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Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach. Everything that is not mine belongs to someone else...obviously.


Unfurling

An Introduction


It was the soft sound of her breathing that woke him up. His nose was tickled by her hair as a tendril moved back and forth over his skin in time with her breaths, while the warmth of her naked body against his sank into him; in that hazy moment of not-quite-sleep he was disorientated, wondering where he was. The situation wasn't unfamiliar - a bed he didn't know, a naked stranger next to him, blurred memories of the night before. For a split second he was tempted to sigh in resignation, ready to slip away and escape as he had done so often before to many others, both men and women.

But she sighed and mumbled something under her breath, snuggling closer to him. The shape of her body was familiar. The scent of her hair - minty and fresh - was worlds away from the musky, sweaty smell that followed a night spent with a stranger. Ichigo blinked the sleep from his eyes and realized that, no, no, this wasn't just some stranger he had picked up at a club or a bar. This was her. Senna.

Her slim arms were wrapped around him, her skin now as pale as his. Years spent in such a cloudy, overcast country as England weren't conducive to much of a tan, obviously. The similarities seemed, though, to end there - her hair was jet black whereas Ichigo's was a vibrant, almost unnatural orange, that hung down in messy locks to his shoulders; Senna's physique was fine-boned, delicate, and quite tiny, while Ichigo was unusually tall for a Japanese man, proud of his fit, muscled body that was testament to years of martial arts training, hard work, blood, sweat, tears. He wondered if that was why they were together now, if it was true, then, that opposites attracted, because they were nothing if not opposites. She, the kind, caring, playful young woman with the brightest eyes he had ever seen; skin like porcelain, the softest lips, wrists so delicate he thought sometimes they would snap when he held them.

And he - he was just a bad-tempered guy with a permanent frown and weird hair. Not for the first time, Ichigo wondered why such a woman would choose to be with him, when she could really have any man she wanted.

"Ichigo?"

His whispered name brought him back down to earth. She was shifting into wakefulness, and her eyes were blinking open slowly - oh, how he loved her eyes! Brown like his but so light that sometimes, when a slice of sunlight hit them just right, they turned to discs of polished bronze, piercing right through him. They were looking at him now with a touch of concern, though still hazy and dark from sleep.

He ran his fingers through her fine black hair and smiled. "Mm? What's wrong?"

"Ah…nothing…" She paused, and yawned, stretching her arms above her head and almost hitting him in the face. "Crap, sorry!"

"Oh, you will be," he teased, grabbing her under the arms and pulling her flush against him as she squealed with laugter, wriggling. "Is that how you greet your fiancé in the morning now, hitting him in the face? Hmm?"

"Eh?" Her head whipped round and she stared at him, wide-eyed. "What did you say?"

"Ahh, what's this? You forgot already? That's not cool, looks like I'll have to teach you a lesson..."

"Ichigo - you - no! Stop, ahaha, no you - ahaha!" Senna tried to muffle her shrieks of laughter as Ichigo's fingers tickled her underarms, moving down her ribs until they skimmed the soft skin of her stomach, wrapping around her until she was tight against him. She could feel the beat of his heart, strong and healthy, brimming with youth and vitality. Her wonderful, beautiful Ichigo - her fiancé.

Her heart fluttered at the thought. So last night hadn't been a dream, after all. She sighed deeply,

"I didn't think it was real," she murmured, ducking her head in a mixture of embarrassment and shyness.

"Eh?" Ichigo squeezed her gently, kissing the top of her head, "Whaddya mean?"

"Yesterday. Last night, I mean…when you asked me. I thought I'd dreamed it or something, I…when you said fiancé, I was…" Senna's voice trembled a little and Ichigo frowned in concern.

"What is it?"

A wide, bright smile spread across her face slowly, like a sunrise. She looked up at him, eyes shining with tears.

"I was so happy," she whispered. Her voice was trembling and she curled in on herself, pressing against him. "You can't imagine it…"

"I was too," he said softly. She looked at him and saw a warm, honest grin on his face - no scowl, no pretension, no hiding. The mask he had lived with for so many years had fallen away, the unnamed shadow which had haunted him since before they'd met seemed to have melted like ice in the sun. There was nothing between them now, no lie, no wall, nothing.

He was hers. And she was his.

Everything was perfect. Finally, her life was perfect.


Ichigo scrubbed his face harshly with the scalding water, squeezing his eyes closed and holding the edges of the sink with white-knuckled hands. His hair was damp and getting into his eyes, trickling water down his skin and leaving trails like unpleasant slimy fingers. The knot in his stomach had not loosened since the night before; if anything, it had only gotten tighter.

I asked her. I asked her and she said yes.

Yes.

I'm engaged.

He didn't know if it was normal to be this jittery, feeling so…well, he didn't know what he was feeling. Anxiety? Excitement? These emotions were all surely natural and normal for a young man to feel after he had proposed to the love of his life.

Something in his chest seemed to throb. He felt almost sick; when would these memories leave him alone? When would he be free?

The mirror was steamed up from his shower. He wiped it away and stared at his reflection, his naked torso and now-pale skin, hair on his chest, muscles that were hard and lean from the intense martial arts training he still put himself through. A sheen of moisture covered the tattoo, lending it an even more remarkable depth of shadow.

Ichigo stared at it, placed his hand over his heart as if that would make it disappear. But it never would. Nothing would. His hand slipped away.

A black panther crawled across his chest, its sinuous body, both beautiful and dangerous, crouched down as if preparing to attack. White teeth were bared in a vicious snarl; the lines were elegant, fluid, a sleek muscular body balanced and poised in perfection. The artist who had done the work had created a masterpiece: using nothing but black ink, the tattoo almost looked like a photograph.

There was one thing, though. One thing Ichigo almost regretted. He'd asked for it just as the tattooist had been about to finish, a desperate and lovestruck request. It had almost been refused but Ichigo insisted, hadn't taken no for an answer - and so, blue eyes were added.

The color had been chosen with extreme care. Light at the edges, like a robin's egg, darkening to a summer sky and then the full, sumptuous cornflower blue at the center that was still as striking as the day it had been inked. It had cost Ichigo a lot of money but he hadn't regretted it. He still didn't. But every time he saw it, a hot knife of guilt and sadness sliced through his heart.

Those haunting blue eyes seemed to waver and spread, filling his vision, making him dizzy. Grimmjow's smell, the feel of his cold rough hands, white even teeth bared in a supremely arrogant grin…Ichigo still remembered. The memories had faded and frayed at the edges but he still remembered.

He would never forget.