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~April~

Starting high school didn’t really change much for Ichigo. Home stayed the same, crazy dad constantly ambushing him, the coolest little sisters in the world, a safe haven from the often confusing and strange world of spirits and misunderstandings that made up most of his day. There was homework, more interesting than in previous years. There were idiots who freaked out at his reputation, and a quiet little guy with depth in his eyes who became a new friend. Another girl entered their small circle, Tatsuki’s shadow. There were the usual thugs who thought they were kings but were only bullies.

There was Chad.

For the past couple years, there had been Chad, and he’d never had a friend like that. Someone who would have his back, a solid presence next to him like a combination of brick wall and warm blanket.

August before they changed school, he became something more.

Dad had taken the girls to wander around and have fun at the festival, while Chad and Ichigo kept their spot on the riverbank. It was dark, and their reputation kept most of the guys their age from trying to move them, while the families and couples ignored them. They were quiet, as they often were together, but they didn’t need words to communicate. They shared the same sense of humor, the same interests, and according to Karin, the same brain.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise, when Ichigo leaned against Chad’s shoulder, and Chad leaned forward just far enough to kiss the nape of his neck.

Ichigo shivered, then stilled.

“Okay?” Chad rumbled after a moment.

“Yeah,” Ichigo replied with no hesitation. He hadn’t been interested in girls during middle school. He thought at the time it was because he was too busy, or because the only girls he paid any attention to were his sisters or Tatsuki, who might as well be his sister. Now, with the place where Chad’s mouth had touched him still feeling warm, he figured there was another reason.

That night, he helped his dad carry the sleeping twins back home and put them to bed. Then he went back out.

His dad saw him, but didn’t stop him. For all his insanity, his dad could be insightful. Ichigo thought he heard him mutter something about no grandbabies, but shrugged it off.

Chad was waiting for him when Ichigo got to his apartment.

It wasn’t a very big place, but it was all Chad’s. Ichigo thought it was weird, at first, that his friend had no one to take care of him, but Karakura Children’s Services let a lot of people drop through the cracks. As long as the rent was paid, and Chad didn’t cause any problems, nobody seemed to care that a fourteen year old was living on his own.

It probably helped that he looked like he was twenty.

Still, the money he inherited from his grandfather and parents, and the part-time jobs he worked whenever he wasn’t in school, made a living. It also gave him privacy, and Ichigo took full advantage of the fact.

Neither boy had any idea what they were doing, but they both knew they wanted to do it. They’d been touching each other since they met, comfortable in each other’s personal space in a way Ichigo hadn’t felt with anyone else, not even his sisters. His dad constantly attacking him had made him wary of getting too close, since a hug could become a chokehold at any moment, while Karin got antsy if a hug went on longer than a few seconds, and Yuzu found excuses to escape, usually to go clean. Tatsuki tended to punch anyone who got too close. But Chad was easy to be around.

Even now. Even when they stood, close enough to touch all along their bodies, looking into one another’s faces. Chad’s eyes were green, and Ichigo raised a hand to push thick brown hair back so he could see his best friend’s face. Strong features, high cheekbones, large eyes, and thicker lips than Ichigo’s – he knew that face, knew what it looked like when Chad was angry, or amused, or bored, or concentrating, but he’d never seen it focused like this.

On him.

Ichigo might have blushed but he was too busy running his hands over broad shoulders, knotted with muscle. Big hands slid up his sides, gently, always so gentle outside of a fight, when they made fists that may as well have been made of concrete. They lingered along his back, stroking up and down like he was a cat Chad was petting, and if he had been, Ichigo would have been purring.

Instead, he leaned against that broad chest, lifted his head and angled his chin. Chad’s lips were soft, like kissing little pillows, he thought dazedly, not caring that he sounded drunk even to himself. Ichigo made a little sound in his throat, a needy whine barely muffled by Chad’s tongue entering his mouth. All he could do was brush his own against the intrusion, shivering again at the strangeness of what they were doing, and how normal it felt.

One of Chad’s hands drifted up and tangled in his hair, holding his head just-so as Chad got into the kiss. Ichigo had never considered himself passive in any way, and he gave as good as he got.

From the groan Chad gave, he must have liked it.

The other hand slid down, curving around the bottom of his ass, and pulling him close. Ichigo felt his breath stop. If he hadn’t already been light-headed, that move would have done it. Because Chad’s chest wasn’t the only hard thing about him, and Ichigo was, as always, with him every step of the way.

It was messy and a little funny at times, as they got so wound up in each other that they kept getting stuck in unexpected obstacles like knotted shoelaces and uncooperative shirt sleeves. Ichigo hissed at one point that he was going to start wearing kilts, because tight pants took forever and got caught around shins, but that was okay, because Chad laughed and squeezed him gently and Ichigo came all over his hand. Then he licked his fingers, and Ichigo may have squeaked. He forgot what he was complaining about, and didn’t care that he was trapped in his jeans, because Chad was big and hot and trembling underneath his hands, and he tasted like salt and a little like miso. Ichigo wanted to taste him again. Every chance he got.

So they did. Over the course of the summer, they learned with and about one another. What made the breath hitch in their lungs, what made them moan, what hurt, what made the hurt worth it. Sometimes they would kiss for hours, sometimes Chad would play his guitar and sing for Ichigo, and sometimes Ichigo would read sonnets to Chad. It was secret, and it was addictive, and it was theirs.

He knew his dad knew, but Isshin never said anything. He had the feeling Tatsuki suspected, but she just shrugged it off and dragged them off to the dojo to spar. The twins were too young to notice, and that was just as well, because Ichigo wasn’t going to give them the Talk, and the thought of his dad giving the Talk was traumatizing even in the abstract.

By the time high school started, Chad and Ichigo moved like they were one person. In all the ways that counted, they were.

~May~

Ichigo was used to ghosts. He talked with them all the time, ignoring the ignorant who thought he was crazy. He stood up for them and left flowers for them, and once he was fooled by one and got his mother killed.

But he’d never had one step through his bedroom window, stomp across his bed, and go on a monster hunt in his house. He’d never had one tie him up, or scream at him, and he’d certainly never had one stab him in the chest with a phantom sword to give him her powers so he could save his sisters’ lives. After he killed the monster, he stared down at his ghost-body.

He looked weird. He was dressed like a cosplay refuge from the Edo period, in a white shitagi, a deep purple kosode with red and black threads running through it that was actually kind of cool, black hakama, and a white obi with tiny gold threads here and there. His feet were in tabi and waraji, which weren’t nearly as comfortable as his high tops.

Then there was the girl.

Rukia was short, and loud. Obnoxious. Pushy. Wounded. She introduced him to a shadowy man in a ridiculous get-up at a strange Shōten and gave him a candy she said was a soul. She tried to take over his life and acted like he was hers to command.

In another universe, he might have allowed that.

In this one, as soon as he woke up the next morning and made it to school, he pulled Chad over to the side.

“Weirdest thing ever happened last night, Chad.”

“Truck hit your house?”

“Wasn’t a truck.” Chad knew he could see ghosts. Green eyes narrowed at him, and Ichigo nodded. “It gets weirder. I’ll tell you at lunch.”

Sensei called the class to order. Then introduced a new student… Rukia Kuchiki.

Chad looked at him. Ichigo stared at Rukia, looking sweet and innocent and lying with every breath, then looked back to Chad. “Weirdest thing. Ever.”

Rukia bounced down the aisle and tried to sit between Chad and Ichigo. Ichigo pushed her into a chair on the other side of him. He could feel Chad weighing up the new girl, neutral but suspicious, supportive at his shoulder. Rukia glared and Ichigo ignored her, turning to face the teacher.

She followed them out to lunch. Ichigo growled, silently, then led her and Chad up to the roof. When they got there, she looked imperiously at Chad and told him she and Ichigo had things to discuss, in a way that made it sound like they were going to make out.

Chad reached past her, reeled Ichigo in, and showed her exactly how little impact her words had. When Ichigo got his breath and his lips back, he gave Chad a peck in thanks, then turned in his partner’s arms and glared at Rukia.

She looked like she was in shock.

“Why are you here, Rukia? In my school, trying to tell my boyfriend to leave?”

She spluttered a little, then crossed her arms over her chest and stamped her foot. “This is between you and me, Ichigo!”

“Nope,” he answered immediately, “nothing is between you and me. Anything you need to say, and you do need to say it, Chad will hear.”

Her glare intensified. He ignored it. She reached over to punch him.

Chad caught her arm in two fingers and stopped her in her tracks.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice low and chilly.

She stared wide-eyed at her arm, looking like a toothpick in his grip, and swallowed a few times before she carefully pulled back. He let her go, then moved so that he could lean against the railing, his arm still around Ichigo’s shoulders. Ichigo waited for Rukia to say something, then got impatient when she just stood there, staring up at Chad with her mouth hanging open.

“Rukia’s a Shinigami,” he told Chad, ignoring her flush and incoherent muttering. “She came after a monster that broke my house and tried to kill my sisters last night.”

Chad sent him a concerned look.

“The twins are fine, and so’s Goat Face,” Ichigo assured him. “Thing is, she got hurt in the fight, and in order to protect my family, she gave me her powers. Now my soul can pop out of my body and fight monsters with a huge cleaver. I look like some kind of Edo period cosplayer.”

“Can’t be good for you.”

Ichigo thought about that for a moment. Chad was right. Having his heart and brain functions stop like that every time he stepped out to fight monsters couldn’t be good on his body. “I got a replacement soul pill.”

Chad’s look turned very skeptical.

“Yeah, like I said, weirdest ever.”

Rukia finally got her tongue working again and butted in, “While I am unable to perform my duties, Ichigo, you will have to take over for me.”

Ichigo didn’t like her tone, and from the way Chad started to loom, neither did he. Rukia cleared her throat and leaned a little away, but she didn’t back down.

“No,” Chad said before Ichigo got the chance.

Rukia went into a monolog but Ichigo was too busy communing with Chad to pay any attention. There were monsters. Chad knew about them, even if he could barely make them out. He had even helped Ichigo fight some off a while ago. It was clear even before Rukia showed up that whoever was supposed to look after Karakura was falling down on the job, because monsters kept coming and ghosts were everywhere. Maybe this was a chance for Ichigo and Chad to do something about that. Chad was tense, he didn’t like the idea, but he also accepted that Ichigo would always rush in where angels feared to tread. Ichigo was a protector down to his DNA, and Chad was Ichigo’s protector. They would do this, not because Rukia commanded it, but because it was the right thing to do, and they couldn’t do anything else.

“Here’s how this is going to work,” Ichigo interrupted Rukia mid-flow. She huffed, and he ignored her. “I have class and family, and they are our first priority.”

“I can’t fight, Ichigo, and you have my power! I can’t complete my duties! You HAVE to –“

That was as far as she got before she had Chad in her face. “You guys weren’t doing your job before this. Ichigo and I will take care of it.”

She went off on them both, ranting about how she needed to train Ichigo and how he had to forget everything else in his life except what she told him to do. Ichigo was content to ignore her, until she told Chad that he had “no say in this” as it wasn’t his business.

Then Ichigo took Chad’s place in Rukia’s face, and snarled at her.

She shut up in sheer shock.

“Back the fuck up, little girl,” Ichigo snapped. “Chad and I are together –“

“I can see that, but what does your sex life have to do with anything?”

This time Ichigo’s growl wasn’t silent. Rukia’s eyes got huge and she closed her mouth.

“He and I FIGHT together. He and I WILL KEEP fighting together. You train me, you train him.”

She gave him a pitying look. “He doesn’t have Shinigami power, Ichigo. He’ll just slow you down and get in the way.”

Ichigo slapped her.

He didn’t hit her hard. He’d been sparring with Tatsuki for years, so he didn’t buy the bullshit about girls being delicate nor about boys not hitting girls, since Tatsuki knocked him on his ass on a regular basis, even when he was trying to hit her back. Rukia was a soldier/soul reaper/death god/whatever, so she could have taken a punch. But he smacked her to get her attention, not to instigate a fight.

“The only one holding me back here is you, Rukia. Chad and I will train together and fight together. We will have each other’s backs and we will protect each other. You can either train us both or stay the hell out of the way.”

She was still standing there, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, one hand on the cheek he slapped, when he turned and left her on the roof. Chad was a silent presence at his shoulder all the way down to street level. Once there, Ichigo headed over to a shady tree and sat on the grass. Chad lowered himself next to him.

A shoulder nudge asked if he was okay. He nodded, then leaned against the tree trunk, staring up at Chad. Ichigo told him everything that had happened, from the monster to Rukia’s break-in, to breaking the bonds she put on him, to the fight with the monster – Chad shuddered when Ichigo described Rukia stabbing him with her sword to transfer her power – to the visit to the strange Shōten with the creepy shopkeeper who gave off the vibe of a superspy or a ninja or something who looked at him like he knew him, and gave him the soul pill.

By the time they finished lunch and headed back into the classroom, Chad was up to speed and solidly in Ichigo’s corner.

That night was strange. Ichigo checked on the twins then picked up his backpack to head off to Chad’s. A voice from his closet, of all places, stopped him in his tracks.

“Where are you going? If there’s a Hollow alert overnight, you need to be here so we can go fight it!”

Rukia. Was in his closet. Dressed in his sister’s pajamas.

Staring at the weird hallucination, Ichigo dug out his phone. Speed-dialed number one. Chad’s voice came over the line.

“Are you okay?”

“Come over,” Ichigo rasped, then hung up.

Ten minutes later he was still standing in the doorway to his bedroom, still staring at the crazy girl in his closet, when Chad came tearing up the stairs. An instant later, he was in Chad’s arms, being efficiently checked for injury then thoroughly kissed.

Feeling the shock finally wearing off, Ichigo turned back to Rukia, staring at both of them in stern disapproval.

Still in his sister’s pajamas.

Still in his closet.

Ichigo shuddered.

Chad walked over, gently but firmly picked Rukia up with one hand, opened the window with the other, and tossed her out.

She gave an indignant shriek that muted into a thump when she landed on the grass. Ichigo followed Chad’s lead, gathering up her belongings into a bundle, and throwing them out on the lawn to join their owner.

Then Chad shut and locked the window. Ichigo grabbed him by the collar, pulled him down, and kissed him as thoroughly as he’d been kissed.

A chuckle from the hallway broke the kiss, but not the clench.

Isshin stared at them, mouth quirked into a half-smile. “Shut the door and keep the noise down, boys. Don’t disturb the girls.”

Still chuckling, he turned and walked away. When they could no longer hear his footsteps, Chad reached around Ichigo and pushed the door shut. Hands were reaching for buttons when a very unwelcome voice came from behind them.

Rukia glared at them from outside the window.

Ichigo reluctantly stepped away from Chad and walked over to stare at her. “Find somewhere else to live, Rukia, because my closet is not available. Now unless you get off on watching two guys get it on, go away.”

He turned from her purpling, indignant face toward Chad, and took up where they left off.

If she wanted to be a voyeur, he didn’t care. He had more important things to worry about. Like trying not to moan too loudly when Chad entered him, and hoping he had enough lube to last the night.

Chad was a little irritated, but Ichigo distracted him. Several times, in inventive ways. They would talk about Ichigo’s panic attack later, but he knew Chad understood. Rukia in his closet was enough to panic anyone.

~

It took several days for her to come to grips with the truth that wherever Ichigo went, Chad followed. A couple days after she first began dogging Ichigo’s steps, the three ended up at the Shōten. Urahara was on the steps, staring up at Chad from beneath his hat.

“Well. Isn’t this interesting.”

Chad nodded at him. Ichigo glared at him. Rukia looked confused.

“I haven’t seen a Fullbringer this strong in… well, ever, really. Have you been hanging around Kurosaki-kun long, my young giant friend?”

“They’re lovers.” Rukia, blunt as ever, butted in.

Ichigo instinctively swatted the back of her head. She instinctively reached over to punch him and got caught by Chad’s two-fingered Pinch of Doom, again. Chad frowned at her. She slowly pulled her arm back and pouted. Ichigo sighed.

Urahara snickered. “This will be fun!”

It wasn’t. But it was very instructive.

Rukia didn’t train either young man, because she couldn’t train Chad, as she didn’t know what a Fullbringer was, and Ichigo wouldn’t train without him. As it turned out, it wasn’t a problem, because Urahara knew much more about Chad’s developing power than any of them did, and he was quite willing to train them as a unit.

He also had a basement under his shop that went on forever and was perfect for training and sparring.

Ichigo and Chad took the time they usually spent sparring together and simply transferred place and method to Urahara’s Shōten and Hollow hunting. Rukia had outbursts of temper that Ichigo ignored, Chad frowned over, and Urahara giggled about behind his fan. As it turned out, Rukia – still with Yuzu’s pajamas – was living at the Shōten since Chad tossed her out of Ichigo’s bedroom. That made it convenient to train, with what little training she gave them. Mainly, she walked him through the process of delivering Konsō to the Plus souls wandering around, so they would stop being Hollow food and go to the Soul Society where they belonged, to wait to be reborn in the cycle of life.

In regards to their combat training, Urahara was a sadist, and liked to keep secrets, but he was strong, and he knew what he was doing.

He also took one look at the mod soul pill Ichigo was using and took it away from them. With no explanation, no matter how much Rukia pestered, Chad stared, and Ichigo glared, he handed over a light blue ball with the short instruction to “Use this one instead.”

Happily, the mod soul was quiet, liked to read, and his favorite hobby was napping, so Ichigo had no fear for what his body was up to when he wasn’t in it. He also brought up Chad’s concern with the effect of constant soul ejections on a living body. Urahara dithered a bit, but finally assured them that the mod soul would keep his body functioning normally and he would suffer no ill effects from switching it out.

Ichigo wasn’t sure he completely believed him, but he didn’t notice any shortness of breath, memory lapses, chest pains or headaches, so he was willing to roll with it. Chad was more watchful, and Ichigo appreciated it.

Within a few weeks of training under Urahara’s stinging cane and singsong instruction, Ichigo’s kendo had improved immensely. Chad had developed the coolest armor, offensive on his right arm and defensive on his left arm, and they spent a lot of time working to combine the Shinigami techniques with the Fullbring techniques. Given how close Ichigo and Chad were – Rukia, like Karin, gave the opinion that they shared the same brain – the Hollow population in Karakura never had it so rough.

There were still issues. Rukia insisted they drop everything at any time to go out and kill Hollows. Ichigo insisted they stay in class.

“There were monsters roaming around before you got here. They’ll be roaming around after you leave. They can wait until after my math test, because I am NOT failing this class!”

When Rukia kept insisting, Chad gently covered her entire face with one palm until she had to stop talking in order to breathe. It only took a few times of him doing that before she stopped protesting. She still grumbled constantly, though.

~ June~

The seventeenth was always a strange day. It had been six years since his mom gave her life to protect him. Six years since his stupidity and inability to tell ghost bait from a suicidal girl killed his mother. Ignoring his father’s manic babble behind him, Karin’s ill-tempered yelps in response, and Yuzu humming quietly as she set out food, Ichigo wound his fingers through Chad’s and tugged him forward.

“Mom,” he said very quietly. “This is Chad.”

Chad bowed respectfully to the gravestone. He moved a little closer to Ichigo, solid, silent support.

“You’d like him.”

Yuzu was arguing with Karin and Isshin now. Chad squeezed his hand gently.

“A lot.”

Rukia lurked in the distance. He ignored her. This was family time.

Of course, a Hollow attacked.

Ichigo was blind with fury that the same damned monster that killed his mother should come after his sisters… at his mother’s graveside… on his mother’s death day. Chad calmed him with a hand on his shoulder, and Ichigo tossed down his soul pill. Together, they attacked, just as they had been training with Urahara.

It captured Chad and brought him up to its face, laughing.

Chad punched it in the jaw so hard he fractured its mask.

Ichigo moved so quickly it felt like he flew, cleaver glinting as it curved down, carving a path diagonally from the top of the monster’s head to the far side of its body.

It was still crying out in agony and disbelief when it disintegrated. Chad dropped down lightly into a crouch, then straightened up slowly. Ichigo reached out to run his hand down Chad’s face, shaking a little at how close they’d come to death, and with relief at finally killing his mother’s killer.

Freeing her soul.

Chad caught his hand in his own, turning to place a quick kiss in his palm. Ichigo smiled at him, then turned and slid into his body. The mod soul pill popped out and Chad caught it, tucking it in Ichigo’s pocket. Their fingers brushed then tangled together, and they walked up the hill to join his family. His sisters were fine, if a little confused.

His father was quiet, for once. He looked a little proud, and a little sad. Ichigo had the suspicion there was a lot going on he didn’t know about. Isshin didn’t volunteer any information.

Ichigo didn’t ask.

~July~

Another variable was introduced into an already unstable reaction. Of course, it exploded.

Uryū Ishida was the top ranked student in their year in school. He was quiet, answering any question asked in an even baritone. He wore white a lot, and was president of the crafts club. Tatsuki’s buddy Orihime thought he was the best thing since sliced bread with red bean paste and jalapeños.

He also stared at Ichigo out of the corner of his eye a lot.

Chad brought it to Ichigo’s attention a few days into class. Ichigo thought it was weird, but Chad thought Uryū had a crush on him. Ichigo thought maybe Chad was reading too much into it. Then Rukia arrived, Urahara started training them, Hollows were fought, and Ichigo forgot about him.

Until a few days after the end of term. The skinny little bastard cornered them walking home one afternoon, made some snotty remarks about Shinigamis – some of which, really, both Chad and Ichigo agreed with, given their experience with Rukia – then crushed some kind of tablet in his hand.

A couple hours of fighting off Hollows all over Karakura, digging Tatsuki and Orihime out of a Hollow fight and promising to explain later, rescuing the twins from becoming monster chow, and finally fighting off a pointy-faced manikin as tall as a skyscraper with Ichigo’s cleaver strapped to Uryū’s head as Ichigo channeled Uryū’s power as Chad steadied them both, they had a new ally in protecting the town.

After Ichigo smacked him on the head hard enough to knock him on his face. Chad picked him up and set him on his feet. Rukia sputtered in the background.

“What are those?” Uryū asked, pointing at Chad’s armored arms.

“Weapons, moron, and if you do something that fucking stupid ever again, I will knock your head off!” Ichigo barked.

Chad leaned forward and muttered, “Spanking.” It sounded like both a threat and a promise.

Uryū blushed, bit his lip, then gave them a defiant look, pushing his glasses up his nose. “I’m sorry,” he ground out.

Chad eyed the blush and gave Ichigo a significant look. He refused to believe Uryū had the hots for him. He glared at Uryū, then took a calming breath, grabbed him by the arm and hauled him over to a nearby grassy patch under a tree. Chad sat down beside Ichigo, and Ichigo leaned against him. Rukia trailed behind, perching on a handy root next to Uryū.

“What was all that about, anyhow? That weird pissing contest. Quincy Pride. Hating Shinigami. There’s a story there. What happened to you?” Ichigo’s voice was gentle.

Rukia stared at him like she’d never seen him before. He ignored her. Chad looked at Uryū, an encouraging expression on what could be seen of his face.

Uryū stared at them all for a moment, curled in on himself. Then he gradually relaxed, not completely, but enough to stare at the grass he was nervously plucking as if his fingers were the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen. He kept staring, and kept making a bald spot in the grass, as he told them his story.

It was a tragedy. Like Ichigo losing his mother, Uryū had lost his grandfather to a Hollow attack. The Shinigami hadn’t come to help him, either. There was also a history of genocide, as the Shinigami had slaughtered Uryū’s ancestors, nearly wiping the entire species out. Rukia was crying by the time he finished speaking. He looked at her like he couldn’t understand what he was seeing.

After a long moment of silence, Ichigo offered, “You want to fight with us? We’ll protect Karakura together. Like your grandfather said.”

Uryū looked at him intensely, like he was reading his soul, then opened his mouth to refuse.

“Don’t let pride stop you from making allies,” Ichigo said before he could.

“Or friends,” Chad added quietly.

Another period of thought, with Uryū staring at each of them as if he could read their souls. Ichigo and Chad gave him the silence to think. Rukia started to talk several times, but Chad raised his hand, and she bit her tongue. Eventually Uryū squared his shoulders.

“I will honor my Sensei and follow his teachings,” he declared.

“I can’t wait to introduce you to Urahara.” Ichigo’s grin had teeth.

It was just as funny as he’d expected it would be.

Urahara dropped his hat. Then he muttered something about “Ryūken will kill me” that just seemed to solidify Uryū’s determination to join them, and the trio of Fullbringer, Sort-of Shinigami, and Quincy was born.

They tripped over each other a lot until they got used to the new addition, but they very quickly adapted. One side effect of the massive influx of Hollows after Uryū’s bait was that, with all the fighting and exposure, Chad could now see both Hollows and ghosts as clearly as Ichigo did. Between the three of them, Rukia didn’t have anything to bitch about when it came to Hollow eradication.

Not that it stopped her from complaining, but none of them paid any attention anyway.

~

A week or so later, Ichigo was doing his brotherly duty and going to a live taping of the Stupidest Show on Earth because it made his sisters happy. Rukia bounced along beside them like a hyper rabbit. Not that anyone told her that.

They’d all been introduced to the terror that was her Chappy the Rabbit addiction, and no one wanted to give her an opening for another sermon on its wonders.

So there they were, the four Kurosakis, one Yasutora, one Ishida, and one Kuchiki, off to watch Don Konanji cackle about spirits being with them.

Ichigo bitched about it all the way to the abandoned hospital where, to their collective shock, they discovered the charlatan wasn’t quite as fake as they assumed. Of course, this discovery included the three young men having to take down a Hollow that Konanji had literally prodded into manifesting. Once again, the twins were in peril, his dad was oblivious, and Rukia stood by with non-stop commentary.

By the time they got home, the only thing that would help Ichigo’s headache was a nice full-body massage. Sadly, Rukia was once again pumped up and refusing to take hints. She was still bouncing, this time around Ichigo’s bedroom. He gave a whiny little grumble and sprawled out on the bed.

Chad reached over and lifted Rukia to the windowsill. She squealed in protest.

“Keep it down up there!” Isshin called from the living room.

Ichigo blushed. Chad started to lift the window open. Rukia disappeared.

“Huh. Flash step. Not bad,” Chad remarked, then shifted Ichigo over until he was lying on his stomach. He lifted over shirt and tee shirt away, put his hands on Ichigo’s back, and started kneading.

Ichigo nearly melted into the bed. He had the best boyfriend in the whole universe. Odes would be written to Chad’s hands, and he’d be the one proclaiming them to the world. Heaven was right there in bed with him, and they hadn’t even gotten their clothes off.

“You do realize you’re talking out loud?”

Ah. Well, blame Chad’s magic hands.

Things were just getting interesting when the phone rang. Normally they would have ignored it, since they were both naked by that time and they were not in the mood to be interrupted. But it was Uryū’s ringtone, and he only called in dire emergencies. Chad groaned as Ichigo picked up the phone.

“The world had better be ending,” he rasped.

“Shinigami are invading, and they’re targeting Rukia. Two blocks from your house.”

“Okay, that works.”

He reached for his pants as he handed Chad the phone. An interrogatory hum from behind him, squawky noises from the phone, then Chad was getting dressed at light speed right next to him. Ichigo dug the soul pill out and popped it down his throat.

“Watch the girls, and if you need help, call Urahara.” He handed off his phone and ran out the door after Chad.

It had been less than five minutes since Uryū called, but the Shinigami had already struck. A tall, still figure with long dark hair, a scarf around his neck and some kind of curlers in his hair, stood behind a weirdo with crayon-red hair and tribal tattoos, who crouched over Uryū’s still body, lying bleeding in the street. Rukia was next to the guy with the scarf, pleading with him helplessly.

Ichigo and Chad attacked.

First priority was to save Uryū’s life. Second was to rescue Rukia. For that to happen, both Shinigami had to be fought off.

The redhead with the tattoos wasn’t as strong as he thought he was. Chad punched him through a wall.

Rukia was screaming at them not to fight, to stop, to let her go.

Idiot girl didn’t realize it wasn’t about her. It was about protecting friends. Paying debts.

The scarf-guy barely moved, but when he did, it was fast. He brought his sword up so quickly Ichigo didn’t even see it. Even as the tattooed redhead dug himself out of the wall and came back after Chad, Ichigo was falling.

He never felt the cut.

Either of them.

Chad bellowed and came in low. Rukia screamed and threw herself between him and the scarf-guy. Ichigo managed to wrap his fist around the guy’s pant leg. Hell, at this rate, he’d chew the bastard’s leg off, if that was the only way to stop him.

Only, his body wasn’t obeying his commands.

“Chad! No! Please! Stay with them!”

Rukia’s voice could shatter glass. Ichigo heard the scarf-guy mutter something about him being slow. Rukia shocked him by calling the bastard her brother.

“With a brother like you, she doesn’t need enemies,” he whispered. Scarf guy glared at him.

Chad crouched down over him, left arm up protectively. Scarf guy barked at tattoo guy to join him, and Ichigo could swear he saw a door open out of thin air before everything went dark.

It was a couple days before he woke up, and when he did, to his vague surprise, he wasn’t in the hospital.

He was in Urahara’s Shōten. Chad was sleeping on a mat next to his futon, one hand wrapped around his forearm. Tessai, who he’d only talked to maybe twice, was kneeling next to him running some sort of green energy over his body.

It tickled a little.

He twitched.

Chad sat up like a shot. Then he leaned over and stared at Ichigo’s face. Ichigo gave him his very best smile.

Under the circumstances, it wavered.

Then Tessai moved back, because Chad was kissing him and there wasn’t room for both big men leaned over at the same time.

Urahara cleared his throat from the doorway. Chad ignored him. Ichigo concentrated on not passing out. Tessai sighed.

Eventually Chad let him breathe, and Ichigo gave him an apologetic look for worrying him. Chad lifted a shoulder, forgiving him but warning him to be more careful next time. Ichigo ducked his chin, agreeing to try but knowing as well as Chad did that shit just happened to him, and by extension, Chad… All. The. Time.

“As fascinating as it is to watch the mating habits of the hybrid human teenaged male, particularly a pairing evolved to the point of silent conversation, I must ask, how are you feeling, Kurosaki-kun?”

Ichigo shrugged up at Urahara. “Fine, I guess. Uryū? Is he okay?”

Urahara nodded, hiding a little behind his fan. “Ishida-kun is fine. He’s resting at home, under his father’s watchful eye.”

“He has a father?” Ichigo was confused. “I thought he was an orphan?”

“So he would have you believe, and so I believe he would hope, but no.” Urahara winced as if in remembered pain. “He has a father. His father is unhappy. Ishida-kun will be taking a little time off training until he can escape… err, until he’s completely healed and ready to once again grace us with his presence.”

Chad had been running his fingers through Ichigo’s hair, and if he was a cat, he’d be purring. The stroking stopped, and he nudged the still hand with his head until it started up again. “What about Rukia?”

“Ah. Yes. Rukia. She has been taken back to Soul Society by her brother, Byakuya.”

“Bastard,” Chad growled.

“Many, if not most, who have met him would concur, Yasutora-kun. Still, she is gone, awaiting the punishment for giving her powers to a living soul.”

Chad stopped petting him again, but this time Ichigo let him. “Punishment? She’s going to be punished, for saving my family?” By the time he finished speaking his head hurt again. Yelling probably wasn’t a good idea.

A big warm hand pressed against his chest, keeping him in place. Ichigo looked up at Chad, who gave him a look in return, urging him to calm down and listen. He took a deep breath, trying not to wince when the mostly-healed cuts on his torso protested.

“She did break the law, although one could note that in this case the punishment is unusually harsh for the crime. Still, Byakuya-hime is rather rigid in pursuit of his duty.”

“What’s the punishment?” Chad was solemn. Ichigo unconsciously brought his hand up to cover the one on his chest, seeking reassurance.

“Execution for treason,” Urahara bluntly replied.

If Chad hadn’t been holding him to the futon, Ichigo would have exploded to his feet. As it was, he grunted a little at the pressure. Chad pressed him down a little harder and shook his head at him. Ichigo scowled but relaxed back.

“Then what are we waiting for? We need to get off our butts and go rescue Rukia!”

“You would risk your life, and your partner’s life, to rescue one Shinigami girl?” Urahara flipped his fan shut and tapped it against his lips, tilting his head to one side as he stared at Ichigo, waiting on his answer.

“I owe her,” he answered flatly. “She was wounded trying to protect my family. She gave me her power – broke their stupid law – because the Hollow had Yuzu IN HIS CLAWS and was about to EAT HER. Yes, I’ll risk whatever I have to. I’m in her debt.”

“We,” Chad put in.

Ichigo gave him a half-smile. He might owe Rukia for saving the girls, but Chad felt he owed Rukia for saving Ichigo. As always, they would protect each other, no matter what.

“There’s one slight problem with that,” Urahara broke in on their moment. “You see, when Byakuya cut you… he destroyed the power Rukia gave you. He nearly killed you, and he rendered you incapable of using Shinigami powers. Re-inserting you into your body also permanently damaged your kaizō konpaku, which is actually not a problem since you’re no longer able to access your powers.”

Ichigo felt like the bottom dropped out of his world. How could he protect his family, the girls, Chad, Uryū, his dad, if he couldn’t fight? How could that bastard DO this to him?

“You survived,” Chad reminded him softly.

That steadied him. Yes, he nearly died. But he didn’t. He wasn’t the type to give up. He’d just have to do whatever he had to do to get his strength back. Then they would go rescue Rukia, kick her brother’s ass, beat up that idiot with the tattoos, and everything would be okay.

“There is one option we could try…”

He looked away from Chad to peer at Urahara.

“It would be difficult. You might die.”

The silence following that statement went on much too long. The shopkeeper/spy/whatever was such a drama queen.

Chad glared up at Urahara. “What is it?” he rumbled.

“It is something that Kurosaki-kun must undergo on his own, a trial that will determine whether he will survive or perish, whether he will regain his soul reaper abilities or fall away into darkness –“

He moved before Chad’s fist could impact his face, but that just left him open for the smack to the back of his skull. He sulked at both young men, then gestured for Ichigo to lie back down. Ichigo ignored him, settling down beside Chad and leaning into him. Chad wrapped an arm around him and kept him close.

“I’m not leaving,” Chad told them both.

Ichigo nodded. “I’ll do it.”

“I haven’t told you what it is yet,” Urahara cautioned him.

“Will it work?”

Chad twitched beside him, and Ichigo patted his thigh, giving his own silent reassurance.

“One way or another,” Urahara prevaricated, then asked Chad, “Are you sure you want to see this? It will be traumatizing.”

“I’ll stay.” The promise to kill Urahara if Ichigo died was unspoken, but clearly understood by everyone in the room.

~

The next morning found Chad, Ichigo, Urahara, Tessai, and the two kids, Ururu and Jinta, in a far corner of the basement training grounds. Ichigo could feel Chad’s misgivings. He had a feeling it was going to get ugly, but he’d gotten Chad to promise not to intervene unless Ichigo asked or was in imminent danger of dying. He had to do this. They didn’t have a lot of time, and he couldn’t stand being powerless when his friends were in danger. There was also a niggling fear that Byakuya bastard might come back and finish what he started. If Ichigo didn’t have any way to fight him, how would he protect Chad or Uryū? Not to mention his family.

No, he had to do this.

Of course, he wasn’t actually expecting Tessai to catch Chad in a kidō binding strong enough to bring down an elephant – or a freaked out Fullbringer – at the exact same moment that Urahara knocked him out of his body and… Cut. His. Soul chain.

Then tossed him down a seventy-foot shaft.

Urahara called down instructions in an inappropriately cheerful voice, how he had three days to either regain his Shinigami powers or he’d turn into a Hollow and they’d have to kill him. How his soul chain would suffer encroachment, would eat itself, and when it got to his chest, his time would be up. How they would be waiting for him at the top of the shaft, and it was up to him to find his way out.

The sound of the kidō breaking made Tessai yelp. The sound of a fist hitting Urahara in the face, cutting off the happy babble, made Ichigo smile through his agony.

The next couple days were horrendous.

The pain from the mouth at the end of his soul chain, as it chewed through the links, nearly drove him mad. He could hear Urahara arguing with Chad, threatening to send him away, and Chad threatening to throw Urahara into the pit, along with Tessai chanting binding kidō one after another. But the sounds faded as more and more of Ichigo’s consciousness was drawn inside himself. Then the chain on his chest exploded into a hydra of voracious mouths, chewing desperately until the chain was ripped completely away. A hole showed where the chain’s anchor had been attached. White ichor burst from his eyes, his ears, his mouth, his nose, all the pores of his skin. As his world exploded in agony, everything went dark.

He woke up to a muffled voice.

The world was tilted sideways.

A man stood on a thin pole very far away, his cloak billowing in the wind, his hair flying in his face. He was saying something, but Ichigo couldn’t make it out.

Then he started to slide down the side of the building he was sitting on. Who built skyscrapers parallel to the ground, anyway?

The man was flying alongside him, but Ichigo wasn’t paying much attention. He was too busy being horrified by how the white ichor had followed him to wherever he was now. It was coating his skin, bursting out of windows, catching on the tattered edges of the man’s cloak. From somewhere far away, he heard a cackling laugh, but it didn’t seem amused.

It seemed angry. Almost desperate.

Then the man beside him kicked away the ichor trying to trap his legs, and bellowed at Ichigo to find his soul reaper powers somewhere in the eight hundred little boxes floating around them.

Ichigo looked at him like he was nuts.

He sucked at sensing spiritual power. How the hell was he supposed to find one specific box out of the ridiculous number of boxes surrounding him?

“For fuck’s sake, King, at least TRY,” a warbling voice screeched at him.

“Okay,” he said, batting at the box nearest himself.

“…You can hear me?” Whoever it was now sounded stupefied.

“Sure,” Ichigo answered absently. He was trying to remember something Uryū said about colors, and spirit ribbons… RED.

“…Really?”

The older man was back, and he looked pissed off, but his voice was still garbled.

“Yeah, I can hear you, and I can see him, now be quiet for a minute while I figure out how not to die, okay?”

“…Okay,” the voice warbled. It sounded faint, like it was in shock.

“Ah-ha~!” Ichigo reached out to the one red ribbon/box in the mass of white, edged in black and yellow. It didn’t sound exactly like what Uryū described, but all the other ribbons were the same white as that disgusting and agonizing ichor bursting out of him, so he’d pick anything but that. He yanked on the ribbon, and it opened the box to show him two hilts nestled next to one another.

Weird. He shrugged, reached in the box, and yanked them out.

One was a freaking huge Khyber knife with a slit in it near the handle that was nearly as tall as he was, and the other was a trench knife as long as his arm.

He was still gawking at them when both the muffled man’s voice and the warbly voice screamed out in alarm, and the buildings fell into the sea.

Next thing he knew, the world exploded again, only this time it didn’t hurt. He was some kind of comet, or maybe he’d been shot out of a canon. He ricocheted off a few barriers or maybe walls and crash-landed in the dirt hard enough to leave a decent-sized impact crater. Oddly, it didn’t hurt. He vaguely heard Jinta’s voice yapping at him through the ringing in his ears, then he shook off the lingering dust from the explosion and stared out at his audience.

Through a mask of some sort.

Now, that was just uncomfortable.

He lifted the hilt of his larger sword, only to find the blade was missing. Weird. Then, instinctively, he smacked himself in the face with the butt of one hilt.

Ouch.

The mask over his face broke like a thick eggshell and landed in pieces at his feet.

“Congratulations,” Urahara sang. “You decided to become a soul reaper! Cutting it a bit close, there – urk!”

“I told myself the first thing I would do when I got out of that pit was kill you slowly,” Ichigo told the rapidly-purpling face above the throat he was throttling, “but I have something more important to do.”

He then dropped Urahara, accidentally bowling over the kids, and stepped over to Chad, who stood staring at him a little ways away. He was smiling, relief and exhaustion and a hint of ferocious temper in the compressed line of his lips.

Ichigo wrapped his arms around the man and kissed him like he never thought he’d have the chance to do so again.

Talking could wait.

Tessai took Urahara over to the side and started running green healing kidō over his throat while the kids huddled off to the side, whispering furiously and staring between the two pairs of men like spectators at a tennis match. Ichigo ignored them all as Chad pulled him a little further away from everyone else and wrapped him up in a hug. Ichigo hugged him back, feeling oddly energized considering he’d been stuck in the bottom of a pit for a long time with no food then fought for his life against some weird white clay monster.

“Don’t trust him, Ichigo,” Chad whispered fiercely.

Ichigo cocked his head and looked a question.

“He killed you!” Chad’s voice was shaking with barely controlled fury.

Ichigo was confused.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” He certainly felt alive.

There were tears lining Chad’s eyes, though they didn’t fall. He couldn’t tell if they were from grief or anger or some combination of both.

“A human soul can’t survive losing its chain. He killed you…”

“In order to make me a Shinigami. Because soul reapers are dead.”

That weight was back in the pit of his stomach. When he’d told Urahara he was willing to do whatever it took to rescue Rukia, protect his loved ones, and pay his debt, he didn’t mean commit suicide. He looked at Chad, wide-eyed.

Chad curled his hand around the nape of Ichigo’s neck and pulled him in to rest his face against the warmth of Chad’s shoulder. He was trembling, barely perceptible, but there.

“Okay,” Ichigo whispered back.

He wouldn’t trust him. He would see what Urahara did, put it against what the man said, and see where they went from there. He did know two things – he could only go forward, not backward, as what was done was done. And he didn’t care how he had to do it, but dead or alive, he wasn’t leaving his family – including Chad – no matter what happened. He was their protector. He had given up everything to be so, and he would follow through. He would also make damned sure he talked it out with Chad before he made any more stupid moves. Chad had saved him from his own impetuous actions more than once in the last couple years. Not that Chad was always calm.

Watching him punch Urahara in the jaw on a regular basis might just be good therapy, too.

Urahara walked up to them and cleared his throat, carefully staying out of arm’s-reach. Ichigo reluctantly stepped away from his warm haven and turned to face him. Shadowed eyes stared at him from under the brim of that stupid striped hat, the ever-present fan covering Urahara’s expression.

“Now for this part, Kurosaki-kun, I must train you on your own.”

Chad growled, and Ichigo raised an eyebrow. Yeah, like that was going to happen.

“At some point, you will be separated, and you must be trained to fight individually as well as together. Once you master this lesson, you may once again fight as partners. After the ordeal of the shattered shaft, you will discover that your strengths have changed, and it will take effort and time to merge your styles again.” He sounded completely serious.

Ichigo looked over his shoulder. Chad met his eyes, and they agreed. Time was short, so they would do it Urahara’s way. They would also keep an eye on one another.

“You may, of course, observe, Yasutora-kun. Watching us train will help you as well.”

No shit. Neither Ichigo nor Chad said it, but it was clearly understood. Urahara chuckled weakly.

“Right, well, Yasutora-kun, if you would go join Tessai-san,” the fan waved over in the general direction of Tessai, propped up on a rock, looking completely exhausted from keeping Chad contained for so many hours, “we will begin.”

Chad gave Ichigo a nuzzle to the back of the neck and Ichigo shivered, smiling a little before turning to his now-sensei with a scowl.

“Let’s do this!”

“Awaken, Benihime!”

What followed was three straight days of Urahara kicking Ichigo’s ass, Ichigo displaying a learning curve shaped like a fighter jet’s combat take-off, Chad making enough mental notes to fill an encyclopedia, and Tessai being used as a pillow by the kids when he wasn’t bringing out tea and munchies.

Sometime around the beginning of day two, a tiny curl of mask appeared around Ichigo’s right eye. It didn’t bother him so he didn’t bother knocking it off. Oddly, with it there, his counter-attacks smoothed out. Around lunchtime, not that they stopped to eat very often, three very thin lines, like a cat scratch, appeared below his right eye, curving along the top of his cheekbone. Shortly afterward, his speed picked up immensely.

When he woke up from his very short nap to begin the third day, his eyes had changed slightly. Instead of the usual light brown, they now had a tint of gold, making them seem to glow. He would only realize later that the changes to his appearance were permanent.

When Chad saw his new eye color, he brushed kisses over both eyelids, and dropped butterfly kisses on the red scratch marks and the barely-noticeable bone fragment. Then he gave Ichigo a slightly longer, still too-short kiss on the lips, a promise of more later. With an encouraging look, he stepped back and perched on a nearby boulder so he could see the entire combat zone, and went back to watching and making notes.

Energized, Ichigo threw himself back into the fight. That damned hat was going DOWN! Near the middle of day three, he finally figured out how to work around all the attacks Urahara was willing to show him. A sweep with his Khyber knife, a kick to the gut, and a jab with his trench knife that was so fast no one but Urahara saw it coming, and the hat hit the sand.

Urahara had seen it, but he hadn’t been able to dodge, a fact that both surprised and pleased him. He straightened up and sheathed his sword. Ichigo immediately sheathed his own, bandages wrapping around them from out of nowhere and strapping them to his back. Ichigo bowed and Urahara returned it, student to teacher, with thanks for the lesson.

Then they fell on Tessai’s food tray like starving wolves. It had been a long few days for both of them.

Most of the evening was spent going over what Urahara and Chad observed during the fights, and what Ichigo learned. By the time they fell into bed, they’d worked out a rough plan for meshing Chad’s Fullbring power with Ichigo’s Shinigami-with-hollow-accoutrements power. Urahara left them at the door of the guest room with a wink and a barrier kidō to stop noise – “don’t want you scaring the kiddies!” he chirped.

Chad was appreciative enough not to punch him again. Ichigo was too busy pulling Chad into the room and tugging his clothes off to care.

Apparently, one change brought about by all this craziness was that fighting made him horny.

Chuckling, Chad let Ichigo do what he had to do. A few minutes of frantic motion, a little cotton-burn on his neck from Ichigo ripping his shirt off, and a couple tears in what were usually very tough denim jeans, and it was all skin, glorious warm skin over hard bunched muscles. A neat little move had them both falling to the futon, with Chad automatically cupping Ichigo’s head and rolling so he took the brunt of the fall on his back.

This led to Ichigo being exactly where he wanted to be, naked, straddling his lover, with Chad’s hands on him and Chad’s body beneath him, reacting beautifully. Ichigo touched him like a blind man learning to read, exploring everything in reach, and Chad returned the favor.

There were a few changes in Ichigo’s appearance due to his death and odd rebirth, mainly the slightly raised bone fragment framing his eye that appeared to be white scar tissue, and the red lines that looked like scratches or dark scars. There had been changes to Chad when his Fullbringer powers emerged, as well, mainly in his chest and shoulders. Ichigo was stronger, nearly as strong as Chad, but as always, they were tender with one another.

Neither had much, or any, tenderness anywhere else in their lives. Between them, it would always be gentle.

Even when it was fast, and hard, and needy as it was that night.

It turned out Urahara was quite the considerate host. Not only did he put up a sound barrier… there was a bottle of lube under the pillow. For that, Ichigo almost forgave him for everything.

The first time was pure instinct, and showed a new side to Ichigo. When he was ready, and oh, was he ready, he twisted around until he was on his hands and knees. He threw Chad a look over his shoulder that told him to go for it, and Chad followed every cue, coming to his knees and covering Ichigo’s body with his own. It felt as good as always, yet somehow more raw, more intense. Ichigo pushed backward, impaling himself and pulling a gasp out of Chad that he met with his own, new, trill. Chad shuddered when he heard that, and Ichigo moaned in response, as the shudder was transmitted into and through him via their connection. That triggered Chad to move, and Ichigo fell into sensation.

He rocked heavily into the futon, his arms folding beneath him to pillow his face as he concentrated on the girth filling him. The sound of Chad panting in his ear and the bruising strength of the hands clenching his hips settled into him, making Ichigo feel at once completely safe and as if he were free-falling from a cliff. His orgasm caught him by surprise, and he made another new sound, a sharp, two-toned chirp that sounded like a combination of a grunt and a moan. Whatever it was, it really turned Chad on, as he found himself being pounded into with near desperation, all the way through his orgasm.

Which didn’t stop.

By the time Chad came, Ichigo’s throat was dry, his legs were shaking, and he felt like he’d been caught up in a tornado, only in a good way. A really good way. The best way, ever.

Chad pulled out slowly, and he felt every inch. He felt his muscles spasm as he was emptied, and gave that cry again, only softer, almost dreamy. Chad moaned, and pushed back in all the way, coming again, short, but hard. Ichigo couldn’t stop shaking.

Once they finally separated, he cuddled into Chad’s warmth, burying his face in the curve where neck met muscular shoulder, and made a chirruping noise. Chad’s hands stroked lazily up and down his back, soothing him and calming him after the intensity of their lovemaking.

“Are you part bird now?”

There had been an incident with a cockatiel earlier in the year, but they’d been busy trying to avoid Rukia. It contained the soul of a little boy, and she used it to teach Ichigo how to konsō souls regardless of the container. Shortly afterward, a serial killer hollow attacked them, and they were treated to the sight of the Gates of Hell eating the remains after they put it down. The bird had been the best part of the week, by far.

Ichigo could hear the smile in the question. He grinned back, and nipped the throat beneath his face gently. “More like a lizard, I think. I remember one summer there was a lizard living behind the clinic. Every time he went looking for sex he barked really loudly. Scared the pants off Yuzu, until Karin got pissed and ran him off. I sound kind of like that, I think. I wonder what’s up with that…” he trailed off.

He’d worry about weird noises later. Right now, there was Chad, who was looking very tasty, and was getting hard again. He grinned. He loved quick refractory periods, and a thorough sex education teacher who’d told him what that meant. Slithering up Chad’s body, Ichigo leaned forward and licked at his lips until he was allowed in. The kiss was as messy and deep as the fucking had been, and in very little time, they were both hard and leaking again. Chad reached down and played with his hole, stretched and wet, until Ichigo couldn’t stand it anymore. Straddling him again, Ichigo arched back and guided the thick cock back inside him, sitting down slowly, enjoying the burn.

Chad half-sat, muscles straining in his chest and arms, as Ichigo rode him. Their eyes held each other, as the heat ratcheted up. Ichigo let his hands wander over Chad’s chest, then his own, playing with nipples, rubbing tensed muscles, running down his thighs and up Chad’s belly to tickle the curls below his own balls, where they were joined. Chad grunted, and pushed up harder, meeting Ichigo’s downward movement and jolting them both. All too soon, Ichigo felt his spine tighten, the feeling spreading from his ass to his balls up to his scalp and down to his toes. His head fell back and he made that two-toned sound again, growing louder as he got closer.

Abruptly, Chad sat up, pushing Ichigo to lie back on the futon, his legs sliding up Chad’s arms to rest his calves on those broad shoulders. Chad grunted as he thrust steadily, driving Ichigo completely insane. He fell over the edge, ass clenching, balls emptying, and kept coming as Chad kept fucking him. When he was a moaning, chirping mass of chaotic sensation, Chad finally gave in, three short strokes emptying him into Ichigo. It felt like fire. Felt like home. Felt like he’d climbed a mountain, killed a monster, flew without wings.

Pulling out slowly and gently easing his legs down, Chad wrung every last bit of energy Ichigo had out of him. Lying together afterward, too exhausted to move, Ichigo gave Chad a last sleepy kiss, nuzzled against his cheek, and passed out.

Only to find himself back in the place with the sideways skyscrapers.

The sun was shining brightly, making the windows on the buildings sparkle like diamonds. He was utterly relaxed, dressed in a plain white yukata with swirls of black and red decorating it. He shrugged, put his hands behind his head, and settled for a nap.

Then someone blocked the sun.

He opened a lazy eye to see his own reflection, with all the color drained out of it, peering down at him through bright yellow eyes with pitch-black sclera. The expression on his face was curious, like he was trying to be hostile but felt too good to really pull it off. He was dressed in the opposite to Ichigo’s clothing as well, a deep black yukata with spiky red and white designs, that really showed how pale he was.

“Hello, white me,” Ichigo offered.

His twin’s mouth twisted, and his eyes glittered, before he barked out a laugh and plopped down next to Ichigo. “Hello, crazy king.” The other’s voice was a light tenor, and had a hint of a double tone to it, making it sound like he was warbling when he talked.

Ichigo grinned. He liked it. He decided he liked this place, and this stranger who looked like him. “What’s your name?”

“Don’t have one.” He didn’t sound bothered by being nameless.

“D’you want one?”

“What the hell. Go for it.”

Ah. Ichigo sucked at naming things. He thought for a long moment. He’d probably spent too much time reading Fushigi Yûgi with his sisters, because the best he could come up with was “Byakko?”

His twin stared at him for a second, then grinned. It was a little manic. “Better than Shiro, I guess,” he decided.

“Hey,” Ichigo protested, “give me a little credit for creativity!”

They relaxed in silence for a little while, enjoying the sunshine, before Ichigo roused himself to ask, “Where are we, anyway? And why did you call me king?”

Wide yellow eyes blinked at him, then the newly-dubbed Byakko laughed so hard he rolled down the front of the building. Ichigo considered letting him go, but that weird energy was still buzzing through him, and he’d never been one to lie around for very long. Snickering, he rolled over and dived after his pale twin.

A strong white hand with black nails caught him as he barreled past, and they came to rest on a different building, staring down at the waves below. Ichigo had discovered he could breathe underwater the last time he was here, when he found his Zanpakutō – Zanpakutōs? – so he didn’t worry about falling in. He shifted over onto his side and stared at the other man.

“Yeah, so, stop laughing like a jackass and talk to me,” he chided.

The manic grin was back. “I’m your sword, King, and this is your soul.”

Ichigo thought about that for a second. “So my soul is a sideways city and my sword is a reflection of myself? You seem like a lot more than that.”

Byakko had started to sneer at him, then looked confused when he finished speaking. Ichigo gave him a half-grin.

“You’re… the king.” He sounded like he was figuring it out as he spoke. “I’m the horse. If you’re not strong enough, I’ll take the throne.” He didn’t sound too sure about that, rather like that was what he thought he should say.

Reaching out to poke him in the ribs, Ichigo grinned a little as he flinched and glared. The horse was a little ticklish. And not too sure he was a horse. “There’s more to that than what you’re saying.” Years spent learning how to read silence with Chad was really helping him out with this. He thought, mind throwing out metaphors and similes as he worked through what Byakko was trying to tell him.

“You’re part of my soul,” he began slowly, picking his words with care. “So you and I are the same, yet we’re different. You say I’m the king, so you expect me to lead or command you. You say you’re the horse, so you expect to be supporting or carrying me.”

Black nails began to tap on the window beneath them, yellow eyes staring at him with a hint of encouragement and a hint of malice.

“We’ll get back to that in a second. You look like me, only with the colors reversed… so you’re embodying what I hide or don’t show to the world.”

The tapping stopped, then started up again, a little louder.

“So, if what I show the world is what I’ve been taught… manners, no matter what Goat Face says, lessons, being nice to kids and old folks, showing respect where it’s earned… then you must be what I know without being taught, my ‘animal’ side, my reactions and reflexes. My instincts.”

The tapping stopped and the eyes narrowed. “You’re brighter than I figured, King.”

“Fourth in my class, behind Uryū and Tatsuki’s friend and some guy I can never remember the name of. Plus, I spend a lot of time with my little sisters and Chad. I have to be sharp to keep up with the twins, and Chad’s pretty damned smart, too. If I don’t keep up I get left behind, and-“

“That ain’t gonna happen,” they said in unison.

They smirked at each other, and Byakko nodded.

“You got a lot of work ahead of you, but you’ll get there. Now get out of here, lover-boy’s waiting.”

As the light disappeared, Ichigo caught a glimpse of the man in the black cloak, standing off in the distance, watching him. He’d have to figure out how to get back inside his soul, soon. He and his twin had a lot to talk about, and he wanted to find out about the old man, too.

Then he woke up to banging on the door, the smell of breakfast in the air, and Chad cuddling him. So much better than his dad’s foot in his face.

That night was the summer fireworks festival, and Urahara let them leave, telling them to be ready to go to Soul Society in two days’ time. Ichigo was still mulling over what to tell his dad when Chad asked Urahara, “What about Ichigo’s soul pill?”

“Ah, yes, thank you, Yasutora-kun, I nearly forgot that the old one was damaged. With the changes Kurosaki-kun underwent, the usual kaizō konpaku may not be adequate to perform the necessary task. When you return to undertake your rescue mission, I will have a replacement available for you. Free of charge!”

He was glad he wouldn’t have to pay for it. The second soul pill had been okay, but the first one Rukia gave him had been defective and nearly ran away with his body. Not that she noticed there was anything wrong. Her soul pill, nicknamed Chappy, was a total moron. Ichigo winced. If Urahara gave him a freak like that to take his place, it would traumatize his sisters and he’d have to kill Urahara. He flashed back to the last few days training. Well, try to kill Urahara. Maybe sneak up on him in his sleep or something.

He was still thinking about the difference between Shinigami and ninja when he, Chad, the twins, and his lunatic father arrived at the park. Watching Isshin bounce around like a ping pong ball on crack while spouting nonsense, he decided he really wasn’t in the mood. Throwing his sisters under the bus, he took the blanket from Karin. Chad, as always thinking along the same lines, relieved Yuzu of the picnic basket.

“We’ll hold our viewing spot while you guys go have fun at the booths, okay?”

“Okay!” Yuzu cheered, Karin glowered, and Isshin led them away like a demented Pied Piper. Ichigo shook his head.

He loved them, no matter how insane they were.

Sitting next to Chad, munching on Yuzu’s cooking, he watched the sun go down and the stars come out. He was trying to come to terms with everything that had happened in the last few days. Nearly being killed by Rukia’s bastard brother, actually being killed by Urahara if he understood it right, preparing for invading another entire dimension… thank God for Chad. He leaned back and Chad’s arm naturally came around his shoulders.

The families around them were too busy chasing children, and the couples were too involved with one another, to notice when Ichigo reached up and kissed Chad. For the longest moment, there was nothing in the world but the two of them. Then he heard a squeak.

Tatsuki and her friend were standing a couple feet away, waiting to be noticed. Tatsuki looked a little bored and kind of amused, while her friend… Ichigo wracked his brain and came up with Hime… while Hime looked like she couldn’t decide if her world had ended or her darkest wish had been granted. She was babbling something but Tatsuki bopped her on top the head, cutting her off.

“I was gonna ask if you wanted to hang out and watch the fireworks, Ichigo, but as usual, you’re – busy.” She smirked at him and he scowled playfully back at her.

“Voyeur,” Chad murmured.

Ichigo blushed.

Tatsuki snorted, and Hime piped up with, “Yes!”

All three of them stopped and stared at her blankly, before Tatsuki cracked up, grabbed her by the hand, and hauled her away.

“Catch you later, boys!” she tossed over her shoulder.

“Not if I see you first!” Ichigo automatically responded.

Then he got back to kissing Chad and ignoring the world until the kids – including his dad – came back with ice cream. Then the first fireworks exploded across the sky, and the next two hours were pure magic.

~August~

Two days later he and Chad met up with Uryū in the basement of the Shōten. Urahara was waiting for them, hat on and fan covering his face, and at his feet sat a sleek black cat with golden eyes.

Uryū couldn’t help himself, as he loved cats but wasn’t allowed by his landlord to have one. “Hello, pretty kitty,” he purred, going to one knee and gently stroking the cat from between its ears to the base of its tail. It purred back, preening under his touch, eyes closing in satisfaction. Its entire presence broadcast the command to worship it. Ichigo left Uryū to it and looked over at Urahara.

“Are we ready to do this thing?”

“Of course, Kurosaki-kun.” Urahara handed him a little misty blue marble. “Swallow this, please.”

He stared at it for a long moment before biting the bullet, tossing it back like a pill taken dry. It went down with ease, and his body stepped back into Chad, who automatically wrapped his arm around it.

“Oh, aren’t you the big strong gorgeous one,” Ichigo heard come from his mouth, a little lower and more sultry than his own usual tone.

Was his modified soul actually hitting on his boyfriend using his body? He punched the slutty little bastard right out of Chad’s arms.

“Err, Kurosaki-kun, you might want to be careful there. That is your body you’re beating up, after all.”

Ichigo glared down at the wide-eyed, terrified version of himself looking back up at him. “Be nice to my sisters, avoid my father, take damned good care of my body, and if you fuck anything up, when I get back, I will end you.”

The mod soul was nodding like a bobble-head doll as Ichigo grabbed Chad’s wrist and dragged him across the sand to where Uryū was still fussing over the cat, who was lapping up all the attention. Urahara looked like he was holding back laughter. Ichigo gave him a glare, for good measure.

Tipping his head down to completely cover his eyes with the brim of his hat, Urahara got back to business. “You’ll be taking one more person with you, boys. This is Yoruichi. Your expert guide to the mysteries of the Seireitei.”

Ichigo looked around. Unless this person was invisible, then…

“I guess that’s my cue, huh?” the cat said in a male, bass voice.

Uryū froze, then seemed to accept the oddity that was his life once more, and scratched the talking cat behind its ear. That got him an approving look from slitted golden eyes.

Urahara then gave them a quick explanation of the passage between worlds, how they shouldn’t touch the goo on the walls or they might end up a century in the future or back in the Jōmon period hanging out with pot-makers, how they had to run as fast as they could or they’d get stuck when the walls collapsed and die a horrible death. Ichigo stared at him. He had the feeling, once again, Urahara was leaving important shit out. Still, it was what they had to work with, so…

“Let’s go.”

Another set of those sliding doors, like he’d glimpsed the night Rukia’s bastard brother nearly killed him, appeared next to Urahara as he chanted. When they opened, Yoruichi hopped on his shoulder, Chad came up on his right and Uryū on his left, and they dove into the weirdest tunnel he’d ever seen.

They ran as fast as they could and still keep together. Near the end, they nearly got caught by something the cat called a ‘cleaner’ along with several choice insults to Urahara, and nearly died again when Uryū’s cape-thingy got stuck and Chad had to rip him out of it to keep him from getting crushed by the ‘cleaner’ or caught in the time-altering goo. Still, they made it, all together and relatively in one piece… only to come out way up in the air over what looked like farmland and fall like rocks to the ground.

Thankfully, all of them had trained to take massive falls. Ichigo and Chad were really sturdy, Uryū knew cool Quincy tricks that cushioned his fall, and cats always land on their feet. They were all cursing Urahara by then.

“Now what?” Uryū asked after lifting Yoruichi onto his own shoulder. Before Ichigo could answer, the cat started to speak.

It had a plan. They would go in the gate. It was a modified frontal assault. One group would set a diversion, then the other would flank the troops that responded to the invasion. They’d all split up, and find Rukia, then hightail it out of there. If that plan failed, then the cat knew a fireworks expert who could load them up in a giant ball of spiritual pressure and shoot them from a canon, breaking open the shield around the Seireitei and riling the Shinigami up like ants under the threat of flood.

It was a stupid plan.

“That’s a stupid plan,” he said aloud. Chad nodded.

Uryū looked torn between standing up for the cat and agreeing with the fact that it was a stupid plan.

The cat hissed. “What is YOUR plan then, genius?”

“Sneak in, stick together, recon, regroup, break her out as quietly as possible, and sneak the hell out again,” Ichigo informed it.

Both Chad and Uryū nodded at that. Yoruichi sighed.

“Do you really think that will work?”

“Better than setting the entire city on alert and having to avoid a million freaked-out Shinigami tracking us down and trying to kill us.”

It was decided. They wasted no time.

As it turned out, the cat was a pretty good guide. It actually knew a few ways into the Seireitei that were very lightly monitored, and they ended up hitching a ride with a supply wagon, the men under a tarp between crates of saké. Yoruichi curled up on top the trailing end of the tarp, sunning itself, looking for all the world like it had been there since the beginning of time, nothing to see here, just a regular shipment, let it through, moving right along.

Maybe the cat really was able to mind-whammy guards, too, because the cart rumbled in the gate with barely a pause to hand over papers.

Once inside the city, they waited until the cart was going around a corner, and rolled out, one after the other. Ichigo was last off, quickly catching up to the others.

Yoruichi pawed a map out of Chad’s pocket that he didn’t know he had, and Ichigo made a mental note to smack Urahara later for putting his hands in his boyfriend’s pockets. Then a single claw was pricking specific locations on the map, and he shook himself out of punishment fantasies to focus on the current mission.

There were a couple places they could be holding Rukia. One was a squad housing/training unit her brother commanded. One was a hospital unit. The last was an impenetrable fortress made of stone that rendered them powerless.

He really hoped she wasn’t at the third place.

Striking as quickly as possible, they set forth to locate the Sixth Division, sneak into the holding cells like thieves, steal Rukia away and get the hell out of town.

Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Their first challenge was from a strange pair of warriors, a pretty guy with weird feathers stuck to his face and a bald weirdo who wanted them to wait while he danced around calling on good luck. Needless to say, Chad attacked Baldy, Ichigo took the pretty boy, and Uryū provided back up, shooting nasty blue arrows into any Shinigami body part he could target. The fight didn’t last very long, before Baldy and Feathers were knocked out, tied up, and stashed behind a handy broken wall.

Unfortunately, the fights didn’t stay easy.

A guy with dreadlocks used some kind of sonic weapon to knock Uryū out of the sky, making him so dizzy he couldn’t walk straight. Chad dragged him out of the way as Ichigo took out the enemy – turns out Hollow mask ichor works pretty well as ear plugs. After knocking Dreads out of the fight, he tied the man up with his own haori and tossed him in an empty storage room.

Uryū wasn’t completely recovered when they hit their next challenge, but that was okay, because it was the red-headed asshole who’d attacked them in the Living World, and Ichigo was more than ready to pound his head into the pavement.

During the fight, Ichigo got faster and faster, weaving around to defend Chad and get in his own strikes. They used a new style, relying on Chad’s strength and Ichigo’s speed to confuse, block, and attack from unexpected angles. It worked very well with Red, although Ichigo learned a disturbing fact as they fought.

“What do you mean, she’s your friend? Why the hell would you bring your friend back to DIE? What kind of friend ARE you?”

A conflicted one, it turned out. As he sprawled at Ichigo’s feet, nearly unconscious from Chad’s El Directo, he begged Ichigo to save Rukia.

“Planning on it,” he snorted, then kicked the idiot in the head as he walked past, knocking him out.

Things took a turn for the surreal when a huge bastard with his hair done up in spikes with bells at the end landed in front of them. A little girl with pink hair clung to his shoulder.

“Ah, so THIS is where the fun is!” the scary guy proclaimed, then came at them with his ragged sword like a tsunami.

Ichigo didn’t remember most of that fight – he spent too much of it trying like hell to keep Chad and Uryū alive. Scary tried to bait them into dueling him individually, but none of them were that stupid. They weren’t invading to prove their manhood… they were on a rescue mission, and Scary was getting in the way. They finally brought him down when Uryū put an arrow through his body, ass to groin, Chad bashed him with Brazo Izquierda del Diablo too many times to count, and Ichigo put his trench knife through his chest.

When Scary finally fell, like a massive tree going down in the forest, Pinky bounced over. She pulled the arrow out of Scary’s ass, shoved a piece of material in the hole in his chest, bowed to them and slung Scary over her shoulder like he weighed nothing. Cheerfully shouting, “Thank you for playing with Kenny!” over her shoulder, she disappeared over the rooftops. They stood there, slumped over in exhaustion, and watched her leave, wide-eyed and speechless.

“Shinigami are weird,” Uryū finally declared.

Chad nodded. Ichigo shrugged. Then a tall guy in, of all things, a pink kimono and a straw hat stepped out into the street, and shit got serious.

They were in no shape to fight him, after Scary, even if he seemed in no hurry to engage. They took off running as quickly as they could, but every street they went down, he appeared in front of them again, cutting them off.

“Split up,” Chad finally suggested.

Ichigo didn’t want to do it. He had a bad feeling about what would happen if they did, but they couldn’t escape Straw Hat the way they were going. He nodded at Uryū, gave Chad a fierce, brief kiss, and they split off, each going in a different direction.

Above them, Yoruichi muttered something about a bee, and took off on its own. He was too busy running to pay any attention. The cat would catch up, or wouldn’t, and there was nothing he could do about it.

The next several hours were an elaborate game of hide and seek. No matter where he hid, some idiot Shinigami found him. He knew it had something to do with his reiatsu, because he had problems containing it, but he’d hoped that being in an atmosphere rich in spiritual energy would disguise him. No such luck. Still, he overpowered everyone he fought, none of them coming near any of their earlier opponents, and he took that for the good luck it was.

Late that night, he holed up in a little warehouse behind boxes of office supplies, and took out his phone.

No. Fucking. Signal.

He stared at the lack of bars on the display for a long moment, controlling the urge to throw the useless thing away. Still trying to keep his temper down, he nearly jumped out of his skin when a small black shadow landed silently on four feet in front of him.

“Shit, Yoruichi, you need a bell! Are you trying to kill me?”

The cat sniffed and licked its paw, smoothing the hair behind its ear. “If I wanted to kill you, Ichigo-kun, you would be dead.”

He scowled at it. “Have you seen Chad or Uryū?”

It put its paw down and stared solemnly at him. His throat felt dry and his head hurt. They couldn’t be dead. This was his fault. He got them into this mess. They just couldn’t be…

“Breathe,” the cat ordered him, and he drew in a ragged lungful before he passed out. “They are alive, but in custody. From what I could ascertain, they are slightly injured but they have been treated, and they are currently locked up.”

“Damnit.” Not what he needed to hear. “It’s up to us then. Get them out, rescue Rukia, get home safe.”

It nodded, then padded over to put a paw on his knee. “We need to wait until the heat has died down a little, and while we’re waiting, we need to train.”

Good, because if the only thing he could do was wait, he’d lose his mind.

It turned out the training ground beneath the Shōten wasn’t the first training ground Urahara had created. Out in the countryside of the Rukongai, there was another one, even bigger. It had cliffs and valleys and a miraculous hot spring that healed wounds.

It had a cat that turned into a person.

Turned out Yoruichi was female. When she hopped off his shoulder and morphed into her other shape, she was also totally nude. He wasn’t quite the prude he’d been before he started pouncing on Chad for great sex on a regular basis, but he’d never seen a live naked woman before. Of course he shrieked like a little girl and splashed water on her. After she finished laughing herself sick, she heeded his cry to “Put some damned clothes on, woman!” and reluctantly got dressed.

Then she spent three days watching his Zanpakutō spirits beat the crap out of him in training. At first, she told him it was to get his bankai, until Byakko materialized.

“What’s the doll?” he asked as Yoruichi posed with a tall blank figure.

“It will materialize your Zanpakutō spirit. You will then fight it into submission to gain your bankai!”

The thought of fighting manic Byakko was exciting, but lording over him wasn’t. A king didn’t abuse his horse. Out of curiosity, he pulled his Khyber knife, keeping his trench knife ready to defend, and stabbed the doll.

It disappeared, and both Byakko and the old man in the blowing cloak appeared. Yoruichi hissed and moved to attack Byakko. Ichigo intercepted her, barely, catching her dagger on the edge of his trench knife and planting a foot in her stomach to keep her away.

“I thought that was my job!” he yelped.

She stood shakily and pointed at Byakko. “That’s a Hollow!”

“That’s my sword. Well, one of them, anyway. Not sure which one. Don’t really care. We’re partners. We fight together.”

Behind him, Byakko was laughing his ass off. The old man suddenly appeared next to him, cloak still blowing in a breeze no one else could feel. “To gain bankai, you must make me submit to you, Ichigo. You must do your best to kill me.”

“Hey! I can hear you!”

The old man sighed and rubbed his face, looking fed up. Yoruichi was still sputtering. Byakko was still laughing.

“I’m not going to kill you, old man, but yeah, let’s fight!”

“I leave the testing method up to you,” Yoruichi put in hastily, backing away from them. “You have three days. Don’t die, Ichigo.” Then she disappeared in a blur, to reappear on a cliff-top quite a long way from the battle ground.

The old man put his hand to the ground, and at the same time, Byakko stomped his foot. Swords and knives in various shapes and sizes suddenly littered the training ground.

“Mêlée!” Byakko warbled.

The old man grunted, and Ichigo let out a battle cry.

The first sword broke, and the old man got a lucky hit in that opened up Ichigo’s skin near his scalp, nearly blinding him with his own blood. He ducked by instinct to avoid Byakko flying in to slice him in half, grabbed a long knife, and tried to skewer his twin. Then he dodged out of the way of a body blow from the old man that Byakko parried, and that set the course for three full days of running his ass off, learning incredibly useful moves for free-for-all combat, and trying not to die. Every time a sword or knife broke, it took less time for Ichigo to recover. Every time a blade cut him, a thin web of white ichor, too fine-grained to be seen except for very up-close, would stitch the wound together.

As the fight went on and his fatigue grew, he became more inventive, more vicious, and faster to react. By the end of the third day, he went from evading and deflecting attacks to consistently counter-attacking, and he eventually managed to overpower both his spirits. When he did, suddenly, the action froze.

“Ban. Kai,” he murmured, and the air around him exploded into a shockwave.

Thin silver and black chains sprouted from the hilts of his knives, wrapping up his arms and meeting somewhere behind his back. Their edges sharpened, the Khyber knife became serrated, and the trench knife grew a wicked hook at the end. His clothing changed, his shitagi and obi turning pale gold, and the red and black threads in his deep purple kosode expanded to form a pattern of monitor lizards. Shin guards appeared, as well as forearm guards, white crosses with black, red, and gold lines sketched over them. His feet were covered in black half-boots that blended into his shin guards.

The training room shook.

“Fuck, yeah,” Byakko crowed.

“My name is Zangetsu.” The old man sheathed his sword, standing tall, stupid cloak still billowing.

Ichigo and Zangetsu bowed, while Byakko did a crazy little dance.

“That was the strangest thing I have ever seen,” Yoruichi said faintly, from a distance.

It was weird, but it was Ichigo, and it was fine.

Later that night, after Byakko and Zangetsu had faded back into his soul and Ichigo had soaked long enough in the hot springs to completely heal and turn into a human-shaped prune, Yoruichi left him to his late dinner and told him to get some rest. “Tomorrow will be a long day.”

That was one way to put it. Ichigo pulled himself out of the spring, wrapped up in a nice teal yukata Yoruichi had left for him, and settled down to eat. His thoughts were chasing around in circles. According to Yoruichi, bankai should make him five to ten times stronger than he was in shikai. He traced a finger along the raised bone fragment around his eye, then ran it down the red lines he could see but not feel.

He was fast. He was strong. He could heal at an amazing rate, as Byakko gave him something to close wounds and Zangetsu did something that kept him from bleeding out. He didn’t know if it would be enough.

It had to be.

He had to save Chad.

Well, Uryū too, he was an ally who was becoming a friend, and he was only here to help, so Ichigo would do everything he could to bring him home.

Plus, Rukia. His debt to her, the unfairness of her own brother condemning her to die, the reason for their little invasion to begin with…

But mainly Chad.

~

He and Yoruichi snuck back into the Seireitei very early the next morning. The Shinigami were on high alert, but a small woman with a fierce scowl met them and led them to an opening to the sewer system, of all places, calling Yoruichi ‘sama’ and staring at her like she was the sun in the sky. Ichigo thought it was a little creepy, but the woman was doing them a favor, so he didn’t say anything.

Besides, he had the sneaking suspicion he looked at Chad like that now and then when he thought nobody was looking, so he wasn’t one to talk.

The sewers stank, but they went everywhere, and Yoruichi had a map. Which turned out to be crap, as she and Ichigo discovered when he surfaced in the middle of a quiet street… directly in front of Rukia’s bastard brother.

The fight that followed was bizarre, to say the least. Rukia’s brother was called Byakuya, and he was an arrogant, snotty, ridiculously handsome jackass. He was also taken by surprise when Ichigo not only matched, but beat, his speed.

“You have improved, I see. It is not enough to make any difference. Your fate was sealed when you broke the law and entered the Seireitei, Ryoka.”

“Just like Rukia’s fate was sealed when she got an asshole for a brother, huh?”

“Scatter, Senbonzakura.”

Then there was this big cloud of pink petals of doom that stung like a bitch when they hit. Not that many hit him, because if there was one thing he’d really practiced lately, it was dodging. Plus, his skin had gotten tougher when he’d learned Zangetsu’s name. He got a cut or two of his own in as well, and not all of them were from his knives.

“Why would you do this, let your own little sister be executed?”

“It is the law. It is my duty.”

Another wave of irritatingly fast petal blades, and Ichigo danced through them to get up close again.

“Duty? Your duty is to be a brother.”

He batted away a bunch of petals with his trench knife and nearly took Byakuya’s head off with his Khyber knife. Byakuya leapt and twirled, and they were face to face again. “You know why older brothers are born first? To take care of their little sisters!”

Byakuya froze for a moment, and Ichigo took a chunk out of his shoulder, bringing him out of his little trance.

“You suck,” Ichigo informed him, then snarled as Byakuya dropped his sword blade-first and a row of four-story tall pink swords started marching around them.

“You are privileged to fight well enough to see my bankai,” Byakuya said softly, but his eyes were distant.

Ichigo hoped he was thinking about what it meant to be a big brother. But right now, he had to win a fight.

“I’ll show you mine, since you showed me yours. Bankai,” he muttered, and the air exploded again.

When the dust settled, they went after each other like feral wolves. The pink blades were coming at him from every direction, and he used the hook to good effect, knocking many of them off course as he cut through others with the Khyber knife. In the end, Byakuya’s experience trumped Ichigo’s enthusiasm. When he saw where the fight was going, he blocked one last attack and got up in Byakuya’s face.

“We have to finish this later. I have to go save Rukia now. Man up and act like a real brother, would you?”

Then he kicked Byakuya in the gut, right over a previous cut he’d inflicted, and disappeared while his opponent was regaining his breath.

He ran as fast as he could, leaving barely an afterimage as he went. When he was far enough away, he hoped, he ducked into the back of an empty house and opened up his phone.

One new message?

He tapped it and nearly dropped the phone at hearing Chad’s voice. It seemed a couple captains, one in a pink kimono and the other one who was Rukia’s boss, had broken them out of jail. Also, sometime during his bankai training, yet another captain had been murdered, and they were blaming it on him.

Damned good thing the guys had been in lockup, or they would have been executed for a murder they didn’t commit.

He quickly called him back. Uryū answered.

“Are you okay? Is Chad okay? Why do you have Chad’s phone? Where are you? What’s going on?”

“KUROSAKI,” Uryū bellowed, cutting off the questions Ichigo couldn’t stop asking.

He flinched and hunched down, hoping no one else had heard that. “Well?” he hissed. Quietly.

“We’re both fine. Chad is right here, but he has his hands full helping Captain Kyōraku prepare to rescue Rukia. We’re at the Eighth division, along with Captain Ukitake and Captain Suì-Fēng, a friend of Yoruichi’s.”

He heard the ‘Sama!’ in the background and knew exactly who that was.

“Where are you?”

He looked around. “I have no idea. I just fought Rukia’s bastard brother, Byakuya. We both went bankai so it probably made a ruckus.”

“Oh,” Uryū said dryly, “so that’s what the hurricane was. Yes. You’re directly south of us, about one kilometer. Get here quickly. Don’t get caught.”

“Landmarks?”

“I wish your ability to read reiatsu wasn’t so… pathetic. There’s a very tall tower building that looks like marble, with a bridge coming out from it. Across from that is a tall cliff with a big wooden platform in the shape of an inverted U set up. We’ll meet you there.”

“Okay. See you soon.” He ignored the insult, as he usually did when Uryū got sarcastic, which was often, and ended the call.

He had no problem finding the cliff, as it was the tallest point near the city, and even he could feel the gathered reiatsu from the various high-ranking Shinigami there. When he got there, it was chaos. Rukia was pinned to the wooden structure, about to be eaten by a big flaming bird construct on a pulley of some sort. Straw Hat captain was there with another guy, tall and cute with flowing white hair, along with Chad – Ichigo felt his breath catch. Chad was wrapped in bandages, but he was standing straight, and he didn’t look like he was in pain.

The three of them were gathered around some kind of gong or device. To the side of them, Uryū and Red were fending off a few Shinigami with badges on their sleeves, and doing a good job of it. All the other Shinigami officers were yelling. Perfect distraction.

Ichigo swooped in, ignoring Rukia’s gobsmacked expression, and sliced away her bonds with his trench knife while swinging his Khyber knife up to slice off the tip of the flaming bird thing’s beak. She was spluttering about how he shouldn’t be there, blah, blah, blah, and he told her to shut up and be rescued. Then energy flew out of the device between the two captains, the flaming bird exploded into thousands of little tiny fiery pieces, and Ichigo landed with Rukia right next to Chad.

He quickly dropped her in Red’s arms and grabbed his boyfriend, giving him a quick, heartfelt kiss.

Then a guy who looked like a fashion model appeared in the middle of the fracas. The Shinigami who’d been arguing all stopped in shock, and one little guy with wild white hair gasped, “Aizen!”

Hm. Thought he was murdered. He looked pretty lively for a corpse, as he knocked Red out of the way and reached for Rukia.

Byakuya could really move fast. He was there before Aizen’s hand could touch Rukia’s skin, and Aizen’s fist went right through his chest.

Guess the bastard wasn’t such a shitty brother after all, even if he failed to protect her. At least he tried.

He then shook Byakuya off his arm like he was nothing, sending him flying into the white-haired captain’s arms. Before anyone else could react, including Ichigo who didn’t know what the hell was going on, he put his hand INTO Rukia and drew out a lumpy little rock.

Then he started monologing about a Hōgyoku and how he was going to destroy soul society and crown himself king or something. Ichigo tried to cut his head off with the trench knife, only managing to cut off his speech. Big yellow cones of light suddenly beamed down from the sky, and Aizen, a snakey grey-haired Shinigami with a creepy grin, and Dreads, the captain with the sonic sword, left on large round white platforms.

Ichigo felt like he’d tripped and ended up in an episode of Star Trek. The original series.

They were all staring up into the sky, except for Byakuya who had passed out from blood loss and shock, and a short lady with a long braid down her front who was healing him, when an ancient man with a beard down to his ankles and a staff nearly as tall as he was clumped over.

Turned out the Captain Commander was not amused, and he had a lot of questions.

~

During the course of the following week, Ichigo learned many things.

Byakuya was a better brother than one might think. Rukia still kept intruding every time Ichigo and Chad tried to get time alone. Uryū really liked to sew, and he was a damned good tailor. Not only did they all get their outfits repaired, but they all ended up with at least two new outfits, as did every Shinigami who sided with them. The white-haired captain appreciated his green shirt – matched his eyes – and Byakuya didn’t say he liked it, but he wore his gray jacket the single time they saw him when he was off duty. Rukia loved her sundresses.

They came up against Scary, who was called Kenpachi, and Ichigo spent most of his time trying to avoid fighting with the nutcase. They also met Baldy, or Ikkaku, and Feathers, or Yumichika, several times after that. Yumichika kept sighing over Ichigo’s hair and Uryū’s, well, everything – he had a bit of a crush – while Ikkaku kept trying to get them to fight. He was like a much less terrifying version of Kenpachi.

Some guy in a clown suit and face paint tried to kidnap Uryū a couple times, until Chad broke his skull open with Brazo Izquierda del Diablo… after which he started trying to kidnap Chad, until Ichigo put his trench knife through the creep’s chest and promised to cut him into sushi if he didn’t stay the fuck away from them. That bought them breathing room, although the oddly robotic woman who hung around the clown did watch them the entire time they were in the Seireitei.

The little guy with the wild hair was actually a captain, called Tōshirō, although he yelled at Ichigo to call him Captain Hitsugaya every time he called him by name. It was amusing. Almost as funny as Byakuya’s bemused, “Is he always going to use my first name?” every time Ichigo saw him. Eh, they’d learn. Ichigo was Ichigo, and he wasn’t going to change for a bunch of Shinigami. They needed to pull the sticks out of their asses anyway.

One new friend that he really liked was a little healer named Hanatarō. He came to them after the battle to check them over and heal them up. He looked like a strong breeze would knock him over, and he was pretty quiet, but he could snap back when he was teased enough. In his low-key way, he didn’t take crap from anybody, and Ichigo made a point of hanging out with him when they had the chance.

There was another Shinigami he tried to avoid, though. The ancient Captain Commander was called Yamamoto, and Chad didn’t trust him at all. Ichigo got a very ambivalent vibe off him, like he was a bandit in a cop’s uniform, and had the feeling nobody was safe around him. They walked very softly whenever they were near the First Division.

Red’s name was Renji, and he was a lot like Keigo, only with moments of restraint, a lot more focus on fighting, and a major crush on Rukia rather than every girl that walked by. He also tried to get them to spar with him, but they were busy. Because…

The white-haired captain was the sweetest guy on the planet, and his name was Jūshirō. He was best friends with Straw Hat, whose name was Shunsui. They were both ridiculously old and powerful, and they also had dual Zanpakutō blades. They were more than happy to train with Ichigo. In fact, they dragged him away every time they saw him in order to train with him. He learned more about how to fight in that week than he had in his entire life.

All this activity, and the complete lack of privacy, was driving Ichigo insane. Chad was right there – literally in touching distance – but the only time they had was the few hours they could sleep at night, and they were so exhausted from all the training, escaping insane Kenpachi and clown-guy, and keeping up with what felt like dozens of Shinigami who wanted to talk or spar or go drinking or whatever. At the end of the week, he felt like they’d made some friends, caught the attention of a few people he never wanted to see again, and was itching to get home and get Chad to himself.

After their last training session, Jūshirō gave him a little device he called a Substitute Shinigami Pass. Ichigo stared at it.

“It’s used to remove your soul from your body very quickly, so that you can fight Hollows, and to sound an alert when a Hollow is nearby. It will help you protect Karakura town.”

Uh-huh. And track his every move, no doubt. “Um, thanks, Jūshirō. You know I use a kaizō konpaku, right? That’s because if my human body doesn’t have something in it to keep the heart and brain going, it could die or get brain damage or stuff. But I’ll definitely use the pass for the alert, okay?”

Jūshirō gave him a knowing look, and a little smile. He knew, and Ichigo knew he knew, that it was a tracking device and maybe a monitoring system, but that was okay. Ichigo didn’t really expect to get away without the equivalent of an ear tag. They had invaded the Seireitei, after all. The Shinigami would definitely want to keep an eye on them.

As long as they didn’t watch him 24/7, he was fine with that. Maybe he’d get more training…

Rukia walked them to the Senkaimon, the gate between worlds, on their last day. She was staying there, and another Shinigami would take up her duties in the living world. Ichigo wondered if that meant he’d finally have time to do his homework without having to get into screaming arguments over it.

“Stay safe,” he told her.

She looked at him with big eyes and gave him a smile. “You, too.”

Then he turned, Chad at his shoulder and Uryū beside him, they followed a black butterfly all the way back to the Shōten. Urahara met them there, and when Ichigo came over to greet him, he went down on his knees in a formal apology. Ichigo read between the lines. He knew he’d killed him. Knew he was sending him on a suicide mission, and was relieved they’d come back in one piece.

“That’s not necessary. Please get up.”

Shadowed grey eyes met his, and he shook his head.

“It’s fine.”

It wasn’t, but that was how life was.

~

The kaizō konpaku did well. By the time they finally got back, almost two weeks had passed. Yuzu and Karin didn’t seem to notice any difference. Karin was caught up in her summer football league, and the mod-soul was a good cheerleader. Yuzu was happy that her big brother had eaten with a good appetite, even if he did chatter more than usual. His dad gave him a look, Ichigo nodded that everything was fine, and that was the entirety of that conversation.

Uryū got dragged away by Hime – err, Orihime – as soon as they left the Shōten, babbling something about getting started on the Crafts Club. He looked happy about being in her company, so that was good. Chad started to peel off to his own place, but Ichigo wouldn’t let go. They finally had the chance to have some privacy, and damnit, Ichigo was going to take full advantage of it.

“We’d be alone at my place,” Chad offered.

Okay. He could work with that.

Ruffling Karin’s hair, ducking the swat in return, kissing Yuzu on the head and accepting the packed family-sized bento she pressed in his hands, and avoiding his dad’s knowing grin, Ichigo followed Chad back to his tiny apartment.

They barely made it through the door before Chad was on him. He took just enough time to carefully place the bento out of harm’s way – no way he was he going to waste Yuzu’s cooking, and they’d need to refuel later – then he was practically leaping into Chad’s arms. They were both stripped before they got out of the living area, and they didn’t make it to the couch. Chad pushed him gently against the wall, slid to his knees, and swallowed his cock before he could take a breath. The fingers probing him took what little air he had in his lungs, and his brain shut down.

It had been much too long. They had nearly lost each other too many times, then been separated for too long, then had been close enough to touch for a week without the opportunity to do more than cuddle. He started to make that two-toned chirping noise again, buzzing deep in his chest, and Chad hummed in response. Humming. Around his cock. Sweet god. He was pretty sure he was going to pass out.

Then he didn’t bother trying to catch his breath, because he was too busy moaning and coming to care about breathing.

He slid partly down the wall, until Chad caught him by the hips. Hoisted him up in his arms, hooking Ichigo’s legs over his forearms, pinning him to the wall. Caught between the hard plaster and the equally hard muscled body pressing into him, Ichigo wound his hands in Chad’s hair, pulled him down into a wet kiss, and went along for the ride.

It didn’t take very long, because Chad was as frustrated as he was, but it was deep and satisfying. As he came, Chad ground up into him, sparking a second orgasm that was very nearly dry and so intense the world turned white around the edges. Then it tipped, and he was half-carried across the room to fall softly onto the futon. Chad followed a moment later, never losing the connection between them, and the bulk shifting inside him made Ichigo feel oddly vulnerable at the same time that he felt completely safe.

Only Chad could do that to him.

He was smiling as he fell asleep, curled up against Chad’s chest, long arms caging him exactly where he wanted to be.

When he woke up, it was early the next morning, and he could smell eggs and chorizo frying in the kitchen. He followed his nose to find Chad at the stove, cooking one his abuelo’s favorite breakfast. It was something he only did when he was unsettled. Ichigo reached up and kissed the corner of his jaw, nuzzling the soft brown hair for a moment before wandering over to sit at the table.

“What’s wrong? We made it. We stopped her from being executed and we all got home safe. What’s bothering you?”

Chad plated up breakfast and brought it over to join him at the table. Green eyes stared solemnly back at him. He saw all sorts of concerns there.

“We’re on their radar now.” Chad started in on his breakfast and gave Ichigo time to parse that out.

Yeah. Okay. The Shinigami knew about them. Knew they were infiltrators, outsiders, and possibly tools. In the course of his tailoring, and under cover of traveling around doing fittings while Chad and Ichigo were being trained into the ground, Uryū had done a little digging.

Fullbringers were humans who had been affected by Hollows while still in the womb. If Shinigami considered humans to be below them, and the vast majority of soul reapers did, then Fullbringers were tainted humans, and so even lesser beings. Historically, Shinigami hadn’t treated hybrids or any other kind of non-standard human very well, either. Most were treated as threats even if they had shown no ill intent, and genocide was Yamamoto’s first response, not his last recourse.

Add to that, the Shinigami now knew that there was a human soul reaper with a Hollow Zanpakutō, or at least they knew he was a hybrid while Yoruichi knew about his Zanpakutō. What Yoruichi knew, Urahara soon would, and after breaking his soul chain and nearly – maybe actually – killing him, neither of them trusted Urahara. Plus there was the fact that no matter how egomaniacal Aizen was, he’d spoken the truth when he’d mentioned in his monolog that Urahara was responsible both for creating the Hōgyoku and for putting it in Rukia’s gigai. So, in fact, Urahara was ultimately responsible for letting it get into Aizen’s hands, and God knew what fallout there would be from that.

He still didn’t know what the relationship was between Urahara and the Gotei 13 command structure. They knew where he was, so he must be performing some service for them, or they’d have assassinated him years ago. As for his relationship with Ichigo and Chad, there was cause for concern. Everything Urahara did had a price tag attached to it, and they usually found out what it was when payment was due. True, sometimes he apologized… but it was after the fact.

All this was enough to make any normal person paranoid, and Ichigo had a healthy sense of self-preservation pounded into him from a young age. Chad had less self-protection, but an amazing amount of Ichigo-protection, built into him. So Chad would worry about Ichigo, Ichigo would worry about everyone, and they would have to watch their step very, very carefully. Not just with the Shinigami, but with Urahara and his crew as well.

The school term started the next week, and Ichigo didn’t know whether to anticipate it or dread it. Who knew what weirdness would hit them next?

~September~

The new term brought with it another new student, and it set his trouble senses tingling. This one was tall, skinny, with a Prince Valiant haircut and a grin that could be used for a piano keyboard. He also wouldn’t stop staring at Ichigo. Chad inched closer, not appreciating the laser attention the new guy, Shinji, was giving him. He glanced over, reassuring him, and they decided to watch him as closely as he was watching them.

Of course, he ended up being a stalker.

“You are one of us, Ichigo, a Visored! You have no place here – you need to come join us, or the Hollow inside you will consume you!”

“And what’s Chad, chopped liver? You know nothing about me. I know exactly where I belong, and that’s right where I am.”

A variation of this argument occurred daily until it boiled down to Shinji arrogantly proclaiming that Ichigo was part of his tribe, and Ichigo telling him to piss off.

Meanwhile, Uryū started disappearing every day after dinner, staggering out of his father’s hospital late every night looking like he’d been worked over by yakuza enforcers. As soon as Ichigo found out, which was approximately ten minutes after the first training/torture session, he started meeting Uryū to make sure he got home all right. It was testament to how exhausted the Quincy was that he didn’t bother to protest.

Either that, or he recognized the futility of arguing with Ichigo in full mother-hen mode.

Well, he’d tried, once, grumbling, “I am perfectly capable of seeing myself home” as he nearly walked into a street light.

“I don’t ever want to find you bleeding out in the street again. Once was more than enough.”

There was no effective counter to that argument, either.

So their days were full with classes, homework, training, and after-school Hollow hunting. They each had their own commitments as well, as Chad had formed a band that was good enough to get some local gigs, Uryū spent most nights getting his ass handed to him by his father, while Ichigo spent as much time as he could with his sisters – and dodging Shinji. Ichigo slept most nights over at Chad’s house, after one spectacular argument with his father that entailed more punching and kicking than actual words. The words that were exchanged were brutally honest.

“If you’re so keen on protecting everyone, son, then you should be here for your sisters instead of warming your boyfriend’s bed!”

“I’m still leaking reiatsu, even with Urahara’s training, dad. I’m practically Hollow-bait. Better I be at Chad’s, where we both can see the damned things and kill them, than have the monsters come searching for me here. Yuzu and Karin nearly got eaten last time, remember?”

There was truth in both sides, and Ichigo did spend some nights at home, but even his dad had to admit he was right about being a monster-magnet. He looked over at the piano grin with the cold eyes peering at him across the classroom.

Yeah. Shinji qualified.

Then bad got a whole boatload of worse.

Ichigo was fighting a relatively weak Hollow on his own as Chad evacuated a nearby park, where Tatsuki had been practicing her katas. Shinji showed up, distracting him, making the fight longer than it should have been. He was fighting with half his attention and yelling at Shinji, hanging upside down in the air next to him, doing nothing to stop the Hollow, useless bastard that he was, when a crushing Hollow pressure struck.

He instinctively smashed through the Hollow, ending his fight, then punched Shinji in the face as he used his unique mixture of shunpo and sonído to get to Chad as fast as possible. What he found when he got to the park nearly made him fall out of the sky.

Dead bodies surrounded a crater in the middle of the park. A few were still alive, barely, Tatsuki among them. Orihime was using some kind of shield to try to protect them. And in the crater…

A huge human-shaped Hollow, at least twelve feet tall and nearly that big around, clubbed Chad to the ground like he was swatting a fly.

Ichigo dove into the fight like a madman, throwing his body between Chad’s body and the huge fist coming down to smash him.

“Get him out of here!” he screamed to Orihime, then attacked the huge monster in a whirl of blades.

It was like trying to cut through concrete with bamboo chopsticks.

The Hollow laughed and punched at him, growing progressively more angry as it kept missing. Ichigo finally got a solid strike in, taking off its left arm, then the smaller Hollow with the horn sticking out of its head muttered something about trash and shot him with a ball of energy that nearly took his head off.

Dizzy and off-balance from the near-miss, he wasn’t able to dodge fast enough as the huge Hollow smacked him, knocking him to the ground. He couldn’t keep hold of his knives, dimly thankful that Orihime had dragged Chad out of the immediate danger zone. Then that huge fist was beating him down, and he couldn’t get away, couldn’t recover, couldn’t strike back, couldn’t do a fucking thing.

“Sing, Benihime.”

A red shield popped up between that battering ram of a fist and his face, as the world went black.

When he woke up, he felt like he’d been hit by a paving machine and made one with the asphalt. Then memory flickered back, and he tried to leap off the futon and check on Chad.

Tried.

Failed.

“Damnit,” he wheezed, waiting for the room to stop spinning.

“Don’t move yet, Ichigo.”

Chad’s voice. Chad’s hand, holding on to his. Chad lived. Okay. The world could go on turning.

A warm mouth covered his, and he kissed back the best he could, given that every muscle in his body hurt, even his lips.

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Kurosaki-kun!”

Well, at least it wasn’t Shinji. And Urahara had saved all their asses at the last minute.

“Thank you,” he rasped when he got his mouth back. Then he looked up at Chad. “I’m sorry. I was useless. I’m sorry.”

“Stupid,” Chad told him, and kissed him again.

That, of course, made him think. Chad tried and failed, he tried and failed, it took Urahara, who was at least as strong as the captains he’d fought in Soul Society, just to shield them, much less fight them.

“What the hell were those things?”

“Espada,” Urahara told him solemnly, folding himself down to sit next to the futon. For once, his fan was nowhere to be seen.

Chad’s fingers tightened and he squeezed back, trying to be reassuring. Tough to do considering how very hard they’d both gotten their asses kicked.

“What the hell are Espada, then?” Ichigo prompted when Urahara just sat there and looked at him.

“A fully evolved Hollow. When a Hollow has its mask broken, it becomes an Arrancar. It is very rare. However, Aizen has been using the Hōgyoku to force evolution and create an army. Arrancar are terribly strong, and the ten strongest of them are Aizen’s personal guard, called the Espada. You faced two of the ten today. Consider yourself fortunate to have survived.”

“Thanks to you,” he and Chad said at the same time.

“Oh, my, you really do share a brain!” Urahara teased, before sobering again. “I fear this is only the beginning.”

He stood and wandered out the door, leaving Chad and Ichigo alone. Too sore to do anything active, they were content to keep silent company, and wonder what the next catastrophe would be.

~

Two days later he was back in class, thankful for the healing assistance from Byakko. The old man had given him the strength to take several devastating blows, but his inner Hollow gave him some regenerative powers. Without them, he would have been down for weeks, if not actually dead.

Ichigo and Chad walked back to the Kurosaki home after school. The house was empty, as Karin had football practice, Yuzu was taking a dessert-making class, and Isshin was busy in the clinic. Thankful for a little alone time, without fearing Urahara peeping or Jinta running through the room screaming, they kissed all the way up the stairs and into his room. Hands were roaming, jackets were discarded, shoes were kicked off, and shirts were in the process of being unbuttoned when the light fixture in the ceiling suddenly fell into the room.

Followed by a dozen Shinigami.

Well, not quite a dozen, but close enough. Tōshirō, who looked constipated as usual, and Rangiku, who was giggling and ogling them shamelessly. Renji, staring at them with his eyes popping out. Ikkaku, too busy staring around the room to care, and Yumichika, smiling encouragement at them, muttering how ‘beautiful’ they were. And lastly, Rukia, looking grumpy with her arms crossed over her chest, standing way too close to the closet for his peace of mind.

“Are you two still at it? I didn’t expect you’d still be a couple.”

Chad moved before he could, slamming the window open then reaching over and plucking her up by the collar. He had her halfway out the window when Tōshirō spoke up.

“Please put Kuchiki back down, Yasutora-san.”

“Why are you in my bedroom? And did you have to break my light?”

Tōshirō scowled, a cuter expression than it should have been, and launched into a longer explanation about Aizen, Espada, and invasion plans than anyone needed. Ichigo didn’t bother to tell him that Urahara had already briefed them, more thoroughly, in fact. Instead, he waited for the little captain to run down and asked again, “Why are you IN MY BEDROOM?”

“Well,” Rukia answered as if it was obvious to anyone who wasn’t a moron, “we needed a place to stay.”

This time, Chad got her all the way out the window before anyone stopped him.

A lot of yelling, a few stomping feet, Rangiku flashing both her boobs and her legs, Tōshirō failing to be commanding and Yumichika trying to be diplomatic later, the troop of Shinigami decided they really needed to find someplace else to bunk. He was seriously considering asking Tessai for some kind of kidō warding to keep unwanted visitors out when he wanted privacy, like a Shinigami version of the sock on the doorknob.

Then Chad wrapped his arms around him, kissed the side of his throat, and murmured in his ear, “Don’t react to anything they try, please, Ichigo. They’re dangerous.”

He had a good point. Ichigo wasn’t impressed with the arrogant attitudes on display. He liked most of the Shinigami he’d met, but he and Chad were not Shinigami, and as outsiders, would no doubt be seen as expendable, at least by the upper command levels. Especially Chad, who wasn’t even a substitute Shinigami.

And most of the Shinigami he liked would be forced to follow orders, whether they agreed with them or not.

Suddenly too tired to deal with the tangled ball of politics surrounding this new development, he shimmied out of his clothes, watched Chad do the same, and spent the next hour ignoring everything in the world except the heat between them. It was amazing.

Until his dad shot through the door and tried to kick him out of bed. Chad buried his face in the pillow and laughed, while Ichigo yelled, “DAD! KNOCK, DAMNIT!” at the top of his lungs before lunging out of bed and punching his dad down the stairs. Completely naked. At least the girls weren’t home to be traumatized by the gratuitous violence and nudity.

Just another day in the Kurosaki household.

~October~

Shinji wouldn’t go away, and Ichigo was ready to kill him. Then a little blonde midget started popping up and throwing her sandal at him, and he was completely fed up.

“Fine, damnit!” he barked, Chad glowering over his shoulder, a crushed sandal in one bunched fist. “We’ll go with you to your stupid training and we’ll show you how much we DON’T need it!”

“He can’t come,” Shinji pointed at Chad.

Ichigo punched him hard enough his body made an imprint in the brick wall where he landed. Chad dropped the mangled sandal on the blonde brat’s head and followed him down the road.

“You’re going the wrong way,” Shinji coughed.

“Then dig yourself out of the damned wall and show us where to go.”

He was in no mood for this shit. A fact which he proceeded to prove to the assorted Visored once they got to the crumbled warehouse where they lived.

No matter that they were hollowified, the Visored retained their Shinigami attitudes, only with an unhealthy dose of bitterness mixed in. They were unhappy exiles, who hated the Living World they were forced to inhabit, hated the Hollow parts forcefully grafted into their souls, and hated pretty much everything, including themselves, from what he could make out.

He walked in, the blonde midget found another sandal to throw, and the fight was on.

A big boxer with white hair tag-teamed them with a very fast menace of a girl with green hair. A guy with a funky afro and another who looked like he was role-playing Lord Byron came at them. Shinji stayed back, as did a large man with odd pink hair and a bushy pink mustache, but the most difficult threats came, funnily enough, from a geeky-looking woman in a sailor suit and the blonde midget. They all pulled on Hollow masks as they entered the fight, taking turns, pulling the mask on as they fought and off as they rested. It was a strange sight.

For the first hour, Chad watched his back, until the Pink Man caught him in a bondage kidō they’d never seen before. That just pissed Ichigo off, giving him flashbacks to the shattered shaft and firing his temper that their opponents had, once again, targeted Chad to take him out of the fight. At the urging of the warbling voice of his Hollow Zanpakutō spirit, he discovered a new trick.

He could pull on his own mask – a full-faced one that upped his speed, gave him a maniacal cackle, and increased his stamina without having to go bankai. Cool!

It was less a fight than an endurance trial, after that. Sometimes his mask flaked a little, but the thin white ichor healed it, too, just like it did his wounds. The guy with the afro was the first to fall out of the fight, at the three hour mark, with Lord Byron wannabe next. An hour or so later, a backhand knocked the green girl into a wall and out, and a half hour after that, a kick under the jaw did the same to the boxer. It was a couple hours after that before he nearly took the blonde midget’s head off and she fell to the side, panting and unable to continue. When it was down to just him and the sailor girl, Shinji joined in.

By this point, he’d been fighting all day. He was getting tired and cranky, and Shinji always pissed him off. So he buckled down and brought out every last bit of Hollow Zanpakutō power he had left.

His hair suddenly went down to his waist. His fists gained claws, and he had a tail, for God’s sake. He didn’t stop to think about it, ignoring the cries from the Visored who were still conscious and the kidō the Pink Man threw at him. He moved so fast he left afterimages, smashing Shinji on the back of the head with his strong, prehensile tail, knocking him out, before kicking Sailor Girl through a wall, taking her out of the fight.

Looking around and seeing no one else willing, or able, to come at him, he rested, mid-air, and shook out his newly-long hair, absently dodging still more kidō.

“Cut that out,” he grumbled, then swiped his hand over his face.

The mask disappeared, though he could still hear Byakko crowing in his head about kicking major ass. The claws retracted into regular nails. The tail, thankfully, also disappeared. The little red tuft at the end had kind of freaked him out.

The damned hair stayed long. He sighed. Was this going to happen every time he had to go into Hollow King mode?

Then he floated down to the floor, where the conscious Visored were looking at him with their mouths hanging open, and the Pink Man was standing frozen with his hands halfway in position for yet another kidō. Ichigo sighed again.

Shinji stirred. “The fuck was that?”

“As you can see, I have no problem with my inner Hollow. Now will you stop stalking me?”

He moved to Chad and helped him out of the last of his kidō bonds, then massaged the stiff muscles in Chad’s back and shoulders from being tied up so long. That got him a grateful look.

“Hell, no! That was fantastic! We have to train together!”

With a third sigh, Ichigo gave in. “We come as a pair,” he said, finger waving between himself and Chad.

“I’ll bet you do,” Sailor Girl piped from where she’d landed in the next room, with a perverted snicker.

Chad buried his face in Ichigo’s back and laughed until he ran out of breath. Ichigo rolled his eyes, then stared pointedly at Shinji.

“Yeah, we’ll train, but we have other shit to do, so stop with the damned stalking!”

It worked a little. Shinji was still in their faces too much, but he seemed happy that they were willing to come to the warehouse and brawl on a regular basis. The midget, Hyori, bitched a lot, but she was easy to ignore, after the third pair of sandals Chad squashed and dropped on her head. To his surprise, Orihime and Tatsuki were also there quite often. Tatsuki was developing some Fullbringer powers of her own, centered around karate strikes, and the big boxer, Kensei, had started training her. Orihime had been injured in the fight with the Espada, something about her hair pins, which he guessed were her version of a Zanpakutō. They hung out with the girls a bit but otherwise left them to get on with it on their own.

A few days after the opening mêlée, Ichigo was meditating as Urahara taught him, taking some time to spar with the old man in his inner world, when Byakko popped up.

“Way to go teaching those half-Hollows who’s boss, King!” he crowed, obviously not over his high from knocking the stuffing out of the Visored pack.

Ichigo grinned at him, all teeth, and shot back, “Great mask, Byakko! I could do without having to cut my hair every time I go Hollow bankai, though. Plus, you know, the tail’s kind of freaky.”

Byakko snorted. “That ain’t bankai, King, that’s Vasto Lorde!”

The old man gave up trying to keep Ichigo’s attention and gave one last swing at his head. He trapped the blade between his two knives and nodded an apology. “Later?”

With a huff and a swirl of his cloak, the old man nodded acceptance and went off to stand on a pole and watch. That was his default position. Byakko slid into view and swung at him, and the fight was on.

An interminable time later, they finally fell back on a handy sideways skyscraper that hadn’t had all its windows blown out, and caught their breath.

“Ya know,” Byakko finally said, “you’re not one of them.”

“What, a Shinigami? I know.”

“Nah. A Visored.”

This wasn’t what he was expecting. He rolled over on his side and propped his head on his hand, watching his twin. “How so?”

“They’re Shinigami who got half-turned into Hollows. You’re a hybrid of Shinigami, Hollow, you know, stuff. All natural in you. Plus…” he trailed off, looking pensive.

“No cliffhangers, c’mon now. Plus what?”

Byakko sighed and rolled to mirror his position. “You know that bitch Urahara killed you, right?”

He swallowed dryly and managed a nod.

“Well, that kind of fucked up the balance. You’re not a Visored, because you aren’t just a Shinigami. You’re not a Hollow, ‘cause you got Shinigami in your soul. But you’re also dead, so you can hollowify, can leave your body, can fight in spirit form.”

“Yes? And that means?” he asked tensely.

“You’re an arrancar, King, with the potential to become something more.”

“Like what?”

“Transcendent. Make your reiatsu invisible to others. Be strong enough to take down Aizen, ‘cause he’s a Visored, too. I smelled it on him. And he’s damned strong, strong enough to transcend as well.”

Ichigo stewed on that for a while. The old man and his pole shifted until they were right behind him, a show of support he appreciated. Byakko also kept quiet, letting him think, pretty unusual for him, and also appreciated. Finally Ichigo sat up.

“If he’s all that strong, the Shinigami won’t be able to take him down. Especially if they’re already afraid of Espada. If I’m going to protect my family, Chad, Uryū, Tatsuki and Hime –“

“And yourself,” the old man put in.

“Then I’m going to have to do this, aren’t I.” It wasn’t a question. “What about Chad?” He couldn’t – wouldn’t – leave him behind.

“Your boy’s gonna be the only thing keeping you sane, King. Bring him along.”

They found a way to do it.

Fullbringer powers sprang from Hollow energy and were steeped in it. Ichigo stepped up his individual training with Chad, letting his reiatsu run freely only when they were alone together, inside a kidō barrier Hachi, the Pink Man, had taught them to cast. Chad soaked it up like a sponge, and within days his Fullbringer form began to evolve. He developed armor along his arms and legs, and the reactive armor from his Brazo Derecha de Gigante defense spread across his back and chest. He also developed a second, more powerful form of El Directo, using Brazo Izquierda del Diablo not only to punch, but also to throw spirit energy in the form of a spiky black ball with a devil’s face surrounding it. That ball could punch through even the strongest kidō or defense that Ichigo could pull up.

They got stronger together, and it was just in time.

~End of October~

Tōshirō’s group had scattered around Karakura, with he and Rangiku moving into Orihime’s place, as the tender-hearted girl was too nice to say no. Ikkaku and Yumichika ended up at Keigo’s place, something to do with rescuing him from a Hollow and his older sister having a crush on Ikkaku. Baldy steamed any time he brought it up, and Feathers cracked up, so Ichigo didn’t ask after the first couple times. Rukia and Renji bunked at the Shōten, and every time Ichigo and Chad went over to train with Urahara, all he heard was how Renji was a freeloader. Since he doubted Rukia was much help around the place, he figured it was teasing and had fun watching Renji’s complexion flare up to match his hair. Rukia still came around… often… even following them to the Visored hide-out until Hyori introduced her to the Flying Sandal of Pain.

He got the impression she was somehow waiting for him and Chad to break up. She’d have a long wait.

Still, the situation was once again somewhat stable, if incredibly busy. School was still going strong, with homework and projects. They trained with the Visored twice a week, with Urahara twice a week, with Uryū every weekend, and with each other every chance they got. Chad had given management of the band over to his keyboard player, and while he still performed with them, he didn’t make all the rehearsals. Ichigo still made damned sure he spent at least three evenings with the twins every week, and he went to every single one of Karin’s football games. He and Chad grabbed every hour they could make to be alone together, and when they weren’t training, they were naked, in bed, reminding each other why they were fighting so hard to stay together.

Then the sky split open and an Espada dropped back in on them. This time, it brought friends.

He found out afterward that the Shinigami had taken on, and killed, five arrancar. The leader, an Espada, came directly after him and Chad.

“Whatsammater, little strawberry?” he taunted, irritating Ichigo immediately. “Can’t take me on by your lonesome? Need the big lug to hold your hand?”

Right. Now he wasn’t irritated, he was pissed. “This isn’t a duel, asshole,” he spat. “You attack us, we take you down.”

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. Wasn’t easy at all. Grimmjow Jaguar-something was a freaking killing machine. Ichigo had to pull on his mask and Chad had to armor up just to survive. They’d dragged it out to a bloody stalemate when the sky split open in a jagged black crack, and Dreads, the traitor Shinigami, dragged Grimmjow away from the fight.

Apparently he was there without permission, and Aizen was going to punish him.

Chad slid to a seat against a handy wall, and Ichigo collapsed next to him.

“We got lucky,” Chad finally said.

They had. They weren’t strong enough. They had to train harder.

He wearily got up and dragged Chad to his feet. They made their way to the clinic and checked on the twins. Everyone there was safe, sleeping in their beds. Then they headed off to Uryū’s place.

He wasn’t there.

They followed the scene of destruction to the hospital owned by the elder Ishida, and made their way up to the room where Uryū was resting, swathed in bandages. He was awake, and angry. Then he took a good look at them, clothes sliced to ribbons, blood all over them, looking like the walking dead, and sighed. As he was pressing the call button, Ichigo gave him a panicked look and bolted, calling, “Feel better, Uryū!” over his shoulder as he ran.

He really hated hospitals.

Behind him, he could hear Chad telling Uryū they would be by the next day to see how he was doing, then heavy footsteps followed him back down the stairs. His injuries were nearly healed, and Chad was mostly bruised, with no broken bones, so they would be fine with some rest and some bandages.

His dad was up when they got back to the clinic. The girls were still asleep. Isshin huffed at them, chivvied them into the clinic, and bandaged them both up. Ichigo was right, they didn’t need the hospital, but they did need to sleep. They fell into his bed, barely taking time to strip off the rags of their clothes, and immediately went unconscious.

When they woke up, they headed off to check on their friends. Tatsuki’s house was on the way, and her mom let them in. Tatsuki was fine, much less banged up than she had been the night before, and she guessed that Orihime had come by to heal her, though she didn’t remember it. Her mom was keeping her home for the day, so she asked them to go by Orihime’s and make sure she was all right.

They didn’t expect to find barely-organized chaos when they arrived.

The Shinigami had made themselves at home in Orihime’s apartment. Her furniture was shoved off to the side and an entire wall was taken up with a jury-rigged big screen TV that was some kind of two-way communication system with Soul Society. All the Shinigami were gathered, Jūshirō and Yamamoto were on the screen, and it sounded like they were getting briefed about some kind of invasion.

Ichigo waited for a break in the babble and asked, “Where’s Orihime?”

Tōshirō looked over at him, a concerned expression on his normally stoic face. “She’s missing. She left a note. Traces of her spiritual pressure show that she was healthy after the battle, then went to Arisawa-san’s home, then here. She then went to the park before dawn, and her reiatsu mixes with Espada energy.”

“It is clear she went with the Espada of her own free will,” Yamamoto proclaimed.

“That’s bullshit! She would never go with them, unless they threatened her somehow!” Ichigo broke in.

The old man stared at him coldly. “She returned to her home, left a goodbye note, and went off with an Espada.”

“We have to rescue her,” Chad said firmly.

That was the end of Yamamoto’s limited patience. “She is a traitor!” he thundered. “We need every able-bodied Shinigami to protect the Seireitei! We will NOT be wasting resources to chase after the girl!”

Ichigo shifted, feeling like putting his fist through the screen, when Chad’s hand came down on his shoulder, steadying him. He bit back the words he wanted to say, staring as coldly at the Captain Commander as the glare he’d been given. From the expression on Jūshirō’s face, he didn’t agree, but he also kept quiet.

Funny how Yamamoto didn’t say anything about protecting the Living world, even though it had had been Karakura, not the Seireitei, that had been invaded the night before. Funny, too, how all the Shinigami around him were quite happy to live in Orihime’s house, eat her food, and live off her good will, but not one of them made a move to come to her aid.

Renji started to say something, but Tōshirō gave him a dirty look, and he subsided. Ichigo took a deep breath, turned on his heel, and walked out. Chad was right behind him.

He was forcibly reminded, yet again, that he was not one of them, and neither were any of his precious people. They were on their own. They would take care of their own.

~

Ichigo had learned discretion from watching Chad over the years. That extended to everyone outside the two of them. He didn’t tell Yuzu and Karin what he was up to, as they were still too young to know the monsters were real. He kept secrets from his dad, as his dad kept secrets from him. He didn’t show the full extent of his training to Urahara, the Visored, or even Uryū, though he came close, as the three of them fought Hollows on a regular basis. No, the only one who knew what all he had learned from Zangetsu and Byakko was Chad.

So no one other than Chad was with him, very early in the morning on the 31st of October, when he popped his soul candy, flash-stepped with Chad to an abandoned dock down along the river, and raised a finger to tear a black, jagged hole in the sky.

Hueco Mundo was the definition of desolate. Sand dunes, barren rocks, petrified trees. A cold moon in a starless sky.

No wonder the Hollows wanted out.

A short distance from where they came out of his garganta was a stone city. It looked imposing, and as barren as the rest of the dead world. Reiatsu flowed around it. He took his time as Chad kept watch, using the training he’d gotten from Tessai and Uryū to calm his own power and sort through what he could sense.

Most of it was hostile. Some of it was feral. A couple strands were noticeably stronger than the others. One was mixed, and one was Hollow.

The Hollow energy was very close to them.

Slouching against the door jamb of an entry into the outer wall.

Watching them.

A tall, slender Arrancar with shoulder-length wavy brown hair and a scruffy goatee nodded to them. He could see them clearly, so his lack of hostility was interesting. He exchanged a look with Chad and they moved cautiously forward. When they got in speaking range, the Arrancar greeted them with a slight Spanish accent.

“Buenas noches, señores, y welcome to la vida soledosa.” He beckoned them forward and they came cautiously. “Me llama Coyote Starrk. Aizen has dubbed me his Primera Espada.”

Ichigo froze, and Chad stumbled a bit into him. They’d heard that Grimmjow was the sixth, and he’d nearly destroyed them. This Starrk was the first…

“You have no need to fear me. I find myself desencantado with the rule of the traitor Shinigami. Yesterday I found myself in the unenviable position of performing a despicable act, kidnapping a child and delivering her to Aizen’s court to be tormented. The traitor has made promises, none of which he has kept. He has proven himself an oath-breaker on two worlds.”

“Will you help us?”

“I find myself desiring to step back, leaving the rescuing to los jóvenes. But I will give you entry, and advice, should you choose to accept it.” He cocked his head to one side as if weighing their worth.

“Please,” Ichigo answered with his own nod.

“Do not hesitate to use your full strength from the outset, and kill the lead traitor first.”

With that, he stepped back into the shadows of the building, leaving the door open for them.

They exchanged a look, then headed for the door. As they moved, their speed increased. Ichigo pulled his mask down then kept changing until he was in full Hollow release form, while Chad’s armor flowed around him completely.

A short distance ahead they saw Starrk, pointing out a specific hallway then walking away. Taking a deep breath, Ichigo led the way, hoping their odd ally wasn’t leading them astray, but knowing they would have to go forward anyway. They didn’t have much time, and they had a formidable array of enemies ahead of them.

It was a lot like when they invaded Seireitei, really, only without Uryū and with fewer bodies to run over.

They found Aizen and Dreads in a throne room with a ridiculously high throne. Thankfully, the two Shinigami traitors were on the ground level, so they didn’t have to fight in the air, and they also appeared to be alone.

Chad immediately moved to intercept Dreads, who morphed into some kind of weird bug hybrid and attacked. Ichigo dived in, knives slashing, at Aizen, and the fight was on.

Aizen was strong, but not as strong as he’d expected. They circled and slashed, as close quarters as Ichigo could make it. Urahara had told him about the illusionary properties of Aizen’s Zanpakutō, and he wasn’t going to give the bastard time to go bankai. The increase in speed he had in this form helped, but it wasn’t quite enough.

Their conflict got bloodier, their battle rising in the air as the energy increased. He could feel something straining inside as he fought, desperate and angry, to bring Aizen down. He didn’t bother answering any of the mocking questions Aizen threw out at him, didn’t pay any attention to his words at all, only to his eyes and his hands and his sword.

Then Aizen started to change, ichor dripping from a hole in his chest, skeletal wings rising from his back. Ichigo’s reiatsu rose instinctively in response, his mask breaking away to form a band across the bridge of his nose, over his cheekbones, and his speed jumped, incredibly, again. Somewhere below them he heard a strangled scream that cut off abruptly. It wasn’t Chad, so he didn’t care.

Reiatsu spilled out around the combat zone like a wave of acid. The walls were crumbling, and he knew he had to end it quickly. Aizen was babbling something about ascending to a higher plain, and Byakko’s voice hissed in his mind, “Transcend!”

It sounded like a good idea, so Ichigo did. The last barrier inside him dissolved with a tiny snap.

Abruptly, all the noise died away and the air went strangely still. Aizen froze in the air, staring at him with his mouth slightly agape. Ichigo snarled, and moved.

Khyber and trench crossed in a scissoring move, and Aizen fell, in two pieces, head and body, to the floor below.

Then time started up again, and he looked down to see Chad, surrounded by a phalanx of Espada.

No. Fucking. Way.

They never saw him coming. Chad roared in defiance, fire sparking from each hit he landed, as Ichigo flew through the enemy so fast they couldn’t see him, much less fight him. A few of the Espada, a strange tentacled being with an odd tube on his head and a dark-skinned man who looked like he was part-pumpkin with eyes all over him actually collapsed and expired under the weight of the spiritual pressure in the room. Another, an ancient skeleton who tried to cover them in some kind of ash, was smashed to pieces when he directed the ash at Ichigo and ignored Chad. Twin pulping fists later, and the skeleton was scattered bones.

The most satisfying kill came when the giant Espada who’d attacked them in the Living world waded into the fray, food dripping from his jaws, swinging his fists around and taking out several other Arrancar in his attempts to catch Ichigo. As he started to grow into some kind of centipede-creature, Chad blasted a hole in his chest that went completely through his body, and Ichigo cut his skull in two. He collapsed, taking out several more Arrancar when he died. At this point, any lower-ranked Arrancar who had survived the reiatsu storm between Ichigo and Aizen to try to fight, gave it up as a bad deal and ran for their lives.

One of the toughest fights was with a very tall, weird guy with a grin like Shinji’s, a collar that covered him like the bowl of a spoon, and multiple arms. Chad got busy breaking arms off as Ichigo beat back every bladed attack the oddball tried. Eventually they had literally disarmed him, and Ichigo finally gave him mercy. At the end, Spoon-man was reaching for the body of a blond boy who’d died earlier, crushed by reiatsu.

After that, the battle was pretty much over. The skinny guy with the green tear tracks who had been with the huge beast when they’d attacked the park was standing at the base of the throne, staring at Aizen’s body. He made no move to attack, so they left him alone. A dark-skinned woman showing more breast than face stood protectively in front of three other female Arrancar, who were cowering in a corner of the room, outside the fight. They left her alone, too. They were willing to accept neutrality wherever they found it.

“Where’s the girl that was taken from the Living world?” Ichigo asked one of the curled up, quivering Arrancar in the hall outside the throne room. It whined, hid its head the best it could under its arms, and rocked back and forth.

“I can take you there, Ryoka-kun,” came a shaky voice from the shadows.

He looked over to see the tall, silver-haired Shinigami traitor walking slowly toward them, hands up. He brought his knives up en garde, and the man shook his head.

“I’m not gonna attack. I was waiting for my chance to off the bastard, but you took it.”

“You were going to kill Aizen? I thought you were his minion.”

The sideways smile on the Shinigami’s face slid off, and he shook his head. “He hurt someone precious to me. He was too strong to take out head-on, for me, at least. So I did what I had to in order to get close, planning to kill him when he least expected it.” He glanced over at where the pieces of Aizen lie scattered, the little black-haired Espada now kicking lightly at Aizen’s body then turning, hands in his pockets, to saunter away. “So much for that.”

“Tell us where Orihime is, and do whatever you want with the bodies. You could take them back to Yamamoto. Maybe he’d let you back in your squad.”

The slit eyes opened just far enough for Ichigo to see a slice of blue, then the snake-like smile came back. “Just might do that. Name’s Gin. Thanks for putting down the sick animals for me.” He turned and spoke over his shoulder. “Girl’s this way.”

They kept a sharp look-out as they followed him, not sure, again, if it was a trap. But Gin was as good as his word, and they walked through echoing hallways to a small room, where Orihime was staring soulfully out a barred window at the moon. Grimmjow was in the room with her, flexing his left arm like he’d never used it before.

Gin opened the door, then backed away, waved, and disappeared, heading back toward the throne room.

They walked in, weapons at the ready in case of ambush. Grimmjow looked up at them and gave a little yowl of joy. “I was just thinking about you, Strawberry! And here you are, ready to be slaughter- erk!”

He hit the floor, unconscious from Chad whacking him in the head with El Directo.

“Thank you,” Ichigo sighed. “I have enough stalkers. I don’t need another one. So, Orihime,” he turned to the girl who was standing there with her mouth hanging open and her eyes insanely wide, “ready to go home?”

She was still nodding dumbly when he reached out and tapped the air, opening a garganta directly from her cell, uncaring as the walls collapsed around them. When she didn’t move, Chad simply picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder in a fireman’s hold. They didn’t see the tall, pink-haired Espada with bone spectacles come into the room after them, grin fiendishly, and drag Grimmjow away.

They were back in Karakura before sunrise.

Not wanting to deal with the Shinigami still infesting Orihime’s apartment, they took her to Tatsuki’s house. Tatsuki was already awake, doing her exercises, and came running to the front door when she saw them come up the walk. They didn’t try to explain, as Orihime was babbling at high speed. They just left the two young women to each other, and headed back to Chad’s place.

By the time Orihime got home late that afternoon, she walked in to find all the Shinigami being recalled to Seireitei to be briefed on the return of Gin Ichimaru, conquering hero/spy/assassin, who had taken down Aizen and nullified the threat to Soul Society. Yumichika gave her air kisses, Rangiku exchanged recipes, and Tōshirō led them all away, looking poleaxed.

She never did get the whole story.

~

Ichigo and Chad woke to the sound of a cell phone ringing a couple hours after dropping Orihime off. Ichigo flailed around until he found his pants, dug his phone out of the pocket, and slurred, “H’lo?”

Urahara’s voice echoed much too loudly and way too cheerfully through the room. Ichigo couldn’t focus well enough to turn off the speaker button, so he dropped the phone on the bed next to Chad.

“Kurosaki-kun! Good morning! No doubt Yasutora-kun is right beside you, if not closer, and please accept my most sincere apologies if I interrupted an intimate moment. However, it is time! The Senkaimon is fired up and ready to run, the third of your trio anxiously awaits your presence, and it is the hour the rescue of Orihime is to commence!”

Ichigo stared blankly at the phone. Chad yawned, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

“Are you there, Kurosaki-kun?”

Ichigo rolled his eyes and leaned over the phone so Urahara would hear him clearly.

“It’s done. She’s at Tatsuki’s. See you in school tomorrow, Uryū.” He pushed the button to end the call, tossed the phone on the pile of clothes on the floor, curled up against Chad’s back, and was asleep in seconds.

Thank God it was Sunday.

~

Monday morning started well, with an early-morning wake-up under the covers that had Chad grinning and licking his lips, and Ichigo floating on a happy-cloud. After a quick stop at the post office to drop off a small package, they made their way to school. Uryū joined them at the desks.

“I’d ask you what happened, but given your expressions that might end with me hearing inappropriate details. So, lunch debrief?”

Ichigo nodded. Chad hummed. Uryū sighed, sat down, and got ready for lessons.

Tatsuki and Orihime barely made it to the classroom before the bell. They were holding hands, and Tatsuki looked happier than she ever had. Orihime was smiling and bobbing along in her own little world, as usual.

During the first break, Tatsuki ran up to Ichigo in the hall, fist cocked. He put his hands up automatically, but she just gave him a mild punch to the shoulder. “I could have helped! But thank you for bringing her home.” Then she threw herself in his arms and gave him a hug strong enough to crack a normal person’s ribs.

He was still getting his breath back when she passed him off to Orihime, who gave him a hug nearly as strong, while Tatsuki hugged Chad. Then it was time for Orihime to hug Chad, and Ichigo was ready to run to the men’s room to hide. He wasn’t used to all this public affection from his karate sparring partner and her girlfriend.

Uryū stood by the window and laughed at him. Bastard.

Class resumed, and he ignored everyone to concentrate on taking notes. It was… nice… to worry about normal high school stuff again. When lunchtime came, they all tromped up to the roof and broke out the bentos.

Keigo was rambling about how nice it was to have the house back and how sad it was that his crazy vicious sister didn’t have the bald object of her affections to obsess over, so she was beating him up again. Mizuiro actually got off the phone long enough to ask what happened. Chad and Ichigo exchanged glances.

“I got into a little trouble. Ichigo and Chad got me out of it.”

After delivering the understatement of the year, Orihime went off into a tangent about wolves and panthers that somehow became killer robots on a crescent moon. Tatsuki sat there and grinned sappily at her, while the guys ate their lunches and ignored her.

Business as usual.

~

A couple days after all the excitement ended, Urahara sat on the steps of his Shōten, brain whirring like an overwound clock trying to put it all together. There were secrets abounding, and loose ends that could turn into hungry maws that could bite them when they least expected it. Until he knew the status of certain individuals and artifacts, he could only make contingency plans and see which way the wind blew.

He grimaced. He hated secrets. Unless they were his. And these weren’t.

Staring off into the distance, he was so distracted he was actually surprised when the postal worker stopped in front of him and handed him a package. He couldn’t remember the last time a regular human had snuck up on him. Covering his flustered face with his fan, he took the small box and bowed his thanks. After the man had left, he checked the package for explosives, wires, or hostile kidō. Finding only a little blood, nothing dangerous, he opened it up.

Wait.

Blood?

Wincing a little in anticipation, he very carefully pulled back the flaps on the mailing box and peered inside.

Oh.

It was the Hōgyoku.

There was a crack running all the way through it, and a note stuck on top of it.

“Urahara – please limit your experiments to stuff that won't end the three worlds. Thanks, Ichigo”

Yes.

He could only try.

~end!~