Hey All! Just a few things before we begin...Firstly, a big THANK YOU to everyone who is reading, and especially to those of you who review. I read reviews and really do take each one to heart, so constructive criticism, advice, or just encouragement are always really helpful. And, I usually respond to reviews, so if you have any questions, just let me know! Secondly, a little background information. I've been writing this story on the side of my other Bleach fic, "Bleach: Torn Souls". This one I've been writing on my own, but don't worry, the lovely Theoress is still involved, she's been editing and sort of beta-ing for me. Finally, this story is a little bit darker and heavier than my other. No worries, though. You'll still get silly/fluffy moments on occasion, and it's still IchiRuki :D. Ok, well, I hope you like it! MissCyraf

Prologue

The Hollows had fled. The Arrancar had been destroyed, one by one cut down. The following former Captains of the 13 Gotei defeated. And the former Captain who led them all, who used them all, who had started it all, was now gone. This time, it wasn't an illusion. The white-clothed body, stained with red as blood drained across the marble floors of Heuco Mundo, was crumpled on the ground, never to rise again. It had taken over a year. The date of Aizen's fall and the end of the war: July 27th, 2007.

1

Memories

Monday, September 3rd, 2007.

"Ichigo, you idiot!" They were finally back, finally home, he thought, stretching and folding his hands behind his head, ignoring Rukia's outburst entirely. Behind them the gate to Soul Society began to close, shutting them off in the real world again after months of being gone. It all felt surreal, being back. The warm, early-September sun touched at his face, he sighed audibly as they strode away from the gate. It felt odd, his scowl deepened, scrunching up his face. The light breeze that wafted through the air was nothing like the clawing gales and windstorms of Hueco Mundo, and Soul Society was always still, pristine, perfect. Both seemed closer to home than this world, he had been gone for so long.

The gate disappearing behind them, Ichigo led the way back to Urahara Shoten, trusting his feet and instincts more than his memory to get him there. Rukia followed, still loudly complaining about the …small… prank he had pulled on her before they left Seireitei. Now, surrounded by the shifting and flowing crowds of people on the sidewalk, he felt almost nervous, out of place. They were invisible to the other humans, still in their soul forms. His body was waiting for him at Urahara's shop. Then…then home. Home…He imagined the Kurosaki house and clinic, but the memory seemed dim, blotchy. The months they had been gone felt like years, decades. Perhaps even another lifetime.

The sounds of other people talking, of cars on blurring past on the streets, birds chirping, and the other white noise that fluttered around him all spoke of home. The sights, the people, the school building, everything around him told him he was home. But after spending the past year in and out of Soul Society and Heuco Mundo, he felt almost uncomfortable, like he didn't belong anymore. Karakura Town churned like always, people going about their days, events he would have considered normal a year ago. Now they were foreign. Home…He didn't really know what that was. It wasn't serene elegance of Soul Society, it wasn't the black skies, frigid sand and stone of Hueco Mundo. He didn't really have a home any more, his past, his childhood and teen years, seemed so distant, nearly wiped clean from his mind due to nearly a year of blood and pain. Only one thing was truly familiar to him. Only one thing was the same, only one thing really registered as home. The shrill, obnoxious girl beside him.

"Ichigo!" He glanced down at the annoyance at his elbow, Rukia, only matching his saunter by stretching her short legs, glared at him. He chuckled, he had seen that very same expression countless times over the past few years. It's so strange… "the past few years…" Has it really been that short? Have I really known her for only three years? He wondered at it, he wondered how he could so quickly forget everything about the real world, and know only Rukia Kuchiki as home. He presented the gentle day with another vicious scowl, slightly embarrassed at the thought. He had only known her for three years, a small portion of his 18 year-long life. She hadn't been present during his childhood or later years, she was a rather recent development in the whole span of things. And yet…Glancing down at her, it really was like he had known her his entire life. Despite how stupid it was, she really was home to him.

The Shinigami girl beside him broke him out of his thoughts, demanding attention, irritated with his wandering mind.

"Why do you have to be such a jerk all the time!" Distracted from his discomfort, he shot a grimace down at her.

"I'm not a jerk. Besides, you totally deserved that."

"I did not, you ass!" She began to launch into a whole speech about how the entire incident was his fault, he snorted, forgetting his thoughts from the previous minutes. Though he wasn't entirely comfortable with the real world around him, he was certainly comfortable with Rukia's bitching. Rukia. Though he loathed admitting it, she was his best friend and closest companion. She was the constant in his life. And though she had lived and fought through it with him, she seemed like the only thing around him untainted by the war. Untainted by the pain, the hate, and the death, unlike everything else that had touched his life during the previous year.

Now that the war's over, I can have a real home again. It had been nearly three years, only three years, that he had known her. But looking straight ahead and shoving his hands roughly into his pockets, not letting himself look down at the complaining Shinigami, he was fully aware that it would never be home again without her. Even if she is sleeping in my damn closet… I'm home.

A rare smile, so small it was hardly noticeable, stretched his lips. A sharp punch in the arm from a hard little fist caused it to blink away as he scowled down at her.

"Are you even listening to me, Ichigo?!" He rolled his eyes. Yeah…I'm home.

o o o o o

"Rrghh…It feels so weird being back in this thing again," Ichigo growled, reaching and stretching out wildly, whapping Rukia in the back in the process.

"Watch it, idiot!" She snapped at him over her shoulder. "And have you forgotten that "that thing", as you call it, is your body?" She snorted at him, having easily and gracefully entered one of Urahara's gigais. Ichigo apparently chose to ignore her, continuing to try to get comfortable in his body silently.

After making a few minutes of idle conversation with Urahara, Ichigo seemed to be getting antsy, and Rukia excused them as politely as she could. Honestly, she was only too happy to get out as well. The war had ended, they had spent another month in Soul Society recuperating and doing paperwork, and she knew that Ichigo was all too eager to return home, to see his family and friends again. He had things to return to, people to return to. He walked quickly, long legs stretching out before him in his obvious, even if he tried to keep it in, excitement. She smiled softly to herself, jogging slightly to keep up. He can't wait to see everyone…I don't blame him. He really loves them, he must have missed them like crazy after being gone so long… Her gaze dropped, her smile retreating. She didn't want him to know that she was excited too, it was embarrassing. They weren't her family, her friends. But…they are.

At first, she had been hesitant to follow him back to the real world, the cutting idea that she had nothing to return for squarely in her mind. The thought was still present, that she didn't have a life here, she had no reason to come back. And, things were different now than they were before. She was different, so was Ichigo. But they would always accept him, they were his family. In all reality, they weren't hers, and she was terrified that they wouldn't like what she had become. The war had damaged her, she had seen countless comrades and friends fall under the blades of the Arrancar. Damaged…

Even Renji had been cut down, and though he was still alive, he hadn't yet fully recovered. He had been the last out of their team of humans and Shinigami—Ichigo, Rukia, Orihime, Ishida, and Chad—to fall, leaving only Rukia and Ichigo to lean on each other. She had vivid memories of the grisly scene, when the Espada's sword, after slashing through him again and again, finally punctured his body for the last time. He didn't get up again. And she couldn't do anything.

Worse yet were the memories of Ichigo. He and Aizen had essentially killed each other, it was widely considered a miracle that he had remained alive. She glanced up from the ground, still embedded in her thoughts, to look at Ichigo as he strode purposefully beside her, his usual scowl particularly hardened as he struggled to keep exhilaration at seeing his family again off his face. Rukia dropped her gaze back to the ground. A miracle…She recalled seeing his body crumpled on the white marble, the Vaizard mask shattered in pieces around his face, sword a few feet away where it had been thrown from the force of Aizen's last attempt to triumph. He had been surrounded by the black ragged cloth of his Bankai robe, made even darker by the red that was seeping into it.

Even now, Rukia hardly remembered her reaction to the sight, everything but Ichigo was blurry in her memory. One of the Shinigami, who had apparently witnessed the final battle between the Shinigami substitute and Aizen, told her during recovery in Soul Society, that she, tears gliding down her cheeks silently, had dragged herself over to his body, cradling his head in her lap as she tried to revive him. He had, somehow, woken to the sound of her broken whisper, telling her not to cry, that he was "alright, and did you see how I kicked Aizen's fuckin' ass?". Sometime after that, she was later told, a few members of her brother's squad happened upon them and had taken them to Soul Society to recover. As soon as Aizen had fallen, the war was over.

Once they had returned to Soul Society, Rukia Kuchiki had ignored the celebrations at the victory, even more the honors and praise given to her for her "brave actions". I felt like I didn't deserve them…I wasn't able to save Ichigo from the final blow that killed him. I just couldn't get there in time…She had even ignored the fact that she had saved him, that he was now alive, even if he had been unconscious for some time. All I could think about was his limp, bleeding body, the dead blankness behind the brown in his eyes when I lifted his head in Heuco Mundo…Those thoughts would come hand in hand with the absolutely crushing guilt that had settled within her that she had been unable to protect him.

In Soul Society, Ichigo, unconscious but alive, had been placed in the Forth Squad clinic, his recovery was a top priority. And awash in her horrible, blind guilt, Rukia had spent all her time at his bedside, falling further within herself. Feeling beyond miserable, caught up in guilt and the memories of fallen friends that she had also been unable to protect due to her "weakness", she wanted to hide away forever, too ashamed to show her face again, not believing everyone, anyone, when they referred to her as a hero.

And after days, nearly a week of him being unresponsive, he protected her again, saved her again, without even trying. She remembered every detail perfectly, to the way the light was hitting his pale skin and bright hair, to the wrinkles in his black robe, the fierce determination in his brown eyes. Laying in bed, only hours after he had woken up, he realized something was wrong.

Taking a brief break from the memory, Rukia smiled again walking next to him, recalling how he presented her with a horrible scowl, at the force behind it despite the physical weakness he had been still experiencing. She had been still seated beside his bed, head in her hands, guilt overcoming her. It had grown, it was not just about Ichigo and others that she had been unable to protect in battle anymore, but all past guilt as well, even the death of Kaien. Sitting up in bed, Ichigo had crossed bandaged arms across his chest, snarling at her. "Don't be stupid, Rukia. It's my own damned fault that I ended up like this. You literally saved my life, if anything, I owe you. So stop being such a pitiful dumbass." Somewhere in that grating snipe, he had told her what she desperately needed to hear, that it wasn't her fault that she didn't get there in time. That it wasn't her fault that he had taken Aizen's final blow. That it wasn't her fault that he, Ichigo, her companion and partner, had fallen. And that he knew she had done all she could. After all of the comfort and reassurance she had been given while at Soul Society, it was his four sentences that had finally awakened her from her own guilt and grief. And though the guilt lingered, the sadness remained, it didn't completely overwhelm her again. He had saved her.

And he kept saving her, however inadvertently. Once he was up and about a week later, gaining strength, she had informed him that she was planning on staying in Soul Society, secretly not wanting to face the people back in the real world, irrationally believing that they might blame her for not protecting them. But then, when I told him that I might be staying… "Whadd'ya mean you're staying?! Rukia! Do you have any idea what they'd do to me if you didn't come back to see them? They'd kill me! You're coming." And the topic had been closed. Ichigo had decided for her. She had sheepishly grinned at him, chuckling a little, he had given her a cocky smirk, but the warmth in his eyes shared none of his smile's arrogance. He had then punched her lightly in the shoulder, leaving her room to allow her to sit and think on it. She had realized then that he was right, she did have friends there that would be vastly disappointed in not seeing her if she were to stay in Soul Society. The thought had been almost surprising, like an epiphany. She had lived too long not having them, the concept that she did was startling.

She smiled to herself, her mind shifting again, and she blushed to herself, hoping Ichigo, who was still striding beside her, hands still shoved in his pockets, didn't see it. Even with friends, that wasn't the real reason she had agreed to return with him, that was an acceptable, rational excuse to her. The reason, one that she had determinedly ignored and still was, was the warmth that had been in his eyes. Despite having lectured herself that the warmth didn't mean anything, she had inwardly hoped that he was using the same excuse that she was, that his real reason was different too. That maybe he wanted her to return as well.

Now, I have things, people to come back to. She snorted under her breath, pushing the embarrassing memory away. All thanks to Ichigo… Their human friends had returned back to the real world much earlier, they hadn't the stamina or hardened enough hearts to allow them to continue to participate in the battles, no matter how much they wanted to stick by Ichigo. By the end of the war, it had been just Rukia and Ichigo out of their group, partners and companions. They had looked out for each other, protected each other. Striding next to him now, she reminded herself again that she held no blame, no fault. She had protected him. She had saved him, he had said so himself. She was still a little confused as to how, but he had refused to tell her on the many occasions she had asked. Doesn't matter, somehow, I did. And in battle, I wasn't the weak one, or the one that needed to be babysat. I was able to hold my own, I was able to protect… In times when the pain still crept up on her, she would chant this to herself like a mantra, and as they moved through the real world towards his home, his family, she needed it. Needed to remind herself of her value to him, even to his family. I was able to protect him...I was able to save him. And hopefully, I will still have a place here with him.

Her thoughts blocked out her other senses, she was mildly shocked when they turned in silence onto what she immediately recognized as his street, she had forgotten what it looked like. Though the war had only lasted a year, it had been the most difficult and heart-wrenching year she had ever experienced, memories of death and pain still fresh in her mind, all too willing to surface unbidden. Those memories of death and pain covering past good ones, it was almost like all that was left in her was the pain, no more goodness. She chanted her mantra again, shuddering. Her apprehension was growing, desperately hoping that what Ichigo was right, that they wanted to see her. Biting at her lip, she glanced up at him again. His tension was clear on his face now, as if he was unable to hold it back any further. She was startled by it, he rarely showed how he was feeling, and even then, only when he was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't remember to hide them in a scowl. Rukia allowed herself to feel a twinge of guilt, but not for the past, for being so caught up in herself that she had forgotten how hard this must be on him. He hasn't seen them for almost a whole year…How can I be so selfish? He's changed too, he must be afraid of what they'll think. I know they'll still love and accept him, but how he must be feeling…

She poked him firmly in the shoulder, efficiently snapping him out of whatever he had been thinking about. His expression shifted into that scowl again, he glared down at her, opening his mouth to snap off a sarcastic comment. She killed the words on his lips, flashing him an excited smile that she hoped would give him confidence, though she didn't really feel that way herself. It worked, he hesitantly allowed himself to smile, a little, back at her. The back of his hand brushed lightly against hers, she grabbed it, firmly ignoring the "no touching" unspoken rule that had always held between them. He tensed for a moment, then relaxed, apparently decided to accept the given comfort. And though she knew he was still a little afraid of what was to come, he stood a little taller, strode forward with a little more of his old arrogance.

- - -

So there's Chapter one! I hope you liked it, I know it's a bit dense. To sum it up, Rukia and Ichigo have just returned from Soul Society after recovering from the war. Rukia is remembering Ichigo being injured, and how she felt during his recovery. They're about to see his family again for the first time in about a year, and both are tense. Thanks for reading. MissCyraf