A/N: Happy Ishihime Week, everyone!

This was originally a piece for the Bleach Rare Pair 'zine, though I didn't have the time to edit it as much as I would have liked before its release. Now it's a bit more polished, so I hope you enjoy! ヽ(o^▽^o)ノ

Day 1 Prompt: First and Last


Their first meeting was uneventful.

Class introductions always went by in a flurry of names and faces that Ishida Uryū didn't care to know nor remember. Inoue Orihime was one of so many interchangeable dozens. The only name he paid any attention to at all was one Kurosaki Ichigo, some orange-haired punk who radiated way too much reiatsu for him not to notice.

It was so distracting, in fact, that Ishida decided to eat his lunch as far away from Kurosaki as he could possibly get. It was a wonder all the local Hollows didn't attack the idiot on the spot.

Their second meeting was nothing special, either.

His peaceful spot was not so for long. A crowd of girls gathered right behind the tree trunk he had been sitting at, none the wiser to his presence. Ishida peeked around the base, sorely unamused.

A girl with bright auburn hair met his eyes. "Ishida-kun, right?" she asked after swallowing her food. "Do you want to eat lunch with us?"

He was surprised she remembered his name, and suddenly felt ashamed at his callous refusal to know hers at all. All the girls in her group went silent, their stares needling into his skin.

He turned away. "No, thank you. I'm done eating already."

As he walked back to class, one of the girls called him a snob. This he brushed off as a mild annoyance. Inoue Orihime's fervent defense of his character, however, was not so easily forgotten.

"Oh, don't be like that, Mahana-chan! We were the ones who intruded on his hideaway first!"

"I guess," her friends conceded and left it at that.

Their third meeting completely threw him off-guard. When he first joined the school's Handicrafts Club, he thought it would be a quiet space where like-minded individuals could sew and appreciate fine fashion. Preferably clothes that accentuated a good cape.

Unfortunately, the other club members were just as insufferable as the rest of his classmates. It was a bit of a disappointment. Still, Ishida wasn't interested in any other clubs, and it was rather easy to keep to himself. His fellow students left him well enough alone. Time to start working on that handkerchief again, he supposed.

"You're in this club, too, Ishida-kun?" a familiar voice called out a few seconds later.

He nearly pricked his finger. It was that girl again, smiling at him like he was an old friend. It made him feel even worse for never remembering her name.

Ishida shoved his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry, what is your name again?"

Her cheeks puffed out in a tiny pout. "Aw, come on, Ishida-kun. I'm Inoue Orihime! Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise, I suppose."

He assumed she'd write him off as too cold to bother with. Of course, he'd been wrong about her before.

"Ishida Uryū." She enunciated each syllable of his name. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a really cool name?"

He blinked. "Huh?"

"You have the kanji for rain and dragon in your name! That's so cool! I wish I had your name!"

Inoue seemed so earnest that all he did was stare. He had never given his name much thought before. The rare times he did, it always tied back to his Quincy heritage and the Ishida legacy. Having someone admire his first name too was...nice.

"Oh, uh, thank you, Inoue-san."

"Of course! I look forward to being in the Handicrafts Club with you, Ishida-kun! Let's make lots of cool clothes together!"

"Um, sure."

From then on, Inoue would occasionally mutter his name under her breath, reveling in the roll of the ryu over her tongue.

He got to know her bit by bit as she continued to attend the Handicrafts Club. Apparently, she had learned to sew out of necessity rather than any genuine interest at first. Then she discovered the simple joys of fixing up thrift store clothes to suit her tastes. The small flowers and flourishes she added made these formerly shabby shirts and skirts look professionally tailored.

Inoue seemed way more impressed with his own clothing designs. "I love all the cute crosses you put on them!" she had said to him once. "Are you planning to create your own line one day, Ishida-kun?"

Ishida frowned. "Cute crosses?"

"Yeah! Like the one on your bracelet!"

The Quincy cross had spilled from his sleeve to rest on the desk. He immediately tucked it away again. "I never knew I added them so often."

"It's nice! I think it'd be a good trademark if you want to make your own clothing line!"

"This was a gift from my grandfather, not some trendy symbol I'd plaster on casualwear. I don't ever leave home without it."

Her smile collapsed into a curious frown. Inoue was a lot more perceptive than most people gave her credit for. He'd seen how she tried to deter the pushy boys who only joined the club to gawk at her. She could decipher the various moods in a room and adjust her attitude accordingly.

And now she saw through him, too. She understood how heavy it was to carry his grandfather's memory with him everywhere, dangling from his wrist.

He had no idea how he knew this. Maybe it was in the slight tilt to her head or the weary slump of her shoulders. Maybe it was the slow way her smile returned, like they shared a secret no one else understood.

Her bright hair fell in shiny waves over her face when she slipped her flower clips off. "My older brother gave me these a long time ago. I actually got in a fight with him about them that day because I thought they were childish. Now I only take them off when I shower or sleep."

Inoue clutched the clips tight, pulling them close to her heart. "It's so silly, isn't it? How can something so small and simple stay with you like this?"

Ishida shifted in his seat and the Quincy cross slipped from his sleeve once more. "It's not silly," he said and carefully removed the cross from his wrist to show her. "If it means a lot to you, then it's never as small and simple as it may look. If you ascribe a deeper meaning to it, then that in itself makes it meaningful."

Much to his surprise, Inoue giggled. He tensed, immediately defensive, but she merely said, "That's very insightful, Ishida-kun! I'll have to keep that in mind."

Her pleased smile nestled itself in his mind for the next few days. Perhaps it made up for his initially cold behavior towards her. Perhaps not. Either way, just being able to chat with Inoue Orihime every now and again made coming to the Handicrafts Club more worthwhile.

As the semester progressed, she and a few others in their class developed spiritual powers of their own. A dense reiatsu sparked inside those hairpins Inoue loved so much just days after he had invited Kurosaki to that Hollow-killing contest. At first, he thought it might have to do with the Shinigami Kuchiki Rukia, but apparently, Kurosaki's blazing reiatsu was to blame. Some small part of Ishida liked to think that maybe he might have been a part of that, too.

Of course, it was a foolish notion. His reiatsu wasn't nearly as powerful as Kurosaki's. He had lost the battle that day.

And then he lost yet again to that braggart of a Shinigami with tattoos and red hair. A wash of shame and rage overcame him at the consequent defeats. He couldn't stand it, not to two Shinigami in a row. Not to a real Shinigami officer who mocked him for his weakness.

It wasn't until Inoue, Sado, and a talking cat came to convince him to be a part of their rescue team that he even considered coming along to the Soul Society. If it would redeem him—redeem his grandfather—it would all be worth it.

Of course, such things never went according to plan. Once he and Inoue separated from the rest of the group, his goal became less about revenge and more about protecting her. She healed the tiny wounds he got from their scuffles with the far weaker Shinigami. Unseated officers were a breeze to avoid or fight if necessary. Apparently, Arisawa-san had taught her karate, so she was more than capable of handling herself in that regard.

If only those were all the enemies they had to face. Inoue was far too kind to participate in any harsher battles. She would not kill anyone, not even the most despicable Shinigami. Not even if it would save her life.

So he'd save her from that grief. He'd save her from the burden of blood on her hands. At the cost of his own life, he would throw everything away to make sure she was safe.

Spending a few days together facing constant peril did that to a man, he supposed.

How silly it was. Something this small and simple twisting inside him as he watched her train into the early hours of the morning. How her endless positivity and her smile pushed him further, made him endure more than he ever thought he could before.

Her impact on his resolve pierced deep into his soul and would not let go.

And then it was all over. The Shinigami captain who ripped apart his grandfather stood before him, mocking him. All Ishida could do was make sure Inoue stayed far, far away from his rage. She should never have to see him like this. She should never have to shed tears for him should he fail.

But he won. Bleeding, poisoned, in pain, yes, but he won. It should've meant so much more. He still wanted to kill that captain who got away in the end.

He didn't have the strength to take on anyone else. Not with his own power fading away. Without Kurosaki or Sado or even Yoruichi, he was useless. Without Inoue, he had even less.

His powers, his pride as a Quincy, his resolve—

Another captain stood before the white tower where Kuchiki Rukia was being held. He released his zanpakuto before Ishida's eyes. And then, nothing.

Ishida woke up in a prison cell with Shiba Ganju and Sado what felt like moments later. His wounds had been tended to, but not by Inoue. She was still somewhere out there. He had to find her.

But of course, she found him first. She always found him first. Enlisting the help of an insane Shinigami captain and his subordinates, no less. Inoue-san truly was amazing.

All the Shinigami captain and his men seemed to care about was fighting. It didn't matter who, in the end. If it meant their captain could even taste battle against Kurosaki once more, he'd help them out no matter what.

They soon branched off when other Shinigami captains showed up and proclaimed the crazed Shinigami captain to be a traitor. They were all on the run yet again, but heading towards the fighting rather than away from it this time.

They pushed through the dense clash of reiatsu up the hill to where Kurosaki fought. Kurosaki had grown a lot stronger since the last time they saw him. The pink-haired lieutenant that clung to the mad captain's shoulder met them at the top of the hill with a chipper smile. Apparently, Kuchiki-san had already escaped and Kurosaki was only fighting to ensure that no one would dare to go after her again.

Inoue did not want to move away no matter how harsh the waves of reiatsu became. She wrapped her arms around herself, planted her feet firmly on the ground, and waited.

It was dangerous to stay here. Other captains or officers could come by at any time to help the person Kurosaki was fighting, she had to know that.

No, he realized. She did know. She stayed because she wanted to see him win without worrying about any of his friends getting hurt in the process.

She couldn't interfere no matter how much she wanted to.

One of the Shinigami that had followed them around asked why they all fought so hard for some girl they barely knew. It was true that Kuchiki Rukia had not been in the World of the Living long. Even so, she had left a mark on them all. Even so, the Soul Society had wrongfully attacked and imprisoned her for a crime she had no choice but to commit to save both her and Kurosaki.

Ishida nearly said all this. Until Inoue-san spoke of Kuchiki-san changing Kurosaki's world, and about how they had all come to Soul Society to rescue her for his sake.

It took him aback, at first. He'd given his all to rescue Kuchiki, as had Inoue. And yet, all this time, she had only come to protect Kurosaki, if nothing else.

He didn't take Inoue to be that selfish. But looking at her now, he understood completely.

Ishida had mistakenly believed that he had started to grow closer to her. Because they had come to rely on one another. Because they protected one another. And maybe that had stirred something in his heart, something real and damning and lovely all at once.

He understood what she was like because he was selfish, too. He wanted to be useful to her, wanted to stay by her side no matter how painful it might be.

The longing on her face for another man was just too much, and so, he looked away.

The week-long victory spent in Soul Society after Kurosaki won was irritating to endure, to say the least. Ishida did not care to partake in the festivities, especially with the other Shinigami who tried to act like they were his friends. As if they were not the cause of the massacre of his people. As if they didn't allow a mad scientist to dissect his grandfather.

Inoue-san still found him despite everything. He welcomed her idle talk, even smiled more because of it. She at least made this endless partying bearable.

He would not let himself hope for more than friendship. Not with the way her eyes would search for Kurosaki or trail after him when he left.

When they returned to the World of the Living, he threw himself in his father's intense training at the mere mention of it. It put her from his mind for a time. Forced him to focus on the only other thing that mattered in his life.

He came out wounded and worse for wear, but his powers were restored stronger than ever. Even with his newfound resolve to distance himself from her, Ishida still hoped for her to be the first person he'd tell about this.

The moment he stepped out of that enclosed training space, however, something was immediately off. He couldn't sense her reiatsu anywhere. Inoue-san had vanished.

He did not even get a proper thank you out to his father before he tore away to Urahara's store. If anyone would know her whereabouts, it'd be the exiled Shinigami.

He'd been such a fool. All this time training and thinking he needed nothing else. All of the unspoken words he never spilled and for what?

The damage the Arrancar army had caused Karakura paled in comparison to them taking her prisoner. He wanted to rend the entire world of Hollows to dust. It didn't matter if it would upset the balance of the worlds. It didn't matter if taking out a few Arrancar would help the Shinigami.

When he arrived, Urahara and Sado could only provide him with speculation as to why Aizen took her. The lack of any real reason for her disappearance infuriated him to the core. In his rage, Ishida threw a nearby candy display to the floor. The various jars cracked to pieces, scattering the sweets everywhere.

Urahara-san didn't deserve this, he knew. He knew he needed to save this for whoever actually took her away from here. But it was so frustrating to finally come back from doing something for his own sake and to find that it had cost him everything else in return.

"Geez, I was gonna build a way to get to Hueco Mundo anyway! You don't need to be so mean, Ishida-san," Urahara whined as he got to work on creating an artificial Garganta with Yoruichi.

Sado had never seen the cool facade of his shift like that. "Ishida, you can be kind of scary sometimes," he muttered when they got down to the underground training area.

At this, Ishida scowled. "I want to rescue her as soon as I can. Inoue-san is not built for this war. She's too kind. She's…."

He averted his gaze to hide the rush of heat spreading across his face. Even if Sado saw it, he wouldn't say anything. In fact, Ishida could certainly count on it.

Kurosaki arrived not long after his own arrival, and by then, he'd composed himself enough to act like nothing was wrong. Like his heart wasn't burning to rush into Hueco Mundo alone. Like he wouldn't just up and leap through the Garganta if it had already been prepared.

Hueco Mundo was not like anything he expected. A lone desert with a permanent moon encompassing the land. Aizen's palace sat far in the distance, more massive and confusing to map than even the Soul Society.

Still, he would not give up. No matter how many Arrancar, Privaron Espada, or other Espada stood in his way, he'd fight to rescue her. Kurosaki had beat the odds and done so for Kuchiki Rukia. Who was to say that he could not do the same for Inoue-san?

Unfortunately, Szayel Apporo Granz proved to be more of a challenge than he anticipated. Even as he tried desperately to outwit him and escape his palace alongside Abarai Renji, the tunnels always led right back to where he started.

This Espada was only the eighth strongest, so why was he having such a hard time defeating him? He could still sense Kurosaki fighting another Espada, one much stronger than the one he was facing. How had he fallen so behind?

Ishida grit his teeth through his pain and exhaustion. All the power he gained, all the Quincy techniques he had learned…. It wasn't enough. The Octava Espada merely stood there snapping his and Abarai's organs and tendons one by one with a chilling glee.

To be saved by the very Shinigami who experimented on his grandfather and countless other Quincies was perhaps the most unbearable shame of all. To have to beg for his help was even more so. His pride as a Quincy had been shattered so thoroughly, and still, he begged to be healed.

He could put it all behind him if it meant she would finally, finally be safe.

Inoue-san had been held captive long enough. She had been threatened and beaten by the Arrancar, and he would not stand for it any longer. He'd fight to get her out of here. At the very least fight to make sure she would never be hurt by these monsters again.

That Arrancar, Yammy, was not all that difficult to defeat. The real trouble was his pesky jealousy. He wanted her to be alright. He wanted to take her away from this spot back to the Shinigami where he knew she'd be safe.

But that wasn't what she wanted. She wanted to ensure that Kurosaki would save the day once again. And really, who was he to deny her? A friend, but nothing more. He'd protect her with his very life without anyone ever telling him to, and still she only had eyes for Kurosaki.

Because he was selfish, he wanted to give her everything. Because she was selfish, she would take everything he had to offer.

Ishida Uryū was such a fool. The real monsters did not await them below. They laid in wait on the roof of Las Noches.

The warped black reiatsu suffocated the both of them. Inoue-san clutched onto his arm as he pushed forth anyway.

He should have listened to everything screaming at him to run. He should have turned back.

Instead, they arrived in time to watch Kurosaki die.

The time after that was a blur. Ishida tried his best to stay calm, to stay rational. Inoue-san would be able to heal Kurosaki. She was strong enough. She could do this. Even when the Arrancar ripped off his arm, even as he bled out, he would fight for all his friends' sakes.

That thing awoke in a matter of minutes.

Inoue-san had not healed him. She barely had enough concentration to shield both him and Kurosaki at the same time. She was unraveling and because of that, Kurosaki's Hollow woke up to incite a massacre.

Its reiatsu nearly threw her from the rooftop. If not for his quick thinking, she would've fallen to the sands below.

It flew at the Arrancar, moving too fast for them to follow.

This was not a battle. It was not for honor or to protect anyone.

It was revenge, pure and simple. A Hollow formed from the soul's deepest desires and instincts. Kurosaki Ichigo's deepest self was more terrifying than anyone had ever imagined.

It completely decimated the Espada to nothing more than a half-husk of a creature and tossed him aside like trash. It was only when it summoned its sword back to it that Ishida dared to intervene.

Surely somewhere inside him, Kurosaki had to know that mutilating an enemy's body was wrong. His heart could not be completely lost yet.

Faster than he could blink, the Hollow turned its sword to him instead. It pierced through his stomach and sent him flying back.

It hurt.

It hurt so much.

Inoue-san cried out to Kurosaki, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. The furious Cero turned its awful power on him.

When the fallen Espada launched at Kurosaki once more, Ishida had no idea if he was relieved or horrified. The sheer power of these two was not something he could comprehend.

And just like that, it was over. Kurosaki was himself again. The Espada did not have the strength to regenerate another time.

Inoue-san did not look upon their enemy with disgust or rage or even fear. No, she pitied him.

Even after everything he'd done, she could not fear her captor. She tried to reach out to him, but he crumbled to ash before her eyes and was gone.

Slowly but surely, Inoue-san's powers restored his arm. Her eyes did not stray to Kurosaki even once. His back was turned to them, continuing to stare at the point where that Espada had stood. This was not a victory for him. His Hollow, his instincts, were two things he never hoped to utilize in honorable battles.

He only began to stir once Inoue-san offered to heal him, too. "You okay, Ishida?" Kurosaki asked, his voice much softer than usual.

"Yeah. Don't worry about me."

Kurosaki tightened his grip on his sword. The treacherous sword that stabbed him.

"Inoue," he began, slow and reluctant.

She tensed, as if still unsure if Kurosaki was truly back to normal or not.

"Thank you for healing him."

She blinked. "O-Of course."

Kurosaki walked to the edge of the hole in the roof. More immense reiatsu spilled out of it. Another difficult enemy to take care of, no doubt.

"Rukia's in trouble. I'm sorry. I'll apologize properly later, but for now, I gotta go."

And with that, he leapt down without another thought to either of them.

Ishida pushed himself to his feet. "Inoue-san, let me help you down again."

He sucked in a breath when she began to wander off on her own. "Inoue-san?"

She continued to meander away. "Can't be…. It's my fault."

"Inoue-san!" He stepped in front of her and was stunned by the placid blankness of her expression.

"Ishida…kun…." Her eyes passed over the rubble all around her, unseeing. "What happened, Ishida-kun? What…just happened?"

Ah. It was easy to idealize your crush into someone they weren't. The extreme brutality of Kurosaki's true nature was not something she could grasp. Perhaps it was not something she ever truly understood.

"Kurosaki defeated that Espada," he explained and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "His principles may have been compromised, but in the end, he won that fight by his might and power alone."

"But that wasn't Kurosaki-kun! It was his Hollow!" Her eyes were empty, panicked. "He would never treat us that way! Not if he was in control."

Ishida could not look at her. The desperate justification of Kurosaki's monstrous form was nothing more than a solace to her own shattered images of him.

"It was him." His hand slid away from her. "That Hollow is a part of his soul the same way his Shinigami powers are. To separate the two would be foolish."

Inoue-san had been completely shaken by this. What was wrong with him? He had never spoken to her this way. He never wished to hurt her, and yet, that was exactly what he was doing.

All of a sudden, she grabbed the lapel of his jacket and shook him in her disbelief. "No! I won't believe it! I can't! That monster was not the Kurosaki-kun I know!"

Ishida scowled. "It's the truth, Inoue-san. If you can't accept it, then…."

"Then what?" Her hands fell away. "Then you're saying that I don't really know Kurosaki-kun at all?"

His heart had never felt so heavy as it did at that moment. He'd been kicked, cut, beaten down so many times. Now he had to betray her kindness to give her everything she needed.

His silence was damning enough. Slowly, she let go of his collar and hung her head.

"I know."

The words came so quietly at first that he wasn't sure she said anything at all.

"I know I'm only fooling myself," Inoue whispered. "All this time, I've said over and over how much Kurosaki-kun cares for Kuchiki-san. She's made such a huge impact on his life while I…. While I…."

Inoue finally met his eyes and he was shocked to find her smiling even through her tears. "He doesn't see me, Ishida-kun. I want to be reflected in his eyes so badly, but I can't find myself there at all. And it hurts to be so selfish and to want something from him that he can never give me. I came here to try and protect you all, and yet, I'm the one who was protected again. I couldn't fight. I'm just someone who's in the way."

Ishida's gaze softened. "You weren't in the way, Inoue-san. You did your best."

"No, I didn't! Ishida-kun, I…." She sniffled. "I should've tried harder. I should have tried to find and destroy the Hogyoku. I should have believed in my friends more."

Her shoulders trembled with the burden of all her unspoken grief. "I should have protected you, Ishida-kun. Just like back in Soul Society. But I couldn't. I couldn't."

Ishida was never all that good at saying the right things. Comforting others, forming friendships, none of that had ever come easy to him before. He always just said what was on his mind, however harsh it was.

"No," he said. "But our enemies were far stronger than before. They were all captain-class and above. At our current level, I don't think either of us would have been able to defeat any of the Espada on our own. We were simply…outmatched."

It was the kindest way he could put it. They weren't strong enough. He had rushed headlong into Hueco Mundo without any extra training and paid dearly as result of his brash actions. The sheer brutality of this world overwhelmed her. Their enemies had not underestimated them this time.

They had foolishly waltzed into a warzone to the tune of their downfall.

"Ishida-kun…."

Ishida forced a smile. "Inoue-san, I think it's okay to be selfish sometimes. Kurosaki is alive. We just need to trust this time that he'll be okay after this is all over."

Inoue gawked at him. "You're...not fighting anymore?"

"Unless any Hollows or Espada come to take you away again, I'll stay by your side." Ishida blew out a slow breath. "I came to Hueco Mundo to make sure you were safe. I couldn't bear the thought of them hurting you, Inoue-san."

There it was. A confession in its own right, without all the usual words.

It was enough. The intention was there. His heart exposed.

"Thank you for coming to rescue me, Ishida-kun. I appreciate it. But I'm sorry. I...I hope you understand that I can't…. Well…."

And so it went. The inevitable rejection. His heavy heart gently returned in his hands.

"You don't need to apologize. I'm just glad you're okay, Inoue-san."

He meant it. He'd long made his peace with this matter. The impact she'd left on his life was enough.

"Oh, um, here." He drew a cloth out of his pockets. "To dry your tears."

"Eh? You brought a handkerchief with you to Hueco Mundo?" she asked.

Ishida rubbed the back of his neck. "Er, no. That's my glasses cleaning cloth. It's the only thing I have on me. Sorry."

Much to his surprise, Inoue began to laugh. "You embroidered the Quincy cross on this, too, I see."

"Oh, yes, I did."

Her smile was like the sun parting the clouds. "I'll try not to sully it then. Thank you, Ishida-kun."

Kurosaki had gone to protect Karakura Town by the time they made it back down again. Kuchiki-san, Sado, and Abarai rushed to make sure they were okay, asking what on earth happened up there, asking if they were alright.

Inoue exchanged an unsure look with Ishida. Where to begin?

As soon as she tried to find the words, one of the lieutenants rushed up to them and asked for Inoue's assistance in healing the other captains. She met his eyes once more and he nodded. "I'll tell them. Go on, Inoue-san."

So she went. He watched her leave over his shoulder for a few seconds longer before turning back to his friends. It would not be a pleasant story, but they deserved to know the truth.

This was a war, after all. It would do no good for him to gloss over its horrors.

Captain Kurotsuchi soon opened another Garganta to connect the worlds together and they all rushed to Kurosaki's side. His hair was much longer for some reason, but that was the least of their concerns with Aizen now gone.

Inoue turned to look at him and smiled. He was okay, just like they thought he'd be.

Kurosaki was not so for long. As soon as he stood up to greet them, he immediately collapsed and began to scream. His reiatsu fluctuated wildly around him, like an errant pulse that threatened to blow them all away.

Just as suddenly as it had come, this pulse vanished and he was silent.

They all rushed to his side in an instant.

Inoue tried to reject the loss of his powers, but he still would not wake. Urahara and Kurotsuchi both tried to come up with something to reverse the effects as well, but neither of them could quite do so without endangering him in some way.

Ishida understood, perhaps about as much as Kuchiki-san, how awful it was to have your powers fade so quickly. They discussed what might be done once Kurosaki woke up, but it never amounted to anything more than hushed visits to the clinic every now and again.

A month later, Kurosaki finally opened his eyes. It should've been a joyous occasion. Instead, they all watched as Kurosaki said his final goodbyes to Kuchiki-san and lost everything he'd worked so hard to gain.

Inoue tugged at his shirt sleeve. Ishida patted her hand but shook his head. There was nothing they could do now.

Kurosaki soon turned away from them all. "Sorry, but could you guys leave me alone for a bit? I need to think."

They all hesitated for a moment before Inoue piped up, "Okay then. See you later, Kurosaki-kun."

"…Yeah."

Ishida, Sado, and Inoue all exchanged worried glances but left without another word.

They all stopped at a nearby park, trying to pick up the pieces of what was left.

Sado offered to buy them juice before they could really process what Kurosaki's loss of powers really meant for them and Karakura Town from now on.

Inoue accepted, and soon, it was just the two of them waiting on a park bench.

"Ishida-kun, this is all my fault," she said. "If I'd never gone to Hueco Mundo, none of this would have happened."

He shook his head. "It's not. Kurosaki would have used Mugetsu against Aizen regardless."

"I said I didn't want him to fight anymore. I didn't want him to get hurt." Inoue put her head in her hands. "But now he's sad. All Kurosaki-kun wanted to do was fight, and now he can't anymore. Why did I wish for that? How could I wish for something like that to happen?"

His hand hovered in the air between them, uncertain, until he placed a careful hand on her shoulder. "It's only natural that we want to protect our friends from harm. So that's what we'll do. We'll protect Kurosaki and Karakura Town this time."

She slowly rose to meet his eyes.

"We'll train even harder than before," he assured her. "So we become strong enough to where Kurosaki won't have to protect us anymore."

Inoue's bottom lip trembled, but she wiped at the tears pricking the corners of her eyes and nodded. "Yes! We'll become stronger! You, me, and Chad together!"

Ishida smiled. "Together."

Sado came back with their juice not long after. He paused, looking between their smiles. "Hm? Did I miss something?"

Inoue laughed and the three of them set to work planning out possible patrol routes and training regimens. Their training was rough, with Inoue-san being surprisingly unrelenting in how far she pushed them both.

Still, he appreciated her tenacity. Even more so when she and Arisawa-san were able to convince the karate team to let them borrow their practice room for the day when they were done.

Karate did prove to be a valuable skill, but Ishida had been thrown by her more times than he cared to admit. After one particularly rough lesson, Inoue had to bandage and heal the bruises along his knuckles.

"You're very good at this, Inoue-san," he sighed. "I don't know how you do it."

A small smile tugged at her mouth. "You'll be able to get it down soon, Ishida-kun! Just pace yourself."

"I want to be able to catch up to Kurosaki. If I take my time now, I'll fall behind even further." His gaze softened when she scooted next to him and handed him a water bottle.

"You know, I like how hard you work to protect your friends, Ishida-kun." She rested her head on his shoulder, and he couldn't help his face from flushing. "I really like that side of you."

Ishida furrowed his eyebrows. "Inoue-san?"

She giggled, turning to look up at him. His breath caught in his throat. "I don't know if you realize, Ishida-kun, but you've taken up Kurosaki-kun's mantle nicely. You're also a great leader! You know how to delegate Chad and I's skills so that we get the most out of our powers. Our training's going super well because of you!"

At this, his shoulders grew more lax. "Ah, I see. Well, I suppose our classmates did vote for me as Student Council President for a reason."

"You're also very blunt. You tell people how it is. I appreciate how often you set me straight when I make a mistake! In fact, I also like that side of you, Ishida-kun."

Now he was confused. Where was she going with this?

"You've made such a huge impact on my life. I don't think I could've gone through Soul Society or Hueco Mundo or even just this training without you!" Her smile grew shier and she twiddled her fingers together. "Ah, maybe I said too much. I don't know."

Ishida blinked. "Well, for what it's worth, Inoue-san, you have had a large influence on my life as well. I don't think I'd have made the friends I have now without you or Kurosaki."

Suddenly, she slapped her hands to her face and shook her head. "Oh! Ishida-kun, you're making this so hard!"

"H-Huh? Inoue-san, was it something I said? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"

Inoue flailed her arms. "No, no, it's me! I'm just being dumb!"

"Eh? You're not dumb! Please don't talk about yourself that way, Inoue-san!"

Inoue's face became a startling pink as she blurted, "I like you, Ishida-kun! Will you go out with me?"

At first, all Ishida did was stare.

"Huh?"

Inoue slapped her hands to her face. "Wah, never mind! I mean, unless you want to, or I…. Never mind!"

Before she could get up, he grabbed her hand in his. "Inoue-san, wait!"

The tangible fear in her eyes knocked the wind from him. Even after all she said, even after his own confession back in Hueco Mundo, she still feared that he might refuse her.

"I'll go out with you," he said, more of a wheeze than words. "I'll be your boyfriend."

She blinked in disbelief. "You will?"

"Of course." Her earnestness eased the burden in his soul. "If you still want to, that is."

She puffed her cheeks out. "Ishida-kun! Don't tease me."

His laugh echoed all around the training room. Soon enough, her own began to ring alongside it.

Ishida was so glad to have met her. He was glad that he knew how much of an impact they'd left on the other.

Inoue intertwined her hand with his, and he'd never been so glad to have let her into his life.