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(warning: A lot of characters die. Implications of slash - not explicit).

 

He stood by himself, not seeing or hearing the low babble of talk from the adults in the room. His mom was dead.

It was his fault.

He was alone.

He’d been cold ever since that afternoon in the rain, when his mom had thrown herself between him and the monster. When she’d died for him. The cold seeped in with the rain, as the warmth left her body, lying on top of his, until all he had was the emptiness she left behind and ice clogging the blood in his veins.

So the strange sliver of warmth against his upper arm took some time to register.

Ichigo blinked, and the blur of people at his mom’s wake resolved into a few adults and his dad. He blinked again.

Then he turned his head, slowly because his neck was stiff, and he saw a thin, solemn, black-haired kid his own age sitting next to him. The kid’s shoulder was very, very lightly touching his arm.

That was where the warmth was coming from.

“I’m Uryū,” the kid told him, his voice deep and quiet. “My dad and your mom were siblings. I’m your cousin.” He paused and looked over to see Ichigo looking back at him. “I am sorry about your mom.”

Ichigo felt the tears gather again. He didn’t have the energy to fight them, or be embarrassed in front of this cousin he didn’t know he had. He let them fall.

Uryū reached over and gently wiped them away.

He didn’t leave Ichigo’s side for the rest of the day.

It took a while before Ichigo could speak. He’d been silent since his mom was killed, but with Uryū, it was easy, in a way it wasn’t with his dad or his sisters or Tatsuki, his closest friend.

Well, she had been his closest friend. Until Uryū.

Turns out his mom and Uryū’s dad weren’t actually brother and sister. His mom had been adopted or something. But they were still cousins, a lot further removed. And they became friends.

The closest.

It started with that introduction, but it grew, one conversation after another on the banks of the river, and it settled during the silences between them. They shared their lives in moments, and built a lifetime together.

~

He wasn’t the natural Uryū was with his bow, but he wasn’t bad, either. He just worked harder.

Considering how hard Uryū worked, that was really saying something.

The first time Uryū presented him to Sōken, the elderly man had stared at Ichigo like he was trying to read his soul, and succeeding. Then he smiled, a gentle smile that spread all over his face, and Ichigo relaxed.

“So, Ichigo-kun, you have come to learn what it is to be a Quincy, like your mother before you. Have you spoken to your father about this?”

Ichigo shared a disbelieving glance with Uryū. Talk to his dad? His dad? Surely Sōken knew his dad. Whyever would he think he could talk to his dad about anything? He’d just punch him again.

“It’s not his decision, sir,” Ichigo finally answered as respectfully as he could. Beside him, Uryū sighed.

“His dad beats him up, Grandfather,” he said mildly.

Ichigo shrugged. It didn’t matter. His sisters were okay, and he could take it. He didn’t understand it, but then, he didn’t need to. He just had to avoid it.

Sōken looked incredibly sad. He ruffled Ichigo’s hair, stilling for a moment when Ichigo instinctively flinched away, then continuing when the boy relaxed. Then he nodded once, led them to a clearing with a pretty waterfall, and taught them how to make bows and arrows out of thin air.

It was hard, but it was also amazing. Sōken was the best sensei, ever.

~

A few months later, there was another funeral, for another mother, lost much too young. This time it was Uryū staring blankly, not noticing the tears running down his face. And it was Ichigo inching over next to him, lending him his warmth.

They both got quieter, but they both got through it.

Together.

~

“Run, boys!” Sōken hissed at them, then turned to face the incoming hollows, knowing without a doubt that they would follow his orders.

They didn’t, quite. They did hide, though, holding on to one another. First Ichigo held Uryū back when he would have made a suicide run, then Uryū held Ichigo back when he would have flung himself head-first into more hollows than they could handle.

Their sensei was magnificent.

But it wasn’t enough.

The hollows just kept coming. There were so many of them. Arrows painted the sky electric blue, the dust from the disintegrating hollows was so thick it looked like heavy fog, and still no Shinigami came to help. The boys cowered, caught between following their beloved sensei’s last command and hating themselves for their cowardice, but they were truly powerless.

Still, no Shinigami came.

Uryū was cursing under his breath, “fucking useless Shinigami, rot in hell, oh, Grandfather!”, his words barely muffled by Ichigo’s panicked hand over his mouth. Ichigo was trying to control his breathing, feeling it hitch in his throat, desperate to not draw the horde of hollows’ attention to them.

Finally, the rain of arrows thinned, shredded, stilled. The miasma of spiritual energy hung low to the ground, blurring but not completely covering Sōken’s still form. The hollows milled around, then one roared, and they surged into the sky.

They didn’t eat his soul.

It wasn’t the usual hollow behavior, and in the back of Ichigo’s mind, behind the horror and the grief, came an uneasy feeling. He dragged Uryū closer to himself, and hauled him back into the trees, where there was more cover. Then he clamped his arms around him to keep him still.

Just in time, too. After the last of the hollows retreated, two Shinigami appeared. They looked around, appearing to be bored, then gathered Soren’s unconscious soul up and carelessly slung him over their shoulders. Ichigo’s eyes narrowed at the disrespect they showed his sensei, and shot a concerned glance at Uryū, frozen in his arms.

The Shinigami left the clearing, turning their back on Soren’s dead body, as if it were discarded wrapping. The uneasy feeling hardened into suspicion.

The hollows had acted like a hunting pack, but they hadn’t finished the job. The Shinigami acted like they’d been waiting to pick up a delivery.

They knew.

Soren had been murdered, and the Shinigami had been behind it.

From that moment on, in his heart, Ichigo considered Shinigami to be his enemy. Now, when Uryū cursed them, he added his own curses.

~

Life continued, as he had learned from an early age that it did after death tore a hole in his heart. He supported Uryū with all his strength, and they grew ever closer. After Sōken died, Ryūken had turned away from his son, and Uryū had turned his back on his father. Ichigo had stood behind his best friend.

Another place was regularly laid at the Kurosaki dinner table.

The first time Isshin tried to kick Ichigo’s head off coming in from school, with Uryū trailing behind him, Ichigo ducked. Uryū had an arrow at his throat before he could land the blow. Assessing brown eyes met cold dark blue, and Isshin gently drew his foot back. Ichigo slowly stood up.

“Dinner’s ready – err, Daddy? Why are you staring at Ichi-nii and Uryū-kun?” Yuzu asked cluelessly.

Karin stared at the three from over her shoulder. Ichigo had a feeling she could see the arrow that Yuzu obviously couldn’t.

His dad suddenly laughed loudly and gathered both girls up in a bear hug. Yuzu beamed then smacked him with her spatula. Karin growled and stomped on his foot.

Uryū silently allowed the arrow to dissipate. Ichigo looked between his best friend and his father. “Yuzu’s a good cook, Uryū,” he said, ignoring the stare the other two hadn’t yet broken. Then he reached back, grabbed Uryū by the hand, and hauled him past his dad, still standing there with his sisters.

With a muttered, “stop yanking my arm off, Ichigo!” Uryū allowed himself to be manhandled into a chair.

The twins finally escaped their dad’s constrictor-embrace, and Yuzu dished out dinner. Conversation was spotty, since Ichigo never talked very much and Uryū and his dad were intermittently engaging in a staring contest. But Yuzu chattered, and Karin answered, and the food was great.

Outright hostilities didn’t break out, so that was good, too.

After Uryū had left that evening to go to the tiny, silent apartment his father had grudgingly agreed to finance, Ichigo settled on the couch and read his social science assignment. Eventually, his dad turned off the television and turned to face him.

“So, what exactly are you doing when you’re with your cousin, son?”

Ichigo glanced up at him, then back down at the text. “Hanging out.”

“Doing any… training?”

“A bit,” Ichigo shrugged. “Self-defense.” He waited for his dad to say something about the arrow that nearly cut his throat that afternoon. The silence grew. Finally, he pushed a little. “Why’d you stop your kick today?”

Isshin stared cushion between them like it was the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen. Eventually, he shrugged, mirroring Ichigo. “You brought a guest home! It wouldn’t be polite to train you while there were guests in the house!”

Ichigo slowly looked up from his textbook and stared at his dad, incredulous. No mention of the arrow, and he was sure, from the way Isshin’s eyes had narrowed, that he’d seen it. No hint of the hypocrisy that it was okay to kick the crap out of his son as long as his friends weren’t there to witness it.

Right then, he made a resolution to have Uryū over to dinner every night he possibly could. Sleepovers, too. Maybe that would keep him from getting kicked out of bed and punched down the stairs.

He kept that resolution, and to his surprise and his dad’s irritation, it did.

~

Isshin stared out the kitchen window and sighed.

How did Ryūken handle it? His son was just as wayward as his own. No, he knew how Ryūken handled it.

Badly.

He essentially booted the kid out to live on his own when he was fourteen. Threatened to toss him on the street if he didn’t keep his grades up, as if grades were the most important thing in a town like Karakura, where hollows roamed, and where kids like Ichigo and Uryū, with their high spiritual pressure, were meals-on-legs. Like failing a class was the worst threat he would face, when the truth was, he wasn’t nearly strong enough to protect himself.

That was why he let Ichigo bring the kid by so often he sometimes thought Uryū lived with them. The boys were practically conjoined. The only reason he let it go, even as it constantly interfered with training his son, was because two sets of eyes were better for seeing incoming threats than one.

Plus, regardless of Ryūken’s opinion, he’d watched the kids practicing their Quincy techniques. Ichigo wasn’t bad, but Uryū was impressive for his age.

He leaned his head against the glass, closing his eyes, and missing his wife desperately. He needed to train Ichigo, needed to keep him safe and guide him into his natural Shinigami powers, hell, even needed to find some kind of buffer from that fucking hollow inside him. But all he could see was Masaki, every time Ichigo drew a bow.

His boy was racing toward disaster, as fast as his feet could carry him, and there wasn’t a damned thing Isshin could do about it.

~

Between school, training, homework, patrolling, and family time – he included Uryū in that category – Ichigo kept busy. Sometimes he fought thugs that got on him for his hair color, but he and Uryū made short work of them. The school administration had really clamped down on the troublemakers and the fights a couple years before, when a kid had been beaten and nearly drowned by a gang of thugs. Something about him being a foreigner, Ichigo wasn’t sure. The kid had been in another class, Ichigo thought maybe he was older, plus he didn’t pay much attention to gossip. Still, social workers had come with the police after the kid was taken to the hospital, and security had been beefed up.

They’d started to get on Ichigo’s ass, for a little while, because he was a redhead, but ‘Doctor Ishida’s Son’ came down on them like a ton of bricks, and they’d backed off. With Uryū having his back, he’d gotten into a lot fewer fights than he had when he was a little kid, and that helped, too.

Without the distraction of getting jumped by delinquents every day on the way home, and getting jumped by his dad morning and night, Ichigo had calmed down considerably. He got his own aggression out at the dojo, the one place he still kept up with Tatsuki, and killing hollows with Uryū.

Especially killing hollows. He hated the damned things. They’d killed his mom, killed his sensei, and were a plague that needed to be eradicated.

One might expect, with him being around Uryū almost every waking hour, they’d get tired of each other. The opposite happened. They got closer.

And closer.

To the point he was really thankful they were only distant cousins, because otherwise the first time he kissed Uryū he might have gotten punched in the jaw. Instead, he got a quizzical look, a finger pushing up glasses, a short nod… and a return kiss so hot it nearly scorched him.

That just got better, as they experimented and learned from and about each other. Sometimes it was awkward, sometimes it was kind of funny, and sometimes it was just comforting. But it was always exactly what they needed.

~

Shortly after they started high school, Ichigo had Uryū up in his bedroom for a ‘study session’. It was supposed to be English Literature, but Shakespeare always stirred him up, and Uryū loved to take advantage of that.

So of course the study session turned into a make-out session.

It wasn’t the first time, by far. But it turned out to be unique, because this time, after Ichigo made himself comfortable against the pillows and Uryū settled on top of him… a Shinigami walked through the wall, sword in her hand, and walked right across the bed in front of them.

The drawn sword immediately triggered a defensive response in both young men. Uryū had an arrow up and at her chest before Ichigo could roll to his feet, but his own arrow was cocked and at her temple a moment later. She froze, staring at them with huge purple eyes.

She was very short, and looked like she was about the twins’ age.

“What are you doing here, Shinigami scum?” Uryū demanded.

“They sending kids to kill us, now?” Ichigo added.

“Qui-qui-q… Quincies?” She sounded like she was going to faint.

Then a hollow the size of an office building roared outside on the street, taking a swing at the clinic that put a six-foot hole in the wall.

The Shinigami could wait. The twins were in danger!

Keeping a cautious eye on the Shinigami girl, they moved toward the threat. The fight that followed was painful and difficult, because the hollow was smarter than they usually were, and very determined. It took all three of them to bring it down, with a few close calls when the Shinigami got in their way.

After the first arrow ploughed through the top of her shoulder, she learned to keep an eye out.

Then she did some kind of ice dance attack, and froze the hollow’s paws to the ground, stilling it long enough for Ichigo and Uryū to weaken it considerably with arrow barrages. She delivered the killing blow, and the hollow dissipated.

Uryū hesitated, as Ichigo was torn between doing something about the Shinigami and making sure his sisters were okay. Then he followed Ichigo, who chose protecting his sisters over explaining himself to the interloper.

He would quickly come to regret that decision. Uryū more than regretted his hesitation, as well.

~

Rukia Kuchiki tried not to look over at her brother as she quivered slightly under the Captain Commander’s heavy gaze. Captain Ukitake stood solidly behind her, and she did her best to tamp down her nerves.

“Active Quincies, you say, in Karakura town?”

“Yes, Captain Commander Yamamoto,” she replied, happy that her voice didn’t shake. “Two young males, with fully-manifested reishi bows and arrows. They threatened me, then were distracted by an attacking hollow. I met the hollow in battle, and the Quincies fought beside me.”

There was a rustle and murmur throughout the gathered Captains at that, but Yamamoto glared them quickly back into silence.

“I was injured during the combat by one of the Quincy’s arrows.” She stopped to take a breath, and before she could admit it was her own fault for getting in the way, her brother’s voice interrupted her.

“Permission to go to the world of the living under standing execution orders, Captain Commander.”

Byakuya didn’t sound upset, but then, he seldom showed any emotion that she could see. No doubt it was a matter of his pride, not his affection for her, but she couldn’t deny the tiny trill of happiness at his defense, regardless of the reason.

“No, no,” Captain Kurotsuchi broke in. “You’d only kill them, and this is an excellent research opportunity! These two Quincies are young, viable, and surely strong enough to survive at least until I can get some answers! Let me retrieve them, Captain Commander!”

The look of unholy glee in his eyes and the anticipation in his voice made her feel sick to her stomach. In that moment, she deeply regretted making her report. Then she stamped down the reaction and held her head high.

She had a duty. She would do it. Even if the results were… sickening. They would die, anyway. This way, they would serve a purpose, at least, before they did.

Somehow, that didn’t help settle her nausea at all.

~

Uryū had been on edge ever since the Shinigami bitch had found them. He knew nothing good would come of it, and also knew he should have killed her when he had the chance.

He refused to admit how hard it would have been. She’d looked like a kid. But he would have done it, to protect Ichigo, and to protect himself.

Ichigo was on high alert around the girls, and Uryū did as he had for years, watching Ichigo’s back. It was a good thing. Two days after the battle that left a hole in the Kurosaki clinic and exposed them to their enemies, a gate appeared in the air.

They’d been on their way home from school, thankfully not at home, so the twins were safe. They dropped their schoolbooks, drew their bows, and engaged the enemy.

Nothing, but nothing they had done to train was sufficient to prepare them for the monsters that attacked them.

There were at least a dozen Shinigami, abnormal, mutated beings with horns and deformed bodies and more eyes than they should have. While they weren’t particularly talented with their swords, some of them were freakishly fast. In the first few moments of combat, the only thing that saved their lives was that, apparently, they were to be taken alive.

If the painted, wild-eyed freak with the gold teeth wearing a captain’s cape was to be believed. He screeched at them constantly, to ‘not damage the specimens!’

It nearly gave Uryū a flashback to his grandfather’s death, but he let ice settle on his soul and forced himself to remain in the moment. Beside him, Ichigo snarled, and fire rose to match his ice.

They really were the perfect complement to one another.

Several of the deformed Shinigami lay dead before their insane captain drew some sort of huge caterpillar out of his sword and tried to poison them. A deflected arrow – well, several dozen deflected arrows from both he and Ichigo – destroyed part of the gates, and the entryway in the sky collapsed on itself. The captain shrieked something incomprehensible, and whirled on his remaining soldiers, killing them in his wrath.

Doing Uryū’s work for him.

He deliberately put himself in the crazy Shinigami’s path, adding to the distraction, and Ichigo took advantage, exactly as they’d practiced time after time. The captain went down just the same way a filthy hollow would, stitched through his skull and chest with a hundred Heilig Pfeil, and the poison-spewing bug shrank until it looked like a psychedelic baby with butterfly wings.

Uryū put an arrow through its head.

Ichigo was beside him, fussing with a wound to his side, when a second gate appeared in the sky. Uryū glanced down at his bleeding body in dismay. He didn’t think he had the strength to fight another batch of Shinigami. He looked over at Ichigo, panting for breath and trying to find the words to say he was sorry.

Only to see Ichigo’s warm brown eyes turn gold, black seeping into the whites of his eyes, and a manic sneer growing on his face.

Then he was caught up tightly in Ichigo’s arms, as a jagged black crack somehow appeared in the sky, and Ichigo bounded through it, carrying him away from the battlefield. Uryū closed his eyes, held tight to Ichigo’s shoulders, and buried his face against the warm neck, breathing deeply. Trying not to pass out from blood loss.

Rumbling through the chest he was pressed to was a single word, repeated over and over in a nearly silent snarl. “Mine!”

He nodded once. He didn’t know what the hell was up with Ichigo, but they belonged to each other, and he would do whatever he had to keep Ichigo safe. Just as Ichigo was doing whatever he was doing to keep Uryū safe. His thoughts grew progressively fuzzy and he quickly passed out.

~

Ichigo had no idea how it happened, he was simply thankful it had. The fight against the damned Shinigami was the hardest he’d ever fought, and he pulled out every bit of strength he could to stay alive and protect Uryū.

If they lost here, the animals would take them, just as they had Sōken. That was not going to happen. He didn’t know what the bastards had done to his sensei, but he knew in his gut it was terrible.

If they were taken, the twins would be left defenseless.

The thought of his lover and his sisters being killed, or worse, by the deranged creep and his pack of mutant soldiers, broke some kind of barriers inside Ichigo. Rage mixed with fear mixed with protectiveness mixed with hatred. He absorbed all of it, and channeled it into his attacks. Deep in his mind he heard the echo of an insane laugh, that broke off into startled silence when he absorbed that, too.

He got faster.

He healed almost as soon as he was cut.

The poison had no effect on him.

He wanted to laugh, wanted to curse, wanted to destroy everything and anything that threatened him and what was his. Finally, Uryū threw himself into danger one more time, taking a sword strike to the torso right above the hip, and Ichigo threw his vicious power at the captain, killing him.

He was at Uryū’s side in an instant, honing in on the wounds littering his lover’s body. He would kill them, kill them all.

He had no idea he was practically wrapped around Uryū, nearly sniffing at his injuries, hands roaming over his body as if to reassure himself that none were fatal. A tingle in the air made his head come up, and he glared into the distance.

Another fucking gate!

With an internal howl, he gathered Uryū in his arms. Reached out with newly awakened instinct and cracked open the sky. Flung himself through it, carrying his precious burden, and yanked it closed behind him.

He would come back for the rest of his pack soon, but first they had to lick their wounds and regain their strength.

Ichigo stared down at Uryū’s slack face, lined with pain even unconscious.

“Would you like a hand with that, amigo?” a lightly-accented voice asked from the side.

He hunched protectively over his lover, one clawed hand holding a sword out in defense. Vaguely, he wondered… claws? Sword? What the fuck? But most of his attention was on keeping his mate safe.

A tall, slender man dressed in white, with wavy brown hair and steel-grey eyes, a frown on his face and a scruffy little goatee, stood beside the doorway to a large round white building. Ichigo kept his guard up, but cocked his head at the stranger.

“Welcome to Las Noches, vasto lorde.” He waved one gloved hand toward the buildings behind him.

Ichigo had no idea what that meant, but at least for the moment, they were safe.

~

Byakuya stared at the carnage that had once been the forward team from the 12th division, including the liquefied remains of their captain. Next to him, Suì-Fēng stared around, her eyes narrowed, her body still, ready for action.

Nothing moved.

Somehow, the two barely-matured Quincies had managed to slaughter a dozen Shinigami and a captain. Even if that captain was Kurotsuchi, it was simply unbelievable.

His rage had risen, hidden by his Kuchiki training, when his little sister returned from the World of the Living with a hole through her shoulder, eyes wide, face pale, still shaking slightly from what the Quincies had done to her. He had barely kept his refusal behind his teeth when the insane scientist had claimed his prey, taken his vengeance from him.

Obviously, it had been the incorrect decision.

Ignoring Suì-Fēng stalking a perimeter around the scene, he bent his considerable intellect to the puzzle before him. Regardless of his disdain for Kurotsuchi, the man was – had been – a strong fighter. His capture squad had also been talented, within their limits. Byakuya didn’t believe for an instant that two teens had done this much damage.

Seeking out the lingering reiryoku in the air, he nodded when he found what he had been expecting. Hollow energy. Very high level. Arrancar, no doubt.

This was the traitor Aizen’s doing.

He had done his damage to the Seireitei and was now taking his destruction into the Living World. He’d made allies of the surviving Quincies, something they might have known before if Kurotsuchi hadn’t killed the last Quincy they’d captured alive. His eyes narrowed and a barely perceptible frown pulled at his lips.

His report to the Captain Commander would be clear. They could not wait any longer to ascertain Aizen’s motives or end goals. This had to end now, before the balance of the worlds was completely upset. They had to invade Hueco Mundo.

He had to kill some Quincies.

He signaled the attending Shinigami to clean the scene and nodded to Suì-Fēng. It was time to return, time to put aside hesitation, and attack.

~

This was not at all what Urahara had hoped would happen. True, he’d managed to destroy his hogyoku, though it took a sacrifice from Tessai to do it. While he’d gotten permission, in a way, he still hadn’t gotten forgiveness, and doubted he ever would. But Aizen had been smarter than he’d expected, as ruthless as he knew him to be, and had completed his own variant of the hogyoku a year ago.

Several months before that, Urahara had heard that Aizen was too close, and he’d done what he had to do.

Sadly, it left him alone. The Vizard considered him trash for ‘turning on a comrade’ and Tessai, now powerless and permanently stuck in his gigai, was living out his mortal life in Tokyo. He knew it was a terrible thing to do, but Aizen’s hollows had attacked several times before he’d secreted his hogyoku away. The monsters had killed Jinta and crippled Ururu. He’d seen his course of action as his only choice.

He had to destroy the only working hogyoku he knew of, and he’d had to work with what he had available.

He would have chosen Isshin, but the former Shinigami captain had been avoiding him for years. Probably because his son was an active Quincy, and he was afraid Urahara might need to barter that information to the Gotei 13 to save himself at some point. It only made sense that he’d try to protect his family, and if Yamamoto knew about him, there’d be an execution order sent out on the whole family. Isshin himself for dereliction of duty, Ichigo for being an active Quincy, and the girls simply for existing as the half breeds they were.

No, Urahara couldn’t blame Isshin, but that didn’t mean he liked the fact that he’d had to sacrifice someone he’d considered a close friend. Now, the only ones he had left in his corner were a damaged teenaged mod soul and Yoruichi.

She stayed with him, because she knew what it was to have to make sacrifices that scarred one’s soul.

“Speak of the devil,” he muttered, putting aside the project he was tinkering on as a black cat slunk through the side window. He leaned against the counter and gave his best friend a sad smile, eyes watchful under the brim of his striped hat.

He loved her, but he honestly trusted no one.

She morphed into a human, and he automatically handed her a lab coat, the only clothing currently to hand. She absently wrapped it around her naked body then hopped up onto a clear spot on the work table.

“You felt it?”

He nodded. That much spiritual energy being thrown around, that much death? Yeah, he felt it.

“My little bee and Bya-bo came down to check the aftermath. I was watching the whole thing.” Her expression flattened even more, and her eyes dulled.

“Your conclusion?” He’d known about Rukia Kuchiki fighting with the Quincy boys to take down a nasty hollow, and had a suspicion how that would have gone over with Yamamoto.

“Aizen has subverted the Quincy.”

He controlled his jolt at hearing that. NOT what he’d expected. He narrowed his eyes and stared at her.

“Are they certain? Are YOU certain?”

Slowly, she nodded. “Kurosaki-kun hollowified and used a garganta when the second and sixth came through. He took Ishida-kun with him, and it looked like a deliberate retreat, not a panic reaction.”

Well. Fuck.

~

Isshin stared at the sad-eyed girl in the wheelchair staring up at him.

For a gigai to reflect such damage, the soul contained within must have been severely maimed. He sighed. Then he let her talk.

It wasn’t that he hated Kisuke. He was afraid of him. Ichigo and his other half were too damned entrenched in Quincy-ness, and if the higher ups found out about it, they’d all be in trouble. He didn’t trust Kisuke not to throw him and his family under the bus if he got in a tight spot and needed a diversion.

Still, he knew Kisuke would also help if he had the opportunity, and that’s what Ururu was at the clinic to do. He smiled gently at her.

The smile didn’t last long.

There was no way in hell his kid was involved with Aizen in any way. If anything, the damned hollow he’d inherited from Masaki was to blame for this mess. Still, he knew his former compatriots, and if nothing else, they were narrow-minded, self-righteous idiots with tunnel vision. The fact that Ichigo took Uryū and ran to Hueco Mundo would only mean one thing to that fool Kuchiki.

He nodded in return to her seated bow, and watched with blind eyes as she wheeled away.

If Ichigo made it to Hueco Mundo, Aizen would either kill him or enslave him. Uryū was as good as dead, too.

A lump rose in his throat.

His son was dead.

He himself was nearly powerless.

The only thing he had left was his daughters, and he would do what he had to do to keep the last survivors of his family alive. Everyone else, and everything else, could go to hell. He was out of this fight, if he’d ever been in it, and his girls would not be caught in the crossfire.

Ryūken was surprised to see them on his doorstep.

Damned man hadn’t even known his son was missing.

It didn’t take much convincing to chivvy the shell-shocked Ryūken into running. Tokyo was big, and easy to get lost in, even for those such as themselves.

~

Shinji stared at the cockroach in front of him as Kisuke twiddled with his fan and hid behind his hat.

He and his fellow Vizard owed so much to the scientist, but as hard as the century in the World of the Living had been on them, it had completely twisted Kisuke.

Or maybe he’d always been a self-serving coward, and they’d just never noticed.

He shook off the thought. It didn’t matter.

Something had blown up between Aizen and Yamamoto, here in the Living World. A couple Quincy kids had gotten caught up in it – who knew there were still Quincies around? – and now the Gotei 13 were going after Aizen.

Ha.

Not if he and his family-by-fate got him first.

~

Ichigo didn’t move from where he’d planted himself, next to the cot in the laboratory that functioned as a clinic here. The pink-haired hollow who looked like a human had lit up with glee when he’d seen the injured Quincy, until Ichigo focused his need to protect on the squealing bastard and made him pass out.

Turned out when he got protective he really leaked energy, and as he was exhausted from the battle, that energy was full of spikes. He dialed it down enough to wake up Pinky, who looked at him in terror for a moment before he gingerly crept forward and healed Uryū.

It was touch and go, as Uryū had a weird reaction when Pinky touched him. A growl filled with the promise of painful, protracted death had Pinky quickly finding alternate methods, and soon the wounds on Uryū’s body began to close.

Ichigo kept a close eye on Pinky’s hands. If Uryū died, so too would everyone here. Then he’d find a way to get where the Shinigami lived, and kill every last one of them, too.

“Be calm,” a monotone voice spoke from his left side.

He looked over at the dead-white hollow with the huge green eyes and tear tracks on his face. The horn on his broken helmet obscured his view a little, but he knew Ulkey wouldn’t have any expression. He’d make a good zombie. At least he hadn’t attacked.

Starrk, the first man-hollow they’d met, had seen to that.

Ichigo didn’t know what a vasto lorde was, although apparently he was one. He’d been so intent on Uryū he hadn’t noticed anything else. Starrk had led him into a maze of hallways, where they’d met Ulkey-something, and after a very quick whispered conversation he’d ignored, they’d brought him, carrying Uryū, to Pinky.

Now Uryū was safe, healed, sleeping. He pushed the lank black hair away from the pale face and settled the glasses higher on his nose. His instincts had finally stopped shrieking, and he could think again.

He didn’t know what to do. He had to keep Uryū safe. He also had to keep his sisters safe. They weren’t safe in Karakura. The fucking Shinigami had seen to that. He was mulling it over, staring at Uryū’s face, when he felt a new presence behind him.

No one but Aizen and Starrk could follow his movements as he whirled, pulled his sword out of the air, and placed himself between Uryū and the incoming threat.

“Shinigami bastard,” he hissed, weapon up, ready to defend his mate.

There were two of them, a brunet with cold eyes who radiated power and an ash blond who moved like a snake. Next to him, Ulkey tensed, and Ichigo shifted his stance, readying himself for an attack from either quarter.

“Please be calm, Ichigo Kurosaki.” The brunet smiled at him. A shark hiding behind a dolphin, that smile.

“How do you know my name?” His hand was steady on his blade. If they came closer, they would die.

“I knew your father. I’ve been watching you for a long time. I have so much to tell you.”

It took hours.

He refused to leave Uryū, so they brought him with him, into a sitting room with couches and tables that wouldn’t have been out of place in Karakura, except for the black starless night and unmoving crescent moon seen through the window. A more obviously-hollow girl scuttled in, left tea, and scuttled back out again, without saying a word.

Ichigo sat on a couch, Uryū laid down next to him with his head in Ichigo’s lap. He gently ran his fingers through the inky black hair as he listened.

There were so many lies.

His father had been a Shinigami, so yeah, he’d seen Uryū’s arrow. He was half Shinigami, and that made him want to puke. Aizen and his subordinates had revolted against the Shinigami rule, and were allying with highly-developed hollows called Arrancar. The strongest of these were Aizen’s court, with Starrk being the strongest and Ulkey being the fourth-strongest. Aizen was planning to take some throne and clean up the mess in Soul Society, liberate the hollows, and keep the Living World safe forever, or some such bullshit.

Ichigo looked at the rogue Shinigami, and saw a strong, intelligent, arrogant, opportunistic megalomaniac. He looked at the snake-like one, and saw a backstabber. He looked at the blind one, and saw a bitter zealot.

Instincts he’d had all his life had sharpened unbelievably during the battle with the mutant Shinigami. They were screaming now that Aizen would betray them all as he’d betrayed his own people. It was only a matter of time and circumstance.

Traitors betray. It was their nature.

The Espada were tools. No doubt also disposable.

He looked at Ulkey, who was watching Aizen with devotion. He looked at Starrk, who looked back at him, a well of loneliness deep in his eyes.

He was with them.

Not Aizen, and Ichigo would kill him if and when he had to, but with the Arrancar. This was their home. They’d been invaded, and were being used. Something in himself also felt like this was his home, and he had to protect it.

Just as he had to protect Karakura. He definitely had to protect his sisters.

He couldn’t do that if he were dead.

And if he didn’t appear to go along with this nutcase, he and Uryū would both be executed.

He nodded. “Let’s get to work. They’ll be coming. Soon.”

Surprise flashed through Aizen’s eyes before dying into triumph. Feh. Let the creep think what he wanted.

Ichigo would do what he had to do, and his precious people would be safe.

~

Ulquiorra observed the new hybrid. He was very interesting. His protectiveness for his mate was highly unusual in a hollow. Perhaps it was the mix of Shinigami and Quincy that made him so different from everyone else.

Over the next few days, he found himself drawn to both the hybrid and his mate Ishida, who, as it turned out, was sarcastic, intelligent, and equally protective of Kurosaki. He also got sick any time a hollow touched him. The stupider among them considered it a great game to see who could touch him the most often.

After Kurosaki slaughtered Yammy, the arrancar stopped touching the Quincy.

Aizen-sama hadn’t been pleased, but he also hadn’t said anything. He’d intended to add Kurosaki to his Espada, but to their collective surprise, the morning after Kurosaki and Ishida arrived in Hueco Mundo, they’d disappeared out onto the white sands.

Aizen-same had been even less pleased, until the third day, when Kurosaki returned.

With eight vasto lorde Aizen had never been able to locate.

None of them agreed to undergoing transformation via the hogyoku. They were there simply to protect Hueco Mundo from the upcoming Shinigami invasion. Aizen-sama actually sighed in disappointment, but he accepted their alliance anyway. He appointed Ulquiorra himself and Starrk – with his irritatingly loud girl Fracción – to be liaisons with their new allies.

The next few days were an education in urban warfare for all of them. Ishida was brilliant, Kurosaki was devious, and the vasto lorde were experienced. Lethal traps were laid within and surrounding Las Noches, and the hollows soon learned to step cautiously. Training was held, wherein the concept of duels was beaten out of most of them – Nnoitra was a lost cause, although Grimmjow was surprisingly enthusiastic, given his predilection for individual power – as Kurosaki and Ishida showed them exactly how successful working as a team could be in combat.

He’d never had anyone watch his back. He’d never needed it. This war would be different.

Barragan and Hallibel needed no partners, as their Fracción supported them. Hallibel, in fact was the first Espada to actively support the new way of fighting, as she had taught her Fracción to fight in much the same way. Starrk teamed up with Ulquiorra. Grimmjow made a good partner for Zommari, using his speed in concert with Zommari’s. Szayel Aporro worked with Aaroniero, as their power levels were comparatively similar and the scientist could keep up with the shapeshifter’s changes. Nnoitra scoffed at them and would use Tesla as his support if he thought he needed it.

The vasto lorde maintained their presence outside the walls of Las Noches, hunting as four pairs that changed constantly. Ulquiorra was too busy with his own training and reporting to Aizen-sama to get the chance to observe them in action. Aizen-sama appeared calm and omniscient as always.

Privately, for the first time, Ulquiorra had his doubts. He had seen how Kurosaki watched Aizen-sama, and such close observation had intrigued him. What was the hybrid seeing when he examined their leader? It piqued his own interest, and he, in turn, watched more closely.

What he saw fed his doubts.

There was an air of condescension in Aizen-sama’s observance of their preparations. As if they were children, their efforts amusing but inconsequential, or, chillingly, sacrifices too insignificant to care if they lost their lives.

Ulquiorra drilled beside Starrk, and he watched, and he observed. Decisions would have to be made, soon.

Still, in a very short time, the Hollow army and implanted defenses fell into place. The petty bickering, born of boredom and pride, nearly disappeared as everyone was too busy training, being healed, avoiding traps, or setting other traps, to sit around drinking tea. As the hours passed, Ulquiorra found a kinship he’d never felt with the other powerful hollows as they prepared to defend their world.

Even Starrk was engaged. Exercising his vast reiryoku regularly, working in concert with others, invigorated him for the first time in eons. He also seemed to find the creation and execution of the traps to be entertaining. Ulquiorra found himself agreeing. The addition of Kurosaki and Ishida to their ranks, even if the Quincy was allergic to them, was oddly inspiring to them all.

The Shinigami had no idea what they were heading into.

~

Their arrogance was their downfall.

Two gates opened in the black sky of Hueco Mundo, and Shinigami marched through. Their eyes were on the horizon, the vast white walls of Las Noches. Their target was the Shinigami traitor, the hollows were negligible, nothing but fodder to plow through in order to get to the real challenge.

Or so they thought.

Before they got anywhere near their goal, several Shinigami were taken by traps in the sand. Ikkaku made the fatal mistake of taking on two vasto lorde and telling Yumichika not to interfere. Yumichika made the fatal mistake of not only listening to his best friend, but watching the fight instead of paying attention to his surroundings.

Four vasto lorde feasted on their souls.

Iba never even made it to the vasto lorde, having died when he fell into a disguised pit of sand worm hollows. He didn’t even have time to scream. Izuru made a much better showing, actually managing to kill one vasto lorde before another snapped his arm off at the elbow, causing him to lose his Zanpakutō. Once he was – literally – disarmed, he barely survived moments before dying at the claws of the hollows that swarmed him from a hidden spider-trap.

~

It had been some years since Sasakibe was out in the field, but he had not allowed his skills to lapse. It wasn’t enough.

Shūhei and Komamura were appalled to discover their erstwhile Captain was now a disturbing hollow in the shape of a massive fly, crowing about his ability to see and, as always, justice, though they had no idea how he could consider himself a just man, as a murderer and a traitor. Still, they tried to reason with him.

He gutted Shūhei before the words were out of their mouths.

Komamura howled like the wolf spirit he was, and threw himself at his former friend in a near-berserker frenzy. Sasakibe came to his aid, as Szayel Aporro and Aaroniero attacked from the side. Unfortunately for the Shinigami, they were expecting to fight one on one. The teamwork of the three Arrancar was too hard to crack, as they covered for each other. By the end of that battle, the captain of the seventh lay dead beside the lieutenant of the ninth.

Their deaths took their toll on the Espada, however. Kensei and Mashiro came up hard on the heels of victory. Kensei was snarling as he attacked the man who had once been one of his officers, who had killed so many of his men and had conspired with Aizen to tear his soul apart. Tousen barely turned to meet him before he was pulverized, dying in the sand at the hands of his former captain. Mashiro zipped through the air and dive-bombed Aaroniero until the capsule holding his skulls cracked, before Szayel Aporro could finally capture her. He was in the process of turning her into a doll, to crush her to paste, when Kensei, rage not yet appeased, crushed his skull with a single blow.

Kensei, in turn, was shocked when a heart, of all things, appeared on his right arm, and he punched himself in the face. He was still trying to figure out what the hell was going on when a second heart appeared on his left arm, and he reached up, grabbed his own neck, and broke it.

Love and Rose landed a moment too late to help Kensei, but they could at least add their attack to Mashiro’s screaming, grieving insanity. Grimmjow met them both with a howl of glee, dancing around Zommari to add his Pantera to the mix. Love caught Zommari with a strike from his kanabō, destroying most of his torso, before taking Pantera through his spine. Grimmjow was never more thankful for his Fracción, as they dove into the battle. Three of them died to bring down the crazy-fast Mashiro, and Rose took a sword strike to the chest that nearly killed him, managing to send his whip-Zanpakutō through Grimmjow’s gut before he fell. Rose then staggered over to Love and collapsed atop him, fainting from blood loss. The last thing Grimmjow saw before he passed out was Mashiro, falling unconscious from the sky to end up draped over his body. He was bemused, but too hurt to try to move her. Ironically, she acted as a de facto pressure bandage, inadvertently saving his life.

~

Kenpachi roared from the gate, ignoring anyone around him he considered beneath his notice, which was everybody with the possible exception of the Captain Commander. This included several lower-ranked Shinigami and a couple lieutenants he might have saved, had he paid them any attention.

He didn’t, simply writing them off as weak and worthless. He was here to exterminate the insects, and he was gonna have fun!

That lasted until a thirty-foot-tall bull-shaped hollow kicked him over and broke Yachiru’s legs and right arm.

With a roar a lot like an enraged bull himself, he scooped up his injured lieutenant and stashed her behind a handy rock, hissing at her to stay down. Then he cut that bull into a hundred or so pieces.

He was so intent on revenge he actually missed the first approach from a tall, multi-armed hollow with an eye patch and a spoon collar rising up behind his head. The fight that followed was short, utterly brutal, and sent the reiatsu level so high it crushed all the lower hollows in the immediate vicinity. Nnoitra lost all of his arms and his torso was sliced to ribbons before he finally managed to knock Kenpachi over and cut off his head.

He, in turn, didn’t see the small pink-haired form that dragged herself across the sand until she was inching over his supine body. He could do absolutely nothing to protect himself as she tore out his throat, with her teeth.

~

Hitsugaya watched Kenpachi run off like the mad animal he was and huffed a disapproving sigh. Then he ducked to keep from getting his head taken off at the shoulders by a gush of water that was razor-sharp.

“Captain!” Matsumoto screamed, then they threw themselves into a fight against four female Arrancar, one of them a high-ranked Espada.

That fight nearly drowned the battlefield, quite a feat considering Hueco Mundo was a bone-dry desert. Hitsugaya was holding his own against the Tres Bestias, as Matsumoto harried Hallibel, until Apacci, Mila Rose and Sung-sun threw all their combined strength into Quimera Parca, forming the Ayon combination. Hitsugaya used up all but a single petal of his ice flowers and strained Hyōrinmaru to the limits, to his astonishment, before he brought them down. The ferocity of his final attack slew all three arrancar, but drained the last of his strength as well.

As they had fought, Matsumoto found herself completely outclassed by the Third Espada. Exhausted, she couldn’t even bring up enough energy to call for help from her captain as Hallibel closed for the killing blow.

Only to find it stopped by, of all people, her Gin.

“This one’s mine. Sorry.” He didn’t sound apologetic at all as he stole her from under the Espada’s sword.

Hallibel backed away, eyes wary, then shot to the side at the sight of her Fracción falling under the ice dragon’s might.

Luckily for Matsumoto’s nightmares, she was unconscious before Hallibel cut Hitsugaya in half.

~

Byakuya Kuchiki refused to allow himself to recognize just how poorly the invading Shinigami were faring. Seeing Lieutenants Iba and Kira fall to roving pairs of vasto lorde, he muttered, “Scatter, Senbonzakura.”

By the time he managed to kill three of the four vasto lorde who had cornered him, his towering pink blades were crumbling as his strength began to wane.

The only thing fueling him was his rage, underpinned by his pride, by the time he killed the fourth vasto lorde. He was nearly dizzy from blood loss, his Zanpakutō was back down to shikai, and he was relying much more heavily on Lieutenant Abarai’s assistance than he would have liked. Still, he had a mission to fulfill. Quincies to kill.

He was still focused forward when the Quincies he’d come to Hueco Mundo to kill came at him from both sides in a deadly attack.

Abarai did his best, but a man can only fight so long with arrows piercing every limb and stuck through his body. Byakuya had lost his scarf and his Kenseikan had been shattered by a blow that nearly cracked his skull earlier in the fighting. His haori was shredded, and nearly black with blood.

He didn’t even feel the arrow that went through his heart.

“Nii-sama!”

He heard Rukia’s cry, but could not summon the strength to answer her. Darkness took him, weighed down with the knowledge that he had failed.

Ichigo stared at the little Shinigami girl who had first found them, as she threw herself over the body of her older brother. He bit his lip. For an instant, her image was overlain with Yuzu, or Karin, crying over his own body, and he lowered his bow. Uryū paused in his firing and stared over at him.

Uryū shrugged. She wasn’t any threat. Then he wheeled and gestured for Ichigo to follow. The war wasn’t over yet.

A few feet away from his captain’s body, Renji coughed up blood and twitched. Rukia’s head rose like a shot, and she gave one last heartbroken look to her late brother before rising on unsteady legs to run to her old friend’s side.

He was trying to talk when she landed on her knees beside him. Trying to apologize.

“Keep quiet, idiot,” she told him gently, then gathered him up and flash-stepped the fastest she could, carrying his weight. Captain Unohana looked serene as ever, blood covering her clothing and splashed on her braid, as she took Renji from Rukia’s shaky hold.

Rukia stood there, stunned, with no idea what to do, as Unohana began to heal Renji, pulling him back from the brink of death. Rukia finally tore her eyes away from her comatose friend. She glanced back at the corpse of her brother, then over the slaughter on the battlefield. So many friends, and comrades, wounded or dead. Tears leaked down her cheeks and she collapsed, her face in her hands.

“This is all my fault.”

~

Not far away from the triage center, Suì-Fēng found herself in a position she clearly despised. She had to deploy her bankai.

It was embarrassing that a warrior who prided herself on stealth had a secondary Zanpakutō stage that resembled a surface-to-air missile.

Then Ōmaeda, the utter fool, threw himself between her and the ancient skeleton hollow with the strange fog weapon, and dissolved into nothing, screaming the entire time until his voice box was consumed.

“Idiot,” she sneered. At least he’d given her time to power up. She aimed, steadied, and fired… only to see her Zanpakutō eaten by the mysterious, deadly fog. Her eyes widened and she tried to flash step away from the threat.

She couldn’t move.

She looked down. Her breath caught in her throat.

Her legs were missing up to the knee, and the disintegration was spreading rapidly.

Looking back up at the skeleton grinning maliciously at her, she muttered, “Fuck it,” aimed precisely, and pulled the trigger.

Barragan would have thrown some of his meat shields – er, Fracción – at the incoming weapon, but they were all off fighting Shinigami lieutenants. With a sneer, he lifted his arm to deploy more senescence, and age the missile to dust.

His arm didn’t move.

Looking down, he noticed for the first time that his throne was encompassed by a layered kidō barrier that had crept up until it froze his limbs as well. He had the brief thought that he shouldn’t have wasted so much time gloating, before Suì-Fēng’s last attack blew him to very tiny pieces.

~

High above the battle raging below them, Starrk engaged Shunsui Kyōraku in a high-stakes game of shadow war. He nearly lost Lilynette, and did lose half his wolves, then Lilynette did something completely insane – as she was prone to do – and jumped on Kyōraku’s back, wrapping her arms around his neck and doing her damnedest to choke him out.

She couldn’t, of course, but for once, Starrk didn’t treat it like a game. Instead, he took advantage of the split second distraction his other half caused before Kyōraku threw her off, and shot a spray of ceros through Kyōraku’s torso from his left hip to his right shoulder.

‘Take them out hard and fast’ had been Ichigo’s advice, and he followed it.

He watched as the Shinigami’s body arced gracefully to the ground, landing in a heap and not moving. Then he winced as Lilynette kicked him, hard, in the ass. She was a little bit pissed off that he hadn’t waited until she was clear before he fired, and she had been grazed by a couple of the ceros.

Sighing, he siphoned some energy off to her, and healed her wounds. Then, mainly because they were winning and he was getting tired, he opted out of the fight and wandered down to the surface to check on the Shinigami.

Kyōraku was buried a foot deep in the sand from the force of his fall. He’d smother if nobody dug him out. Starrk stared at him for a moment and thought, ‘what the hell.’

Lilynette bitched him out the entire time he dug the captain out, dragged him over to the Shinigami hospital station, and dropped him on a short woman with immense spiritual pressure who was up to her elbows in a redhead’s gut. A tall skinny girl with big eyes caught him before he landed and stared up at Starrk in disbelief.

“You should probably do something about that,” he prompted her, gesturing at the blood seeping from the singed holes where his ceros had turned the Shinigami into a sieve. Then he shrugged and wandered away. He felt the eyes of the short medic burning into his back, but he ignored her.

He really wanted a nap.

~

Ukitake had lost track of Kyōraku moments after landing in the hell that was Hueco Mundo. Sōsuke’s imagination was fiendish, and his new allies were worse. So many good people died so fast once they hit the sands. It literally made him nauseous.

Or that might have been the sword he’d taken through the lung from the ridiculously fast, very vicious Espada he was now fighting.

Breathing was problematic under the best circumstances for him, and a bleeding gash through the chest wasn’t good at all. He was wheezing, doing his damnedest to keep his swords – and his knees – steady under the onslaught, flinging bright green ceros back at the bastard as fast as he was shooting them… but he was losing, and he knew it.

With the last of his strength, he called down lightning and torrential rains, causing the Espada woman who commanded water to look over in shock. His water output made hers look like a spring shower, and given there was next to no water onsite from which to draw, it was beyond amazing. At least three bolts struck the Espada, knocking him back, sending him into spasms, but he simply entered a third phase.

Ukitake looked at the freakishly rendered bat with the long slender sword, and winced. Not what he’d been hoping for.

Then he coughed, one last time, and the hurricane faltered. Withered. Died.

He wasn’t aware, as he was falling as well, the last of his strength leaving him.

Ulquiorra caught the Shinigami before he landed, staring with interest at the pale face. Handsome features, brow lined with pain, blood on his mouth and chin, body lax but his fists still clenched on his blades, even unconscious. Interesting.

Not trash.

At all.

He’d known he was dying, and still fought with surprising strength and superlative instincts. No. Not trash.

Intriguing.

Deciding the Shinigami was too interesting to allow to die so quickly, he flew with his burden to the Shinigami camp where the healers were working on the wounded. The brightest, strongest presence came from a small woman who was finishing up work on a wounded captain wrapped in a weird pink garment. Ulquiorra blinked, then came in for a landing.

“Heal this,” he ordered the woman, then thrust his Shinigami into her arms.

She sent him a single glare, hot enough to figuratively roast him, then gently laid her patient down and got to work.

Satisfied, he flew up into the sky and surveyed the battlefield. Most of them were trash, and would die today. But some…

One, at least, he would follow up on, and see where it led.

~

The last line of fighters stood in the shadow of the high walls of Las Noches. Sōsuke Aizen watched as his creations, their minions, and his vasto lorde and Quincy allies, decimated the Shinigami forces.

This actually wasn’t what he intended. He hadn’t expected them to survive, much less succeed.

It wouldn’t do for the Gotei 13 to be completely wiped out when he took over as Soul King. Weakened, yes, selectively. Not like this. This was wholesale slaughter.

He sighed, and stepped forward to equalize the field.

Before he could move, two old friends decided to pay a call.

His once-captain was just as sneaky as ever, and Sarugaki was just as loud, offensive, and arrogant as she had always been. He didn’t bother toying with them. He had things to do.

His sword was through Sarugaki’s chest and bisected her heart in an instant. Shinji screamed in rage and tried to flip the world on its head, as he always did. Aizen smiled and moved.

Shinji fell, sword broken at the hilt, free hand wrapped around his belly, holding his internal organs inside his body by sheer force of will.

Aizen chuckled. Then he jumped, as fire wreathed him.

Ah, the Captain Commander. Another obstacle. Yes, he could die. That would be a help, not a hindrance. Aizen was still musing on who should live and who should die as the fight commenced.

Several times Yamamoto thought he killed Aizen, only to find he was fighting air – or, in one nasty instance, slicing up a few of his own lieutenants. He didn’t even know how Hinamori came to the battlefield, as she was still supposed to be in the infirmary, and now that Nemu Kurotsuchi had succumbed to his blade, he didn’t want to think of what would happen with the 12th. He was enraged enough to set flame to the entire world, when a small blond boy came out of nowhere and swallowed Ryūjin Jakka’s fire.

The moment of shock that caused was all his opponent needed.

As the boy burped the fire back at him and nearly incinerated him, a strike he didn’t even see came from the side and cleaved him in two.

Aizen was completing the swing that took Yamamoto’s life when he heard “Shoot to kill, Shinsō,” and felt a sting in his side. The sword burrowed up under his ribs and into his heart.

It wasn’t enough to kill him, although it did make him curse silently at not implanting the hogyoku as he’d intended before the battle. He’d been keeping that for the final confrontation that would see him on the throne.

He’d never get to that battle, because Shinji, still clutching his ruined stomach, came out of nowhere and cut his throat with the ragged edge of his broken sword.

Aizen fell, his body jerked to the side as Gin retracted his Zanpakutō, and Shinji fell with him.

Neither rose.

~

Unohana stared at the last few battles winding down on the blood-soaked sands. She watched Yamamoto fall, saw Aizen die as well, and knew it was over.

As the highest-ranking surviving and conscious Shinigami officer on the field, she was calling this fiasco. Nodding to Isane to cast the kidō, she sent her voice out over the battlefield.

“This is Captain Unohana. General Retreat. Repeat. General Retreat.”

Anyone who ignored her orders would simply die. It was time to go home.

~

Unohana retained command once the pitiful remnants of the invading Shinigami forces returned to the Seireitei. With the Central 46 dead to the last member, Shunsui in a healing coma, Jūshirō on medic-enforced bed rest, and the strongest ranks of Shinigami severely depleted, she made some obvious decisions.

Jūshirō supported her completely.

The noble clans were in too much disarray – and shock – to protest. It helped that the leaders of two of the five were newly-appointed Captains.

Less than a week after the disastrous failed invasion of Hueco Mundo, she stared out at her gathered captains and lieutenants of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads.

The returned captain of the Twelfth, Kisuke-kun, was carefully eyeing the floor and avoiding the glares directed at him from the newly-returned Vizard officers. The recalled captain of the Second, Yoruichi-chan, glared death at anyone who frowned at her best friend.

She’d have to keep an eye on that situation. She was not above dealing out well-deserved discipline when it was needed. She rather enjoyed it, actually.

Stifling the blood-thirsty smirk that would otherwise mar her perfectly-composed expression, she continued her slow perusal. Gin-kun, reinstated captain of the Third, couldn’t stop staring at the new captain of the Ninth, not that most people would notice, as close to closed as his eyelids were. Rangiku-chan was stealing glances right back, and she’d have to make sure the girl’s mind was on her duties, not her beau. Young Toshiro hadn’t used a firm hand with her, but Unohana had no qualms about hauling her back in line.

Newly-appointed captain Abarai of the Sixth was not completely healed, and the new captain of the Tenth, Rukia-chan, spent half her time staring worriedly at him and the rest of the time beating herself up over precipitating the failed invasion that cost her brother’s life and landed her with the clan leadership. Unohana wasn’t completely sure the girl was ready to lead a squad, but it appeased the clans, and kept the child under her eye, where she could watch over her.

Her old squad was in good hands under Isane, not that her apprentice truly believed it. That would come, with time and experience.

New faces, but the same resolve. They were all so young. She hoped she had time to make them strong, before the next crisis hit. Her cynical side knew she wouldn’t.

That was a worry for later. For now, they had work to do.

The doors opened.

Spiritual pressure spiked. She met it with her own, and her officers stilled. The honored guests representing Hueco Mundo entered, and diplomatic talks began.

She wanted to slaughter every last filthy hollow that walked in the door.

Instead, she smiled, ignoring the near-universal shudder the expression provoked, and set about, Jūshirō at her side, to make the best of a bad situation.

~

Starrk left Lilynette at home when he joined Ulquiorra and Hallibel at the heart of their enemies’ power. The sheer wall of hatred that met them as they walked into the room might have made his steps falter, were it not for the fact that their combined strength was still a fraction of his own. His eyes met the still, deep eyes of the Captain Commander, and he smiled.

This woman would be a worthy opponent. Her heart was as hollow as his.

She was strong, as well. Very strong.

He wondered, for an instant, if she had a mate, then put the thought aside for later consideration. First, treaties. If they all survived that, there would be time for more pleasurable pursuits.

~

Ukitake gathered himself against the rampant hostility in the room and gave a gentle smile, not bothering to hide the steel behind it. These Espada were no mindless hollows, and he would not treat them as such. Soul Society was in no position to continue a war that, quite frankly, had been their own fault.

Aizen had been one of theirs.

The Gotei 13 had been the invaders.

Armed détente was the best they could hope for, and he would do his very best to ensure that was exactly what they got.

Who knows? Perhaps if they treated the Espada with respect, they would be respected in return. He’d tried to get Yama-jii to take that approach for years, and had been met with a deaf ear and a series of execution orders.

Retsu was already an improvement, returning the exiled Vizard and Shinigami home, where they belonged. Now it was time to make peace with the other worlds, as they had within their own.

The majority of the officers were dismissed, and they sat, three to three. The tall, slender Primera, Starrk-san, was opposite Retsu, whilst Yoruichi-chan sat opposite the somewhat scantily-clad but quite impressive figure of the Tercera, Hallibel. The two women were sizing each other up, and seemed to be tentatively approving of what they saw. The third envoy sat opposite him, the Quarta, Ulquiorra. The Espada was the most still being he had ever seen. Not a twitch betrayed his emotions, and Jūshirō found himself absently eyeing his throat, looking for a pulse.

Then he caught himself, buried a cough and the start of a blush behind his hand, and cleared his throat.

Looking up, his glance was ensnared by a pair of huge, desolate eyes that were even greener than his own. His breath caught in his throat.

That triggered another cough. He swayed, and found himself caught by an insanely-strong hand wrapped carefully around his shoulder. Somehow, Ulquiorra had rounded the table so fast even Retsu hadn’t been able to track him.

Everyone froze, except Jūshirō, shivering through his cough, and Ulquiorra, gently patting his back.

“Are you alright?”

The soft, deep question triggered a second shiver that had nothing to do with his illness. Jūshirō stared, wide-eyed, and gave a hesitant nod. “Thank you,” he whispered, “yes.”

The desolation in the eyes locked with his lightened, for an instant, and Jūshirō smiled.

This would not be nearly as difficult as he had feared. They already had something unexpected in common.

Humanity.

~

Ulquiorra wanted to wrap the pretty Shinigami in a blanket and keep him safe. Wanted to rip out the healer Captain’s heart for not fixing him. Wanted to strip his Shinigami down to his skin and map him out with his hands.

And his tongue.

This was all intensely confusing.

Intriguing.

He kept his hand exactly where it was, ignoring Hallibel’s disapproval, the healer Captain’s hints, Starrk’s amusement, and the golden-eyed woman’s smirk. This was the first time he’d ever been interested enough in another being to do more than dispose of him.

Now that he had him in his grip, no one was going to take him away.

~

Jūshirō had a shadow. He was slightly amused, slightly embarrassed, and more than slightly aroused.

By an Espada.

Who apparently knew absolutely nothing about social norms. Or personal space.

When he woke up, Shun-kun was going to break a rib laughing.

~

It took every ounce of strength Rukia had not to scream and attack the Espada as she and the other officers filed out of the hall.

She didn’t understand how Captain Ukitake could sit with the others and negotiate terms.

Peace.

With hollows.

Of course, if they hadn’t invaded Hueco Mundo and lost, they wouldn’t have to sue for peace.

If she hadn’t reported the Quincies, they wouldn’t have invaded Hueco Mundo. The Quincies wouldn’t have killed her brother.

She still didn’t know why they hadn’t killed her.

Shaking her head to clear it, not that it helped with the pain in her heart, she straightened her spine and returned to her office.

She was head of the Kuchiki Clan, now. She could not let them see her weakness.

Still, the thoughts chased around in her head. The bright-haired Quincy had little sisters. That’s why they fought with her instead of killing her, concentrating on the huge Hollow. Maybe they hadn’t killed her out of some kind of respect for little sisters. Maybe that was why they’d left her to mourn her own big brother.

Most days she was glad she hadn’t had time to submit a complete report. Hadn’t told them about the strange, intermittent traces of Shinigami reiatsu that lay heavily in the Quincy boy’s home. Hadn’t mentioned the two young girls, who had to be Quincies because their brother was, but who seemed like normal humans, although the dark one seemed strangely like a Shinigami too. Most days she was glad she’d been so confused by it all that she’d been relieved when Byakuya had stepped in and they’d gone to war.

Then she’d remember that they’d gone to war, and she wished she’d killed all the Quincies herself and never reported a word.

Those were the days when she was thankful Renji had survived.

And that Sode no Shirayuki refused, when Rukia tried to take the honorable way out.

~

Back on Hueco Mundo, Grimmjow was having a high time ordering his minions around. Cleaning up the mess from the invasion. Robbing the corpses – some of the Shinigami had some interesting stuff to salvage, and he found a really soft scarf to wrap around his neck.

The blood stains just added character.

The Shinigami itself was pretty tasty, too. Must have been powerful, because Grimmjow could feel his own power growing as he consumed it.

Ichigo and Ishida arrived with a small explosion of sand, interrupting his scavenging. He sat back over his pile of goods and gave them a challenging look. Sure, they could kick his ass, but he didn’t think they’d kill him, and a cat never gave up his stash without a fight. Neither one seemed at all bothered by the chunk of Shinigami he was currently munching on.

From the lopsided smirk Ichigo was giving him, and the sniff from Ishida, he figured they knew exactly what he was thinking, but they didn’t say anything. Instead, Ichigo slapped him on the shoulder, and Ishida nodded at him.

From a distance. Allergies, ya know.

“You off, then?” Surprisingly, he’d miss them. He’d never had more fun in his life than when he was fighting alongside them.

“Time to go home, check on my sisters.” Ichigo scowled up into the sky.

“If you need us, if the filthy Shinigami attack again, come to us. We will stand behind you,” Ishida added solemnly.

Grimmjow nodded back. He thought he’d hated Shinigami, but it was nothing on the hybrid and the Quincy kid.

With that, the two sprinted off into the air, and Ichigo raised his hand to crack a garganta into the sky. Grimmjow watched them until the blackness closed behind them, then looked down.

A lizard hollow as long as his arm was trying to sneak off with his dinner. Grimmjow let out a howl, landed on it with both feet, and ate it as an appetizer.

~

Karakura town looked as quiet as the grave. Ichigo stared down at the empty streets and sighed. This was going to be difficult. His dad was a fucking Shinigami. He was part Shinigami. It made his skin crawl. Of course, he was also Quincy, which he’d known and was cool about, and somehow also Arrancar, all mixed up together. He didn’t know if his dad was going to hug him or try to exterminate him.

No wonder he’d spend most of his life getting beaten to a pulp by his dad. His sisters must not have been hollow like he was. His dad hadn’t ever hurt them. Of course, that was just as well, or they’d have all been orphans, because no way was his dad, or anyone else for that matter, going to raise a hand against his sisters.

Uryū looked at him, then reached over to tangle their fingers together. “Your house first.”

Ichigo shot him a grateful look, and it was the work of moments to make it home, using Hirenkyaku to run through the sky.

As soon as his house was in sight, he tensed up. Something was off. It was too dark. There wasn’t a hint of spiritual pressure, and if either Karin or his dad had been there, he’d have felt it.

Ichigo tore through the house like a whirlwind, and from the look of it, he wasn’t the first.

The furniture was intact, but all the signs of a hasty retreat were there. Drawers were pulled half-out of dressers, closet doors hung open. He could faintly smell rotting food where the cabinets hadn’t been cleaned out. Clothes and papers were cluttering the floor where they’d fallen.

He felt his world grow cold and he curled his fists, claws coming out to prick his palms.

“Calm down, Ichigo. You’ll draw Shinigami attention. We’ll get caught up in a fight again and not be able to go look for your family.”

Uryū’s voice was barely calm, forcibly held steady to cover the panic beneath it. Ichigo caught a glimpse of himself in the kitchen window. His face was pale, his eyes were black and gold, and short armored spikes were rising up over his shoulders. He took a deep breath.

Concentrated on the cool dry strength of Uryū’s calloused fingers clenched around his.

Wrenched himself back under control.

Went on the hunt.

The scent trail of his sister and father’s reiatsu was nearly faded out, but he could still, barely, follow it. Uryū was at his side as he shot off, eyes intent, following along the gridlines of the streets below as he tracked his missing family. After much too long, subjectively forever, he came to a stop in front of a large building.

“What the hell?” Uryū sounded completely confused.

Ichigo shook off his tracking focus and took a step back, looking up. They were standing at the entrance to the hospital Ryūken Ishida ran.

He looked at Uryū. Uryū glared at the building.

“Come on,” Uryū ground out, and led the way in.

All they seemed to hit inside were dead ends. Ichigo lost Karin and his dad’s trail, too many conflicting scents, overpowered by the layer of Quincy power engrained in the very walls of the building from Ryūken’s presence every day for years.

Uryū didn’t have any better luck. His dad wasn’t on the doctor rotation. His office was empty. The staff lounge was empty. The medical library was empty. He finally caught up with Ryūken’s secretary, coming in from a cigarette break.

“Ishida-san! I’m so surprised to see you. Is Ishida sensei with you?”

Ichigo barely restrained himself from punching a hole in the wall. Uryū ground his teeth, audibly, but managed to sound polite as he asked, “No, why would you think that?”

The secretary looked confused. “He told us you had been in an accident and he was taking leave to be with you.”

Uryū stared at her like she’d spoken Greek, although he would have understood that better than the simple Japanese she’d used. Ichigo huffed a sigh.

“Where?” he growled.

The secretary jumped. “Tokyo,” she squeaked out, backing away from Ichigo’s scowl and Uryū’s frown.

“Thank you,” Uryū managed, before Ichigo pulled him away.

Once back out on the sidewalk, Uryū glared at him. “Why the hell did you do that?” he barked. “She might have given us more useful information!”

Ichigo shook his head. “She was confused and upset. She told us everything she knew. What I want to know is, why did my dad run to your dad? I thought they hated each other. Ever since Mom died…” He trailed off.

“Targets,” Uryū stated with a crisp nod. “He found out, somehow, about us fighting the Shinigami. He must have figured we’d be targets. Father is the only other Quincy I know of in Karakura. Your dad being a rogue Shinigami, your sisters being half-blood Quincies, he must have thought they’d come after them next.”

“Well, if they’re going to run, Tokyo’s a damned good place to run to. Tough to find two men and two girls hiding among thirteen million people.” This time he couldn’t stop himself, and he put his fist through the closest wall.

All the way through. A cement wall. Without so much as a scratch to his knuckles.

Uryū sighed, reached over and plucked his arm out of the new hole. Ignoring the freaked out pedestrians staring and pointing at them, he clasped Ichigo’s arm and hauled him down the street, away from all the attention.

“What do we do now?” For the first time since it all went to hell, Ichigo felt completely lost. The hand around his arm tightened.

“Now, we go to Tokyo, and we find our sisters, and we keep them safe.”

“I can help you with that,” a tiny girlish voice piped up, startling them both.

They rounded on the person who’d snuck up on them, and wondered how she’d done it. The girl couldn’t have been more than ten years old, with big sad eyes and long dark hair. She was also in a wheelchair. Somehow, despite their war-honed reflexes, a little disabled kid had managed to take them completely off guard.

“Who…” Uryū sputtered.

“How?” Ichigo coughed.

She looked up at them dolefully. “Follow me, and I’ll lead you to your families.”

It turned out, the girl, Ururu, was sort of the daughter of an exiled Shinigami who was kind of a friend of the family. It was a long, convoluted story. Her brother was killed, her father went back to Soul Society, and her uncle was somehow turned from Shinigami to human and exiled to Tokyo.

“Who’s taking care of you?” Ichigo asked, his big-brother instincts screaming at him. The question got him a very sweet smile from Ururu.

“I’m older than I look. I take care of myself.”

He didn’t believe it, but she brushed him off. Then a thought struck him. Something in her story…

“Your uncle in Tokyo. Would our family have gone to him, perhaps?” Uryū asked, reading Ichigo’s mind.

Ururu nodded.

Ten minutes later, Ichigo was on the phone with Yuzu.

He hated to make his sister cry, but she assured him they were happy tears, as everyone thought he was dead.

Then the phone was taken out of Yuzu’s hands, and a cold voice asked, “Is Uryū with you?”

Ichigo didn’t bother answering. He just handed the phone to Uryū.

Not listening to the tense, formal barking coming from his partner, he reached down and gathered Ururu into a gentle, firm hug.

“Thank you,” he muttered into her hair.

She patted him on the back until he finally released her. Then she handed him a small piece of paper with an address on it.

Half an hour later, they were on a train to Tokyo.

~

Uryū sat as close to Ichigo as he could get without actually sitting in his lap. They talked a little, decompressing from several days of insanity and war. If he hadn’t been so stressed, he would have been amused at how the eavesdroppers around them seemed to think they were discussing some kind of fantasy RPG.

When the train finally arrived, it was the usual madness pushing through the crowd. Once they were clear, they looked around for a cab.

He saw his father first.

It was unsurprising. His father was unusually tall, and the shock of white hair was easily distinguishable. He didn’t even have time to point him out to Ichigo before Yuzu and Karin were barreling their way forward. To his shock, while Yuzu leapt on Ichigo, Karin jumped up to catch him in a hug strong enough to take away his breath. Angry, frightened dark eyes met his, and she hissed, “Never scare us like that again, Uryū-nii.”

Before he could think of an answer, there was a jolt, and they switched. He had his arms full of a happily babbling Yuzu while Karin was threatening Ichigo’s life if he ever made them think he was dead again.

He was laughing before he realized what was happening. Everyone politely ignored the hysterical edge to it, until he managed to calm himself.

Having Ichigo’s shoulder flush against his, Yuzu’s head buried against his neck, and Karin glaring at both of them with love, made him feel like he had truly come home.

He completely ignored Ryūken’s sniff. As always.

~

It was several weeks later before things had settled back to normal. Against Ryūken’s protests, they stayed in Tokyo. Karakura was too risky – Shinigami knew there had been Quincies there, and they could return at any time.

Ichigo wasn’t about to risk his sisters.

Life was different, but they adapted. There weren’t nearly as many Hollows, although there were a lot more ghosts. Ichigo and Uryū went back to high school, found a new dojo, joined an archery team, and were, as always, inseparable.

Sometimes, they visited Hueco Mundo. Grimmjow was always happy to spar with them. It was strange the first time Starrk showed up with his new girlfriend, but the short Shinigami woman with the braid running down her front was, oddly, very much at home among the feral hollows. It was even weirder when Ulquiorra paired up with a pretty white-haired Shinigami with a sweet smile, but they seemed pretty well matched, and would discuss philosophy for hours, boring Ichigo and fascinating Uryū. Any time Tokyo got too mundane, they’d spend a weekend in Hueco Mundo and come back happy to be normal again.

The twins settled into life in the big city with ease. Yuzu mother-henned all of them, even Ryūken to his shock, and spent every spare minute she had in cooking classes, to everyone’s enjoyment. Karin fought her way to the top of the soccer leagues, eventually winning a scholarship, to no one’s surprise. Ryūken and Isshin, odd couple that they were, ended up on staff at the same hospital. Their coworkers all thought they were a couple, as nobody fought like that unless they were married.

A few years after the failed invasion of Hueco Mundo, the Quincies that were thought to be extinct tried their hand at it. The Espada called on their allies, the Court Guard Squads. Ichigo and Uryū pitched in as well, and for the second time, an over-confident army met their doom in the sands of the dead world.

But that’s a story for another day.

~the end~