Disclaimer: I don't own the Bleach franchise itself or any characters associated with it.

Alright, chapter twelve is here and ready to be delivered. Enjoy it, my readers.

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"He's here. He's really here. I'm so glad to see him, to know that he's safe.

"His presence … is so warm.

"No, I can't give in to temptation. I have to keep my distance, because I'm supposed to let him go. He belongs with Rangiku, not me. But, why can't I let him go? It's the only way I can truly move on, and yet, my love for him remains as strong as it ever was."

"And why is that? I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Ichigo," stated the girl, irritated that he was attempting to treat her like a fragile doll (although she secretly enjoyed such treatment from him).

"Could've fooled me, Orihime. Apparently, you don't get that I want you to be safe and comfortable," the boy said. "Look at you, you're beginning to shiver and your skin's turning red. How are you being safe when you're running around, in this chilly weather, with a short skirt like that?"

Frowning, the healer retorted, "The last time I checked, you like to disappear without a trace, so my safety isn't really that big of a concern for you, is it, Ichigo? That's right, instead, you run off, acting like you're okay and that everyone is supposed to be alright with you taking off whenever you have a problem. We're your friends, so we all worry about you - Tatsuki, Uryu, Rukia, Keigo, Mizuiro, Chad, Rangiku and ... me."

The burnt-orange-haired teen, realizing that she was beginning to get emotional, paused, trying to gather her wits, although she failed miserably. In spite of that, she continued with her speech.

"For weeks, all I could think of was you. I tried to stay strong, I really did. But I couldn't …" the girl sobbed. "Eventually, after three weeks, I crumbled, and Tatsuki had to tell me to stop crying over you, but I (sniffle) …just couldn't.

"I'm sorry I … pushed you away. Just, please, don't run off on me like that again. I couldn't take it if something happened to you … because of me. Please, Ichigo, don't."

Ichigo approached his classmate until he was within breathing distance. Then, immediately, without warning, he embraced her from behind, causing Orihime to blush madly in spite of a tear evading her eye.

"H-He's touching me. O-Oh, G-God, he's touching me. I've missed him, the feeling of him. I can't fight this sensation he gives me everytime we touch; it feels like we're two magnets, and he is the negative force to my positive. 'Opposites attract' - or something like that."

"Listen, Orihime, it wasn't your fault that I left," he whispered in her ear, moving a stray lock of hair away. "I just had some stuff to take care of and I didn't want anyone else involved. Forgive me for scaring you like that."

"On one condition ..." she murmured, nervously biting her lip, whilst her skin reddened.

"Condition?" he smirked, playing along with her playful ultimatum.

"Yes, one condition," the girl clarified, though, it was quite the struggle (due to the pleasurable tremors surging through her being).

"Name it."

"You tell me when you're leaving. It doesn't matter how long, or where. Truthfully, it would be best if you didn't share any other details with me, because I would just worry about you more. I just need to know you're leaving, that way I'm assured that you trust me."

Suddenly kissing her ear lobe, Ichigo told her, "I trust you, 'Hime. Also, I promise you that from hereon in I will let you know when I'm taking off somewhere, so you don't worry. I'm sorry that I made you fret, and I'll do the best I can to make sure you don't cry again. Ever."

Gasping in both pleasure and reassurance as he commenced nibbling at her ear now, the girl responded in long breaths, "... T-Thank you, Ichigo.

"Really, it means a lot (gasp) ... to hear you (gasp) ... say that (gasp)."

"I have to stop him. I must. If I don't stop him now, there's no doubt in my mind that we're going to end up in bed together. That would be bad. Really bad. But I …"

"Anytime, 'Hime," he smiled, genuinely, repeatedly nibbling on her ear, causing her to groan even more audibly from the pleasure.

"He's so sweet, so sweet~! The sweet-e-e-e-e-st!

"He's like a gigantic tub of sugar, and I'm like a child; he's bad for me but, being the child I am, I just can't help myself and I have to continuously test the boundaries to how much I can have!"

"Let's get you home, Orihime," the substitute soul reaper suggested.

"I-Ichigo, it's fine," she yammered, trying to put up a little last-minute-resistance. Orihime's legs were wobbly from the crippling euphoria coursing throughout her body and she could hardly hang on. "I-I can walk myself home. I-It's no problem."

"Nonsense, get on my back," he quickly offered, wanting to get her someplace warm.

The healer blushed. "I-I'm h-h-heavy. I would hurt your back. I've gained a few pounds and I would feel terrible forever and ever if I injured you."

Swift observation allocated Ichigo to notice her legs were parted. Being the opportunist he was when he spotted an opening, the substitute soul reaper chuckled, then, merely squatted. With a quick motion, the orange-haired teenage boy arose from the ground, with the unsuspecting healer atop his shoulders.

Not surprisingly, the teenage girl hastily exclaimed her protests. "Ichigo, wait! Please, put me down! You'll drop me because I'm too heavy and -"

The teenage boy didn't wait, opting to leap into the air toward his classmate's apartment.

XOXOXOXOXO

Arriving at his classmate's home in less than ten minutes, Ichigo wore a smile whilst he trotted up the stairs to Orihime's front door. Once he got to the door, he removed the girl perched on top of his shoulders amid unparalleled strength and emitted a soft breath.

Then, for what felt like an eternity, they both simply stood on her 'welcome' mat, neither party having any clue on what to say.

Finally, after some time, Ichigo broke the ice. "Home sweet home, 'Hime."

"Yeah …This is it, my home," nervously cackled the healer.

"So it is," he murmured, gazing longingly into the girl's eyes.

The healer could sense the yearn he harbored for her radiating from his very core. Gulping, she took a couple of light steps backward, the pressure mounting, until her backside collided with the door. Once it had, Orihime peered in to her classmate's brown pupils, softly licking her lips.

"You're so beautiful when you lick your lips like that, 'Hime, and you have the most amazing eyes I've ever looked in to," huskily whispered Ichigo. "It should be illegal for you to look so good."

Accepting that as a sign that she desired to be kissed, the boy leaned in and witnessed the girl slightly shifting her face forward to meet him. They inched closer and closer, but just before their lips touched, a bone-jarring screech filled the sky, causing both parties to be on guard.

Hollows had rarely appeared following Sosuke Aizen's defeat, so it was a shocker to the two teens that one would make an entrance just as they were about to make out.

Bummer.

Fortunately for the substitute soul reaper, he was already in spirit form, which would definitely save him valuable minutes. Preparing to take off, he hadn't expected Orihime to grab his arm.

"Please, let me fight with you, Ichigo," she pleaded.

"I can't risk you getting hurt. I promise that I'll finish this piece of crap off quickly and come back to you, 'Hime."

"Ichigo, I'm going," Orihime stated, shocking her classmate. "You can't always battle alone. I want to be able to fight by your side sometimes. I understand that you want to protect me, I really do, and it makes me happy that you're always taking care of me. But, I need you to realize that there are occasions where I want to protect you and fight for you, the man I love.

"Believe in me, Ichigo. I assure you that I won't be a burden and that I can take care of myself."

"O-O-Orihime …"

Smiling brightly, she said, "Come on, we've got a battle to fight ... Together."

Although he remained worried for her safety, the orange-haired teenage boy decided that he would trust her.

"Right. Together.

"But, before we go, hurry up and put some pants on," the male ordered his classmate.

"I'm not that cold," the girl lied.

"It wasn't a request, 'Hime," the boy replied in a tone that communicated that his command wasn't up for debate.

Nodding, Orihime hastily retreated inside to retrieve a pair of sweatpants prior to their journey. Once she had done what she was told, she rejoined Ichigo outside, and together they were off to their first battle together in a long time.

Author's Notes: Chapter twelve is complete. I apologize for not getting this chapter out sooner and I hope that most - if not all - of you have decided to stick with me throughout this journey.

Thank you for reading.