Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach, or any of the characters created by Tite Kubo. If one of my own characters pops up at some point, though, they are definitely mine.
Love Conquers All
Chapter 1: A Friend in Need
'Damn it,' Ichigo thought through the haze, 'not again.'
The shouts of his friends sounded oddly muffled, as if cotton balls had been stuffed into his ears. One voice, though, came through as sharp as a knife.
"How does it feel, boy? How does it feel to die?"
"Actually, pretty much the same as every other time," the orange-haired Soul Reaper shot back. "What, do you want a cookie, asshole?"
The figure above him paused for a moment, before speaking again.
"Come to think of it, one of those would be… wait, are you mocking me, you wretch?"
The Soul Reaper just chuckled faintly.
"I guess I was, but it's no fun if you're too stupid to get it in the first place."
The dark-eyed man standing over Ichigo roared in rage and brought down his sword, with these parting words that hurt more than any blade ever could:
"She belongs to me, boy."
Everything went white after that.
Three Months Ago
Ichigo rolled over in his bed, still half asleep and trying to get away from whatever had been poking him, but the prodding continued. Finally the Soul Reaper opened bleary eyes to see Rukia standing over him in her pajamas, an insistent look on her face.
"What'dyuwant?" Ichigo slurred out.
If Ichigo hadn't been so exhausted, he would have strangled her right then and there for waking him up like that.
"So what?" Rukia echoed, surprised by the reply. "So let's do something, you oaf. It's three in the afternoon already!"
"Rukia," Ichigo said slowly, "what time of year is it?"
"Um, summer, I guess."
"Exactly. So what does that make these next few months?"
"Right. And what's vacation for, Rukia?"
The dark-haired Soul Reaper glowered at the tone Ichigo had used just then.
"Don't patronize me, you brat."
"Just answer the damn question."
"Going out and doing things, obviously."
Ichigo all but rolled his eyes as he replied.
"Wrong. Vacation is for sleeping. You should try it sometime."
Rukia frowned, stifled by the pure force of laziness that was a teenage boy on summer vacation.
"Do you honestly mean to tell me that you're going to spend the entire period of peace, which we fought so hard against Aizen to win, sleeping?"
"Yep. And don't worry so much, Rukia," Ichigo said, sitting up and looking her straight in the eyes, "I'm sure that this peace isn't going to end any time soon."
The forcefulness of his voice was almost enough to make her believe him, but Rukia had her doubts.
"I don't know…"
Suddenly, Rukia had her train of thought derailed by a large, soft object colliding with her face.
"Ichigo! What the hell…" she sputtered, not expecting to be whacked by a pillow when she'd been thinking such serious thoughts.
Ichigo, far from being apologetic, was busy laughing.
"Lighten up, Rukia. What's the point of peace if you can't enjoy it, huh?"
The blue-eyed Soul Reaper was stunned for a moment by the strike, but then a mischievous smile appeared on her face. Ichigo had let his guard down, and he was going to pay.
"Hey!" he shouted as Rukia's own pillow smacked him in the face. "You can't do that!"
"Oh, really? I think I just did."
"Woman," Ichigo growled with a sharp grin on his face, "you just made a big mistake."
The sounds of the fight reached inside the closet where Kon had been resting, and after a few minutes he slid the door open and shouted.
"Would you kids shut up? I'm trying to sleep here, damn it!"
Ichigo and Rukia stopped beating on each other for a moment, and then gave each other conspiratorial glances and smiled before nodding and looking over at the stuffed lion, who had suddenly become very afraid.
"Hey, what was with that look? Hey, what're you guys coming over here for? Wait—stop! Ow, that hurt, you jerks! Aaahh!"
Across the spirit plane, in Soul Society, the Sixth Division Captain and his Lieutenant were sharing a rather tense cup of tea
"If you don't mind me saying so, Captain," Renji said as he took a protracted sip, "you look even more detached than usual. Is something wrong?"
Byakuya shot his lieutenant a perturbed glance, but when Renji's eyes refused to waver, the Captain sighed and spoke.
"Nothing's wrong, Renji," he answered. "Stop being so solicitous; it's bordering on pathetic."
"Good to see you're not going soft, Captain. By the way," he continued, "have you heard anything from Rukia lately?"
"No. What she does in the Human World during her leave period is none of my business."
The finality of Byakuya's tone told Renji that to continue talking would have been a very bad idea, so the red-haired lieutenant rose and took his leave.
"Now isn't this better, Ichigo?"
The Soul Reaper had to admit that sitting under a tree in the shade next to Rukia, with a nice breeze blowing through the leaves, was a definite upgrade from sleeping.
"Yeah, I guess it is. You were right."
Rukia arched an eyebrow. Clearly Ichigo couldn't have…
"Did you just say I was right?"
"What, are you deaf, or did you just not hear me from all the way down there?"
Ichigo's joke was met with a swift punch on the arm courtesy of Rukia, or at least that's how she'd seen it going in her head. Ichigo's reflexes took over and caught her fist inches away from his bicep, holding it there. The contact caught both of them off-guard, and for a few moments neither of them moved a muscle, focused only on the energy flowing back and forth between their hands. After a while Rukia's fist relaxed and Ichigo just held her hand in his, turning his head to look his friend in the eyes. Rukia found herself short of breath, waiting on whatever Ichigo was about to say.
"Thank you, Rukia."
Ichigo shrugged and smiled, the look on his face making him seem five years older than he was.
"Nothing in particular," he said.
"Oh, come on," Rukia sighed, "don't give me that. I was expecting something deep and you just cop out like always. You're so lame, Ichigo."
She expected him to shout off some kind of insult, or go pout like a kid in a corner, but he did neither of those. Instead, he just let out a sound that was somewhere between a bittersweet chuckle and a heartbroken sigh.
"What do you see me as, Rukia?"
The azure-eyed Soul Reaper tried to pull away from what she knew was coming, but Ichigo held her hand fast.
"I…I don't quite follow, Ichigo."
Rukia had never heard Ichigo sound so forceful or scorning before, and that one word, coupled with the unspoken feeling behind it, almost brought tears to her eyes.
"Ichigo, please, don't do this…"
The tone of her voice almost made Ichigo relent, but he hardened his heart and pushed forward. He'd taken the first step, and now there was no going back.
"Do what? Actually force you to face your own feelings? Stop being such a coward, Rukia. All you ever do is push people away and blame yourself for what happens later on. Quit wallowing in self-pity and just be happy for once!"
A soft, rustling breeze passed through the leaves above the pair as seconds passed. With each one they drew closer and closer, almost unconscious of the shrinking distance between them. Soon enough they had come together, months and months of tension evaporating as they kissed. When Rukia drew back to catch her breath, Ichigo leaned over and whispered, his breath making the hairs on her neck stand up.
"Do you love me?"
Rukia shot upright in her bed, drawing in rapid, heaving breaths. Her hair was in complete disarray and she was sweating bullets, but the Soul Reaper couldn't care less about either of those things. Her mind was still swimming from her dream, which had been so vivid she could have sworn it had actually happened. Still, she sought comfort in the fact that it had been a dream, and nothing more.
Just a dream.
But that brought another thought into Rukia's head that disturbed her greatly; if it had been a dream, then where had Ichigo's words come from? Was it her own heart, telling her to make up her mind? She was so confused, she just wanted to scream. If she did that, though, Ichigo would definitely wake up, and she would rather bang her head against a brick wall right now than talk to him. But knowing how much fate loved screwing with her, Rukia knew that he was going to show up in front of her sooner rather later.
"Hey, you okay, short-stuff?"
God damn it.
Rukia silently willed herself to look up, coming face-to-face with a concerned pair of deep brown eyes. The moonlight played off of them and made it seem as if they were alive, swirling pools reaching out to grab her and pull her under. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could barely breathe.
"Rukia, seriously, are you all right? Hey!"
Icihgo snapped his fingers right next to her ear, which shocked her out of her stupor.
"I—yeah, I'm fine. Really."
"You sure? You look like you've got a lot on your mind. You want to talk about anything?"
The thought of doing that terrified Rukia even more than the thought of Grimmjow leaping through the window.
"What? No, no, I don't want to talk about anything. Nope, nothing at all. I just need to get back to sleep, that's all."
Ichigo arched his eyebrows at that, Rukia's behavior making him both worried and curious.
"Do you have a fever, Rukia? You're sweating a ton and you look like hell."
The female Soul Reaper gave a small smile at that.
"Thanks for the compliment, jerk."
"Here, just shut up and hold still for a second."
Ichigo remembered that his mother had always used a specific method for checking to see if he had a fever, which involved kissing his forehead and seeing if there was a huge difference in temperature. The orange-haired Soul Reaper quickly leaned forward and touched his lips to Rukia's forehead before she could squirm away, feeling nothing out of the ordinary and pulling back, albeit slower than he had advanced.
This gesture, which Ichigo saw as simply acting concerned for his friend, caused a shiver to pass through Rukia that felt more akin to an electric shock. Despite all of the experiences the two of them had shared, this was the first time Ichigo had done something so intimate and caring. She looked up at him and drew in a breath, trying to find the words to say…
… and failing miserably.
"Never mind," she finished, hanging her head.
Ichigo wanted to do something to comfort his friend in that moment, but knew that the best thing for her to do was rest. Must have been some hell of a dream.
"Get some rest, Rukia," he encouraged, brushing some strands of hair away from her face and causing her to shiver again. "I'm sure you'll feel fine in the morning."
The door to the closet slid shut and Rukia gave in to the fatigue, collapsing back onto her pillow. As she rolled over and tried to get back to sleep, her thoughts told her only one thing.
No, it won't be okay in the morning.
Ichigo, whether he knew it or not, had lit a small flame in the corner of her heart, and now it was going to do what fire did best.
It was going to spread, and it was going to consume her heart completely. To be honest, though, Rukia thought as she drifted off to an uneasy sleep, a small smile on her face, she didn't really mind that one bit.
A/N: I'd had a couple of ideas swimming around in my head for a while, but this one was the most insistent. If response is favorable, I can continue this story; there's a good deal of plot left (for example, who's the bad guy at the beginning?). So review if you liked it, or even if you didn't, feel free to tell me why as long as it isn't a flame (those aren't really constructive). Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
P.S.-- I finally got around to revising this chapter after God knows how long... there were a few parts in it that I thought could be strengthened, and maybe this version will grab people enough to get them to read the rest of the story (as I noticed that the hits dip sharply after the first chapter), but we'll see.