A/N: Hello again! I realize it hasn't been long at all since the end of Holding On, but I just have to get another of my built-up ideas out of my system before I switch my focus back to my original work. (Which I'm also excited about, as just earlier today I sent out my first book to an agent!) And so, I present to you, the first chapter of my newest story! As always, I hope you enjoy it!

Warning: Consider this a story-wide spoiler notice. While I will not be adhering to the canon of the Fullbring Arc, I will be throwing in some of the 'little' things that are newly-canon as I feel they fit into the story. This will make sense to everyone who's keeping up with the manga (at least through chapter 477) or anime, but to everyone who's behind, there may be changes you don't recognize. I'm sorry for that. But hopefully they won't ruin anything when you do catch up with the manga/anime.

Summary: It is said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The truth of this simple saying hits home with both Ichigo and Orihime late one night while Ichigo is away in Soul Society, as both find themselves longing for the other despite the platonic nature of their relationship. But this is no ordinary yearning.

And when Orihime wakes up to find herself in Ichigo's inner world, everything changes.

Disclaimer: Bleach belongs to someone who is most assuredly not me.

Soul Mates

Prologue: Unusual Vacation

Orihime Inoue released an exhausted sigh, her right hand falling limply back onto the grass beside her head, as she declared, "I think the sun is meaner than last year!"

Around her, her friends smiled knowingly, and two faint chuckles greeted her in response.

Orihime was lying on her back, sprawled out on the grassy hillside before the Karakura River. The lightest, warm breeze pulled at the strands of auburn hair framing her face, and played with the loose collar of her off-the-shoulder faded pink t-shirt. The sun itself was shining unabashedly down on them, glinting off of the hairpins that were attached to the collar of her shirt.

To Orihime's immediate left was Tatsuki Arisawa, her best friend and surrogate sister. To Orihime's right was Ichigo Kurosaki, her other best friend and the man who had unknowingly claimed her heart. Yasutora Sado and Uryuu Ishida were on Ichigo's other side. And they were all as sprawled out as Orihime herself.

"You might be right, Orihime," Tatsuki finally replied with a lopsided, bemused grin.

Uryuu spoke up next, saying, "As a matter of fact, it's several degrees warmer today than it was this time last year."

Ichigo groaned, reaching up with one hand and covering his face as he said, "Please tell me you didn't just look it up on your phone."

"And if I did?" Uryuu challenged even as he slipped the aforementioned device back into his shirt pocket.

Arm falling back to the ground beside him, Ichigo rolled his eyes and replied, "You'd be even more pathetic than I gave you credit for."

"I beg your pardon?" Uryuu returned immediately, shifting his narrowed eyes to his left as if he could see through Chad and straight to Ichigo.

Smirking now, Ichigo said, "You heard me."

Sighing loudly, Tatsuki interrupted the budding argument, declaring, "Grow up, both of you. It's too hot out here for your bickering."

"Ah!" Orihime cried, bolting into a sitting position and immediately adding, "I know what we should do!"

Tatsuki tried not to laugh as, with Orihime now sitting upright, she saw Ichigo push to his elbows during the beat of silence between Orihime's outcry and her declaration. "And what's that, Orihime?"

"We should go swimming!" Orihime declared, throwing her arms up for emphasis. "Just look at all that beautiful, cold, rushing water down there! I bet it'd be so refreshing!"

Tatsuki sighed, her eyes falling shut, and shook her head.

Releasing a breath, Ichigo glanced down to the river before saying, "Uh, Orihime, I don't think that's such a great idea. We'd get swept away in the current."

Orihime turned, shifting enough to face him, and let her arms drop to her sides. "I suppose that's possible," she admitted, before offering him a laughing smile and adding, "but it would probably be worth it!"

Ichigo's lips twitched and he couldn't help but chuckle again. "For a second, maybe," he allowed.

Deflating again, Orihime sighed and let herself drop back to the ground. As she stared up at the bright, cloudless sky, she said, "How long do you think a person's supposed to wait between visits to the ice cream shop?"

"Are you kidding?" Tatsuki teased. "They probably know you by name."

Ichigo dropped back to the grass as well, staring, unseeing, up at the sky. "Maybe if we all work up the energy to move that far, we can head over that way in a little while."

Orihime's head rolled to the side, facing him, and with wide eyes she asked, "Really?"

Grin tilting his lips, Ichigo rolled his own head to the side and teased, "Unless you think they deliver?"

Tatsuki laughed even as Orihime exclaimed, "I wish they did!"

"Wow," a new, familiar female voice declared suddenly from above them.

Even as the laughter subsided and everyone angled their heads to look up, toward the sidewalk, Rukia continued, "You must be the laziest bunch of people I know."

"Rukia!" Orihime cried happily, rolling entirely onto her stomach and waving exuberantly.

The petite Soul Reaper barely had time to offer a smile to the healer before Ichigo was scowling and saying, "Give us a break, midget. We get one afternoon free and suddenly we're lazy?"

Rukia turned an expert glare back to him, her hands fisting on her hips. "What was that?"

Ichigo pushed to his feet, reflexively wiping off his jeans as he stood, and, ignoring her question, asked, "What're you doing here, anyway?"

Around him, the others reluctantly pushed to their feet as well, brushing grass and dirt remnants from their own clothing as Rukia's stance relaxed and she prepared to answer his question.

"I came to let you know that we've got everything ready," Rukia replied casually. "It's all set up, so the Head Captain's asked you to be in Soul Society by sunset tomorrow."

Silence stretched over the group as Ichigo, and everyone else, blinked dumbly at Rukia.

Slowly, Ichigo asked, "And…why, exactly, would we be going to Soul Society?"

Rukia frowned at him and crossed her arms over her chest. "It's just you, you dummy! You know that!"

Scowling again, Ichigo said pointedly, "No, I don't. What the hell are you talking about?"

It was Rukia's turn to blink up at him as her arms fell back to her sides. "What do you mean you don't know?"

"I mean exactly that," Ichigo replied. "I have no idea what you're going on about."

Adjusting his glasses subconsciously, Uryuu quickly asked, "Is there trouble in Soul Society again?"

Rukia's eyes flickered around the group before settling again on Ichigo. It was clear from their expressions that none of them knew what she was talking about. Heaving a sigh, Rukia said, "No, everything's fine. Sit back down, Ichigo; apparently I have to explain it to you first."

"We both know you suck at leading into things," Ichigo replied. "Just spit it out already."

Face scrunching distastefully for a beat, Rukia opted to let it slide and finally said, "Alright. All I know is that we received word from Mr. Urahara that you were interested in learning at least some of the basics behind kidou. The Captains discussed it, and it was agreed that it would be in our best interests to work with you, so for the last couple of weeks we've been preparing in order to give you a crash-course, if you will."

Ichigo gaped at Rukia for a beat before finally saying, "What? I never asked to learn kidou! What the hell do I need it for? I do just fine without it, dammit!"

"Don't go yelling at me, Ichigo," Rukia shot back unflinchingly. "I had no idea that the request didn't actually come from you. And, for the record, you could benefit from learning kidou – you'd be amazed at how much it helps in battle."

"It sounds to me," Uryuu began calmly, slipping his hands into his jeans pockets, "like Kisuke is up to something again."

"I guess it's time to pay that pain in the ass a visit," Ichigo grunted.

Lifting one eyebrow, Rukia said, "You're not planning on not coming back with me, are you? We've gone to a lot of effort to get things ready for you."

"I hate to break it to you," Ichigo returned, "but I never asked to go to Soul Society, and no one ever told me you were coming. I have this little thing called a job – I can't just run off to Soul Society without any notice!"

"You're not at your 'job' right now, are you?" Rukia challenged.

"That's because I managed to get today off," Ichigo explained tightly.

Rukia shrugged. "It would only be for a month, it's not that big a deal. Mr. Urahara gave us your school schedule so that we could work it out so that you don't miss any class."

"A month?" Ichigo repeated incredulously. "I can't miss a whole month of work!"

"Maybe Mr. Urahara has a good reason for not telling you about this?" Orihime offered carefully, looking between Rukia and Ichigo.

Ichigo dragged in a breath, forcing his muscles to loosen slightly, and said, "He'd better." The words were barely past his lips before Ichigo began walking in the direction of Urahara's shop.

"Actually," Isshin Kurosaki interrupted as he stepped into the back room of the shop, drawing everyone's attention. The door slid shut behind him as he casually declared, "It was my idea."

Several pairs of eyes widened, and then Ichigo bolted to his feet. "What the hell do you mean it was your idea? Why would you volunteer me to run off to Soul Society like that?"

Laughing, Isshin clapped a hand on his son's shoulder and replied, "I thought it'd be good for you!"

Ichigo's fist found his father's face a heartbeat later, and Ichigo growled, "Are you a complete idiot on purpose, or does it happen naturally?"

One hand over his face, Isshin said, "I don't know what you mean! I thought you'd be happy to get to spend some quality time with your Soul Reaper friends!"

"Don't pretend you did this out of the kindness of your heart," Ichigo returned, fists clenched at his sides. "Did you forget I have to work?"

Regaining his feet, Isshin waved his hands dismissively and said, "Oh, don't worry about that! I'll get in touch with your boss and make up something convincing!"

"Something convincing enough to excuse me missing a whole month?" Ichigo pushed pointedly.

"Absolutely!" Isshin assured him with a laugh.

Ichigo planted his foot in his laughing father's stomach and shoved, snapping, "Did it ever occur to you that I might not want to?"

"No," Isshin coughed as Ichigo's foot pulled away, freeing him from the wall he'd been kicked into. "No, it didn't."

"Calm down," Uryuu instructed calmly. He adjusted his glasses as he added, "You're making too much of this."

Ichigo spun around in order to glare at his friend. "Too much?" he repeated incredulously. "Have you even been listening?"

"Of course I have," Uryuu replied, lifting his gaze to meet Ichigo's fearlessly. "And I have to admit that they have good arguments. It could be good for you to learn what you can, in order to better maximize and utilize your Soul Reaper abilities. And your father is willing to arrange things with your boss in order to allow you to keep your day-job, which is a better offer than you're likely to get in any other scenario."

"I would be gone for a month!" Ichigo insisted, unable to believe that his friend actually thought this was a good idea.

"So I heard," Uryuu said.

"You should be grateful," Rukia cut in. When Ichigo's eyes had snapped to hers, she added, "It takes most Soul Reapers a lot longer to master even the basics of kidou. And, in truth, there's no guarantee that you will. But a month was all your schedule would allow."

"It is a good opportunity, Ichigo," Kisuke added from behind his fan.

Ichigo opened his mouth, prepared to argue, but he paused. The logic of the argument was against him, and he knew it. It didn't matter that he really had no desire to learn kidou – the plans had already been made. At this point, if he backed out, he would have no solid reason to do so, and good manners dictated that he accept their offer. Not that he always heeded 'good manners.'

Rukia narrowed her eyes slightly at Ichigo and calmly added, "It would be rude of you to refuse at this stage, Ichigo."

Damn midget's turned into a fucking mind-reader, Ichigo growled silently. Shoulders slumping slightly, Ichigo relaxed his fists and said, "Fine. You win. I'll go."

"That's great!" Isshin declared, throwing himself onto his son and wrapping him in a giant hug. "I'm so proud of y-!"

Ichigo threw his father off of him, slamming the older man into the floor. "How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?"

"Excellent!" Kisuke declared, behaving as though he'd completely missed the skirmish across the table from him.

Carefully wiping off the lens of his glasses, Uryuu said, "With a little luck, this training will teach you discipline, too."

Orihime clapped her hands as a thought struck her and she exclaimed, "If you don't leave too early tomorrow, I can give you a big basket of fresh treats from the bakery! You'll need to keep up your energy, after all!"

Releasing a breath, Ichigo settled back into his seat and said, "You don't have to do that, Orihime."

"Of course I do!" Orihime insisted easily. "Rangiku told me once that they don't have as many sweets in Soul Society, and what would you do if you were struck by a super-craving?"

Not having a good response for that question, Ichigo relented and said, "Alright, I'll wait until I get your basket."

Her resulting smile nearly blinded him, and Ichigo had to look away before his scowl vanished entirely. She had the worst affect on him.

Ichigo let his father come up with a story to tell his sisters that night, and after dinner he spent a while working on the summer assignment. He doubted he'd even remember it existed when he returned, and he wasn't looking forward to the lecture that that would earn him. But his focus was shattered when Rukia returned, climbing in through his window and talking like she hadn't just seen him the month before.

He barely got any sleep that night as he stared up at his ceiling. He'd been drifting off, just a few minutes after Rukia had finally shut the closet door, when a wayward thought struck him.

With him gone for a month, it would be up to his friends to protect Karakura Town.

And he trusted them to do it, but that didn't mean he couldn't worry. Soul Society had never bothered to send a new representative after the War, and so the duty had fallen entirely onto Ichigo's shoulders (though he suspected that the lack of a representative was sometimes the excuse for Rukia's and Renji's visits).

Mostly, however, he worried about Orihime.

This was nothing new, of course, but knowing that he'd be gone for so long brought it up all over again. He knew that Uryuu and Chad would do everything in their power to keep her from getting hurt, and he knew that she was more than capable of defending herself even without their help. And of course Tatsuki was still around to protect her from the every-day threats.

Despite all of this knowledge, Ichigo spent the night worrying about her. He worried about all the things that could go wrong while he was gone, and more than once he very nearly decided to just be rude and refuse to go back with Rukia. But he talked himself out of backing out each time, reminding himself that nothing that dangerous had happened in quite a while.

Still, it was inhumanly late before Ichigo's mind fell silent enough for his eyes to close and sleep to relax his muscles. And then it was morning, and he had to face his sisters, who were going to be upset that he was leaving for a month.

It was nearly one o'clock in the afternoon before Ichigo was able to meet up with Orihime. He met her at the entrance to the small park near her apartment, and he was just late enough to see her leaning against one of the iron posts, her face turned up toward the sky. When his eyes landed on her he slowed to a walk and allowed himself a moment to study her.

Her hair was down, as it always was, framing her face and falling down her back and over her chest in auburn waves. She was wearing another off-the-shoulder t-shirt, this time white, and her hairpins were once again secured to the collar, above her heart. Her legs were mostly bare, with her hips and upper thighs covered in short, faded denim; her feet were clad in simple sandals. And in her hands she held a covered basket.

He swallowed, finding his voice, and called out to her as he approached. "Orihime."

The gentle healer lifted her head, clearly not at all startled by his voice, and smiled sweetly at him. "Hi, Ichigo!" she called, removing one hand from the basket handle in order to wave at him.

He offered her a faint smile of his own as he came to a stop before her. "Sorry I'm late," he said as he slipped his hands into his pockets.

Her smile remained as she shook her head and pushed off of the post, saying, "Oh, you're not late! I was just a little early!" With a light laugh, she jiggled the basket and added, "I brought you a nice variety! There're several fresh brownies, and some muffins and donuts and all sorts of other things that I thought you'd like!"

Ichigo obligingly took the basket, lifting one corner of the cloth covering in order to peek inside. He was immediately greeted with the sweet, enticing scent of freshly-baked pastries and chocolate. Setting the cover back into place, Ichigo let the basket hang at his side as he said, "They smell great, Orihime. Thanks."

"It's the least I could do," Orihime replied softly. Her eyes broke from his, then, and she began fidgeting with the hem of her shirt before she asked, "Would it be alright if…that is, can I go with you to Mr. Urahara's?"

Frowning at her sudden bout of shyness, Ichigo kept his voice casual as he said, "Yeah, of course. But I thought you had to work today?"

Smiling again, Orihime lifted her eyes from the ground and replied, "I don't start until five!"

Inclining his head, Ichigo said, "Then I guess you don't have to worry." In the back of his mind, he made a mental note to text Tatsuki to make sure that she would be walking Orihime home after work. And then he turned, gesturing with his free hand in the general direction of the shop, and added, "Are you ready?"

Orihime fell into place beside him effortlessly, clasping her hands together behind her back as they began to walk.

"Just think of all the cool things you'll be able to do a month from now!" Orihime declared after a moment of companionable silence. "Truthfully, I've always thought that kidou looked kind of cool, even though I don't think I'd be very good at it, you know? But you've always been good at learning that sort of thing, so I bet you'll have it all mastered by the time you get back!"

"I don't know," Ichigo replied. "Kidou's not the same as fighting with a sword; it's more energy-based. And we both know I suck at that kind of thing."

Orihime pouted dramatically. "I think you don't give yourself enough credit."

Ichigo couldn't help but grin, just slightly, at the fact that she was defending him to him. "I appreciate the thought, Orihime, but it's a well-established fact. I'm terrible with spiritual pressure."

Scrunching up her face in thought for a moment, Orihime paused before smiling again and easily stating, "Well, then maybe the kidou training will help you overcome that!"

He chuckled faintly as they rounded another corner. Ever the optimist, he reflected bemusedly. It was one of the qualities he loved most about her.

"Orihime," he began after another moment of easy silence. He didn't actually wait for a response before continuing, "I want you to do me a favor. While I'm gone, I want you to promise that you'll be careful, okay?"

Beside him, Orihime's light smile faltered as she turned her head to stare up at him for a beat. His eyes were focused ahead, watching where they were going, but she knew his attention was entirely on her. His jaw was tense, his eyes were narrowed ever-so-slightly, and his shoulders looked tight. She knew him well enough to know that he'd probably been dwelling on the subject for hours.

Taking a deep breath, Orihime put her smile back on her face and nodded. "Of course I will, Ichigo. You don't need to worry about me at all while you're gone!"

Like that's even possible, Ichigo replied silently. Aloud, he said, "Okay. But I'm gonna hold you to that, got it?"

Orihime laughed softly and nodded again.

And then they rounded the final corner before their destination, and their eyes landed on the group waiting for them.

Rukia stood, talking casually, with Chad and Uryuu in front of the entrance to the shop. Apparently Chad and Uryuu had also decided that they wanted to see him off.

The conversation stopped as the bright-haired teens approached, and Uryuu met Ichigo's gaze almost tauntingly as he asked, "What took you so long?"

"Who invited you in the first place?" Ichigo shot back with a grin.

Rolling her eyes, Rukia turned to properly face Ichigo and asked, "Are you ready to go, then?"

Ichigo inclined his head. "Yeah. But shouldn't we go inside so that I can drop off my body?"

"Oh, don't worry about that!" Kisuke called as the door to the shop slid open. "You'll be residing with me while you're away, so it's no trouble to carry your body inside after you go."

With a shake of his head, Ichigo grumbled, "Alright, then." He carefully set down the basket Orihime had given him, before extracting his Combat Pass and slapping it to his chest.

His body was slung, limply, over Tessai's shoulder a minute later, and Ichigo once again held the basket of goodies in one hand. As Rukia stepped up to open the senkaimon, he turned and inclined his head toward his friends. "Guess I'll see you guys in a month, then. Take care."

"Don't talk like this is goodbye," Uryuu returned, hands in his pockets.

"And don't worry about Karakura Town," Chad added calmly. "We can handle things here."

Orihime nodded silent agreement before she said, "Be careful, and have fun!"

Turning her attention back to the group behind her, Rukia slipped her sword back into its sheath and smirked, "We'll be back before you can miss us."

"Later, guys," Ichigo finally called as Rukia turned back and walked through the open gate. He offered a wave of his free hand toward them as he followed her, his gaze lingering on Orihime.

He knew he was going to be bombarded with too much information as soon as they got to Soul Society, and he knew that he would probably be exhausted for most of the time that he was there. More likely than not, the time would go by in a blur of exhaustive training, necessary healing, and sleep.

But it was going to be a long month.

To Be Continued…

A/N: And we're off! And, by that, I mean we've begun…which, now that I'm thinking about it, seems like an odd thing, doesn't it? …Anyway, there's the prologue! I'm very interested to know what you're thinking so far! And, of course, don't forget to go read chapter one!