Note: This story takes place between chapters 33 and 34 of the manga, but references as far as 186. The notion of Rukia eventually choosing to bathe at the Urahara Shoten to avoid Kurosaki family detection is described in one of the Radio Kon interview segments, so it's at least supplemental canon; I've chosen to include it as such.

Notes on a High School Scandal

Since the recent TV incident, people are giving me creepy glances. In school, I'm trying to keep away from her. Before I knew it, rumors escalated about whether we did it or not.
-Ichigo, chapter 34

Let us kiss with tongues.
-Eddie Izzard

Ichigo stared disbelievingly, as if the scene before him would change any moment. It HAD to, because what he'd heard made no damn sense. "Say that again?"

Keigo pouted. Mizuiro beamed. Students in the hallway nearby watched him and whispered amongst themselves—as, Ichigo realized, they'd been doing since he'd arrived at school. He'd just ignored it because hey, he always did.

"Ichigooo," Keigo moaned, clasping his hands to his chest as if to hold together a broken heart, "Don't play dumb! I know the truth now! Why didn't you TELL me you're doing the new girl?"

There was something unusual about the human students this morning, Rukia noted idly as she drew doodles on the border of her notebook. They seemed to be rather excited about something or other, though not excited enough to speak aloud; she couldn't quite hear what groups of students were discussing in intense tones because they insisted on whispering.

No matter. It wasn't that she cared for human drama. It was simply necessary to be aware of the events that most concerned modern teenagers if she was to continue her highly successful ruse of passing as one of them. She could always ask Ichigo about it later, if the idiot ever made it to class. She'd left his room well before him this morning, but he should have been here by now. Perhaps he'd gone back to sleep after she'd left, tired from the lengthy Hollow battle they'd had late last night. It had taken a lot out of them; they both still bore minor cuts, traces of injuries that she hadn't had enough energy to fully heal.

Not that that was an excuse. Hollows could strike at any time, after all. She would reprimand him later.

"I DID WHAT?" Ichigo's voice thundered from the hall, abruptly enough to startle Rukia into drawing a crooked ear on her next bunny. She frowned. Another ripple of whispers spread across the classroom.

She set the ruined drawing aside. No point in continuing when one's inspiration was lost. She noticed one of the girls, something Michiru, hovering nervously near her desk and put on her best cheerful face. "Oh, Michiru-san! Kurosaki-kun sounds frightening, doesn't he? Something must have made him very upset!" Continued practice meant her throat no longer hurt when she used her voice at this higher pitch. "I wonder what it could be."

"You don't know, Rukia-san?"

"I'm afraid not," she said. "I haven't seen Kurosaki-kun yet this morning, after all."

"Ah, I see." The girl still looked uncertain, but didn't say anything else.

"Is there something I can help you with?" Rukia asked.

"Nothing, Rukia-san," she said after a moment. "I mean, um…may I borrow a pencil?"

"Of course!" In a flash, she was holding out a spare, taken from her pencil case. It was bright pink.

"Thanks," Michiru said, still looking nervous, and hurried away.

Rukia went back to her notebook and turned a page. A fresh sheet of paper was best for the start of a new day, even if she'd just be copying Ichigo's homework later. It was the look of things that counted.

The problem with Ochi-sensei, Ichigo groused silently during first period, was that she had no sense of what was important. She'd accept the stupidest excuses for impromptu class breaks when Rukia got a Hollow alert on her phone, but she'd refused to let Ichigo continue his "discussion" with Keigo. Homeroom was JUST THAT IMPORTANT, apparently. Though she had offered to let him see the school nurse, since his turning-purple face made him look sick.

He drummed the end of his pencil against his desk and pointedly did not look at Rukia. People would notice if he looked at her, because everyone ELSE was looking at them, sneaking glances when they thought he wouldn't notice. He caught one kid's eye—Kentaro or something, he wasn't sure—and glared until the boy gulped and looked away.

Rukia's chirpy classroom demeanor was the same as it always was. The moron was probably completely oblivious to these…these…FALSE AND SLANDEROUS ACCUSATIONS. Which was a good thing, really. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Rukia about this.

It wasn't until lunch that he got to unleash his temper. Keigo and Mizuiro sat in the corner of the roof. Keigo looked grumpy and excited at the same time. Mizuiro was calm, but then, he probably wasn't the one who had to worry about an impending beatdown.

"All right," Ichigo growled as he dropped down beside them. "Now that we're out of class, TALK, Keigo."

For a moment, Keigo looked like he would wet his pants, but then he rallied. "Why am I the one getting yelled at?" he asked. "You're the one who's been tasting the glorious bounty of the beautiful and mysterious transfer student—and you didn't tell me what it was like!"

"WHY THE HELL WOULD I—" Mizuiro coughed and Ichigo realized he was attracting attention from the other students scattered about the roof. "Why the hell would I be tasting her bounty?!" Ichigo hissed.

"Why wouldn't you?" Keigo yelped. "I should have seen this coming! You're always walking around with her! But I thought you'd have honored the code of teenage male friendship and told us about your first time…" He made an obscene hand gesture. "But you've been hiding your triumph!"

"I'm not hiding anything! Where the hell are you getting this, anyway?"

"From your bedroom window!" Keigo stabbed at the air with his index finger. "Which is where the beautiful Kuchiki-san leapt from this morning! Or so says word on the street."


"It's true," Mizuiro added. "At least, that's what we heard. You had her all night, Ichigo? Didn't your dad mind?"

His head swam, only one thought coming through coherently: I am going to kill Rukia. She knew she was supposed to make sure no one was around before leaving for school, dammit! How could she have let someone see her? Who had seen her?

He set thoughts of bloody revenge aside to deal with the matter at hand. "Stop," he said. "Rewind. I am not sleeping with Rukia. And whatever someone says they saw, they're wrong. Okay?"

They exchanged doubtful glances. "You're calling her by her first name now?" Mizuiro asked.

Shit. "Look, it doesn't matter what I call her! It's not true!"

"So…when someone thought they saw her jumping out your bedroom window this morning, they really saw…?" Keigo ventured.

Ichigo barely resisted the urge to grab him by the collar and shake him. "I DON'T KNOW! Who spread this around, anyway?"

"Hmm, I'm not sure, actually," Mizuiro blinked. "But everyone seemed to know today. It's hard to say who heard it first."

"Yeah." Keigo nodded vigorously. "No idea who!"

"Then why do you believe them?!" Ichigo practically yelled.

Mizuiro calmly chewed on a bite of rice. "Well, it just makes sense, doesn't it?" he said. "You two are so close."

"Not that close!"

"Come on, Ichigo," Keigo pleaded. "I'll tell you about it when I get a girl in bed!"

"Yeah, but he's going to have better things to do when you're forty."

"Hey!" Keigo protested. "We can't all be sexual prodigies like Ichigo!"

Ichigo scowled harder. He'd never been prone to migraines, but today seemed like it would bring on his first. He stood up. "Just forget about it!"

"Don't you want your lunch?" Mizuiro called after him as he stalked toward the stairwell exit.

"I'm not hungry!"

Rukia jumped as Ichigo stomped through the doorway of the stairwell, nearly knocking her back down the stairs. "Hey! Watch where you're going!"

He blinked twice, as if he really hadn't seen her. "Sorry," he grumbled.

"What's the matter with you today?" She peered at him. He was less blotchy than he'd been in class that morning, but still a funny color. "Are you sick? Did you ingest some of the Hollow's slime from yesterday? Do you need me to heal you?" she raised a hand, ready to begin a healing kidou, but he shoved it away.

"Will you just leave me alone?" he snapped. "I'm not sick—I don't need you hovering all the time! People will get ideas!"

"Well, aren't you Mr. Grumpy today," she huffed. "If you have to vomit from swallowing Hollow slime, don't blame me."

For a moment he looked like he'd break out another crabby reply, but he just muttered "Whatever" and pushed past her and down the stairs. "Idiot," she scoffed. If he was feeling strange, whether from some Hollow-induced sickness that he was too stubborn to admit to or for some other mundane, stupid teenage boy reason, it was none of her doing.

She climbed a couple more stairs to go find a place to eat lunch, but realized that, thanks to Ichigo's strange behavior, her previous good mood was gone, and turned back around.

Curiously, whatever malaise had brought Ichigo's mood down, and hers by proxy, it seemed to have spread to the other students by the time the lunch break had concluded. Rukia entered the classroom a few feet behind Ichigo (by coincidence—he still didn't seem to want to talk to her, so she certainly wasn't going to force his hand) and a flurry of agitated whispers broke out.

She sat down and rolled her eyes. Humans were so excitable. She was glad she wasn't one.

Ichigo hurried away as soon as school finished for the day. Not that Rukia minded much, as they didn't usually walk home together anyway, but she'd have to run to get to him if a Hollow alert came through before she returned home to her closet.

She continued doodling even after the last bell rang, finally packing up her books after nearly everyone had gone. She was alone when she exited the building, only to be stopped by the Arisawa girl. "Oi, Rukia-san. Can you hang around for a minute?"

"Certainly, Arisawa-san!" she beamed. "Is everything all right?"

The girl sighed and ran a hand through her spiky hair. "For me, yeah," she said. "For you...I dunno. Look, first off, I want to say I'm NOT a gossip. I'm only saying this cuz I'd want to know if it were me, and because Orihime isn't going to ask."

"Inoue?" Rukia said. "What about her?"

"Oh, nothing," Tatsuki said quickly. "It's got nothing to do with her. Anyway. Um. Have haven't heard any rumors today, have you?"

Rukia squinted. What was the proper answer? Should she have heard them? "No?"

"Damn. I didn't want to be the one to tell you. Oh well.." Tatsuki sighed. "You didn't really, uh, go all the way with Ichigo, did you?"

"What?" she stared.

"I didn't think so," Tatsuki said hurriedly. "But you know how people get about the stupidest things, and—"

"I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean, Arisawa-san," Rukia interrupted her. "What is it people think I have done to Kurosaki-kun?"

" know." She waved her hands in a vague gesture that Rukia utterly failed to interpret. "It's all over school. Someone spread a rumor that Ichigo is banging you. I didn't believe it, I doubt Ichigo even knows how it works, but..."

"Banging?" she repeated uncertainly. "People think he is causing me physical harm?"

Tatsuki paused. "You and Orihime are really more alike than I thought," she said.


"Never mind," she said. "Sex. There's a rumor going around that you and Ichigo are having sex, because someone said they saw you doing a walk of shame out of his house this morning."

The whole world seemed to turn white. "WHAT?"

"I said it wasn't true! People come up with the stupidest stories for the stupidest reasons. But I thought you should at least know in case you want to kick some ass, though I'm not sure whose you should kick. I don't think Ichigo spread it to look like a big man, he was freaking out about it all day."

Summoning all her will, Rukia forced a calm smile onto her face. "Would you please excuse me, Arisawa-san?" she said. "I'm afraid there's somewhere I have to be."

Immediately after school, Ichigo stomped up to his room, threw himself on his bed and shoved his head under the pillow, based on the time-honored theory of If I Can't See It, It Doesn't Exist. The current "it" just happened to be the entire world just now.

A sharp kick to the ass prompted him to yelp and remove his face from the pleasantly dark cavern. "Move, fool." Rukia didn't wait for him to comply, instead stomping hard on his hip as she crossed over him from the window sill to the floor.

"Bitch, that hurt," he snapped, though not with as much vigor as he normally would. How could he, when he could barely look at her? He forced himself to meet her eyes even though he wanted to return to underneath the pillow. No reason to act abnormal. Rukia was oblivious as hell; acting normal was the best way to keep her that way. "And be careful! No one's supposed to see you come in that way, remember?"

"Speaking of that." She crossed her arms and glared at him. "Don't you have something you'd like to tell me, Ichigo?"

And there went that plan. "Like what?"

"Like the fact that our classmates think we are fornicating," she said bluntly.

His face could not have felt any hotter if it had burst into flames. "Dammit, don't SAY that," he practically howled.

"It happened, Ichigo," she said. "You knew it. That is why you have been so ill-tempered today. And you didn't even see fit to inform me yourself; you left Arisawa-san to tell me!"

"Oh, shit. Tatsuki?" His head started to throb. "And why the hell would I tell you about—about that? It's a very private subject! Also! Not true!"

Rukia just raised an eyebrow and gave him a look that made him feel about two feet tall. "So I may modify my behavior, of course," she said. "I must play the part if I am going to continue making people believe I am a human teenager. To do this I need all the facts. And stop turning purple, Ichigo, we're only talking about intercourse."

"Shut up," he hissed, jumping off the bed and pushing past her to pace across the room. "There's no 'only' about it! And since when have you cared about rumors?"

"I am aware that it is not true. And I have already explained why. I simply require all information relevant to my cover; it doesn't matter what falsehoods people spread otherwise. This isn't even the strangest one I've heard of. You should see the manga I read last week—"

"No I shouldn't!" He spun around to face her. "And you are not under—GET OFF MY BED!"

She jumped at the loudness of his voice, but didn't move from where she'd sat cross-legged on the edge of his mattress. "I'm not doing anything to it."

"It's not proper! People will get ideas!" He flailed wildly. "This is all your fault anyway!"

"MY fault?" Her jaw dropped. "How are insipid human rumors and you acting like a lunatic my fault?"

"YOU are the one who got caught jumping out of my room this morning! You're supposed to make sure no one sees you!"

"I do," she said. "I did! But I am not omnipotent. Someone must have had a vantage point from which they could see me and I could not see them."

"That's why you're supposed to be careful!" He snapped. "You're telling me you can't use your super spiritual detecting skills to tell when someone is near?"

"No," she said, face clouding over. "Not always. Not if I—not if they are not spiritually strong." She looked away. "This gigai," she said, as if it explained everything.

"Ah," he said, embarrassment mixed with anger dying down a little for the first time. "So—you know now, okay. How do you want to deal with it?"

Again, Rukia looked surprised. "I don't plan to do anything about it, Ichigo. I simply believe it is better if I'm aware of such things so I'm not caught off guard. I may be an excellent actress, but proper reactions take mental preparation." She paused. "Since when do you care about rumors, anyway? This can hardly be the first people have spread about you."

"It's not and I don't," he grumbled. "It's just embarrassing! And it pisses me off! I don't know why people need to go around talking about shit they don't know anything about. Saying stuff about my hair is one thing. This is just—ugh."

"It will pass," she said. "These things always do."

"Not until something more interesting pops up, and people were acting damn interested in this," he said, exasperation building. "You're not an expert just because you read a bunch of manga, you know. Do you even remember what it's LIKE to be a student?"

She regarded him with unreadable eyes for a long moment. "Perhaps," she said, but did not elaborate. She stood and crossed the room to her closet. He watched her enter it and waited until he was sure she wasn't going to burst out and yell at him some more. "Just remember something, Ichigo." Her voice came muffled from behind the door.

"Yeah, what?" He eyed his pillow. He was definitely going to stuff his head under it again if she tried to offer more sage advice.

"We've still got to fight Hollows, so don't let this distract you from your duties."

"Yeah, I know." He flopped back on his bed and closed his eyes. For once, he didn't mind her badgering. It meant at least one thing was normal.

Maybe Rukia was right. She was right about more things than he was usually willing to admit out loud. Maybe things would be less insane tomorrow.

"—and I can't believe people would say such horrible things about me when I was just trying to take care of a cut! I don't think I'll ever be able to visit a doctor's office again. It's just so embarrassing!"

Rukia wiped an imaginary tear away as the girls around her cooed in dismayed sympathy. She would have smiled with pride at how well her plan was going, but she was too well-trained for that; it would give her away. "I don't blame Kurosaki-kun, but—but how will I ever look him in the eye again?"

"I don't think you'll have to," Tatsuki commented, wandering over to the edge of the group. "He's still sulking in the corner."

It was true. At the beginning of today's lunch period, Ichigo had retreated to the farthest point on the roof, glowering at anyone who came close. Rukia tsk-tsked him mentally. For someone so embarrassed about the rumors, he was not handling things productively at all. Then again, it was probably best to leave things to her. As far as the girls went, it had been easy. Some fake crying and a few traumatized protests that she had only gone to the Kurosaki Clinic for medical treatment and that some beastly gossiper must have confused her coming out of the clinic entrance with something much more scandalous had done the trick. None of the girls still wondered if the rumor was true; they just wanted to know who would say such mean things and scold him on behalf of their poor friend.

Ichigo, on the other hand, had done nothing to discourage his friends' speculation other than behave like an ill-tempered beast. She'd have offered him advice, but she couldn't do everything for him. It probably wouldn't help for them to be seen together just now anyway.

After school, instead of heading immediately home like yesterday, Ichigo took a path that led away from his house and nowhere in particular that Rukia could determine. She followed him for several blocks then, when satisfied that they were unlikely to run into more of their classmates, dropped into step beside him. "Where are you going?"

"Just walking," he grumbled. "You don't have to follow me."

"Yes, I do," she said. "I need to be close in case a Hollow alert should arrive."

"Right," he sighed. "You and Hollows."

"They are the reason I am here."

He was quiet for a few minutes after that. "It really doesn't bother you?" he asked at last. "People saying crap about us like that?"

She shrugged. "It isn't as if I can clarify the real reason I was leaving your room."

"That ain't what I asked."

"Since you were so agitated yesterday, I've taken care of the situation as far as the girls go," she said. "They just care about who would make up such salacious stories."

"So as long as you can lie your way out of it, you don't care what people come up with?"

It was her turn to be quiet as they walked. "This isn't the first time I've attended school. Such gossip is common in this setting. There's no point in trying to stop it; people will do as they will."

"That's right, the shinigami classes you mentioned," he said, and snorted. "They were like this? I'd have thought people were more mature in the afterlife."

She closed her eyes for a moment, the memories washing over her—

"—did you hear it's her last day today? She's going be adopted by the nobles. Wonder why they'd want someone like that?"

"I heard she's not taking the exams either. Going straight up into the rank and file."

"Straight down, you mean?"

"Probably. What else could it be? She's not even that good in class. She must be better elsewhere, know what I mean?"

—and receding. "People are people," she said. "In this life or the next." Ichigo laughed. "What?"

"Nothing," he said. "Just I never thought I'd hear you admit that you shinigami aren't as superior as you act."

"I admitted no such thing!" she said. "People may be people, but you humans still have a tendency to be far too illogical."

"Hey, we're not the ones who—"

Whatever Ichigo was about to say was cut off by the beeping of her cell phone. She pulled it out of her pocket and flipped it open. "Hollow. Five minutes away, that direction." She pointed and they started running.

"We're not done with this conversation!"

"Just run, fool!"

"Yeah, whatever, bitch," he grumbled. But he wasn't scowling quite so hard and he said it. Rukia fought the urge to give him more than just a nod as they went.

Later that night, Ichigo rolled over in bed and stared at the ceiling when he should've been staring at the inside of his eyelids. Sleep, it seemed, was not something his body wanted to do that night.

His roommates weren't having any trouble, though. Kon had elected to stay in tonight instead of going on one of his wanderings, and Ichigo could hear him snoring over in the corner. He wondered briefly how the mod soul managed that with a body made of cotton and stuffing. Rukia didn't make any noises in the closet except when she shifted around on the stacked bedding, and he hadn't heard anything in a while so she was probably asleep.

This whole thing really was her fault. She should've been cautious enough not to get caught jumping out the window, even if he could admit that it had been an accident. He wanted to believe her when she brushed it off as no big deal. It was nice to think that this would just blow over as just another stupid gossip thing.

Except he couldn't bring himself to believe it without Rukia standing there making overconfident faces at him. She'd been surprisingly cool about the whole thing, for Rukia—sure, she'd stomped on him and made fun of him, but he was kind of used to that from Rukia. At least she hadn't started in on her "oversexed modern generation" comments. Fuck whatever her stupid manga told her about modern teenagers—he wasn't oversexed, especially not with her! His face started burning again just thinking about it.

Sure, he liked girls in the abstract sense. He certainly wasn't gay, no matter what Goat-chin implied when Ichigo refused to take advantage of his offered porn stash, even if it was "vintage" stuff that Pops had saved for his only son. That was just sick. He wasn't a pervert; if he had to, he just...took care of things in the shower instead of being a slobbery jerk in public. And he didn't have the time or inclination to deal with real girls right now; especially not with one living in his closet!

He rolled over, searching for sleep that wouldn't come. It was stupid to be up thinking about this, anyway. Not like Rukia was the type he'd go for even if he did want to try the girl thing anytime soon. She was bony and bossy and he couldn't imagine her ever going on a date, much less going to bed with a guy.

Well. Probably not.

Unless he tried really hard.

He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed a growl. No, no, no. This was dumb. He'd seen porn when Keigo and Mizuiro insisted, and he'd seen Rukia in all sorts of situations, and the two just DID NOT go together. Even if he sorta...wanted them to. Just for a minute. Just out of sheer curiosity and nothing more.

Even if she was stick-skinny and built like a boy, Rukia was still pretty—that he could admit privately. She had a nice smile, when it wasn't an evil one.

He could practically see her now, pale vanilla skin and midnight black hair contrasting as she'd lay against the silken sheets, lips wet and limbs weak with desire as he'd touch her. She'd be soft and warm, not all hardness and sharp angles like she was on the hunt. But she was Rukia, someone he could trust, so she wouldn't laugh at him as he explored forbidden places he'd never seen before.

"Ichigo," she'd breathe as they pressed together, bodies aflame with desire. "Please be gentle."

Little moans, nothing too loud or too soft. "Ichigo. Ichigo.'re doing it wrong!" She'd sit up, eyes blazing. "Do I have to show you how to do everything myself?"

Ichigo's eyes popped open with a start and he rolled over to face the wall. Cold showers, he thought. Ice water. Snow. In a few minutes, the crazy moment passed and he felt like he could breathe again. It was official. These stupid rumors had driven him mad.

He'd have liked to go to the bathroom and stand under the water at its coldest setting for a while, but he didn't really need Rukia or Kon waking up and asking where he was going. He'd just sit here—VERY still—and not move or rub against anything and sleep eventually. Stupid-ass rumors. There really was no way they could ever come true; this little bit of late-night madness proved that much. He just couldn't see Rukia that way. It was crazy to even try.

Rukia kept one eye on Ichigo all the next day at school. The other she kept on her classmates, to make sure they didn't catch her watching him. This left no eyes for the teacher or classwork, but that was nothing new. Rumors were still swirling about them. She could tell from the whispers and strange looks they still got, but she simply sniffled and looked innocent when she was around the girls, and that still seemed to be working for them. Ichigo was no longer turning funny colors, but she wanted to make sure he didn't run out of the classroom in a fit of virgin boy insanity.

It was easy to tell he was one. She'd known he must be ever since Kon's first lecherous foray with Ichigo's body. He'd freaked out so thoroughly just over the idea of his body kissing a girl, she imagined he'd pass out in a heap if someone broached the subject of more intimate activities. Knowing that, she had a little more sympathy for his reaction to these latest rumors, though he'd still overreacted. Someday he'd get a girlfriend and relax about such things.

She rested her chin on one hand and chewed the end of the pen she held with the other as she considered this. Ichigo and girls mixed about as well as...well, shinigami and Hollows were the first things that came to mind, though that comparison was probably too extreme. If Ichigo ever began to date, there probably wouldn't be any head-cracking involved unless he did something deeply stupid. He could be stupid sometimes, but not so much as, say, Asano.

He never really paid attention to any girls, though, other than Arisawa, and then only sometimes. Of course, going on dates at the moment would be awkward, considering their living situation and his duties. Rukia wondered if her arrival in his life had interrupted some important stage in his development. If she had never offered him her powers, would he be the usual teenage male by now? Growing hair in strange places, swigging beer when he could get it and overly-caffeinated drinks when he couldn't, and ogling girls?

Sudden laughter bubbled up in her throat and she coughed to hide it. Ichigo glanced at her with his usual scowl but didn't pay attention otherwise. She swallowed further giggles as she watched him out of the corner of her eyes. It was probably unfair to want to laugh this much at the mental image, but it was just Ichigo, even if he was good-looking enough to attract a girl. And he was, if she viewed him objectively and not through the eye of a mentor. His hair was a strange color, but not repellant. The spikes suited his prickly nature. His face was handsome, if he'd only lose the scowl. And then there was his body. Near-constant fights with Hollows for almost two months had added some muscle to his skinny form. It wasn't something she could see when he was actually doing the fighting, due to the loose folds of the shihakusho, but Ichigo had a penchant for tight clothing outside of school and work, and that showed him off nicely. As a whole package, Ichigo should be acceptable to any girl.

If she wanted to be honest with herself, Ichigo would be acceptable to her as well, if she were looking for something like that. Or if she were not living in his closet. Or if she were human.

Not that she'd want Ichigo specifically, even if all conditions were right. He was young and rash and utterly annoying at times, and an attractive body did not make up for that, even if one included his kind heart and sense of justice and other good qualities. Imagine the two of them on a date. An image of herself in a cute human dress and Ichigo in a suit with flowers and a dazzling grin flashed through her mind, and Rukia had to choke back a giggle. Ochi-sensei glanced her way and Rukia quickly put pen to paper and pretended to take notes. No, she couldn't imagine them dating, not at all.

Ichigo hung back from the crowd after the last bell rang, dodging Keigo and Mizuiro and the rest of the guys and waiting for the halls to clear a bit before going to his locker. He was trying to do like Rukia recommended and let the stupid rumors blow over, but it was a lot harder when people insisted on talking to him.

Tatsuki was there when he arrived at the bank of shoe lockers, probably waiting for him since hers wasn't anywhere nearby and she wasn't normally one for loitering. "Yo." She nodded at him as he drew close.

"Hey," he said, opening his locker to retrieve his outdoor shoes. "What do you want?"

"That's a pretty rude greeting. I should be offended," she replied, not looking at all offended.

"Sorry, I just assumed you'd have better things to do than just hanging out here." He kneeled to change shoes.

"You're right, I do," she said. "Practice isn't for half an hour, though. I just thought I'd talk with you a little to pass the time."

He sighed. "Tatsuki, please don't tell me this talk is going to be about how I should be standing up for poor Kuchiki's reputation. Cuz I didn't start these rumors, and she can take care of herself."

"Of course not." She snorted. "You'd have to recognize that girls exist before you'd start rumors about one. I was going to tell you that she explained what she was doing in your family's clinic, so you don't have to worry about the rest of the girls thinking you're some loverboy cad who uses em and kicks em out in the morning."

"Because I'm really worried about whether people think I'm a gentleman or not," he said, feeling his face heat up a little despite himself.

"Maybe not, but you should be worried about whether the girls want to take revenge for one of their own or not," she said. "You should see what Ryo did to the last guy who said mean things about Michiru."

"Right," he said. "Anyway, I already knew. Ru—Kuchiki already told me."

Tatsuki paused. "She did, huh?"

He scowled. "Yeah, she did, in the middle of our great love affair."

"You are together a lot," she said, leaning against the lockers. "Can you really blame people for thinking you two are dating?


She laughed. "Yeah, I guess so."

"I'm just gonna ignore them," he said. "If I don't say anything, they'll find something better to talk about, right? That's what I should do."

"That's an awfully mature plan. Are you sure you're feeling all right?"

"Ha ha, you're so clever."

"Well, I like to think—"

"Shh!" He cut her off and closed his locker door quietly, suddenly distracted by something he'd heard.

Voices floated toward them, seemingly from around the corner, where more banks of lockers were. "—way, man. You've seen Kurosaki and that Sado guy fighting. You don't wanna piss him off by hitting on his girlfriend."

"But she's not," a second voice argued. "Tanaka said Asano said Kurosaki denied it! And I saw her crying with the rest of the girls the other day, like he really did screw her and kick her out of bed in the morning. She's vulnerable right now. Receptive. That's where I come in."

"You really think that's gonna work if she's all sad over getting dumped?"

"Why not? I can be charming, comforting...anyway, you've seen that hair on Kurosaki. That guy's gonna be a gangster someday. If Kuchiki'd make it with him, she's probably pretty easy. Her standards aren't that high."

"Okay, but make sure you get a rubber, dude. You don't know where she's been."

Ichigo didn't realize he'd charged forward until he felt Tatsuki's firm grip on his elbow. He whipped his head around to look at her. "Tatsuki, don't even think about stopping me."

"I'm not, moron." She slammed a fist into her other hand. "I just didn't want you to start without me."

The two guys looked up, startled, when they rounded the corner. "Uh, hi," one said. "You're Kurosaki, right? Um, I was just..."

Ichigo never got to hear what he was just; his fist crashing into the guy's face interrupted whatever he was about to say. Tatsuki's foot took care of his friend.

There wasn't much need for words after that.

"That was fun," Tatsuki said cheerfully as they walked away from the scene together once they were finished. "You should invite me to defend your not-girlfriend's honor more often, Ichigo."

"I didn't invite you this time," he said with irritation, though the irritation wasn't really meant for her.

"Details," she said breezily. "I'm off to practice now. See you later, Ichigo."

He waved over his shoulder and took off for home. He rubbed his fist as he walked; that kid's face had been bonier than he'd expected. Not that it wasn't worth it. That punk had deserved it, and Rukia would never need to know what he'd said about her.

It really rankled. Until now, he hadn't given much thought about what impact the rumor would have on Rukia, mostly because she'd cast aside the notion that there should be one at all. He'd been annoyed and mortified for his own sake, but now, it was only for hers that he was actively furious. Rukia was crazy and bugged the hell out of him half the time, but she didn't deserve shit like that to be said about her. Not because of him.

She can protect her own reputation, he reminded himself. She'd already dealt with things in her own way. And he'd taken care of this punk, so that was that. He tried to put the incident out of his mind as he walked home. Forget about it.

It didn't work.

Rukia slapped her hand down on Urahara's countertop. "I need a case of soma fixers, and make it quick." This was partially true, and partially not; she hadn't waited around for Ichigo after school and who knew what he would get up to by himself, but it was more that she was not in the mood for Urahara's upsell tactics.

"My, my, Kuchiki-san, why in such a hurry?" The man in charge of the store flapped his damnable fan and affected an innocent look. "Do you find our humble store so objectionable?" He nodded at Ururu and the little girl scurried off to the storeroom.

"I find many things about you objectionable," she said, folding her arms over her chest. "But right now I just need to be somewhere."

"Ah." He nodded and winked conspiratorially. "I see."

"You see what?"

"Why you're so eager to leave, of course! Don't worry, Kuchiki-san, I was once young myself and could never stand in the way of blossoming love."

She could practically feel the vein popping in her forehead. "What on earth are you talking about, you ignorant buffoon?"

"You and Kurosaki-san, of course," he said. "Rumors do reach as far as this, Kuchiki-san."

"Who told you?" she demanded before catching herself. "And there's nothing to talk about between Ichigo and me. I am a shinigami. He is a temporary substitute doing my job. That is all."

"Are you sure?"

"Positive," she said coldly.

Urahara shook his head, clucking his tongue in disappointment. "Pity. Tessai was so looking forward to a bit of love in the neighborhood. He does have a romantic soul."

"He can keep waiting!" Rukia snapped, snatching a small package out of Ururu's hand as she approached. Without waiting for further response, she spun on her heel and stalked toward the exit.

"But Kuchiki-san! What about your bill?" he called after her.

"Put it on my account!"

Urahara watched her go before reaching into his robes and pulling out a cell phone. "Isshin-san? Bad news," he said after dialing a number and waiting for a response. "Looks like the rumors were false. Your son has yet to become a man."

He held the phone away from his head and winced as exaggerated sobs erupted from the earpiece. Really, he would've preferred to leave the children to their own devices regarding this matter; Kuchiki-san could be quite vengeful. Still, anything for an old friend.

For an early summer evening in Karakura, it was relatively quiet. More people had elected to stay in their homes than out, and of those who were outdoors, few were getting up to any mischief. It was a calm evening.

For the most part.

"There!" Ichigo exclaimed as he slammed his blade through the Hollow's mask. He panted as he watched it dissolve and turned to Rukia. "Can we go home now?"

She frowned at him. "So soon? It's a nice night." She pulled out her cell phone to check the readings; apparently satisfied that there were no more lurking monsters, she put it away. "Or is my company so objectionable?"

"It ain't that. I'm just not in the mood to be doing this tonight." As he re-shouldered his sword, a surge of pain surged through him and he winced. The rake to his side must have caught more than just uniform like he'd thought.

"You're injured." Immediately, she was by his side. Predictably, annoyingly comforting. "Let me heal you." She raised an already-glowing hand, but he caught it before she could do anything-then immediately let it go.

"Not in the middle of the street. People can still see you," he said. He knelt and presented his back. "Climb on. I'll take us up to a roof."

"That will not help your wou-"

"I said come on, would you? What are you, deaf?"

She did as he asked, but was noticeably stiff when he lifted her on his back. Carrying her around while he was invisible wasn't much better than standing around letting her heal him, so it was the work of a few quick jumps to take them to the roof of a nearby boutique, a couple of stories up. She said nothing when she climbed off, just began the kidou healing. He let her, waiting until the burning in his ribs subsided and she pulled her hand away. "Thanks."

"You are welcome," she said without emotion.

He frowned. "Hey. Don't tell me you're pissed at me now."

"I should be the one to ask you that," she replied. "I appreciate that our duties do not always come at the most convenient time, Ichigo, but it is hardly something I can control."

"I know," he said. "Look, I'm just in a bad mood. You should be used to that by now anyway."

She tried to hide it, but he saw the quick smile brush over her lips. "Perhaps."

"Good," he said. He twisted a little to make sure he wasn't bleeding anywhere else inconvenient; satisfied that he was whole, he moseyed over to the edge of the roof and looked out over the town below them. " do you deal with all this?"

"With all what?" She sounded sincere, which meant she was probably just putting him on again to watch him feel stupid.

Or she was just being normal oblivious Rukia. "Everything," he said. "School. Acting like you're a normal person."

"Oh, thanks."

"Well, you're not, Rukia," he said. "Hell, I'm not really either, but I'm at least used to it and I don't even like doing it. So why do you? It's not like you need to go to school. You don't have to kick me into doing your job anymore, I'm in."

She moved to stand beside him. "Are you trying to tell me to leave?"

"No! I just...I dunno." He shrugged. "It's been a weird week."

"You have interesting standards for weirdness. Considering some of the things you've dealt with since becoming a shinigami, I would hardly have expected a few rumors to qualify."

"They don't!"

"Ichigo. You just said—"

"It ain't just rumors," he said, and snorted. "I've gotten plenty of those. For my hair, and more. It's not people talking about me that bugs, it's..." He hesitated, but she looked like she was listening; moreover, she seemed like she cared, at least so far as he could judge Rukia's moods. "It's the way people look at me now."

"How do they look at you?"

"Depends who's looking." He shifted, feeling a little uncomfortable; this wasn't the most comfortable territory to cover with Rukia of all people, but who else could he talk to about it? "Some of the guys are all impressed. Like it'd be worth being impressed by even if it were true! Some are actually mad at me, just cuz I don't share secrets that don't exist with them. They've all got this idea that I'm some entirely different person."

She considered this for a moment. "Still. That's not very different from making assumptions about your character due to your hair, is it?"

"It is so! Hair's hair, it's just..." He fumbled for words. "It's different when it's about guys and girls and that sort of thing." Rukia put a hand over her mouth and it took him a moment to realize she was holding back a giggle. "Hey!"

"Sorry," she said, though she didn't look it. "I just forget how inexperienced you are sometimes."

"HEY!" He glared. "What the hell? You're the one who wanted to know what I was thinking!"

"I did," she agreed. "That doesn't mean I won't point it out when you're thinking silly things. All rumors have the same value, Ichigo. You have to make up your mind to ignore them if you don't want to feel embarrassed, and then you won't be."

He squeezed his hands into fists and resisted the urge to start yelling. The stupid bitch, acting all high and mighty, like she knew so much better--then again, maybe he'd been the stupid one to confide in her when he already knew she was nuts. "Oh yeah, it's real easy for you to say. Who's the one who had to study manga to pass as a teenager—and still sucks at it?"

"Excuse me?" Her jaw dropped. "I am not the one who freaks out like an imbecile over a few silly stories!"

"Probably because no one's ever bothered to tell stories about you," he snapped. "Don't talk to me about being inexperienced when you don't even know what experienced is!"

"Oh, don't I?" she shouted, and reached up to grab the collar of his uniform. Suddenly, her face was right in front of his. "I'll have you know I've got more than enough experience to outclass any stupid human and just—just—just shut up! I'll show you!"

Maybe it was because he was tired from fighting the hollow that he didn't jump back. Maybe he was mentally tired from the week, as well. Or maybe it was just the sudden, unexpected nature of her movement. Whatever it was, Ichigo just watched with wide eyes as she yanked him even closer and planted her lips firmly on his.

Seconds passed.

In Rukia's admittedly limited experience, a kiss was something simple: a gesture meant to show affection, or, in the right circumstances, carnal craving. It was not this, lips that were somehow surprisingly warm plastered against hers awkwardly, with no affection or intent. This was a lesson and nothing more. A voice in the back of her mind screamed that even a lesson would be more than enough to heartily embarrass her once said lesson ended, but in the moment it was easy to ignore--she was the teacher here, the knowledgeable one, so why should she be embarrassed?

Except that Ichigo wasn't pulling away.

She'd half-expected him to. He would be the first one to yield, to prove the greater inexperience, and her point would be made, though her fuzzy mind was starting to lose track of what that point would be. But he wasn't moving. He was just standing there, neck bent awkwardly, letting her kiss him.


It was a small movement, just a slight tilting of the head and lips. But it made all the difference in the world, because as he did it, the kiss stopped being a lesson and became something else completely new as Ichigo kissed her back.

It wasn't the best kiss in the world--she would've been surprised if this was so—but it wasn't the worst, especially not for what had to be his first one. His mouth was insistent, but not overly demanding. He seemed to be taking his cues from her, moving his lips when she moved hers. She knew, she knew that this was a bad idea and she should pull away now, but rational thought was a thing of the past. It didn't help when she felt him hesitantly move his hands up around her back to touch her gently.

It seemed Ichigo wasn't so shocked as she'd expected. Or—he was, maybe, but not enough to pull away. Not enough to run.

She leaned in and kissed him harder. He took a small breath, possibly out of surprise, and it was enough for her mouth to open to match, for their tongues to brush against each other.

Her mind was whirling enough that if he tasted like anything particular, she'd never be able to recall it later.

Inside his embrace, fragile as it was, it felt right to slide her arms around his waist in return. His hands spasmed on her back when she moved, but he still didn't pull away. The moment stretched out and it seemed natural to keep kissing and touching and getting closer. A smoldering warmth was building low in her belly and the kisses were growing especially...moist...when Ichigo pulled her closer; it was automatic that she held him tighter in return, running her hands down his back until they reached a natural resting point just at the top of his ass.

Ichigo jerked away so suddenly that she was left with her mouth open and her arms held out. She quickly dropped them and instinctively wiped at her mouth. He just flushed further. "Ichigo?"

"You—" He sounded squeakier than usual, as if he hadn't been getting enough oxygen. "You—we—"

"Ichigo, relax," she said, fumbling for the right words. She took a step toward him. He flinched.

She stopped dead. "Oh," she said quietly. "I see."


"I'll see you later," she said, whirling around and running across the roof, away from him.

"Hey! Stop! Dammit, I didn't—"

She didn't stop to hear what Ichigo didn't. She didn't stop at all, not even when she got to the edge of the roof; it had been a long time since she'd had to climb large trees for safety, but the skills remained, and she was down the side of the building in a flash. She didn't stop then, either; not until her lungs were burning, her legs shaking with exhaustion, and Ichigo's reiatsu was far away.

"Rukia!" Ichigo yelled again, and when he'd recovered his brain a little, he ran to the edge of the roof. Too late—she was fast and already out of sight. He'd probably be able to catch up to her if he really tried, but there was the matter of what to say if he did.

He had no damn idea.

He touched his hand to his lips. She had really...and then they'd... He hadn't known what to think when she'd kissed him. Sure, he'd been having weird mental images about this kind of stuff all week thanks to OTHER PEOPLE but not with the idea that they'd ever happen! And then she'd been yelling like usual and pissed like usual and doing something that was very NOT USUAL and he hadn't been able to move.

He...hadn't wanted to. And then it'd started to be sort of nice, and Rukia seemed to agree. At least, she hadn't started chewing his face off, which Ichigo figured would be her natural response to a kiss she didn't like.

And then there'd been...tongues.

It felt like the temperature of the air suddenly went up ten degrees. At least, around his face. He shook his head hard to clear it of stupid, unwelcome, yet weirdly compelling thoughts. There could be NO TONGUES. No tongues of Rukia's, anyway. She lived in his closet, she wasn't human, and he'd always imagined someone sticking their tongue in your mouth to be pretty gross.

Except it hadn't been, had it? Hadn't he wanted to tell Rukia that, reassure her, after she'd suddenly freaked out and bolted? That it wasn't her, it was him.

Oh, damn. Not five minutes after his first kiss and he was already thinking in romantic cliches.

A sudden stiff breeze shook him from his thoughts. The wind was noticeably cooler than it had been, and when he sniffed, he could smell water on it. Great. He had no idea where Rukia was now, but knowing her, she might be too stupidly stubborn to come home and get in from the rain when it started. He'd have to find her; go home, get back in his body, and go looking for her with an umbrella in hand.

Except, wait. Ichigo cursed. How was he going to get Kon out of his body without Rukia's soul glove? He could try the Heimlich maneuver, but Kon would want to know why, and where his precious nee-san was.

Right. Forget that. He'd find Rukia himself, and when he did, he'd tell her that—well—it wasn't such a bad thing, what they'd done, not so bad that she needed to spaz out and run, and that they could get back to whatever passed as normal for them if she'd just calm down. Yeah. That would work.

Now he just had to figure out where she'd gone.

The front door of the Urahara Shoten was halfway open when she arrived, but Rukia kicked it the rest of the way out of sheer temper and stomped through to the back rooms until she found the proprietor sitting on a cushion. "Kuchiki-san." He nodded at her. "It's a bit early for you to borrow the bathroom; Ururu is in there with her rubber ducky right now. If you don't mind waiting—"

"You owe me a refund!" she interrupted him.

"Do I really." He flapped his fan. "For what?"

"This!" she pointed at her chest. "This gigai is broken!"

For a moment, Urahara went absolutely still; then he grinned. "But Kuchiki-san, my merchandise never breaks! It always does exactly as designed. What seems to be the problem?"

She hesitated. The specific symptoms were not something she wanted to share with the man. Ever. "It's behaving strangely," she settled on. "I'm...receiving very strange feedback from its receptors. It's affecting my ability to do my job. You must have...flooded it with hormones or something else completely unnecessary!"

Urahara tut-tutted with amusement. The sound made her want to kick him more than she already did. "Kuchiki-san, that makes no sense," he said patiently. "Why should I seek to impede your duties, when the credits you earn through hollow bounties enable me to retain you as a customer? I'm afraid you can't blame my merchandise."

"I can do what I feel like, greedy merchant."

"Mmm, true," he said. "And I could fit you with a new gigai...if you insisted. But I'm afraid leaving that one would be rather painful. And futile." He snapped his fan shut. "As the next model would behave exactly as this one."

She opened her mouth with an angry retort—even if the man's logic was solid, he didn't have to sound so damn smug about it—but the sight of Ururu's little head peeking out from the back doorway stopped her.

"Kisuke-san? I'm done," she whispered.

"Good girl, Ururu. Now, run and find Tessai and he'll tell you a bedtime story." He nodded at Rukia. "Now, Kuchiki-san...would you like to use the bathroom now?"

Thirty minutes later, Rukia was sulking in a tub full of hot water. She'd only begun bathing at the Shoten when danger of discovery outweighed the convenience of doing so in Ichigo's bathroom in the middle of the night, but her irritation was at such a level tonight that she would've risked it, if not for...

She slunk down into the water, wondering if the embarrassment would fade if she drowned herself. What was I thinking?

That was it, really. She hadn't been. She thought of going out to hunt for hollows on her own after she left, even weak as she was. It was preferable to lose her life in the process of trying to do something helpful instead of dying of this slow, burning humiliation.

"Stupid girl," she muttered. "You are not human. Don't act like one." She hadn't spoken loudly, but her voice still echoed lightly in the empty bathroom, affirming that she was really sitting in that room after having gone temporarily insane. It hadn't been some stupid dream. It had been good, actually. She flushed. She couldn't remember the last time she'd kissed someone like that. She couldn't remember having BEEN kissed like that, all nervous enthusiasm and pure focus.

She couldn't have gotten away from it fast enough.

"Rukia-san?" She lifted her face from the water to see Ururu in the doorway. "You forgot your towel," the little girl said, padding over with it.

"Thank you, Ururu-chan," Rukia forced her mouth into a smile. "It's time I got out anyway. I fear I'm beginning to prune."

She nodded. "Did you have a fight with your boyfriend? Kisuke-san says you did."

"No!" She bit back a sharper reply. Urahara's cheek was not this girl's fault. "He's not my boyfriend," she said. "Thank you again for the towel."

Ururu comprehended the dismissal in her words and scampered out, shutting the door behind her. Rukia rose dripping from the water and began to pat her skin dry. Now even children think we're a couple. Despite her recent attack of temporary insanity, their relationship just wasn't like that. Ichigo was her partner. He was her friend.

He was, she realized as she dried herself, her best friend, at least here in this world. As frustratingly dense as he could be, he was a good person. She could be herself around him. It had been a long time since she'd known someone she could relax around like him.

She pulled her clothes on and held a hand out before her, commanding her fingers to flex and watching as the gigai responded. With the soma fixers, she really was synching up with it well. It didn't change the fact that her place in this world was temporary. She looked human, she'd begun acting human, but she was not human. She and Ichigo were meant to lead very different lives. He was a boy. He was supposed to do stupid things like kiss the wrong girl and act like a moron and grow up. She wasn't even supposed to be here.

Eventually, her powers would come back. They had to. And when that happened, she would go back to Soul Society and face her punishment for being late and never see him again. Indulging herself, no matter what she wanted to do, would only confuse him and make it harder for both of them.

What a fool she'd been. She needed to go find Ichigo and apologize.

Rukia ignored Urahara on her way out of the Shoten, pausing only to slip her shoes back on. When she slid open the front door, she bit back a curse. It was raining.

Great. Ichigo scowled from his crouched position under a closed business's awning. Not only was he stuck outside his body with Rukia run off who-knew-where, but it was raining hard, and it didn't look like it was going to stop any time soon. So much for the nice late spring weather. This evening was just getting better and better.

He'd wandered around town a little while, hoping to run into Rukia or something to hit. Now he just wanted to go home, Kon and his nosy questions be damned. Even if he was a spirit, Ichigo could still get soaked. He wondered if he could catch a cold if his immune system was lowered in soul form. With a sigh, he stepped out from under the awning. Definitely it was time to go back to his room, he decided. Rukia would come back there sooner or later. She'd have to.

The water streaming from the sky was an excellent motivator to move quickly, and Ichigo was nearly home before a cry tore through the night and stopped him in his tracks. He stopped, listened; in seconds, it came again, all too familiar. Yep. Definitely the howl of a Hollow, and close enough that he wouldn't need Rukia's phone thingie to find it.

He took of running, speeding up when he heard a third howl, louder and angrier this time. When he rounded the corner, he pulled his zanpakutou from its sheath, but nearly skidded to a stop when he caught sight of the scene. Rukia was there, in the middle of one of those spell chants of hers. Maybe she'd already fired one off, because the scaly hollow looked a little scorched and a lot pissed, and it was charging at her.

No time to debate his next move. Moving faster than he ever had before, Ichigo ran straight at Rukia, and slammed her off her feet and out of the way just as the hollow swung a clawed hand at her. He hissed as he caught a brief shot of blue fire on his chest before she flung her hand aside. "Idiot!" she hissed. "What are you doing? I was taking care of it!"

"Uh huh." He climbed off her. "I'll just take care of it faster then, okay?"

"Moron." Grudgingly, she backed off. "Do it already, then!"

Any cutting reply he could offer was interrupted by the hollow. They leapt in opposite directions; Ichigo spun on his heel to get the drop on the hollow before it could decide which target to go after. "That's it, ugly," he growled, taking a swing at the mask. "You're finished!"

Seconds later, it was all over.

"You did that well," Rukia said. "Finally. You had the rear strike on the mask down just as it should be."

"Thanks," he said, sheathing his sword and not looking directly at her. "I guess...maybe you'd already softened it up for me."

"Of course," she sniffed, and he almost took his words back.


"You're all wet," she said softly, after a long moment.

"It's raining, stupid," he said, and finally looked at her. She was completely soaked, more than he was, even though that should've been impossible given that it was still raining and neither of them had cover. Her hair hung around her face in strings. He could probably see through her dress in spots if he looked, though he definitely was NOT going to check.

She looked so small.

He still had no idea what to say to her about what had happened, but for the moment, it didn't seem like as much of a concern. He turned and knelt in front of her. "Come on," he said. "Let's go home."

Rukia stared at the back of Ichigo's head the whole way back to his room. Neither of them spoke. The quiet mood continued even after they returned. She knocked Kon out of his body before he could do more than babble a welcome; he entered his body and exited the bedroom so she could change into dry clothes in privacy. All without saying another word.

All right, then, she thought as she buttoned up her pajamas. It'll have to be me. It was fine. She'd already decided what to do.

"Rukia, you finished?" He spoke through the door in low tones.

"Yes. Come in."

He did so, already dressed in the sweats he'd wear to sleep. "So. I'm kinda tired," he said, lifting the blanket on his bed. "Guess I'll turn in now."

She squeezed her hands into fists and summoned all her courage. "Ichigo, we should talk."

He lowered the blanket. "Yeah. I guess so." He made no pretense of not knowing exactly what they should talk about. She appreciated his not insulting her intelligence that way, but did he have to look so nervous?

Probably. One more reason to finish this, then.

"About earlier," she said quietly. "I should not have run like that. It was an immature thing to do. I apologize."

"Yeah, about that," he said. "Rukia, I don't—I got to thinking and—I really didn't—" He sighed in frustration. "I don't know how to say this."

"Let me," she said. "I should not have forced my attentions on you like that in order to prove a point, Ichigo. I am very sorry."

"...oh," he said. "Right."

"In any case," she said, "I think it's best we pretend it didn't happen. Destroying hollows is tiring work, and overtired minds sometimes behave strangely."

"Yeah, I get it," he said, nostrils flaring. "Let's just forget about it." He sounded upset. Rukia frowned. Was he annoyed that she'd beaten him to saying it? Well, it was too bad for him. She'd been the one to make a fool of herself; she was the one who should get the chance to salve her battered pride.

"I'm glad you agree, then," she said, and before he could react or she could talk herself out of it, she whipped out the small item she'd tucked into her pocket and aimed it at Ichigo's face. His eyes widened in recognition, but she was faster than he and fired off the memory modifier before he could get away.

There was a puff of colored smoke and sparkles. Ichigo blinked once and collapsed backward on his bed in a heap.

Without wasting time, Rukia bent over to lift his feet and re-arrange his dead weight so he was lying down in a proper sleeping position. With a bit of work, she had him re-situated. She yanked the blanket from under him until it was free, then tucked it in up to his chin.

"I know you wouldn't have agreed with me, but it is better this way," she said to his unconscious form, feeling the odd need to explain. It wasn't as if he'd hear it. She wondered what memories he would have of this strange, strange evening.

She turned to go to bed, but hesitated. Leaning back over Ichigo, she moved her face close to his, feeling his puffs of breath for just a few moments before kissing his lips softly, one last time.

"Good night, Ichigo," she said, and climbed into her closet.

At school the day after the first summer rainstorm, Ichigo couldn't help but notice that something was different. In a good way, mostly, but he wasn't enough of an optimist to trust that the change wasn't the result of something that would make his life even more annoying.

People were no longer staring and whispering about him and Rukia...mostly. He still had to dole out a few glares, but there just wasn't the same buzz of interest that had been there before. To sort it out, he grabbed Rukia and dragged her down a quiet hallway at the beginning of lunch break, bento under one arm. "Okay, what did you do?"

"Do?" She looked up at him, and he would've thought he detected a hint of nervousness in her eyes if Rukia were the type to get nervous. "What makes you think I did anything?"

"Call it instinct," he said. "I'm not hearing nearly as much crap about our supposed love affair today as before. I know people are nervous about exam results getting posted tomorrow, but that never stopped gossip before. Do you have something to do with it?"

"Oh, that." She relaxed. "That's nothing. They've just moved on to the next 'hot item' on the rumor mill."

He eyed her suspiciously. "And that is?"

"Well, you'd never hear me telling tales, Kurosaki-kun, but I hear Ochi-sensei was planning to run off to Osaka and marry the school principal this weekend, but he tossed her aside in favor of the gym teacher! Isn't that tragic?"

"What the...the gym teacher is a MAN, you moron!"

"I know! Doesn't that make the story all the more exciting?" She smirked. "There's more than one way to fight rumors, Ichigo. Ignore them...or give people something better to talk about. You seemed incapable of doing the former, so I did the latter."

He snorted. "Well...thanks. I think." He studied her for a moment. "You sure that's all you need to tell me?"

"Of course," she said. "What else would there be?"

"I dunno." He scratched his temple. "I've just feeling kinda out of it today. Like I'm missing something."

"Poor Kurosaki-kun!" She patted his arm. "Perhaps you received a blow to the head fighting the hollow last night!"

"Like you're one to talk," he scoffed. "I'm not the one who twisted my ankle trying to get something from the high shelf in the bathroom. You know how hard it was raining last night? I'm probably going to get a cold from running out to get the snacks the injured midget just had to have."

"You did not have to do it, Ichigo," she said.

"Yeah, right. And listen to you whine at the time? No thanks." He scowled. "I thought you were taking baths at Urahara's now. Why'd you start sneaking around here again?"

She smiled faintly. "I suppose I wasn't thinking clearly at the time," she said. "In any case, thank you, Ichigo. My ankle is fine today, but I appreciate what you did last night."

"You're welcome." He surprised himself by saying that instead of making another smart remark, but pushed the feeling aside. "You hungry?"

"Famished," she said, and promptly yanked the bento box Yuzu had packed for him from the crook of his elbow, then ran down the hallway. "How kind of you to offer!"

"Rukia!" He took after her. "Dammit, that's mine! Come back!"

She swerved into the roof stairwell with him hot on her wheels. He couldn't but grin as he chased after her. This wasn't what he'd call normal, not by a long shot, but for now, it was good enough for him.