" It was at that instant that Ichigo's body agreed to cooperate, and he managed to shrug the hand off his shoulder, causing her to stop mid-apology.

"I don't need your pity." Ichigo's voice was cold. "I wanted something, I fought for it, and I lost. I just have to become stronger so that the next time I want something, I won't lose."

"Next time?"

"Yes, next time!" Ichigo snapped. "I don't plan to mope and cry for the rest of my life just because things didn't work out the way I wanted. I'll get over it, I'll move on with my life. So save your pity for someone else." Ichigo was extremely grateful that the rain was hiding his tears, because he doubted that they would add anything to his argument.

He didn't know how long they remained like that, but eventually the hand disappeared from his shoulder, and Ichigo was left alone once again. The rain fell steadily, blurring the sound of the cars that occasionally flew past on the street behind him. The icy water matted his hair, saturated his clothes, and stung against his skin. On his knees in the grass, Ichigo wondered if he had meant what he said. Would he really be able to get over this and move on? A part of him wanted to believe that time heals all wounds, but another part insisted that this was something he could not recover from. Not like this.

"But I'm still breathing, aren't I?"

Voicing this question seemed to break open a dam somewhere deep inside, and a flood of thoughts began to race through Ichigo's mind, rivaling the river below. His fingers curled in the muddy grass as he stared, unseeing, down at them. "My heart is still beating. I'm still alive. Who am I to say that I've lost?" Had he lost, truly? He had lost that round, perhaps, but was that grounds to give up, to quit, to move on? When he had lost his mother, right here all those years ago, it had been something he couldn't fight against. She was gone, and nothing could be done about that. But this time, the line between life and death was not separating him from his goal. Even if it didn't feel like it, there was still hope that he could win. Because Ichigo truly did not like to lose.

Ichigo stood, feeling strangely alive. The rain kept falling, but Ichigo felt prepared to fight it. He would see sunny skies, one way or another.

-oOoOo-

Ichigo stepped inside his house, dripping water from his hair and clothes. He could barely understand it, but the melancholy that had threatened to overwhelm him only hours before had 

been washed away, perhaps by the pouring rain. In its stead was a sense of peace and calm, something bordering on happiness that forcibly replaced Ichigo's regular scowl with a small, though by no means weak, smile.

Ichigo stripped off his clothes down to his boxer shorts because they were as waterlogged as they could possibly be, and he didn't want to drip all over the house, as that would make more work for Yuzu. He passed through the kitchen, dodging an attack from his father Isshin who flew in from Ichigo's left, and ignored the odd looks he got from Yuzu and Karin who were at the table doing their homework. Whether their glances were due to his state of undress or the fact that they had seen Ichigo's depression earlier and were confused by his change of mood was a mystery.

Ichigo passed through, quickly ascending the stairs and returning to his room to find some new clothes. Kon was sitting on his bed next to the remnants of yet another ridiculous dress.

"Iiiiiiichiiiiiigooooooo!" The stuffed lion flew across the room, and Ichigo carelessly batted him away while opening his chest of drawers. Kon flew across the room, landing back on the bed with an 'umph' as Ichigo pulled on a pair of jeans. "Have you seen Nee-san?" Ichigo shrugged into a dry shirt.

"Not for a while." He sat down next to the Mod Soul on his bed. "Has she not come back yet?"

"I'm right here." The door to Ichigo's closet opened to reveal Rukia, lying comfortably on her side, reading a manga with a flashlight. "I said hello to you when I arrived, Kon, but you were too busy mutilating the dress Yuzu gave you to notice."

"Then I have denied you a proper greeting." Kon flung himself toward Rukia, aiming quite obviously for her chest. "Neeeeeeeee-saaaaaaaaan!" Rukia's fist sent Kon flying back, bouncing off of the walls, before he landed face down on the floor.

"You never will learn, Kon, will you? You know, if you're going to keep flinging yourself at us whenever we enter the room, I can always tell Yuzu that I found her stuffed lion." Ichigo grinned as Kon stammered for a moment in shock, then sullenly marched to Ichigo's bed and ducked beneath the covers to do… whatever it was he did to amuse himself all day. Probably fantasizing about Orihime and Matsumoto.

"You seem to be in a better mood. What happened?" A casual observer would have guessed that Rukia was much more interested in her manga than in the answer to her question, but Ichigo could tell by the way her eyes didn't move that she wasn't actually reading.

"I've found something worth fighting for." That was enough to pull Rukia's eyes completely away from the page.

"You've found… what?"



"I told you, I need to become stronger so that next time I won't lose. Remember? Well, I've decided to do just that. So I've found something to fight for." Ichigo reached into his school bag and pulled out his homework. He set the papers on his desk, his left side turned to Rukia in the closet, and began to work. She was silent, but only for a minute.

"So… are you saying you've found…?" Ichigo knew what she was asking, but since she didn't actually ask the question, he decided not to give her the answer. He simply continued to work, shrugging his shoulders. "Well, I suppose that's not really my business." She turned back to her manga, but from the corner of his eye, Ichigo could see her bite her lower lip.

Ichigo smiled, and the change in the set of his muscles felt somewhat relaxing. Somehow, Ichigo felt he could get used to the sensation.

-oOoOo-

The following week at school, the shift from Ichigo's usual dour demeanor did not go unnoticed. It wasn't that he had changed, exactly. He still punched out Keigo when the eccentric youth flung himself toward Ichigo in greeting before class started. He was still fairly reserved with a tendency to explode with the right provocation. But he seemed more comfortable in his own skin, for the first time in a long time, and he would occasionally smile when talking to Chad or Orihime, Rukia or Mizuiro, Tatsuki or Uryū.

By Friday, it had become clear that this change in Ichigo was very different from the fleeting alteration he underwent every year on June 16. On those days, he was unnaturally cheerful and sociable, and by June 18 when he returned to school, he would be back to his usual self. This, however, was a more subtle change that wasn't going away. And as strange as it seemed to the girls in his class, particularly those like Tatsuki who had known him for years, this change was somehow undeniably…

"…sexy, the way he flashed me that smile when he walked into the room. I almost lost my cool." Rukia said nothing and continued to eat her lunch, although she had thought that smile was directed at her.

"No way! Ryō, he was definitely smiling at me!" One of Rukia's eyebrows rose at Michiru's sudden exclamation, which was most unlike the shy girl.

"What? Michiru, I thought you didn't like Ichigo." Tatsuki questioned.

"I've told you before, Tatsuki, I just thought that his face was a little scary. But now, since he started smiling more often… Even his oddly colored hair is starting to grow on me."

"He is dreamy, isn't he?" Mahana mused, a faraway look on her face.

"What about you, Tatsuki?" Chizuru inquired. "You've known Ichigo since you were both little. Have you fallen for him too?" Rukia noted the flush in Tatsuki's cheeks. Orihime jumped up in excitement, grabbing her best friend's hands.

"Oh, Tatsuki, I'm so excited! Now you and Michiru and Ryō and Mahana and I can all like Ichigo together! We'll win for sure!"

"It really doesn't work like that, Orihime," Tatsuki scolded, sitting down. "Even if I did like Ichigo… and maybe I do, a little bit… only one girl can have him. I just wish he'd give us some kind of clue about what kind of girl he likes. I've never seen him involved with a girl before, so I don't really know what he looks for in a girl."

"Well, I hope you all put up a good fight for him," Chizuru declared, sliding closer to Orihime. "That way, I can have my Hime all to myse—" Tatsuki's fist connected with Chizuru's jaw, sending the girl flying.

"How about you, Rukia?" prodded Ryō. Rukia struggled not to spit up the juice she was drinking.

"W-what about me?"

"I know you said before that you and Ichigo were just good friends, but you two spend so much time together… I just thought that maybe you've had a change of heart since freshman year. Isn't there some part of you that is attracted to Ichigo? Especially since this last week, when he started to smile and laugh…"

Rukia was prepared to deny it, to eternally crush the notion that she and Ichigo were anything more than friends, but an image surfaced in her mind that refused to be ignored. It pushed its way past all of her arguments, all of her objections, and sat proudly at the forefront of her thoughts.

She had been raised high in the air at the Soukyoku stand, waiting for her inevitable fiery death, when Ichigo had appeared and saved her life. In that instant, his Zanpakutō blocking the path between her and execution, his cape flowing in the wind, his face beautiful and smiling…

And Rukia could not speak. As much as she wanted to deny that she was also attracted to Ichigo, as much as she wanted to laugh dismissively, or roll her eyes in exasperated disgust, or shout to the heavens that she and Ichigo were nothing more than friends… Rukia could not.

There was no hiding the redness in her cheeks, nor the dawning light of comprehension in her eyes. There was only one thing that Rukia could think to do. She scrambled to her feet, raced toward the school gates, vaulted over the fence, and ran all the way back to the Kurosaki house. The building was empty, since Isshin was working and Ichigo, Karin, and Yuzu were all still at school.

She raced up the stairs, passing the girls' room where she had been sleeping, and entered Ichigo's room. She chose to forgo his closet, which she still used occasionally for a little privacy, and instead she collapsed upon Ichigo's bed. She buried her face into his pillow, inhaling his scent, and began to cry.

-oOoOo-

Ichigo didn't quite know how to react to the horde of girls that surrounded him the instant he stepped out of the men's bathroom. Tatsuki, Orihime, Michiru, Ryō, Chizuru, and Mahana formed a tight ring, effectively locking him in place.

"Um… hi, ladies. Can I help you?"

"Kurosaki-kun, what happened between you and Kuchiki-san?" Ichigo's attempt at replying was cut short by Michiru.

"Mahana! You can't just ask something like this so bluntly!"

"We have to be blunt, Michiru," Tatsuki insisted. "It's the only way to get to the bottom of this."

"Well said, Tatsuki," Ryō affirmed. "Kurosaki-kun, please be honest. Did you reject Kuchiki-san?"

Ichigo's jaw dropped. Had these girls all lost their minds? He wasn't sure what it could be, but Ichigo had clearly missed something. Where they had come up with this idea, he could only imagine.

"Absolutely not." Hoping that they were satisfied, he tried to slip free, but they kept their circle around him tight, trapping him like a fish in a net.

"She ran away from school at lunch," Orihime stated, not quite meeting Ichigo's gaze.

"What makes you think that has anything to do with me? I don't know a thing about it."

"Well," Mahana crossed her arms defensively. "We were sort of discussing you during lunch."

"You were doing what? Why?!"

"Look, Ichigo." Tatsuki placed a hand on his shoulder. "We asked Rukia about her relationship with you, and she got this faraway look in her eye. Then, without a word, she jumped the gate and took off running. We thought that maybe she had expressed some sort of affection for you, and that you had turned her down."

"But if that's not the case… what did happen between you and Kuchiki-san to make her act that way?" Orihime took a tentative step closer.

Ichigo really didn't want to deal with this, but he certainly wasn't going to let some foolish rumor like this ruin his reputation. If they were truly determined to know about his relationship with Rukia, he preferred that they knew the truth over some fallacious speculation. Ichigo crossed his hands, behind his neck, tilting his head back to stare at the ceiling.

"You really weren't that far off the mark," he finally answered. "Only you had it backwards. Kuchiki-san is the one who rejected me." This time when Ichigo walked forward, they did not try to stop him.

-oOoOo-

"Ichigo… what are you trying to say?"

"I know it's a little crazy," he admitted. "Maybe it's forbidden, since you're a Shinigami and I'm just a human, or a Substitute Shinigami, or a Vizard, or whatever the hell I am. I know that we only met a while ago, and I know that I can be a pain sometimes, but… Rukia, I feel better when you're around. When Renji and Byakuya took you back to the Soul Society, and you were going to be executed… I felt broken.

"Since I met you… because I met you, I've grown strong. And every moment that I've spent with you has been like a dream for me. I know that I don't have much to offer you, but I care about you Rukia, more than I ever knew I could. I would give anything to protect you. Rukia, I—"

She had held up a hand to stop him, hating herself for what she was about to say, but not knowing any kinder way to word it.

"Ichigo, I'm sorry, but…" That was all it had taken for Ichigo, all it had taken to crush his resolve. As he turned toward the door, intent on losing himself in the pouring rain, her words echoed in his mind. "I only see you as a friend."

-oOoOo-

How could she have been so blind? All this time it had been before her, but she had either chosen to ignore it or had mistaken it for something it was not. Now however, she could see it as clear as day. Ichigo was more than a friend for her. When she had seen him lying in a pool of his own blood the night Renji and Byakuya-Aniki had come for her, it had torn her heart in half to leave him lying there in the rain. When she had been locked in the Tower of Repentance and Renji had come to tell her of the sudden appearance of a Shinigami with a sword the height of his body and orange hair, it had given her the hope she needed to keep on living.

But she had ignored it and denied it. Maybe it was because Ichigo reminded her so much of Kaien-dono, and she had feared that growing attached to Ichigo would result in the same pain she felt on the day she had killed her former Vice-Captain. Or perhaps it was because she had known that she would ultimately have to leave this world and return to Soul Society.

None of that mattered now. She had come to terms with her guilt over killing Shiba Kaien, and Ichigo was as welcome in Soul Society as he was in the real world. With his Shinigami powers unlocked, Rukia even suspected that Ichigo would be granted the extended lifespan of a Shinigami. And as much as he had accomplished in two years, Rukia could only imagine how powerful he would become in ten years, fifty, five hundred…

"What was I thinking? Why did I reject my feelings for Ichigo?" Rukia curled up tighter under Ichigo's blanket, pressing her tearstained face deeper into his pillow. "I am a fool."

And now, he had moved on. Already he had found a new love. No, that couldn't be it. Ichigo would not fall in love so quickly with someone else. It must have been someone that he already cared about. Perhaps, when he had approached Rukia earlier that week, he had been willing to choose her over another girl he also loved, and now that she had turned him down, he had chosen to fight for the other girl instead.

But who could it be? It might be Orihime or Tatsuki, Rukia figured. Those were the two girls in Ichigo's class that he was closest to. And both of them would gladly accept and return Ichigo's feelings if he made a move. Clearly he hadn't done so yet, though, since neither of them had announced a relationship with him during lunch.

Downstairs, the sound of the door opening caught Rukia's attention, but it did not occur to her to move from her solace on Ichigo's bed until the door to the bedroom opened and Ichigo stepped in. Of course, by then, it was too late anyway. He could see her curled up under his blankets, the tearstains on his pillow. She half expected him to yell at her to get out of his bed, but instead he just sat down on the other end, turning to face her. He watched her for a moment before speaking.

"The girls told me that you skipped out after lunch. I thought that maybe I ought to follow you, but if I miss much more school I will get held back, so I had to wait until class ended." He was silent for a moment, watching as Rukia sat up and wiped her wet eyes on her sleeve. "What's the matter, Rukia?"

The look in his eyes, the sound of his voice… it hurt Rukia. He looked and sounded so caring, and Rukia felt that he ought to be mad at her. Shouldn't he hate her for rejecting him? Rukia didn't feel like she deserved any kindness from Ichigo. All she had done was bring him trouble since they had met, and still he had chosen to save her, to fight for, to care for her, and perhaps even to love her. Losing her composure, Rukia threw herself forward, falling into Ichigo's arms. She buried her face into his chest, fresh tears falling as she breathed in his scent from the source.

"Ichigo… Ichi…go." Her sobs were muffled, her fingers curled in the fabric of his shirt. Ichigo slowly draped his arms around her, holding her firmly and stroking her hair, whispering soft words of comfort which only made Rukia sob harder. Why was he being so kind when she had treated him so callously?

"What's the matter, Rukia?" Ichigo repeated when she had managed to get her tears under control. She was still held against him, one of his arms around her waist and the other hand at the back of her head. She knew she must look terrible with a tearstained face and a runny nose. And worst of all, the gentleness that Ichigo was showing her was making her feel guilty. She didn't deserve this. She didn't deserve his forgiveness or respect. Now that she realized how much she wanted the love Ichigo had offered her, she truly felt that she didn't deserve it.



"I'm so sorry, Ichigo. I was a terrible friend to you. When I was at school… the girls were talking and… I realized… Ichigo, I'm so sorry!" He lightly kissed the top of her head, and then looked down to meet her eyes.

"It's okay, Rukia. I'm sorry. I overreacted. You need to follow your heart. You aren't obligated to have feelings for me just because I have them for you. And if those are feelings that you can never return, I'll just have to accept that and move on. It will take some time, but I'll be okay, I think. And if you ever decide that you can return those feelings then… I guess we'll cross that bridge if we come to it."

Rukia was torn. A part of her desperately wanted to tell Ichigo that she did return those feelings, that she had been stupid and blind, and to kiss him on the spot. Another part of her argued that she didn't deserve to have him now, that in real life there are no second chances. Perhaps Ichigo could see the conflict in her eyes, because he gave her a questioning look, furrowing his brow in a way that Rukia found endearing.

"Ichigo, I—"

The harsh beeping of her phone cut off whatever she had been planning to say. Flipping it open and cursing the timing, Rukia looked at the screen, gave a startled gasp, and dropped the device on the floor.

"What is it, Rukia?" She looked at him with wide eyes, threatening to spill tears again, although for a very different reason.

"There's a problem."

-oOoOo-

When they arrived at the scene shortly after, Rukia hopped off Ichigo's back, and he wasted no time in leaping into battle. Rukia paused for a moment to survey the scene before her.

Captain Unohana and the 4th division were running around franticly treating the wounded, and few were still fighting. Renji lay a distance from the fray, bleeding from his side, the shattered remains of his Bankai scattered about him. Matsumoto was similarly disabled, along with all of the Lieutenants and most of the Captains.

Those still fighting included Kuchiki Byakuya, Zaraki Kenpachi, Hitsugaya Tōshirō, Kyōraku Shunsui, and to Rukia's surprise, Yamamoto-Genryūsai Shigekuni. Disturbingly, it seemed they were fighting a losing battle. Tōshirō's Bankai was down to three petals, and his left arm was wounded. Byakuya was attacking from a distance with cuts upon his face and, when forced to move, a noticeable limp that decreased the effectiveness of his Shunpo. Kenpachi was still fighting bravely, despite having lost a large amount of blood, but it was clear that he would fall soon. Shunsui was also fighting bravely, ignoring several long gashes across his chest and stomach.



Yamamoto, despite his experience, despite his strength, despite the power of his Zanpakutō, had an air of fear about him that made Rukia sick to her stomach. To see him bleeding, still fighting, prepared to give his life in battle, was a terrifying vision.

The two Arrancar were clearly former Vasto Lorde. They were completely humanoid in appearance, neither having felt the need to revert to their true form. One was a male, with shoulder length black hair and slate grey eyes. The other was female, standing a head shorter than her companion, with bright red hair that flowed behind her and shining blue eyes. Both were unscathed.

Rukia fell to her knees. The sudden spike of reiatsu, a spiritual pressure greater than any she had ever felt, fell over the battlefield like a tidal wave. Forcing herself to look up, she found that everyone, everyone present, from Byakuya to Kenpachi, even Yamamoto and the two Arrancar, had been forced down by the sudden burst of reiatsu.

Except Ichigo. Standing tall and walking proudly between the prostrate forms of Byakuya and Tōshirō, Ichigo held Zangetsu lazily across his shoulders as he approached the Arrancar who were struggling to their feet. She watched in awe along with the others as the two enemies raised their reiatsu in an attempt to match Ichigo's. The result was a cumulative pressure that made Rukia's head spin.

"You are… Kurosaki… Ichigo." The male Arrancar spoke in a slow, drawling voice.

"We have come to avenge the death of our master. Prepare yourself, boy!" The female added. "We will have your head for killing Aizen-kun!"

Ichigo's reiatsu spiked again, and a violent explosion of earth, along with ash from Ryūjin Jakka, flew into the air, temporarily obscuring Rukia's view of the fight. When the dust had settled, Ichigo stood with his sword extended, ready for battle. He had transformed instantaneously into his Bankai form and released his hollow mask. His voice as he spoke had a haunting tone that made Rukia shudder.

"Well then? This will be over very quickly if you don't both come at me at full strength. Show me your true faces, won't you? I'll show you mine if you show me yours first…"

The Arrancar grinned, regaining their confidence. "We don't need to transform to fight you. We know all about your power, and the limited time that you can—"

Rukia did not see any movement, but the female Arrancar who had been speaking clutched her side where a long gash had opened, and Zangetsu was dripping blood onto the ground.

"I won't ask again." Ichigo's voice was low and threatening. "You've hurt my friends, and so now you must die. Whether you want to die fighting or be cut down where you stand is up to you. But don't insult me with data collected over a year ago. If you would like to see how long I can stay in this form after two years of training, then ready yourselves for battle. Otherwise, brace yourselves to die now. Either way, I will kill you both!"

Ichigo flew forward, and his two opponents dove out of the way. It was the male Arrancar this time that suffered a minor cut to his shoulder. Now on either side of Ichigo, both bleeding and both furious, the two gave in to his taunting, each unsheathing their Zanpakutō and calling out the name of their respective swords.

The female's released form was something like a demonic bird. Skeletal wings sprouted from her back, her mask featured a viciously curved beak, and her fingers were elongated into 20 centimeter claws. Her flowing red hair fanned out behind her. The male's released form gave him a somewhat serpentine appearance with a fanged mask and a long, skeletal tail that ended in a sharp point.

"You… will regret crossing us… boy!" Hissed the male, his tail flicking from side to side. "Now… we avenge our creator!"

They flew at Ichigo from either side. Rukia watched, awestruck, still held to her knees by the incredible reiatsu Ichigo was releasing. He spun, Zangetsu blocking the male's tail while a kick diverted the females claws. He swung his Zanpakutō, his motions a blur, accepting a wound to his left arm from the female in order to slash Zangetsu across the male's abdomen. On and on they fought, giving and taking in a bloody dance. Ichigo moved at speeds Rukia couldn't fathom, trading blow for blow, holding back on his own what the full force of the Gotei 13 could not stand up against.

Rukia had known that Ichigo was growing stronger as he had trained, each and every day, for over a year. The odd hollow that appeared in Karakura Town was annihilated with no effort at all. However, since she had not seen Ichigo face a truly powerful opponent since the fall of former Captain Aizen, even she had not realized the raw power he held.

But was it enough? To Rukia, it looked like a stalemate. Neither Ichigo nor the Arrancar seemed to be getting a hit in without taking one in turn. Ichigo was amazing, moving with a grace and power that was unrivaled by anything she had ever seen, but it could not fully compensate for the fact that he was outnumbered. The Shinigami of Soul Society were worn down from fighting, and held down by Ichigo's reiatsu. Rukia wondered if perhaps he had intended that, to keep everyone else out of the fight.

Surely he could not hold them off forever. They held the advantage of being able to coordinate attacks, to come at Ichigo from multiple directions. And while they were clearly doing everything in their power merely to stay alive, Rukia feared that they might be able to take Ichigo down with them.

But… he was laughing? Why was Ichigo laughing? This didn't seem to Rukia like a moment for mirth or joy. Although, there were a few Shinigami that Rukia knew to smile in battle: Kenpachi, Ikkaku, Gin. Was it a love of battle that caused Ichigo to laugh? Was he laughing out of fear? Or was something else amusing to him? The answer became clear when Ichigo next spoke, his blade locked against the skeletal, bloodstained tail and claws of the Arrancar.



"You've fought well, if not entirely honorably. You were kind enough to show me your true faces… so it's only fair that I show you mine. It will be the last thing that you ever see. And the last thing you hear will be the name of the man that killed you…"

Rukia's stomach turned, her eyes widening as Ichigo's mask began to grow, to stretch out over his neck, his shoulders, flowing over his body. His hair grew longer, stretching out behind him like a mane of fire. Four spines grew out over each shoulder as a tail grew in behind him. His fingers became like claws, his feet looking like those of some terrible beast. Tattered remains of Ichigo's clothes hung from his waist, leaving exposed his chest and the hole in its center.

Rukia tried to move, but Ichigo's reiatsu pushed her flat against the ground, and the most she could do was crane her neck to watch what was to happen. His body was now fully that of a hollow, all white with black markings on his mask, arms, legs, and tail. In his right hand, he still held Tensa Zangetsu.

"Getsuga Tenshō!" The blade lock was broken, throwing the Arrancar back with tremendous force as compressed reiatsu erupted from Ichigo's blade. The hollow Ichigo crouched down, his tail swishing back and forth predatorily.

"Remember this name well! Kurosaki Ichigo!" It was over in an instant. The Arrancar were helpless against this new power. With a movement that didn't even register in Rukia's brain, Ichigo had taken the heads of both Arrancar in one stroke of his blade.

And in that instant, the reiatsu dropped and Rukia was able to breathe properly again. All around her, those that were not too badly wounded were getting to their feet. Rukia, who had never had the chance to fight and, as such, had remained uninjured, joined them.

Every conscious Shinigami present was watching Ichigo in awe. He turned to face them, and seeing him face-to-face made Rukia's heart race. Slowly, she passed the Shinigami who were gathered around their savior, standing at a safe distance. Walking up to Ichigo, she cautiously reached out a hand and touched his chest.

"Ichigo?" He looked down at her, one clawed hand gently touching the side of her face while the other pulled off the mask. Almost in an instant, the hollow body crumbled away, leaving Ichigo standing before her, his mask still in his left hand. His right hand moved to her waist as he let the mask dissolve.

"Are you okay, Rukia?" She nodded. "And the rest of you?" He looked out at the Shinigami gathered who had nearly suffered a massacre at the hands of the Arrancar. It was Yamamoto who answered.

"Thanks to your timing, the Shinigami were not eliminated today. Soul Society owes you a debt of gratitude, Kurosaki Ichigo." He was silent a moment, casting a glance back at his fellow captains and their Lieutenants. "We only suffered one death. I am sorry, Kuchiki Rukia. Ukitake Jūshirō did not survive the battle."



Rukia's breath caught in her throat. She spun on the spot, searching the crowd before her for her captain. Surely it couldn't be… She found him lying peacefully in the grass nearby. She ran to his side, dropping to her knees and lifting his head into her lap. "Ukitake-taichō. Please, you can't…" Once more, tears welled in Rukia's eyes as she held her fallen Captain.

Rukia felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see Unohana standing over her. "Please, Kuchiki-san, do not be troubled. Ukitake-kun was a good man, and we will all miss him, but I can assure you, he had no regrets. His body was weak, and he knew going into this fight that he probably wouldn't come out alive. He made his decision and was content with it."

Rukia nodded solemnly, gently lowering her late Captain's head to the ground and closing his eyes. She bowed to him for the final time before turning to look for Ichigo. They had never properly finished their earlier conversation, and now she also wanted to find out more about the hollow transformation he had used to defeat the Arrancar. But as she scanned over the Shinigami, it soon became obvious that both Ichigo and Yamamoto were missing.

"Rukia." She turned to find Byakuya standing by her side. "Come. Your presence is required at Seireitei."

Rukia made to protest, but Byakuya gave her a stern stare. "Yes, Byakuya-Aniki." With one last look to confirm that Ichigo was nowhere to be found, she followed her brother through a newly opened Senkaimon and on toward the Soul Society.

-oOoOo-

A proposition. "So then, what do you say?"

A pause. "Very well. I think I am ready. On two conditions."

A grin. "I believe I already know what they are. Consider both of them granted."

A bow. "Thank you."

-oOoOo-

Rukia stepped into the office of Hitsugaya Tōshirō where the Captain, his Lieutenant Matsumoto, and Byakuya were waiting. She gave a polite bow upon entry and seated herself on the other side of Tōshirō's desk, across from the diminutive Captain.

"Did you wish to see me, Hitsugaya-taichō?" Tōshirō shrugged, reclining in his chair.

"Not really. Yamamoto-sōtaichō requested that you be brought here, and asked that Kuchiki-kun and I stick around for some sort of surprise. Matsumoto is here by choice."

"That's right, Tōshirō," spoke a new voice from the doorway. "He suspected you and Byakuya might appreciate it nearly as much as Rukia."

Byakuya looked over at Ichigo with haughty disdain for the child's informality, while Tōshirō seethed from his desk. "I have told you before, Kurosaki Ichigo. You do not belong here. The fight is over, so it is best that you return home immediately."

"And I am Hitsugaya-taichō to you!"

"Come on, now, Tōshirō, be nice. You don't hear Byakuya complaining that I didn't use his official title, do you?"

"You know well that you are out of place referring to us in the familiar," Byakuya interjected. "Now please, be on your way. We were asked by Yamamoto-sōtaichō to wait here, but you have no business here."

Ichigo smiled at Rukia, winked, and turned back to the Captains, jumping up to sit on the corner of Tōshirō's desk, much to his chagrin. Matsumoto was sitting quietly next to Rukia, who noticed a smirk on the Lieutenant's face.

"What's so funny, Matsumoto-san?"

"Please, just Matsumoto. You'll make me feel old. It's just… I believe I know what Yamamoto's surprise is. Just watch. This should be highly amusing." Rukia turned back to the men who were still bickering, Ichigo smiling deviously.

"Ichigo! In my office, you will not address me like a childhood friend! I am a Shinigami Captain and as such, I have earned respect!" Ichigo looked ready to burst out laughing at any moment. Finally he decided to lay all cards on the table.

"Tōshirō, be a good sport. I haven't asked you and Byakuya to call me Kurosaki-taichō, now have I?"

Byakuya and Tōshirō both looked ready to voice some sort of comeback, but after the weight of Ichigo's statement hit them, they both fell silent, looks of abject horror on their faces. The room was silent for an uncomfortable moment before Matsumoto began to laugh uncontrollably at the look on her Captain's face. Byakuya was the first to regain his composure.

"Surely this must be some sort of joke."

"Not remotely," Ichigo assured. "I have been named the new Captain of the 13th division. As such, I will gladly honor your titles and refer to you as Kuchiki-taichō and Hitsugaya-taichō, if you wish to honor me with the title Kurosaki-taichō. Otherwise, I am more than happy to remain mutually informal with you both. Now, if you don't mind, I would like to have a word with Rukia. Follow me?" And with that he turned and left the room.

-oOoOo-



Ichigo led Rukia to what was now his office. The room still held all the personal effects of the former Captain, and Ichigo could sense Rukia's discomfort. He made a mental note to clear the room of Ukitake's belongings and return them to any family he might have as soon as possible.

Ichigo sat behind his new desk, and Rukia sat across from him. He wasted no time in getting to the point. "I'm sure there is much that you want to discuss, and that you have many questions.

"As far as what happened in the battle today… As you know, I lost the Shinigami powers you gave me when I was wounded by Byakuya. Urahara trained me to help me develop my own latent Shinigami powers and, in the process, I became a Vizard. My hollow mask began to appear, at first to protect me, and then to fight for me. I went through extensive training to dominate my hollow and to gain control of that power, and at first, I could only wear the mask for about eleven seconds.

"With training, that timeframe began to steadily increase until, about seven months ago, I discovered that I could keep the mask on indefinitely. But it didn't feel right to stop training, or to accept that I had reached my full potential. So I kept at it, day after day, until two months ago when I made a breakthrough.

"It occurred to me that if I could safely wear my hollow mask and still remain in control, I should be able to make a full transformation. It took a lot of work, but I did manage to master it. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the ultimate power of the Vizard, equivalent to a Shinigami's Bankai or an Arrancar's released form. And since I can use this power alongside my Bankai, and with an unnaturally powerful reiatsu, I've finally become strong enough to protect those that I care about."

Ichigo gave Rukia a moment to process what he had said. He had kept this secret from her, from everyone, for the last two months since he had discovered his ability, because he had still been afraid of losing control. After today, however, he knew that would not be the case. He had seen his friends in danger, and he had used his strength to save them. No longer did he fear losing control to the hollow within.

After a moment, Rukia nodded her understanding. "The reiatsu you released today was… beyond incredible. I've never felt anything like it, not even from Yamamoto-sōtaichō. Not even from Aizen. And I couldn't see your movements in Bankai."

Ichigo crossed his hands behind his head. "I guess Yamamoto was fairly impressed. Since he lost a Captain today, and there was no Lieutenant to fill to position temporarily, he felt the need to find a replacement as soon as he could. Especially since we've learned that there are still powerful Arrancar in Hueco Mundo loyal to Aizen. So he asked me to take the position, and I accepted, on two conditions."

"What conditions?"

"The first," Ichigo explained, "is the right to visit my family when I'm not on duty. I trust my dad to protect Yuzu and Karin, but even if he gets in over his head, I know that Uryū, Orihime, 

and Chad would all be willing to help protect my family. Still, I'll visit every now and then to make sure they're alright or just to see them.

"I don't really need my body much anymore. My family and my friends, even Keigo, Mizuiro, and Tatsuki, can see me in my Shinigami form. So I don't need to use my body to visit the real world. I figured I would let Kon take care of it for me, although honestly, I'll pretty much be letting him keep it, since I don't know if I'll ever really need it again."

"So, you're going to become a permanent resident of Seireitei?" Rukia shook her head in awe. "You know, Kurosaki-taichō, I never would have guessed when we first met that you would one day be my commanding officer."

Ichigo grinned. "And as your commanding officer, I order you to refer to me as Ichigo, at least in private."

Rukia gave a mock salute. "Yes, Ichigo, sir!" Ichigo couldn't help but laugh at her antics. It was comforting for him to see her in a better mood than she had been earlier, despite the loss of her previous Captain.

"As a matter of fact, Rukia, that kind of brings me to the other condition Yamamoto granted me. I was particularly resolute about this one, and I'm going to need your help to see it through. As your new Captain, do you trust my judgment, Rukia?"

"Of course, Ichigo. You have my full support in all of your decisions."

"I was hoping you would say that. After all, what is a Captain without the support of his Lieutenant?" Ichigo gave her a moment to process his words. When her mouth opened but no sound came out, Ichigo guessed that she understood. "Yamamoto granted me the right to choose my Lieutenant. I've chosen you, Rukia."

"But—"

Ichigo held up a hand to silence any protest she might have made. "I know that you were previously unseated. However, as I understand it, that was a result of Byakuya's interference to protect you from dangerous assignments, not an accurate reflection of your abilities. After having spent two years in your company, I know that you are an able fighter. Your swordsmanship is impressive, surpassed only by your skill with kidō. But perhaps more importantly, I trust you. I wouldn't want the position to go to anyone else, Rukia."

"I…" She respectfully bowed her head to her new Captain. "I am honored, Ichigo, and if you are certain that I am the best choice for this position, I humbly accept."

Ichigo smiled widely at his new Lieutenant. "As my new Lieutenant, you will accompany me on missions when necessary or fill my place in my absence. We will both need to receive a seal for the 13th division to limit our power in the real world, but that can wait at least until tomorrow. 

And as my Lieutenant, you may share my quarters, where you will no longer be sleeping in a closet, but have your own room with a bed."

Rukia looked down at her feet. When she finally raised her head again, Ichigo could see her eyes beginning to tear. "Ichigo. About… about earlier. I just wanted to tell you that I—"

Ichigo shook his head, and she stopped. He smiled at her, trying to offer her comfort. "Tomorrow, Rukia, if you want, we can talk about it. There has been enough drama and excitement for one day. Let tonight exist for the present, and tomorrow we can settle the past. We should sleep."

Rukia but her lip before tentatively touching Ichigo's arm. "Ichigo… if I am not out of place, may I… just tonight… may I sleep by your side?" Ichigo wrapped his arm around Rukia's waist and led her to his new bed.

"Of course, Rukia. And thank you. I think I would be lonely without the company."

Not another word was spoken as the two friends, Captain and Lieutenant, both fell asleep at the other's side. Both slept in a peace and comfort they had never known before. For Ichigo, there was a peace in knowing that he was strong enough, both to protect those whom he loved and to fight for what he wanted. For Rukia, there was a peace in knowing that, even if she had made a mistake, Ichigo would not hold it against her.

As the moon rose over Seireitei, Ichigo lay silently next to the woman that he had come to think of as his. The woman that he had succeeded in rescuing from certain peril. For two years he had known her as a close friend, a partner in battle and a mentor. Now he knew her simply as the woman he loved. He could not blame her for what had happened, because whenever something in life went wrong, it seemed that she was the one person he could always go to. She had become a part of him, something that he could hold on to when everything seemed about to fall apart… or when everything seemed to come together. With Rukia at his side, Ichigo could fight the rain.

-oOoOo-

Author's Note: My second story for Bleach is done, and I think this one is significantly better than its predecessor. Feel free to let me know what you think, and hopefully my future Bleach fanfics will be better for it. I enjoyed writing this, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. This one is done for now, but I intentionally left room for a sequel. I don't know if I will write one, but I did enjoy writing this, so maybe. Until next time…

LouisTsunami