"Conflicts"

WARNING: Following chapters will contain MAJOR spoilers of current manga arc: "Hundred Year Blood War" including most recent chapters. (530 +)

A/N: I like stories to have the feeling of canon so I'm trying my hardest to incorporate recent developments and speculate on future events. Read at your own risk.

Also, IshiHime is going to happen so I hope you're into that.


The pager had been silent for 3 weeks.

Ichigo found himself checking it compulsively. He started leaving it at home when he went to school so it would stop distracting him, but would positively run straight up to his room upon returning, always finding it blank. No new messages stored.

Rukia had told him at one point that Gotei 13 duties and unexpected missions would interfere with scheduling lessons, but she hadn't mentioned anything upcoming the last time they had met. She had no access to the summoning process herself, so she couldn't send personal messages.

It was driving him up the wall to be depending on such meagre contact. He was also aware that it was putting him into an uncharacteristically melancholy mood.

Uryu, Orihime and Chad had all picked up on it, and it was becoming incredibly bothersome. They gathered around him after class one day, inching forward as if approaching an unpredictable sleeping animal.

"Haven't had a kido lesson in a while?" Uryu remarked casually, just to see the berry-head's face twinge with annoyance.

"I'm sure they'll start up again soon," Orihime fretted, watching Ichigo's reaction carefully. She couldn't tell what was bothering him more- being put on hold and forced to wait for a summons that was a long time coming… or being away from Rukia.

She had a sinking feeling that it was one reason over the other.

Chad chose that moment to silently reach into his bookbag and pull out three tickets to a local concert venue, placing them on Ichigo's desk.

"If you've got the free time," he said stoically, simple and to the point as always.

Orihime squinted at them and then brandished one with a gasp. "This name- it's your band, Sado-kun! You guys are headlining?"

The news snapped Ichigo out of his funk.

"Really? Man- that's great!" He could tell that Chad had been holding onto this news for a while, waiting for the best opportunity to present itself.

Good old Chad was still coming through when he needed him.

"Ohmigosh, it's this weekend!" Orihime gushed. "Good thing we've got these tickets because I'm sure they will sell out! Thank you for these tickets, Sado-kun! Thank you!"

"Umm." Chad laid a large finger on the corner of one of the tickets and looked sheepish. The cost was 1200 yen each.

The three friends smirked affectionately and handed over the cash.

Ichigo was slowly warming to the idea of having a social life. As much as he missed Rukia, he noticed with a pang that he had missed his friends too. The solitary moping, burying himself in his studies was not doing him any good. His dad had been teasing him about his studiousness to an unbearable degree lately, too. He would do well to get out of the house for a night, and not to go to Soul Society, either.

He deserved some recreation, and the thought of supporting Chad elated him as well.

When he checked the pager the next day, he stared disbelievingly at the message summoning him to Soul Society. The night of the concert.

Ichigo thought that he had managed to keep his friends in the dark about his and Rukia's relationship. But inexplicably, Kon had already figured it out.

As Ichigo transported out of his body in shinigami form he heard a loud sob and turned just in time to see Kon burst into ugly tears. It was a highly disturbing sight to see on his face.

"I- I- Ichigo! You b-b-bastard!" the mod soul blubbered.

Ichigo was mortified. "What the hell, Kon?"

"You and Rukia! You're hooking up and it's so unfair! You've stolen Rukia Nee-san from me and you're keeping her all to yourself!" Kon cried.

"I haven't stolen her, and especially not from you!" Ichigo snarled.

"What does she see in you? She's too good for you! You're just a smelly, stupid, useless human boy!"

Ichigo held up the substitute shinigami combat pass threateningly.

"I will knock you out of there, I swear." He would prefer not to have to use the mod soul at all, but it was incredibly unpleasant re-entering a body that was stiff with rigor mortis.

Kon flung himself on the bed petulantly, sniffling like a child.

"So unfair…" he whimpered. "Poor Rukia… stupid human…"

Ichigo was in a bad mood as he headed to Soul Society that night.

If Ichigo had known it would be the last time he saw Soul Society whole and unblemished, his past several visits would have gone a lot differently. He wouldn't have bothered with kido lessons. He may not have even returned to the human world. He would have spent the entire time in meditation with Zangetsu, bonding with that treasured aspect of his soul. He would have given all respect to Captain-Commander Yamamoto and Captain Unohana. He would have told Byakuya how he felt about Rukia. Well… maybe not the whole truth.

He had no way of knowing the disastrous events that would soon befall Soul Society. He had never dreamed that in a short time, hundreds would be dead and his world would spiral into chaos.

Instead, he met Rukia with a measure of impatience. The anxiety and tension was plain in his demeanour and Rukia picked up on it instantly. She didn't greet him with false cheerfulness, and it didn't seem right to lighten the mood with sarcasm or abuse either. He accompanied her to the training hall in silence.

When they were finally alone, Rukia spoke first.

"I am truly sorry that it took this long to see you, Ichigo."

Ichigo was trying hard to be reasonable. "I know it's not your fault. It can't be helped," he said stiffly.

"I really missed you."

"What were you doing?" The words came out more demanding than he intended. She looked embarrassed.

"There was a mission… it was only supposed to take a few days. I went with a team on a hollow stake-out. It was a mutated one with special abilities. We were ultimately successful and the hollow was defeated… but I was taken out of action by a sneak attack." She hesitated, picking her words slowly and carefully. "I don't remember much. The hollow went for me first. But I was the only casualty and while it was occupied with me, the others were able to finish it off."

She flinched at the look of alarm and dismay on Ichigo's face.

"It wasn't fatal! I was merely… incapacitated."

"Merely incapacitated?" Ichigo exclaimed, "For weeks?"

"It had spines," she explained, "They injected some kind of hallucinogen. It didn't injure me physically but I experienced nightmares and terrifying visions. I spent the last few weeks recuperating in the 4th division hospital.

"I suspect the hollow enjoyed consuming its prey slowly so developed the attack to paralyse its victim for an extended period of time. Luckily its ability wasn't usable on multiple targets." She finished sheepishly.

"You were paralysed this whole time? Why the hell couldn't someone have told me?"

"What could you have done?" She retorted, "I was in the best hands. I trusted my team. I got treated immediately by the best healers in the 4th division and made a full recovery. Why does it have to involve you at all?"

Suddenly, matters were put into a perspective that Ichigo had known all along but had been too afraid to admit.

"Because I can't be there for you! I'm left in the dark, I don't know what to expect and I don't even know when you're hurt or being attacked! I care about what happens to you and I want to be there! But I can't." He finished miserably.

Rukia felt a shiver of panic, Renji's words coming back to haunt her.

'The distance between worlds will devastate you'.

She could understand the helplessness that he felt, the pull of anxiety that was unavoidable when events moved beyond one's control. Caring for each other could be the most damaging thing they could do to themselves.

"So what?" she hissed. Ichigo looked stunned.

"So we can't be together here or there, it doesn't matter. I'm not giving up on you. You and I have been connected since the moment we met. You don't have to be here for me, Ichigo, because… you already are." She flushed, the weight of her words surprising herself but she saw comprehension dawning in his eyes, his expression softening and reflecting her feelings back.

She rubbed at her eyes as they began to prickle but she was all out of tears.

"The hallucinogen didn't affect my motor functions so much… as paralyse me with fear. And grief. I had nightmares, flashbacks, all the worst moments of my life and my worst fears brought to life."

In those dreams, she had lost everyone she cared about while she continued to exist, unable to move on. Ichigo she had lost over and over again.

She grasped his arms to reassure herself, seeking comfort with the solidity of his body, his presence.

"When I finally snapped out of it, you were the one that I wanted to see the most. I wouldn't be able to rest until I did."

Ichigo allowed himself to be pulled close, stricken by this rare display of vulnerability. She fisted her hands in his clothing and laid her head gently to his chest, her voice cracking and muffled in the folds of his robes.

"I'm sorry. I really wanted… even though I have no right…"

"Stop apologising." He demanded, his frustration washing away with a fresh tide of guilt for having let despair overcome him so quickly. He tenderly laid his hands to her head and stroked her hair, painfully conscious of his ineptitude for words to comfort or soothe. He felt like an idiot for taking out his frustration on her when she was the one to have suffered.

"I'm not mad." He said. "Just… concerned about you."

"You have to trust that I can take care of myself." She murmured. "Have faith in me, like I do for you."

"Yeah…" he exhaled, finally slumping forward to rest his chin against her hair.

"I trust you."

"I promise I won't let myself die. Not like at the Sokyoku. You cured me of that." She sighed, smiling wanly.

"Finally got through to you, huh?"

"I'll cling to life as stubbornly as you, if it ever comes to it." She remembered the hollowfied Kaien Shiba, just one of the nightmare visions she had been forced to relive in her hallucinatory state.

She could still recall the tremor in her arms as she had stabbed through the abominations that had Kaien's face. Twice.

"If I die, I have no doubt that you'd avenge me." She whispered.

His arms wrenched her closer, enveloping her in a protective shell, a sliver of dread rippling through the outpouring of his reiatsu.

"If you died…" his voice was low and grating with an ominous resonance. "The most agonizing death imaginable wouldn't be enough to avenge you."

She heard the barest hint of the hollow inside come through with his words. But she was not afraid. She spread her hands across his broad back, stroking at a slow, calming pace.

"Shh. I'm right here."

As his taut nerves soothed and his form relaxed his hands slid lower, seeking a different kind of reassurance from her body, sliding down her spine, settling around the curve of her hips.

She reciprocated the action, overcome by the sudden urge to touch him, to be connected, to feel him as intimately as possible.

She had dreamed about him, longed for him and mourned his loss in her nightmarish subconscious, and now she found herself unable to stop. She pushed her hips against his, moving against him with a heated purpose. Her mouth dragged along his chest and she pushed clothing aside to stroke the body underneath, a fervent and inexplicable desire building despite herself.

Ichigo was pulled along helplessly towards an unintended state of mind. His body had missed her and was responding automatically, the insistent lure of arousal tugging at his resolve, weakening and narrowing his thought processes into a single-minded consciousness.

He felt his breathing grow unsteady and he was stricken by the fact that they could quicken each other so readily when there was so much sadness and despair and doubt in their future. Her need called to him and he had to respond.

They tore at each others' clothes, determinedly exposing only the vital parts that they needed to satiate, gasping wordless encouragement as they attacked each others' weaknesses, stroking, licking, biting, and kissing. There was nothing tender about their actions, only the intent to finish what they had started.

He stripped her bottom half bare, backed her against the wall and dragged her upwards, hands locking underneath her bottom and her legs spread to encircle his hips. His hakama was loosened just enough to free his cock and he pushed into her roughly, pinning her to the wall. She moaned ecstatically, urging him on in her haste and her legs tightened around him in time with his thrusts.

It was the first time Ichigo had felt guilt while having sex with Rukia. Though the unpleasantness of the long separation had finally reached closure in his mind, he felt an ongoing twinge of shame, an irritant that persisted through the fog of desire.

He felt low, thinking of his friends on the other side. He had to be here with Rukia- she needed him- but the pretence was false. He didn't think he could lie about their relationship any longer. The kido lessons were a ruse, an excuse to keep seeing each other. It would only make the separation more painful as time went on.

He hated to think this way, even as he drove into Rukia, bringing her to a fierce, desperate climax. There were only primal urges at work here, a fulfillment of physical needs to regain a superficial comfort.

After he finished he felt pathetic, ashamed of his unstoppable need to slake his lust.

Ichigo collapsed to his knees, sliding down to rest against the wall, Rukia still wrapped around him. They were sated and exhausted from the urgency of their actions.

She could still feel the tension emanating from him, rolling out with his reiatsu in waves. Though she tried not to take it personally, she accepted it as her due. They would always have this problem without regular communication to reconnect with each other. The only thing she could do was to deal with each crisis as they came.

She shimmied herself underneath him, laying his head to her chest. "Ichigo- what's wrong?" She asked quietly.

"I did miss you, Rukia." He sighed. "I'm glad I came when you needed me. But we can't keep doing this anymore." His brow furrowed so heavily that his eyes almost closed. "Continuing to meet like this, I mean. When kido is not actually being taught."

Of course she had considered this, and the guilt had been nagging at her as well. She didn't know yet if there was any possibility to see each other without a reason sanctioned by the Gotei 13, but she had already resigned herself to the inevitable loss and long absence of her secret love, the distance stretching farther between them with every encounter.

There was no room for disappointment or false hope.

"Have you told anybody about us?"

"Kon figured it out."

She pulled a face. "I meant everybody else- Orihime, Ishida, Sado?"

He shook his head, looking pained.

Rukia stared contemplatively into his eyes, her expression saddened. "Orihime should know," she said softly.

"Why Orihime?"

Rukia's eyes widened. She gave him a look of such incredulous scorn that he began to feel uncomfortable.

"Why? Of all the- because she's in love with you, you fool!"

Ichigo did a ridiculous double take as Rukia shook her head disparagingly and muttered to herself.

"I'm afraid that it may hurt her deeply… Orihime doesn't realize that she is so lovely, she could have any guy she wants." Rukia shot him a withering look. "Except an utterly clueless one."

Ichigo was still dumbstruck. "I knew she liked… but in love- are you sure?"

He was rewarded with a sharp smack on the forehead.

"Trust me on this one," Rukia growled. "How is everyone else doing?" She was eager for news of her friends in the living world, more humans to which she had grown attached. It was becoming more difficult to determine where she belonged herself.

"Well… Chad is playing a gig tonight. But then the summons came and it had been so long that I-"

"What?" Rukia leapt up, unseating Ichigo so forcefully that his head slammed onto the floor.

"OW! Goddammit!"

"You have to go, Ichigo! Hurry!" She tugged on her clothes, dressing with sharp, quick movements, her chiding pouring from her nonstop. "I can't believe you would let your friends down that way. It's not like you at all!"

He staggered to his feet, his pounding head protesting. "It was either let them down or let you down. Did you really want me to make the other choice?"

She shoved his hakama back onto his hips, pinching him as she tightened the belt.

"Fool, your friends need you just as much. You only have one lifetime in the living world- you need to put that ahead of everything else." She gripped the collar of his robe, staring up at him with fiercely bright eyes. "Including me. Promise me."

He hesitated, staring in to the face of his lover, his heart tightening. His instincts told him that it wasn't possible, that he would protect her until the very last, until he was torn to shreds.

"I don't know if I can."

"Fine. I'll beat it into you somehow. But for now you've got to be on your way."

She threw open the doors and then staggered so realistically that Ichigo reached to steady her, until she drove a very purposeful elbow into his stomach.

"Takeshiro!" She called to the attendant standing guard down the hall, who leapt to attention. "I- I think I'm having a relapse. Please arrange for Kurosaki's immediate transport back to the human world."

Takeshiro whistled for more attendants and sent one runner to 4th division to prepare them for Rukia's admittance and another to the Kido corps to request an emergency senkaimon opening.

Ichigo watched them go, vaguely impressed by the efficiency. But it was happening so fast. He turned to Rukia in bewilderment and she gripped his arm, her expression fierce and unyielding.

"Get going, Ichigo," she commanded. "A substitute shinigami with no official duties has no business in Soul Society."

Her eyes communicated amusement and affection that her words did not.

"Tell everyone I said hi." She added quietly. She smiled wryly when only he could see, then clutched her head, doubling over as if in pain as 4th division adjutants approached to help her, a 13th division adjutant that Ichigo recognized with them.

He followed Tsumura obediently when he directed "Please follow me, Kurosaki sir." He couldn't help glancing at Rukia as she was swept away, presumably to spend the rest of the evening faking hallucinations.

Once again she had anticipated his heart's desire and propelled him forward with no exceptions or hesitation. He wondered if he could keep up with the speed of the world without her.

Kon nearly had a heart attack when Ichigo hurtled in through his bedroom window, moving like a fire had been lit underneath him.

"Whaaa? Back already?!" Kon managed to say before being knocked out sharply. As a courtesy, Ichigo dropped the mod soul back into the stuffed lion, who woozily shook its head to collect itself.

"I'm going out." Ichigo answered, rooting around for his belongings. "Geez, Kon- you couldn't even change my clothes?"

"But… you're supposed to be with Rukia Nee-san… Oh! I get it, she dumped you!" Kon said gleefully.

"Nope- sorry," Ichigo threw on some street clothes, tied on his favourite sneakers, checked his wallet for the concert ticket.

Kon's indomitable spirit was not swayed, however. "I was just thinking! If you are not available, then Orihime can get over you and she will be mine for the taking! I just need a hot new body… yours won't do at all… maybe I can get my hands on a gigai…" Kon continued on with his delusional ramble, the obvious product of an extremely sheltered and one-directional imagination.

Despite his hurry, Ichigo rounded on Kon with an utterly disbelieving expression.

"The hell…? Does everyone know this about Orihime but me?"

Kon looked equally insulted. "You mean you didn't? Ichigo, you have no makings of a player at all. All of these girls' affections are wasted on you! Waaaaasstteeeed!"

Kon's wailing continued, muffled, as Ichigo shoved him into his desk drawer, locked it, and was out the door.

Like all good concerts, the show had started late- 30 minutes after the scheduled curtain time. Ichigo arrived at the venue just after the first set.

Unfortunately, his entry was blocked by an overzealous bouncer, who took exception to Ichigo's appearance. He wouldn't be the first one who had discriminated against the teen's orange coloured hair, presuming that it was it was a sign of delinquency and affiliation with the local gangs. This time, Ichigo had zero patience for it.

"Goddammit, man. I have a ticket. My friend is in the band- he is playing right now!"

The bouncer wasn't having any of it. "Look buddy, this is an all ages show. You can't just come in and bust it up like you're at a party."

"But I'm not… I just got here late! You're going to make me miss the show!"

Ichigo was just about to have a conniption when a bottle was thrown, smashing on the ground at the bouncer's feet between them, barely missing them both.

"What the- who the hell did that? You'd better get out here right now!" As the bouncer frantically scanned the crowd near the doorway, Ichigo took the chance to slip past him, not noticed until he was an orange-coloured blob bobbing among the sea of people.

It was a small, oddly set up club and the stage was not viewable from all angles. People were mingling, chattering and fetching drinks but were piling in fast for the second set. He was scanning the venue, searching for a good vantage point when he was elbowed in the ribs and a familiar voice remarked,

"Good aim, don't you think?"

"Ishida. That was you?" His bespectacled classmate looked slightly out of place in a neat, powder blue button down shirt that hardly looked different from his school uniform.

"You finally made it." Uryu didn't mince words.

"Yeah- and thanks for helping me get in," Ichigo said gruffly. Uryu shrugged, then grabbed him by the sleeve to steer him through the crowd.

"You're unbelievable. Everyone's waiting for you, though I can't fathom why."

Ichigo was dumbfounded. "What? Really…?" He replied awkwardly.

"From the sound of it, you would think they were here to see you. I hope whatever you had to do was important." Uryu glared at him over his shoulder. "Was it?"

Ichigo gritted his teeth. He had made a vow to himself to be honest, but it was weird opening up to Uryu.

"Yeah. I had some things to deal with. With Rukia."

Uryu paused and stared at him for a long moment, ignoring the people jostling and pushing past them, searching his expression.

"Don't tell me- you two are like an item now?" The Quincy's instincts were uncanny. The smug jerk.

Ichigo was still not sure how to classify the relationship. It was too significant, too evident to ignore, but too uncertain to be made official.

"…I guess so," He managed to say.

Uryu rolled his eyes and continued pick his way through the crowd. "Not with an attitude like that."

Ichigo spotted where Uryu was leading him- a spot right up against the stage where a gaggle of friends were holding their ground- Orihime, Keigo, Mizuiro, and even Tatsuki. He felt an unexpected surge of happiness.

"Even so- you should tell Orihime," Uryu just had to have the last word. "I shouldn't have to tell you why."

Being told by three different people- one of them being Kon, no less- finally had Ichigo convinced.

Everyone's eyes were focused on the stage and didn't notice Ichigo approach until Chad's band returned to the stage for the second set and Orihime jumped up in excitement, nearly knocking him out with her skull.

"Oh!" She squealed, spinning around to apologize and then turning pink with surprise. "Kurosaki-kun! You made it!" The others good-naturedly welcomed his arrival, Keigo waving and bellowing as if he were ten leagues away.

Ichigo only had eyes for the band, however, watching with anticipation as they took the stage. Chad was still his regular self even in this public venue, looking unfazed and nonchalant, staring over the heads of the crowd to the back of the room. But as the drummer counted them into the first song, something made Chad's gaze slide over to where his friends were grouped, unable to mistake the beacon of orange hair that had appeared even in the bright glare of the stage lights. Ichigo saluted him solemnly and thought that he saw Chad smile, briefly.

The energy that surged through the venue in response as the band powered through the first chorus showed that the musicians were going all out. Chad looked every bit a rock star, his trademark floral shirt, long hair and immensely tall stature drawing all attention unequivocally as the lead guitarist. He stood head and shoulders over every other member, including the drummer on his raised dais.

So it was no surprise when a great cheer went up as he switched out his electric for an acoustic guitar, and dove into an enthusiastically received solo.

It was a soulful, enigmatic melody heavily reminiscent of a Latin folk tune, perfectly suited to the acoustic and made all the more by charismatic by Chad's deft handling and obvious passion. He closed his eyes in concentration, nodding and tapped his pointed white leather shoes in time to the beat.

The crowd swayed in unison, enchanted by the unique sounds. Even Chad's band mates looked stunned as they held rhythm, perhaps seeing Chad actually revel as the center of attention for the very first time.

The conclusion of the solo was met with a roar of appreciation, Ichigo's included. He pumped his fist triumphantly in the air.

For those who knew him, it was a very uncharacteristic display of showmanship to see Chad raise his fist in the air in the response, but the crowd loved it.

Everyone agreed that the second set had been fantastic, and considerably better than the first.

He was so glad he had come. With feelings of immense satisfaction and awe still riding high in his brain and familiar faces and voices around him, chatting happily, Ichigo almost felt normal.

The six friends were gathered on the rooftop of the club, away from the more stifling and noisy crowd downstairs and were awaiting Chad, the man of the hour.

When his tall form appeared, guitar slung on his shoulder, the group unconsciously deferred to Ichigo, holding back to let him step forward first. With an easy grin, his heart swelling with pride, Ichigo gripped his friend's wrist in a powerful handshake.

"Dude. That was incredible. You guys were awesome."

Chad shrugged modestly, but Ichigo wouldn't let up.

"You absolutely killed it, man. Like Carlos Santana."

The remark made Chad's face light up, the corners of his mouth twitching upwards so that it was with a shy smile he accepted the exuberant praise of his other friends and some newfound fans.

Out of the corner of his eye Ichigo could see the person he was feeling the most nervous around that night- the infinitely kind and cheerful Orihime. She was waiting patiently to give her fond praise to Chad, letting him work through the crowd first lest he get overwhelmed.

It would be so easy just to ignore it, to leave the problem up to another day, time and place.

But the right thing to do was never the easiest.

As the others were occupied, he sidled up to her and murmured,

"Can I talk to you, Inoue?"

Looking surprised, she nodded eagerly and he was paying closer attention to her actions this time. Her ears were flushed, she fiddled with her hair and her gaze slid away when he looked directly at her. He had to admit he really was not good at recognizing things that he was not searching for.

They moved to the edge of the rooftop, staring over the railing into the night, the bright lights of Karakura town beneath them.

"What is it? Kurosaki… kun?" Her voice was light and cheery, but hesitant. Ichigo's face was solemn as if he had terrible news to impart.

"Has something happened to Kuchiki-san?" She asked gently.

Ichigo glanced at her in astonishment. Firstly because she brought up Rukia as the source of his anxiety and second because she unabashedly showed concern. She probably already knew how he felt but she still chose to quietly support him, keeping her feelings close. Orihime really had a stronger will than anyone gave her credit for.

"Well- something did but… it's not that..." He stammered, caught by surprise, "She's fine," He sighed. "But the thing is… I'm really sorry, Inoue."

Orihimei had an automatic reassurance formed on her lips, but something in Ichigo's eyes made her stay silent.

"I can be really dense. I should have realized how much you cared for me. I'm sorry I went this long without knowing it."

Realization dawned on her, a heaviness enveloping her and rooting her to the spot. The air suddenly felt a lot more chilled, heat rushing to her face and her heart banging against her ribcage.

"And I'm sorry I can't return your feelings." His face was dejected, flushed with shame. "You deserve a lot better."

"….Oh- I see." She answered faintly.

There was tightness in her chest, squeezing and cramping painfully. She took three deep breaths, slowly expelling the urge to cry, stoically fighting against the sadness that was welling up inside. A few tears escaped and slid down her face.

At the end of her third breath she felt herself lightening. This would not end her. She would move on and she would heal.

If there was anything Orihime knew at which she excelled, it was healing.

She started to dab at her face, the dreaded feelings subsiding, and even had the presence to feel amusement at the stricken look on Ichigo's face, the pain he must be feeling at what he had inflicted.

He took a single step forward and gently wrapped his arms around her. She froze, overwhelmed at the warmth of his body, his smell. She had dreamed about this moment, but not like this.

"I would do it again, Inoue." He murmured. "I would rescue you. I will protect you from any danger. You're a dear and important person to me."

Something in his voice told her that he and Rukia were already together.

She was not surprised to find that she did not feel resentful of Rukia at all. She was more surprised that Ichigo was opening up in a way he never had, speaking plainly about himself and even offering a gesture of comfort.

If this was the effect Rukia had on him, it was for the better.

She found herself pulling away from the embrace. It was not what she needed.

"Thank you, Kurosaki." She wrapped her arms around herself, a subconscious shield, comforting herself with her own embrace. "But I can take care of myself."

Tatsuki was the first to approach them. She had come to the concert for Orihime's sake after all, but had unexpectedly bonded conspiratorially with Keigo and Mizuiro after their frightening shared experience with the entity known as Aizen. With fleeting spiritual powers of their own, they found themselves occasionally trading observations on the supernatural events that happened around Karakura town. They kept vigil for their empowered friends, keeping them grounded and reminding them of their bonds at home. And sometimes talking shit about them. That was bound to happen too.

Despite all her speculations though, she couldn't figure out why Ichigo and Orihime both looked so unhappy, staring tensely at the ground between them. So she approached Orihime first.

"What's happened, Orihime?"

Orihime realized that she shouldn't look so upset. It made her look weak, as well as making Ichigo look like the bad guy. She casually straightened and said mildly,

"Kurosaki-kun is dating Kuchiki Rukia now."

Ichigo looked startled. He hadn't actually told her that, but it seemed that girls would be making all the decisions for him today.

Tatsuki looked incredulous and shot him a confused look. "She lives in Soul Society, doesn't she? That's quite a long distance relationship, in time and space."

"Uhh… yeah." He looked unsettled, nervously rubbing the back of his neck. "It's not going to be easy to make work…"

"You should be more serious about it, Kurosaki-kun. Long distance relationships work, but only if both people care enough!" Orihime commented to their mutual shock.

It was much easier to lecture Ichigo on his relationship than to focus on her own concerns for the moment. Ichigo aside, she could still watch out for Rukia's interests.

"But I am. I mean- I do!" Ichigo spluttered. This was bound to get away from him very quickly.

To make matters worse, the rest of the group decided to wander over and enter the conversation at that moment.

"You guuuuyys- what are you doing over here?" Keigo whined.

"Leave it, Orihime," Tatsuki was saying, "Ichigo has to figure out how to deal with a girlfriend on his own."

"A girlfriend?!" Keigo bellowed, making everyone wince. "Since when? And who? Ichigooooo! You're not confiding in your friends again!"

Mizuiro was very tactfully gathering the information from Tatsuki, who whispered it to him. He raised his eyebrows, muttering,

"Kuchiki-san, huh? Nice going, Ichigo. Not bad at all…"

Uryu caught his eye, looked to Orihime, and then back to him, crossing his arms and looking on with disdain.

All of it made Ichigo want to sink into the ground and disappear.

When Chad approached he didn't offer any comment, taking in the scene silently. Ichigo realized that he still had one more message to deliver.

"Sorry I was late, Chad."

Chad nodded understandingly, and Ichigo knew that Chad wouldn't judge him, that he still considered him his best friend, that he was always coming through when he needed him.

"Rukia says hi," he added quietly.

At that, Chad gave him an unrestrained smile that was utterly reassuring.

The teasing, laments and insults that followed- all somewhat at Ichigo's expense- melded into a continuous chatter. But Ichigo was glad that he had come. He was grateful to Rukia, and his mind was clear.

The school friends bonded over this rare moment, an outpouring of unrestrained affection and carefree amusement.

In a matter of days, they would be at war.


NEW! Next chapter preview: End of War. Ishida's reason for joining the Vandenreich, and the only one who can bring him back.

I am re-writing Part Two! Thank you for all your follows, favorites and reviews; I appreciate every single one and I welcome PMs!

There is an Ishihime plot in my brain that will NOT leave me alone and is not appropriate for a stand alone story. So it belongs here, in my headcanon. COMING SOON.