Disclaimer: Oh please. I wish I was making money out of this.

Listening to: Tex Perkins' Dark Horses – 'Lucid', 'Midnight Sunshine' & 'Hang on to My Love'.

It's a Tex Perkins kind of day.

Boy Meets Girl

This, Ichigo Kurosaki decided as he looked over the troops he'd assembled, was the last effort of a desperate man.

However, since he couldn't successfully argue at this point that he wasn't desperate, he was just going to have to go through with it. Clearing his throat, he got to his feet and began.

"Guys, I've called you here today because… well, you're kind of my brains trust." He paused and looked them over. "Kami, help me."

From his perch on the arm of Ichigo's sofa, Grimmjow Jeagerjacques snorted. "You are fucked, ain't ya? Well, you know the cost – one beer for my incredibly sage advice."

Ichigo rolled his eyes. "In the fridge. Why I am friends with you, I'll never know", he called out to Grimmjow's retreating back.

"I ask myself that same question every day", Ulquiorra Schiffer remarked, as he leaned against the windowsill. "I never find a satisfactory answer."

"Whatever", Renji Abarai threw in dismissively as he flopped down onto the couch next to Kira Izuru, who in turn added, "I'm guessing you need our help."

Running a hand through his hair, Ichigo grimaced. "Yeah. Look, as galling as it is to have to seek Kami-damned romantic advice from you lot, I'm outta options." He took a deep breath. "There's this girl - "

"Rukia", they all chorused, including Grimmjow, as he returned with his beer.

Ichigo blinked. "Well fuck. If everyone knows, how the hell doesn't she?"

"Nobles are inbred", Grimmjow pointed out. "Makes 'em dumber."

Instantly he was smacked over the head by Renji. "She's adopted, you moron. And nobles aren't stupid."

"Renji's a little biased", Kira broke in, "but he's essentially correct."

Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed. "Kira, correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you a member of the closest thing the Rukongai has to nobility?"

"So Ichigo", Kira began, louder than was necessary, "what do you want from us?"

"Advice", he sighed. "I'm getting nowhere being her friend. I haven't the faintest clue what to do next. It's always so obvious in movies, you know? Boy meets girl, boy and girl don't immediately get along but form tentative friendship, and through various wacky shenanigans boy and girl get together. Just doesn't seem to happen that way for me, though."

"Well, that's ya first problem", Grimmjow muttered. "You're watching romantic fucken comedies. I'll never take you seriously again."

Ulquiorra snorted. "You did in the first place? I must have missed those brief instants. How sad."

"To return to the point", Kira began, "how does your story differ?"

"Kami", Ichigo groaned, "where the hell to begin? Boy meets girl, boy insults girl, girl ties boy up with kido - "

"Kinky."

"Shut up Grimm. Girl saves boy's family and is wounded. Girl shoves her sword in boy's chest - "

"Hold on a moment", Ulquiorra interjected. "She thrust her zanpakuto into your - "

"Kinky."

"Shut your damn mouth Grimm, or I'll shut it for you!"

"Now that's no way to talk to ya brains trust. Anyway, that's your problem right there. She rammed a sword through your heart." Grimmjow nodded to himself. "Fuck, that was so sage, I deserve another beer."

"You're taking it out of context", Ichigo muttered.

The other four men in the room glanced at one another, before Grimmjow said what they were all thinking. "What the fuck kinda context makes that better?"

"She made me a shinigami!"

"Which is why you're here, annoying me now", Grimmjow concluded. "Remind me to thank her sometime."

Ichigo glared at him. "You did. You nearly killed her the first time we met."

Enlightenment dawned. "Ah, so that's why you were so pissy. Just figured it was your time of the month, or somethin'."

Ichigo counted to ten. Given that he now felt like drawing out his revenge, rather than simply punching Grimmjow in the face, it could be said to have had mixed results. "Look, all of you are in relationships. I figure you must have some clue - I mean, you got there somehow. How'd you all work it out?"

Ulquiorra began. "It actually followed the stages you outlined earlier rather well." He paused and reconsidered. "Though I was eviscerated and locked in my own office during the proceedings."

"'Bout the same, really", Grimm added thoughtfully, taking a swig of his beer. "Boy meets girl, girl kicks the crap outta him and agrees to make him lieutenant, boy wears girl down with his considerable charm, girl gets kidnapped, boy saves girl, and war breaks out."

He took another gulp. "You know, the usual."

Shaking his head, Ichigo murmured, "I should be frightened that made sense to me. What about you, Kira?"

He shrugged. "Boy meets girl, boy and girl become BFF, girl proceeds to chase after assholes who end up being traitorous bastards, and boy beats head against a wall repeatedly. It all works out in the end, though."

"Lucky you", Renji said with a grin. "Let's see… Boy meets girl, boy and girl grow up together on mean streets and watch each others backs." His grin turned wolfish. "Then boy meets girl's adopted brother, and shit starts to get interesting."

"Oh for fuck's sake!" Ichigo threw up his hands. "All well and good, but how did you tell them how you felt? That's my issue."

An awkward pause greeted this. Ichigo stared at them in disbelief. "You did tell them, right?"

Kira spoke up first. "Well, I was the one who said something…"

Everyone could hear the 'but' missing from the end of the sentence. Enlightenment lit Renji's eyes. "That's right! Momo was the one who hooked up with you! On the dance floor, too."

Kira glared at him. "And how did yours work out, Renji?"

Further enlightenment lit Renji's eyes as he looked away. "Uh… pretty much exactly the same way. Only, uh, not Momo."

In vain, Ichigo turned to Grimmjow. "Please, tell me you at least made a move."

"Kinda", the former Espada admitted. "But I sorta confessed thinking that she already knew, when it actually turned out that she was confessin' herself. I did better than Ulqui over there, though."

A faint blush spread over Ulquiorra's cheeks. "I still haven't quite forgiven you for that."

"Che, if I hadn't done it, you'd still be dancin' around each other", Grimmjow pointed out.

"What did happen?" Kira queried.

With a sigh, Ulquiorra admitted, "Grimmjow and his… 'associates' locked me in the office with Neliel and told her how I felt." Shotting a glare at Grimmjow, he added, "You are very lucky it worked."

"Wow", Ichigo uttered dryly. "You all suck."

Protests greeted this, alongside Renji's, "Only if he asks nicely."

"I can't know that!" Ichigo cried out. "I have to look him in the eye at some point and ask his permission to date his sister. I don't need any… mental images."

"I guess that's just it", Kira mused. "You'll just have to man up and tell her."

Grimmjow chuckled to himself. "Strawberry getting' manly? Kami help us all."

Ichigo's couch cushion hit him square in the face.

xXx

Byakuya Kuchiki sighed to himself, as he watched his adopted sister stare out the window with an air of melancholy.

He'd spent three years telling himself that Rukia's attraction to the Kurosaki brat was a passing fancy touched with hero worship. After all, what woman's head wouldn't be turned by a man who fought his way through the entirety of the Seireitei to rescue her? It would fade in time and Rukia's attentions would turn to someone who didn't just stroll into Kuchiki house and make himself at home without invitation, someone who actually referred to Byakuya with the titles he had earned.

Someone, ideally, not even vaguely related to Isshin Kurosaki.

Three years on, though, and Byakuya was forced to admit, firstly, that Rukia's feelings went far deeper than he had first assumed and, secondly, that somehow he'd ended up… not liking, per say, but tolerating the Kurosaki brat.

Who was now a captain and almost an equal, which he found a little galling, but it did at least make him more suitable for Rukia.

Renji liked Ichigo, Byakuya told himself, and Renji had proven himself to have excellent taste.

After all, Renji liked him.

Kurosaki, unfortunately, was behaving like a moron. Anyone with eyes could tell he was utterly infatuated with Rukia, with the exception of Rukia herself (Byakuya hesitated to describe her behaviour as moronic. She was, after all, a Kuchiki), and yet he continued to keep silent.

If he were entirely honest with himself, Byakuya had to admit that Rukia was no better – she never indicated any sort of romantic interest in Kurosaki even if her eyes followed him around the room and she had a habit of glaring down any female admirers he had among the shinigami.

Something, Byakuya thought, had to be done.

He cleared his throat, shocking Rukia into turning to face him, her musical voice querying, "Yes, Nii-sama?"

Byakuya had dealt with all manner of delicate political situations and manoeuvring, but this would take all his skill – for all of Rukia's attempts at projecting an aura of meek politeness with him, she was a far more volatile force than any he'd faced among the nobility.

"Have you given thought", he began, "to the Kyouraku wedding tomorrow? I will be happy to escort you."

She smiled at him gratefully. "I would appreciate it, Nii-sama. But what about Renji?"

He gave a faint sigh. "However liberal Captain Kyouraku is, I cannot vouch for the rest of his house and I suspect my own would have conniptions if I were to accompany Captain Abarai to a formal occasion." They were still getting over his announcement of permanent bachelordom. "I will, however, most likely spend a good deal of the evening in his company." The nobility could, as Renji would put it, 'suck on that'.

He paused, waiting for her reaction. "Unless, of course, you have a date already."

She couldn't hide her scowl. "No. Nobody's asked me."

He fought the urge to groan. Byakuya knew for a fact that several seated officers found Rukia very attractive and wouldn't have hesitated to ask her. He had a very strong suspicion that saying 'Ichigo Kurosaki hasn't asked me' would be a more truthful interpretation of that sentence.

Instead of calling her on it, he opted for simply stating, "I see. In that case, I will gladly accompany you."

He broke off, unsure as to how to proceed. Too often these days he felt torn between his impulsive younger self, and the considerably more decorous clan leader he had become. He suspected Renji was a part of the change, but he found he didn't mind. Perhaps this was because his younger self often seemed to win all of those internal arguements.

It certainly did in this case. As she made to leave, he called softly, "Rukia?"

She stilled, and looked at him expectantly as he went on.

Bracing himself for probable fallout, he continued. "Allow me to offer you a piece of advice." He ignored the way her brow furrowed, and went on. "I would ordinarily commend you on keeping an appropriate distance in your romantic dealings. You need, however, to consider one thing. Very few people have the courage to love without encouragement. Especially", he cleared his throat. As galling as it was to praise Kurosaki, he'd just have to do it. "Especially those who do not believe they have anything in particular to recommend them. A young man, for example, with a relatively modest opinion of himself, would assume that the young woman he knew who treated him only with friendship was only interested in such a relationship. Such a young woman, in that case, would be best off indicating any romantic interest in a clear, but not overly exuberant, way."

She blinked at him in surprise. Byakuya couldn't blame her. It was one of the lengthier speeches he'd ever given her. Suddenly, her eyes narrowed.

"Are you interfering in my love life?"

He simply raised an eyebrow at her, letting her guess the inevitable response. She did with some rapidity, giving him a rueful smile in return. "Just like I did yours. But I only did that when your moping about the house got too ridiculous to watch anymore."

The eyebrow stayed raised. She winced. "Ok, Nii-sama. I get it. I'll give it a try."

She paused, and frowned to herself. "Do you think it's possible he lo- uh, likes me back? He's been odd lately. He acts like it's torturing him to hang out with me – he's gotten so awkward when we're together."

Byakuya diplomatically ignored her obliviousness and the obvious slip, having long since resigned himself to the evil that was Ichigo Kurosaki and his feelings for Rukia, and fought back the urge to respond too honestly.

Rukia, if the boy had one whit less dignity, he'd follow you around like a puppy. As it is, he's here at the house far too often for my peace of mind.

"I think", Byakuya replied evenly, "it is a distinct possibility."

xXx

Well, Rukia thought as she smoothed down her dress, here I am.

She had to hand it to Nii-sama – he knew how to dress, and he certainly knew how to dress her, apparently. Her teal coloured dress was cut close, hugging curves she barely had and making them appear considerably more impressive, and she particularly liked the way the skirt flared out to sway around her calves as she walked.

It was the sort of dress, she mused, that you'd wear to attract someone's attention.

It was a crying shame, therefore, that it was attracting the wrong people.

So far she had dodged Isshin and his video camera, a very drunk Shuuhei Hisagi, an equally drunk Rangiku who had attempted to 'bust-five' her, and had the dubious honour of noticing that most of the Eleventh had rather enjoyed watching her walk away from them. Men also seemed to be having some difficulty looking her in the eye, but far less difficulty looking her in the… not eyes.

Ichigo had taken one look at her, thrown back a very large drink and had promptly started to avoid whatever part of the room she was in.

It didn't look promising.

Rukia wasn't sure what to do from there. She wasn't the girly type, and what she knew about flirting had been taught to her by Renji.

Which was why she never flirted.

She was at a loss. This was one of her best friends, the man whose life had been irrevocably intertwined with hers since they first met and traded insults, the man who'd saved her life more times than she'd saved his (which was kind of impressive), the man who was training her to achieve bankai while risking her brother's wrath (again).

Scowling at her drink, Rukia flicked one of her bangs away from her eyes. The hell with it. If he didn't love her back, he could go find someone else to shove a sword in his heart. She didn't need him.

Of course, Rukia reconsidered as she discreetly watched Ichigo from across the room, even if that was the case, it didn't change the fact that she really, really wanted him.

xXx

Ichigo Kurosaki, saviour of the Seireitei, was only seconds away from needing to breathe into a paper bag.

Beside him, Grimmjow rolled his eyes. "For fuck's sake. No wonder you're still a virgin. All those fan girls begging for you, an' you can't even start a conversation with the chick who's supposed to be your best friend."

As Ichigo wheeled around, incensed and ready to smack Grimmjow over the head, only to find a new target as Kira added, "Yeah. Seriously, as your lieutenant, this is not the most awe-inspiring I've seen you. If I didn't know better, I'd say you needed to…" Kira trailed off, searching for the most polite way to convey his meaning.

Ulquiorra didn't bother. "Man up."

Ichigo gaped at the former Espada, only to resume his original course and glare at Grimmjow. "He learnt that from you!", came the accusation.

"I most certainly did not", Ulquiorra replied, mortified, firstly, that anyone thought Grimmjow knew something he didn't, and secondly, that anyone thought he'd be willing to learn from Grimmjow even if that was the case.

"Ichigo has a point", Kira added. "It isn't the sort of thing we normally hear from you."

Ulquiorra relented. "I learnt it from my third seat."

Renji's brow furrowed. "Wait, from Maiko? No wonder. That girl is insane, but in the best way possible. I still don't know how she passed the psych evaluation."

"She was recruited during the Winter War", Ulquiorra replied dryly, "so she didn't have to complete one."

"Mystery solved", Kira muttered, "albeit, disturbingly."

"Oi", Grimmjow broke in. "Brains trust? Focus. We got Strawberry Shortcake here to worry about."

At that, Ichigo slumped in his seat. "I know, I know – go talk to her. But seriously guys, have you seen how she looks tonight? How the fuck am I supposed to come up with anything coherent in the face of that?"

They all turned to watch as Rukia gracefully danced across the room with Byakuya, in a rather lively version of the waltz that was more suited to her than it was to him. As they came to a stop, Rukia smiled winningly at her adopted brother, before giving an exaggerated curtsey as he raised an eyebrow at her. Shaking her head, still smiling, she left, heading out to one of the balconies.

Renji was the first to break the silence. "Yeah, I'll admit, she looks good tonight. Hell, almost enough to make me consider playing for the… uh… 'other, other team'? Is that how it works when you're already technically playing for the 'other team'?"

"Hell if I know", Grimmjow admitted. "Look, jus' start a freaken conversation at least, 'coz this is pathetic."

"My thoughts precisely", a new voice broke in. Slowly and, in Ichigo's case, rather unwillingly, they turned to face Byakuya Kuchiki.

"Captain Kurosaki", the older man continued, "I wish to speak with you regarding my sister."

"We're just friends!" Ichigo's automatic and somewhat defensive reply came.

Byakuya looked almost pained. "Yes. I know." His eyes narrowed. "Fix that."

Ichigo looked decidedly shocked. "Wait, you want me to stop being friends with her? I mean, I didn't think you were that keen on - "

Byakuya held up a hand and cut Ichigo off. "You misunderstand me. I wish for you to cease being 'just friends'."

The entire brains trust were stunned into silence. Renji, used to Byakuya as he was, roused himself into speech first. "Hang on, are you actually giving permission?"

Byakuya sighed. "As much as it galls me to have to do this, I am an older brother. I want to see my younger sister happy. Therefore, I expect you to walk out onto that balcony right now and make her so, or else the consequences will be as dire as I can make them. And Kurosaki? I have quite an imagination."

Ichigo blinked, which allowed Grimmjow the time to break in, "Hold up. Jus' how happy do you want him to make her? I mean, it's a public party, an' that balcony looks kinda open, an' - "

"He's not with me!" Ichigo blurted out hurriedly as he leapt from his seat, straightening out his shirt. "Uh, I'll just…" He made vague gestures toward the balcony.

Byakuya was now wearing an expression on his face that indicated good breeding was all that was keeping him from rolling his eyes. "Just go, Kurosaki."

He did, almost tripping on his own feet in his haste to leave.

Byakuya watched him go and pinched the bridge of his nose.

And there, Kami help me, goes my future brother-in-law and consort to the Kuchiki heir. I am not sure which is worse – that this is my vision of the future, or that I don't actually mind it.

Smiling faintly to himself, Byakuya sat down at the bar beside Renji.

At the very least, it is rather amusing to make Kurosaki squirm.

xXx

Rukia sat outside, fuming silently.

She had decided, on retreating from the ballroom and letting her smile slip from her face, that she'd prefer to fume rather than mope but, given how tempting moping was looking right now, this meant that she would have to fume in a rather spectacular fashion in order to distract herself.

It wasn't working as well as she'd hoped.

She went over and over in her head why she was angry with Ichigo – he had been acting awkwardly around her for the last year, he treated her like one of the guys, he was currently ignoring her – but then all she could think of was how much she wished things were different. She wanted him to be in love with her, the way she was with him, or, failing that, at least open to the possibility…

Her fuming was still under par. Maybe, she thought, she needed a more physically present target –

"Uh, Rukia?"

She whirled on Ichigo, her eyes narrowing. Of course, he just had to look even better than he usually did, clad in a black dress shirt and pants that were clearly living world in origin. There he was, all 6'1" of him, looking far too good and still failing to be in love with her.

Something in Rukia snapped.

"Finally deigned to notice me, have you?" Her tone was withering, and he winced accordingly.

"I know. I'm sor - "

"I don't want to hear it!" She struggled to keep back the sob that threatened to emerge when she yelled at him. "You used to always make the time to hang out with me, one on one. I was the first person you knew here. Now, all of a sudden, you need to constantly bring someone else along. Am I that bad for company that you need back up? You get awkward and freak out over the weirdest things, and I never know how to act around you anymore. I mean, you practically ran away from me that time we were eating ice cream cones."

He was blushing furiously. Which was odd – she had expected him to be angry and argue back, but all he was doing was standing there watching her. She continued.

"You don't talk to me, not about anything important, and I feel like you're constantly keeping secrets from me. You refuse to come within ten feet of me when we train and I have no idea why. Do I smell funny? Do you think I'm incompetent enough to hit you with stray kido, or enough of a bitch to attack you?"

That sob was getting harder and harder to keep down. The yelling, on the other hand, kept coming. And was it just her, or was Ichigo coming closer?

"I thought we were friends! I thought you cared. I know everything's crazy right now, but even when things are crazy you've always been you. Now, suddenly, you avoid me at a party like I'm diseased and - "

In a move so fast she couldn't counter it, Ichigo, rather than defend himself on these charges, pulled her toward him, one hand under her chin tilting her face up to his, and closed the distance between them, his lips meeting hers.

The kiss lasted several moments, a tentative, uncertain melding of mouths that grew stronger and more passionate, leaving both parties breathless. Only one of those moments was needed, however, for Rukia to begin to feel enlightened on certain points, most of which she had just been yelling about.

As Ichigo finally drew back, she let her eyes flutter open once more, comprehension finally hitting as she breathed, "Oh."

His brown eyes looked so warm and inviting when he stared down at her like that and, more importantly, she knew that look was reserved for her. How had she missed this?

Ichigo smiled ruefully. Oh? That hadn't quite been the reaction he was looking for. Deciding that there was no point dissembling now, he simply stated, "Yeah."

She still wasn't making any move. Well, Byakuya had got it all wrong, then, and there was no point staying to hear a verbal rejection too. He turned to leave, only to feel a small but strong hand grab his arm.

"Yes." Her voice was quiet and insistent.

Carefully, certain that his heart had stopped beating, Ichigo turned back around, a cautious look in his eyes.

Almost not daring to ask exactly what he wanted to, he replied, "Yes?"

Rukia had started to smile, her eyes alight. "Yes", she repeated, with even more confidence.

Taking a deep breath, Ichigo reached out, and took her hand. "A yes to what, exactly?"

She steeled herself, but then, he'd been brave tonight, brave enough to show her how he felt. It was her turn. Clearing her throat, but not able to meet his eyes, she whispered. "Anything. Everything." Inhaling sharply, she lifted her gaze to his. "So long as you're doing the asking."

He smiled then, the expression that was so rare on his face. It felt, Rukia decided, a little like the sun did when it warmed her skin. As he drew her close once more, his smile never abating, he whispered back, "In that case, it's always been a yes from me too."

xXx

And, of course, if you read the rest of my stories and know where this fits in, you know that all hell is about to break loose.

No matter, right guys? Muahahaha – I'm diabolical.

Anyway, R and R, y'all!