Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. I am making no money from this. Tite Kubo owns all, I'm just playing with them for a while. I also do not own any of the quotes I use at the start of each chapter. They were all found on the internet, and if they have an author I say who it is.

Author's Notes: The third main fic in the "After The Winter War" series. This one is centered on Ichigo and Orihime, but like "No Warm Memories" and "Behind This Mask" will also feature many other characters and will weave together with other stories. Also, it overlaps with the other two, starting at around the same point they did. You may recognize part of this chapter from both of those fics. Thanks to my awesome beta, KazeNoSakura.

I'll Stand By You

By Lady Callista

Chapter 1: Beginnings


Don't be ashamed to cry

Let me see you through

'Cause I've seen the dark side too

When the night falls on you

You don't know what to do

Nothing you confess

Could make me love you less

I'll stand by you

"I'll Stand By You" by the Pretenders


"Ichigo would hate to see that look on your face, Inoue." Rukia said quietly as she came up behind Orihime.

"I know." Orihime replied, not looking up from where she knelt over Ichigo, Soten Kisshun surrounding the unconscious boy. "But I hate knowing he's like this partly because he came to rescue me."

"He'll be fine." Rukia said quietly. "But now you understand how I felt when all of you came to Soul Society to rescue me. I went back to Soul Society willingly so that they wouldn't kill Ichigo. And then the idiot almost gets himself killed, multiple times, to rescue me."

Orihime nodded. "But Kurosaki-kun felt that was his fault."

Rukia nodded as she knelt next to her friend. "As he felt your capture was his fault. If he wasn't a Shinigami, if he could have controlled his reiatsu better, it's quite possible you would have never realized your powers and could be leading a normal life."

"Or my brother could have killed me." Orihime replied gently, thinking of the night Kurosaki-kun had saved her from her Hollowfied brother. "Besides, I've heard the Shinigami talking about some of the things Aizen revealed before he was killed, and that was never an option. It wasn't Kurosaki-kun that caused my powers."

Rukia conceded the point with a shrug. "We can never know what could have happened. Let's just be grateful that Aizen and his people were defeated and that we didn't lose that many of ours."

Orihime nodded, glancing over at Rukia as Ichigo stirred slightly and mumbled something indistinguishable. "What do you think he's dreaming about?"

Rukia shrugged as she stood up. "Hopefully something happy. He's had enough unhappiness in his life this past year." She turned to leave, but then glanced back at Orihime, who was starting to look pale. "You should take a break, Inoue. You've been healing one person or another ever since the last fight ended."

"It's only been about three hours. And so many people needed help." Orihime glanced back at Rukia. "I healed all of Kurosaki-kun's major wounds my first go-round, but he's just taken so much damage that I want to do more if I can."

Rukia smiled gently as she left. "He's lucky to have such a good friend."

Orihime frowned for an instant as she turned back to her work. Friend. But she wanted to be so much more than just his friend.

She focused on her work again as Ichigo twitched and mumbled her name.


"It's okay, Kurosaki-kun." She whispered, hoping he could hear her. "You rescued me and you defeated Aizen. Everything's okay now." She focused on the healing shield, for anytime she let her mind wander it tried to drag her back to the nightmare of Hueco Mundo. Despite how exhausted she was from all the healing she'd been doing, she didn't think she was going to get much sleep.

OoOo One week later oOoO

"So, everything is pretty much back to normal." Orihime babbled to Sora as she knelt in front of her brother's shrine, speaking to him about her day as she still sometimes did. "We're all back in school again, which is so weird, and I don't think Tatsuki's really forgiven me yet since we didn't really tell her the whole truth about what happened to me, but I don't want her to worry, and, oh, and I'm sleeping a little better. I shouldn't have told you about that the night after the war ended, but I needed to talk to someone, and I don't want to burden anyone else with it, but the nightmares are so bad, and…"

A huge burst of reiatsu from very close by made her stop speaking abruptly.

"Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime questioned out loud to the empty room even as she felt his reiatsu stop at her door a second before she heard a knock.

She went to the door quickly, surprised to find him there as a Shinigami. The way his reiatsu was spiking and fluctuating more than normal worried her.

"Kurosaki-kun, what's wrong?" Orihime asked at once as she gestured for him to come inside.

"I'm gonna kill him." Ichigo ranted as he began to pace. "I'm going to cut him into little pieces, and I'm going to scatter those pieces in the Dangai, and..."

"Kurosaki-kun." Orihime placed herself firmly in his path, forcing him to stop his pacing lest he run into her. "What happened?"

"Karin...she..." Ichigo tried to walk around her to start pacing again.

Orihime grabbed his arm as he did so, spinning him around with surprising force until he faced her again. "Karin-chan?" Her eyes were wide, her other hand unconsciously touching one of her barrettes. "What happened to Karin-chan?"

"She..." Ichigo could barely speak. "She thinks she likes him..."

Orihime stared at him for a second, blinked, then belatedly dropped his arm as she started giggling. "Karin-chan likes a boy? That's what this is about?"

Ichigo glared at her. "Not just any boy. Oh, no, nothing so simple as that for my sister."

Orihime stopped giggling long enough to look confused. "So it's a boy you know. But you've barely seen Karin in..."

"It's a Shinigami we both know." Ichigo resumed pacing.

Orihime's eyes widened and she did not resume laughing. "A Shinigami? Does she know what he is?"

"She sure does." Ichigo was scowling full force. "I don't think she really cares. She tried to talk to me about it, but I can't...I mean...I don't talk about stuff like that, and then...to talk to my sister about that..."

"You're talking to me about it." Orihime replied, not letting how surprised she was by that show in her voice.

"Well, I had to talk to someone or I was just gonna try to find him and kill him." Ichigo replied, looking at her. "Plus I was thinking maybe you could, I don't know, talk to her or something. I figure maybe she needs to talk to a girl, and it was pretty much you or Tatsuki, and I think you'll be better at it than her."

Orihime stared at him for an instant, amazed that such a long sentence had just come from his mouth. He must really be worried about his sister. And she could understand that perfectly. Although he was a Shinigami, he wasn't dead. For Karin to have a crush, or possibly more, on any of the other Shinigami seemed a pretty hopeless cause. Although her dream of Ichigo returning her love for him was probably a hopeless cause as well, and that didn't stop her from still hoping that one day it would happen.

"I'll stop by tomorrow after school if that's okay." She said with a smile.

"Sure, I'll make sure Karin's there." Ichigo replied as he began, yet again, to pace. "Although right now I need to go vent on some Hollows. Uh, thanks."

Orihime barely had time to nod before he jumped out her window.

Ichigo flew over the rooftops, on the lookout for Hollows. There had been more than normal showing up over the past week, probably attracted to all the echoes of reiatsu from the fighting. Of course now that he was looking for one he couldn't sense anything.

"She likes Toshiro." He mumbled to himself as he ran. "That's just so wrong. I suppose I should be glad it's not Renji, but still…"

He abruptly shifted directions, heading west as he felt something odd there. He drew his zanpakuto as he landed, disappointed to find only a normal spirit and not a Hollow. It was a little girl around the age of his sisters, which with the mood he was in bugged him.

"Hi there." Ichigo said gently as he slid Zangetsu back onto his back, not wanting to scare her.

"Onii-san, you can see me?" The child looked up from her swing.

Ichigo nodded as he sat down beside her. "So you've noticed that no one else can see you?"

She nodded sadly. "Mommy and Daddy can't see me, and they're both crying all the time."

"Do you want to go somewhere where people can see you?" Ichigo asked with smile. "It's a nice place, I promise."

"Will my parents be there?" The girl asked with hopeful eyes.

"I don't know, maybe." Ichigo lied to her. It wouldn't matter, because she would have no memory of her life anyway, and it would make it easier to convince her. "But there're lots of people there, and they'll all be able to see you."

The little girl smiled. "That would be nice. Where is it?"

Ichigo drew the sword off of his back, channeling his energy as he pointed the bottom of the hilt towards her. "You'll be there in a second." He whispered as he touched it to her forehead. "Konso."

The little girl vanished with a smile.

That could be Karin one day. If she really wants to be with that Shini…

Ichigo yelled at his inner Hollow to shut up. And people wondered why his temper had gotten worse. Anyone's would be with something like that inside them.

He took to the rooftops again, this time in an even worse mood. He didn't think he'd have liked Karin liking anyone, but for it to be a Shinigami…

That's why older brothers are born first. So they can protect their little sisters.

The words he had said to the Hollow that had once been Inoue's brother came back to him.

But protect them from what? He wanted Karin to be happy, which she never really seemed like she was. But how could she be happy with a Shinigami? There was no way they could be together, unless Karin died, and even then they couldn't be together because she wouldn't remember anything that had happened before she died. And it wasn't like Toshiro could live in the real world either.

Why was he even thinking about this? He'd just have to make sure nothing ever came of…

Sensing what he could swear was another Shinigami, Ichigo used shunpo to arrive at what he knew was the edge of a soccer field Karin and her friends used sometime.

And was very surprised to find two red-heads walking towards him.

"Oi, Inoue, what are you and..." Ichigo trailed off as Inuoe and Matsumoto, wait, why was she here?, both froze, and he saw his sister on the field behind them, playing soccer with Toshiro.

"Bakudo Number 3 - Kuchiwa." Matsumoto managed to get the kido out before he could open his mouth to yell. She held her hand out as she cast it, and watched in amusement as the black cloth that formed wrapped itself around his mouth. Although she didn't know much kido, this was one of her favorites, for it worked very nicely on loudmouthed subordinates. And the nice thing about the kido as opposed to a real gag was that the kido was soundproof. As long as it covered his mouth, not a single sound he made would be heard.

He started to move towards her and she made another hand gesture. "Bakudo Number 1 - Sai."

Ichigo cursed even louder as his arms locked behind his back. He knew they couldn't hear him, but that wasn't really the point. He was about to gather his energy to break them when he heard Inuoe giggle.

"Um, Rangiku-san, I don't really think that will improve his mood."

"I know, but I'm more worried about my taicho's mood at the moment." Matsumoto replied. "I think he really likes her, and..."

Ichigo narrowed his eyes at her as she trailed off, probably because he was already glaring daggers at her.

"Look, Kurosaki, I know she's your little sister and all, but he's a good man." Matsumoto said seriously as she faced him. "He won't hurt her."

Ichigo gathered his energy and broke both of the kido she had cast. "Operative word being 'man.' Ever heard the phrase 'He's too old for her?'"

"Not in this way he's not." Matsumoto replied, doing whatever she could to keep him talking. She knew Hitsugaya would kill her if he heard what she was about to say. "He may be mature in most ways, but he's emotionally, well, stunted."

Kinda like you, Kurosaki-kun, Orihime thought as she watched the exchange with interest. At least Kurosaki wasn't screaming yet, or charging the field to kill Hitsugaya.

"That doesn't change the fact that she's just a little girl. And she's human..."

Matsumoto flinched. "Yeah, I know. Maybe it can work out somehow. But even if they're just friends..." She trailed off for a moment, glancing back and forth between the two teenagers in front of her. "You know how important it is to have friends."

Ichigo's glare faded, and he glanced at Inoue, allowing a small smile to appear on his face. "Friends, huh? Well, I'll still kill him if he hurts her."

"I think everyone involved in the situation is aware of that." Matsumoto replied dryly.

"Does that mean you're not going to hassle either of them?" Orihime spoke to him for the first time since he'd arrived.

"Karin doesn't have many friends, and it's not like she'll get to see him that much anyway." Ichigo replied gruffly, even though he had a faraway expression in his eyes. He'd seen Karin smile. Heard her laugh. He hadn't gotten to see much of that in the past few years. She had stopped laughing at the same time she stopped crying. It was why he worried about her, although of course he'd rarely said anything about it.

Matsumoto abruptly reached into her pocket as it started beeping and pulled out her transmitter. "Hollow."

"Yeah, I feel it." Ichigo replied, head whipping towards the south. "I'll go get it. At least I get to kill something tonight."

And with that he was off in a blur.

Orihime sighed as he left. "How did you do that?"

Rangiku laughed as she put her arm around Orihime and they started walking towards Orihime's apartment. "I've been dealing with Histugaya and his moods for a long time now. They actually have quite a bit in common, although I think either one would hurt me for saying so."

"Do they really?" Orihime wondered. "But how do you deal with it? I mean, the almost total lack of emotion, and the..."

"Just because they don't show their emotions to the world like you or I do doesn't mean they don't have them." Rangiku replied quietly.

Orihime was silent for a moment, thinking about that. Because she didn't show her emotions to the world. She showed the world a mask. A cheerful, happy mask. If she'd shown anything else people would have worried about her, and she never wanted people to do that. If Kurosaki-kun's gruff manner was a mask, what was underneath it?

"Are you ever going to tell Kurosaki how you feel about him?" Rangiku's voice intruded on the younger girl's thoughts.

Orihime's face flushed to almost the color of her hair as she whispered, "Does anyone other than Kurosaki-kun himself not know?"

Rangiku laughed. "It's not that bad, Orihime-chan. You did tell me after all. But, even so, you…you look at him the same way Karin-chan looks at my taicho. The same way I used to look at someone..."

"You've been in love, Rangiku-san?"

"Yes, and no." Rangiku sighed. "I loved someone who didn't exist. Someone who wasn't who I thought he was. I think he loved me, in a way, because he couldn't kill me. But that means he betrayed Soul Society, betrayed everything I thought he'd believed in, for something he couldn't kill me over. Something he cared about less than he cared about me. And half of the time I didn't think he cared about me all that much."

"Betrayed Soul Society? Then it was one of the three tai..."

"Gin." Rangiku whispered. "Ichimaru Gin."

Orihime shivered at the name. She remembered the man far too well.

"I can imagine what you must be thinking, but he wasn't always like that. At least, I didn't think he was. Orihime-chan, I really think you should tell Kurosaki." Rangiku said, wishing for sake. "Because I'm going to spend the rest of my life wondering if Gin would have turned out differently if I'd told him. I'm always going to wonder if I had to spend the past decades alone."

"But what if I tell him and he doesn't like me back?"

"Then at least you'll know." Rangiku replied, smiling. "I was talking with some of my friends the other night, and I joked that no man in Seireitei would say no to me if I wanted to date him. But I know of at least one who would. He's even colder and gruffer than taicho, or than Kurosaki, and he's not even my friend. I'm thinking of going after him just because it's a challenge. If I can do that, surely you can tell your friend, the one who basically followed you into hell just to rescue you, that you like him."

"Do you like this guy?" Orihime asked as she unlocked the door to her apartment, trying to keep the topic off of her and her hopeless love. Although she liked Rangiku a great deal, sometimes the woman was a little pushy. "Or is it just that it's a challenge?"

"Well, he's certainly handsome enough." Rangiku replied as she followed Orihime into the kitchen. "I'd have to see under his mask first though. And I think it'll be much harder to crack than my taicho's was."

"How did you crack Hitsugaya-kun's?"

"A little bit at a time, sister. A little bit at a time."


AN2: So my beta was slightly confused by Orihime's comment near the beginning that it wasn't Ichigo that caused her powers, and how the Shinigami were talking about things Aizen had revealed before he was killed. This is actually cannon (well, except for Aizen being killed, but I'm assuming he will be, lol), but as it's likely a spoiler for most people (unless you read the manga online) I didn't want to go into it too much. It won't really matter for the story, but it was a point I really wanted her to make. It was not, as many fans have always believed, Ichigo's lack of control of his reiatsu that made her and Chad have powers. And I don't want to spoil things beyond that.


Soten Kisshun: "Twin Sacred Return Shield." Orihime's healing shield.

Zanpakuto: The Shinigami's katana. Each is unique to its user.

Zangetsu: Ichigo's zanpakuto.

Onii-san: Technically "older brother." Often times used in common speech, especially by children I've noticed, to refer to strangers who are in their teens or twenties.

Konso: Soul burial. It sends a soul to Soul Society.

Dangai- the 'severed world' between Soul Society and the real world. It's how Ichigo and his friends get into Soul Society to rescue Rukia.

Bakudo: "Way of Binding." One of the two main types of kido. The first one used (3) was made up by me, the other is cannon.

Kuchiwa: literally "Muzzle," as in the thing you put on an animal to control them. (made up by me, not cannon)

Sai: "Restrain" (cannon)