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To Be By Your Side

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Looking out at the hundreds of Shinigami gathered on the cold training grounds, I was pleasantly surprised at the overall attitude of the division. My division. How strange to even think such a thing. There was some fear, plenty of distrust and anxiety evident in the faces watching my every move. But there was also hope, eagerness, and an overriding 'let's see how he does before judging' vibe that told me we would have a chance together.

At no time did I allow the crowd to take control of this meeting, and I took no questions or comments. I simply told them that the division would be getting back to work immediately after an off-season open tryout for anyone who wished to advance, and if they wanted to leave the division, they could transfer out now, no questions asked. I called the officers to meet and left the yard to the spirited discussions of the unseated. Only three officers were absent. The 5th still did handle a couple of patrols, and Hinamori of course was not present. But the rest settled in the mess hall as I repeated some of the points from the general meeting.

Mayeda Emiko, third seat, and Hamada Yuji, fifth seat were already my support. They sat on opposite sides of the room, both watching the others subtly for reactions. We had immediately 'clicked' when Komamura and I worked together in the 5th, and I had high hopes for them.

The fourth seat, a sleek bastard I had immediately identified as a weasel, would likely be turning in his own transfer request. I expected many of the unsatisfied to seek him out, and they would be easily identified. I would make sure they did not move to another division as a group and would warn the other captains who to watch for. Just because I promised not to reject a transfer did not mean the other divisions had to accept them, and they may find themselves out of a job unless they took a position with a willing and cautious captain.

I made it clear to the officers that open communication was a top priority. There would be secrets, there had to be. But I would not be keeping more from them than was required and I expected them to keep nothing from me at all. Reminding them of the reputation of the division was a good move. The 5th had been a reliable strong arm of Seireitei for millennia. It had produced more captains and lieutenants than any other two divisions combined. Aizen had stained the 5th, but not damaged it beyond repair.

As expected, when I allowed questions it took no time at all for the focus to fall on my time in Hueco Mundo. Instead of dragging this out, I nodded to Emiko and she retrieved a stack of reports. I had asked her to prepare copies of the report Toshiro had given the captains. It was not classified material, but I had the sense to ask the old man and Toshiro first. Some editing had been done, some personal details altered, and Ichimaru whitewashed since his position was still unclear. But it was mostly intact.

I knew these copies would not stay in the hands of some of the officers, and I did not make it an issue. The entire division would know this portion of my history. It would likely spread to other divisions. I had read it through many times, and the brutal truths were a part of me, I would not hide them.

"This is the report prepared by Hitsugaya-taicho, a record of his time as a captive of the traitors. My only request is that you seek answers there before asking me to relive any of the time I spent as a slave."

That was blunt enough. If any of them had the balls to ask me about Aizen again, it had better be one very vital question.

"After the officer try-outs, and the processing of any transfers, I will be scheduling personal meetings with each of you. Until then, we will be rescheduling to include all the division's former duties.

As I am sure most of you are aware, I am currently living with Hitsugaya-taicho in the captain's quarters of Division 10. I do not intend to move, but I will keep the captain's quarters here to use as needed. If that is all?" They were too stunned by my candid honesty to ask anything, clutching at the papers in their hands. Their previous captain had been kind and soft spoken, and a lying rat bastard that betrayed and humiliated all of them. I had to be quite a shock, with my brusque manner and easily shown emotion.

Not all of them would be able to adjust, and many eyes drifted repeatedly to the Espada tattoo on my neck, some in deep thought, fewer in distrust or fear. That zero, placed by their previous captain, summed up my entire attitude. I did not seek to remove it, as I did not seek to remove the past. It was not only a reminder of my defeat and subjugation, but a testament to my victory over that darkness.

"Very good, I will be in the office until dinner at least if you need anything."

I exited, and my two chosen officers followed within minutes. I was rummaging through the kitchenette when Emiko came in.

"Ah, Mayeda, where do you hide the tea?"

She shooed me away, and I grinned inwardly at her confidence to act so familiar with me already. Emiko was a little taller than me with short blond hair and black eyes, and I couldn't think of anyone to compare her to. More solidly built and less buxom than Matsumoto. Mature but less serious than Nanao and less matronly than Unohana. There was definitely a bit of Rukia's spirit in there, in her humor and her ability to cut through bullshit. She struck me as efficient and casual, which suited me perfectly.

"I'll take care of that, taicho. Do you take milk, cream or sugar?"

"You'll regret this." Toshiro had quickly made me a tea snob. "Cream for black tea, no sugar. Sugar for green tea if you don't have honey, no cream. And straight for red tea. But there are so many little variations, you should probably take notes."

She snorted. "I'll just hand you whatever and pretend I don't remember. That work?"

"That works."

I went to my desk, and immediately decided it would have to move closer to the window. That would also allow room for a second desk. Both the 5th and 7th had the lieutenant in a separate office. I preferred the arrangement at the 10th. If a lieutenant is intended to be a captain in training, then they should be exposed to the activities of a captain as much as possible.

Hamada came in as I pulled out the contents of the top drawer. He appeared almost as young as me, though I definitely knew how misleading that could be. His good looks were marred or enhanced depending on your taste by a set of scars from his right temple to his chin. Long, shaggy black hair hid the scars sometimes, and his pale blue eyes distracted observers. Personality wise, he was a more talkative version of Chad. He stayed quiet a lot but was always listening, and when he spoke it was often straight to the heart of the issue at hand.

"Either of you want all of these? Or are you ready to get rid of them, too?"

Emiko set my tea on the desk and eyed the pile of brushes and ink. "You don't plan on doing paperwork, either, taicho? This is going to be the shortest captaincy ever."

"Ha! Angling for a promotion already." I set three fountain pens on the desk and grinned at them. "let's get some work done, shall we?"

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

The room was larger than the standard 4th division quarters, with a bedroom and sitting area set up more like a home for the comfort of longer-term patients. A shelf of books, a favorite painting of a peaceful village, and the quilt granny had made gave the quarters a little of Momo's personal touch.

She rose from her chair as I came in, smiling and walking a couple of steps toward me before stopping. I could tell she was apprehensive, and carefully hid my own trepidation as I returned her smile and stepped forward. She stiffened a little as I wrapped her in my arms. I held lightly until she relaxed and then let go, still smiling at her.

"Momo, it is so good to see you. I've missed you."

She giggled nervously. "I'm glad to see you, too, Shiro-chan. I'm sorry I made you wait so long. Oh, I made your favorite tea!" She bustled to the little table and I took the seat opposite hers while she poured tea.

This is too awkward. What can I say to calm her down?

All I could think of was the long, long list of topics to be avoided.

"Ah, I almost forgot." I handed her the book I had tucked in a pocket. It was the novel, Kokoro, I had started in Las Noches and recently finished. "I thought of you while reading this. The writing is just beautiful, I know you'll love it."

"Thank you!" She started reading the cover immediately.

I sipped the tea and sighed. "Oh, that's good. I haven't been able to get to Rukongai for a while. You know you can't find this blend anywhere else."

"Good thing I saved some for you, then. You never did look after yourself properly." She sounded a little more like herself, still treating me like a child with that biting 'mother-knows-best' tone. "You look happy, though."

I was happy, but why was yet another topic to avoid. She knew of Aizen's death. What would she think of me being in love with the man who had killed him? I didn't want to find out just yet.

"How is Kurosaki-taicho?"

Okay, not avoiding that, then.

"He's doing well. Today is his first day running the 5th. He is looking forward to having your help when you feel up to it."

Her startled expression made me think I had gone too far, that somehow she did not know Ichigo was captain of the 5th perhaps.

"He . . . he didn't replace me?"

"Of course not. They didn't tell you? Even if we had an abundance of lieutenant class Shinigami, he knows how fortunate he is to have someone experienced and talented. Kurosaki told me that himself."

She looked thoughtful as she sipped at her tea. "I think I'd like to work again. Kurosaki-taicho must be a good captain if you approve of him."

Does she realize we're together or doesn't she?

"I am glad to hear it. Everyone will be glad to hear it. Especially Matsumoto, she has been bugging me for news. She misses you, too. She will probably want to talk your ear off for days, so I will have to come up with something to keep her busy to save you."

Her laugh was natural and made me relax. Too soon.

"Shiro-chan, you were there when Aizen-taicho . . . when Aizen died?"

I set down my tea, looking at her calmly. Her face was tense and a little sad, but I couldn't find any anger or judgment.

"I was, Momo. I've been told not to discuss it with you."

"But you will."

"What can I tell you? Aizen tried to destroy us all, and to destroy Kurosaki in particular, with great cruelty. Kurosaki killed him in a fair, one on one duel, and I was overjoyed to witness his death."

She flinched, but I did not let up. This was exactly what I had been instructed not to do.

"Momo, can you accept that? If you cannot, then you are not ready to return to being a Shinigami and you may never be."

Her eyes were wide, and a little anger showed itself.

"I'm not a fool, Hitsugaya-taicho."

"I never said that you were. But I know the hold that traitor had on you. What I do not know is how much of a hold he still has on you. Kurosaki endured something similar, you know."

She blinked. She did not know.

"In Kurosaki's mind, he spent nearly a year as Aizen's prisoner. It took a miracle to free his mind from the traitor's control, and he is still deeply scarred by it. But now he is a captain, and a good man. You can count on him, Momo, to show you that there is a path forward. And the world will end before Kurosaki ever betrays you.

"And I also want to be there for you, for once."

"You are always so hard on yourself, Shiro-chan," she wiped a tear from her cheek with a small smile. "I'll talk to Unohana-taicho and Kuniko about everything."

I smiled and relaxed again.

"You know, I haven't seen you smile this much since, well, ever. Except maybe that week when the snow was like 5 feet deep and everyone else was hiding inside. You dug tunnels all over the neighborhood, remember?"

I laughed and she looked shocked for a second before laughing with me. How long had it been since she had heard me laugh? Not since before I left the Academy, at least.

"Granny had to send you into the tunnel after me and you got lost for an hour. I only found you by following the sound of chattering teeth."

"She was so mad. Your fingers had turned blue!"

We reminisced for a while, and I was relieved to find that there were enough positive memories hiding in the corners of my mind to keep the conversation pleasant. It had been a very long time since we had talked of our childhood. In the end, the visit did me good. And I could only hope that it helped bring Momo back to herself. It was sad to know that there was little I could do but offer her support. But she would be with Ichigo, and I knew from personal experience what that man's very presence could accomplish.

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I had dinner with the division after catching up in the office. Tomorrow I would be working with two of the elite squads, one newly formed and one just coming in from an extended patrol. The following day would be swallowed whole checking on those stationed in the living world. Then a more routine day of office work and an officers' meeting. And finally, I'd have a day off with Ichigo. We had already planned as far out as we could to make sure there were times we could have free together.

Suspecting that he would be late coming home, I went back to the office and finished every scrap of paperwork available, cleaned my desk with a grin on my face and memories of office sex in my filthy mind, and headed home in time to watch the sunset from the top of my roof. I turned when I felt him coming, drinking in the sight of his bronze and orange highlighted by the long rays of the winter sunset. He shone like a torch in the darkening light, and the pitiful glory of the sunset was forgotten.

He looked up, and I swallowed hard as he smiled, stunned by his beauty. And I had the gall to call him lovesick. An instant later he was beside me, carefully moving on the slick tiles to sit facing the sunset. I looked back at the sight I had come to see, but my eyes wanted to drift back to him.

"How was your first day?"

"A bit tense, honestly."

"I'm not surprised. A new captain is the biggest change a division ever faces, especially when it is not a promotion from within."

"I know, and it really went well considering. There wasn't much resistance at the meetings. Then I got new schedules done, rearranged the office, cleaned out Aizen's crap and moved in my own. Some of those gifts are pretty incredible, it will be days before I finish thank-you notes. I haven't even started looking through the personnel files.

"And that dipshit Hoga was the first to turn in a transfer request. Might have had something to do with me hanging out with the 3rd and 5th seats and not inviting him. Poor kid."

I chuckled at his tone. "You're such a bully, Ichigo. What about your 7th, what's her name?"

"Akio. She's out on patrol. I'm sure she'll dump me when she gets back. Oh, did you talk to Hinamori?"

"I did. It's hard to tell, but I think she is doing a lot better. Maybe Aizen's death helped. I think you should ask to visit her if she does not contact you in the next day or two. We talked about you, and I encouraged her to take your offer. She won't find much welcome elsewhere, but of course I didn't tell her that."

"Well, she's more than welcome back at the 5th. I could really use her when the try-outs start."

We watched the last of the sunset in contented silence, his arm over my shoulder and mine around his waist as I leaned into him. He shivered a little in the cooling evening.

"It has been a long day. What do you say to a hot bath together?"

"Sounds wonderful, but I know how that is likely to end."

"I'm a captain, Ichigo. I can accept the consequences of my decisions."

He stood and offered me his hand. "You've made that abundantly clear, my love."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"Hinamori-fukutaicho," her title should be the first thing she hears from me, "I'm very pleased to meet you. Welcome back."

I did not invite her in. This was her office, her division; she did not need my invitation and she needed to regain confidence quickly. She was a very petite and meek-looking woman. Though they looked nothing alike and were not, of course, related by blood, I thought she made the perfect sister for Toshiro. They were proof that you could not judge by appearance. Both of them had achieved positions of such power regardless of looking like they would not stand up in a stiff wind, let alone a battle.

"Thank you, Kurosaki-taicho. It is a pleasure to meet you." She stepped in, looking around curiously. Hopefully the changes I had already made erased some of the memories of Aizen.

"As you can see, I decided to follow Division 10's layout. A lieutenant who is working with the captain closely will learn and advance much more quickly, in my opinion. And sharing one office, you can help keep me from slacking off." She probably assumed that sharing an office was just a way for me to keep an eye on her. But she had been in Toshiro's office, and that would lend credibility to my claim. The fact that I was telling the truth was beside the point.

"I'm sure I'll get used to it eventually."

Oh, a little back talk already, very good.

"I mean, it's fine, I'd like to learn more, um . . . "

"Hinamori," I interrupted gently, "I was just about to have some tea. There's a copy of the schedules on your desk. Join me and we'll go over some of the changes before we head out to get your zanpakuto. I'll hurry, I know I couldn't stand it when I was in the infirmary and Zangetsu was locked up. We can go over the plans for the week later."

She flushed a little and drew herself up. "What kind of tea would you like, Kurosaki-taicho?"

I stood, barely stopping a little frown at the way she leaned back though we were separated by more than 20 feet. Her last captain had made her fall in love with him at least, possibly worse. Then he had put her through believing he had died, turned her so far against her only family that she tried to kill Toshiro, and finally stabbed her and left her to die. She could flinch all she wanted.

"I already have a black tea steeping. Grab the schedules and I'll grab the tea." I talked as I walked casually over to the kitchenette to gather tea and accessories on a tray.

"I don't suppose I can talk you into calling me Ichigo yet, but do you think you could manage either Kurosaki or just taicho for starters? Really not big on formality unless you can't stand it."

"S-sure, taicho." She dragged her feet a bit to arrive after I'd already placed the tray on the table and sat on the couch. Having a lieutenant that was so obviously intimidated by me wouldn't do my already brutal reputation any harm, but I hoped for her sake we could resolve this soon. She took one of the two chairs opposite, perching on the edge like she might bolt at any second. Then she waited until I'd poured both cups and put cream in mine before reaching for the tea.

"So, you'll notice a few things right off the bat. We're still not back to where we need to be on patrols, and I've changed a few of the training sessions. The sotaicho has given us up to a month to return to full speed. Based on the transfers already turned in, we're going to be down 40 or more until we can do some recruiting."

We sipped for a while as she looked over the paperwork.

"I think having personal training options with officers is a great idea, taicho."

"Good. You can schedule yourself in when you feel you’re ready. I assume you heard we'll be evaluating officers this week, starting tomorrow. We have a few gaps to fill, but I want this to be an entirely open trial. All seats are up for grabs. I'll want to make some more changes once all of that is settled, so think of any suggestions you want to make by then."

"Will, um . . . will I be trying out for a seat, taicho?"

Oops. Of course, she would think the worst.

"You're an appointed officer, you aren't subject to evaluation nor should you be. You and I will be the ones evaluating." I kept my tone even and matter-of-fact. "We're the leaders of this outfit, Hinamori, and I hope you can be unbiased if anyone doesn't meet expectations. It can be difficult to critique friends."

"I wouldn't play favorites, taicho. Not with something this important." She almost snapped that at me.

Atta girl. Stand up for yourself.

"Good. Toshiro said I could count on you." She looked almost as startled as when she first arrived. At the compliment or at me using Toshiro's name, or both I wasn't sure. It was fleeting and unsure, but there was her first smile.

"Hinamori, I have a personal matter to discuss. Is that alright with you?"

How quickly she tensed up was unfortunate, when I'd finally gotten her to relax just a bit.

"I guess so, taicho."

"I'm never sure what is talked about, I've never had an ear for gossip. I didn't want to assume that you knew about me and Toshiro, that we are a couple."

"I should think that would be obvious, taicho. You are living with him." Her tone was only slightly mocking. I smiled in approval of her showing her spirit.

"There is that. But I wanted you to know that it's more than that. We are in love. I am completely, deeply devoted to your brother, and I thought I should tell you directly."

I had her complete attention now. Her eyes were slowly searching my own. "No one told me when Toshiro was sent to Hueco Mundo. No one told me when he didn't come back and was probably dead. But I knew.

"No one thought they needed to tell me he wasn't dead, that he came back. But I knew.

"I left my room one night when I felt him close. I found him asleep in your bed, holding you."

She blinked away tears, her expression still intense and I stayed silent.

"Once when we were kids, I hurt him badly. He was so young, and I was so very cruel to him. It's the only time he ever cried. I tried to apologize, and I sat by him and hugged him. He was stiff and cold as ice, even as he couldn't stop crying he wouldn't reach out to anyone. He would pretend sometimes, but he never once truly accepted comfort or affection from anyone. Not me, not even Granny."

Her eyes dropped and she wiped at her cheeks.

"I knew when I saw him with you that night. And he would never love anyone enough to allow that unless he was sure the other person was totally his. That's why I decided to come back, to be your lieutenant. But thanks for telling me, anyway."

I don't think she was ready for me to lean forward and squeeze her hand or shoulder like I wanted to. I refilled her tea and mine instead.

"Hinamori, I have an ulterior motive for my confession." She glanced up and I grinned. "Less than a week until December 20th."

"Oh no, taicho, he doesn't do birthdays! He hates parties especially."

"I know. Though he won't escape one next year . . . the big five oh. And he's going to have to put up with just a little fuss this year since it's our first. We're taking the day off, I have some things planned in the living world. I thought about a small dinner party, he actually seemed to enjoy the one we had for my birthday. But I think a quiet night in is more what he'd like."

"Yes, I think that's better."

"Good. So, I was hoping you might help me out with a small surprise for him. Do you remember ever going to listen to a man in your neighborhood who played the shakuhachi?"

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

The same officer was at the desk in front of the 1st Division vaults, and I gave her a cheerful grin. "Ah, Kurosaki! Captain now, that was fast."

"What can I say, I'm gifted."

"Well, you are special, anyway. What happened that ridiculously heavy zanpakuto?"

I held my arms out and turned so she could see both the shorter and the longer blade, which was a good deal lighter looking than the old Zangetsu but still imposing.

"Traded in for newer models. You like?"

She snorted. "Still too much metal for a lightweight like you. Hinamori-fukutaicho, if you would please sign here."

Hinamori had been watching the exchange wide-eyed. She had to be surprised to see anyone teasing any captain, let alone the former Cero Espada who defeated Kenpachi and killed Aizen.

"And I guess they let you sign for things now, so . . . ." The 1st Division officer handed me the brush. I should bring her a pen. She handed over Hinamori's sword with a tight smile and a slightly hostile look at the lieutenant. I didn't let my surprise show. I expected some ill feeling toward Hinamori, to be honest.

"Hey, since I'm official, do I get to see in there?" I pointed at the double line of imposing vaults.

"Of course. Most of them, anyway. Just let us know if you're looking for anything in particular. Or send word a day ahead and we'll have the weapons you need waiting."

I blinked and looked longingly at the vaults.

"Stop drooling, newbie."

"Nope. Can't do that. What's your name, by the way?"

Hinamori gasped and looked rapidly back and forth between us. She was probably twice as shocked that someone I didn't even know teased with me like an old friend.

"Hayashi Kayoko, 1st division, 3rd seat," she chuckled.

"Hayashi? Any relation to the guy with the restaurant near the 10th?"

"Not really, he's just my husband."

"Small world, I've been there a few times. Good food, good service, terrible taste in women."

She laughed. "You let me know when you have a few hours to spare, young taicho. I'll show you around the vaults personally."

"It's a date."

"Don't tell my old man."

“Ha! Don't tell mine.”

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"She's going to be just fine. It might take a while, and I admit I'll probably make some mistakes that will set her back. But she's got some fire in her. Obviously, or she never would have made it this far and then survived that bastard."

Toshiro's reactions and expressions were much harder to read in public, but I could see the relief and hope written all over him when no one else would have noticed a single change in his attitude. It gave me immeasurable satisfaction, this small proof that I knew him in ways no one else could. I had sent him a message to meet me for a late dinner when it became clear I wouldn't get out of the office until very late unless I worked straight through. We had accomplished a lot, Hinamori and I, and while I felt that either Mayeda or Hamada would be an easier second for me to work with, I was glad of Hinamori's experience.

The Banyan Tree was busy tonight, but as usual Hayashi took care of us personally. I wondered if he kept Toshiro's table empty every day just in case. Probably, having a captain as a regular provided bragging rights and free advertising. And with my new haori, Hayashi could double his gloating.

I teased him a bit as we placed our orders, for not telling me his wife was an officer. He teased back that a captain should know these things anyway. It seemed to me that they were a well-matched couple, at least in their sense of sarcasm.

Toshiro shook his head as the restaurateur walked away.

"Ichigo, you never fail to amaze me."

"Oh? What astounding thing have I done to please you this time?"

"I have a confession. I like the food here well enough, but I do not find it irresistible. The bit of public privacy Hayashi provides is more valuable to me. But neither is that enough to make me so social as to eat out every week, even if I usually sat alone. I would rather cook and enjoy complete privacy in my home."

"So, you come here why?"

"3rd seat in Division 1 means much more than 3rd seat elsewhere. At least down to the 7th seat, every high officer in Division 1 is stronger than most lieutenants. Hayashi Kayoko could be a captain if she wished. She has an impeccable reputation as a leader. And she is the most independent thinker in the 1st by far."

"Politics."

"Which you, my dear Shiba, excel at without trying." I snorted in response, the very idea of being a noble was ridiculous. Worse yet, my goofy, irresponsible, hare-brained, lying bastard of a father knew that he was nobility and still acted like an ass.

"So, what do you gain from this?"

We were speaking in perfectly normal tones. Whispers only attract attention. But Toshiro did take a second to scan the room before replying.

"Strong allies, Ichigo. She is too honorable to serve as any kind of informant for me within her division, which puts her instead into the category of desirable allies. In this case, one that may be a captain or even sotaicho within my lifetime and wields considerable influence in her current position even without betting on the future.

"Yet, once again, my careful cultivation of a connection is shamed by your fiendish charm. Just how far have you gotten?"

"How far have I gotten? I'm not seducing her, you know. I like her attitude, and she's witty. I took Hinamori to get her zanpakuto today. I talked with Hayashi a bit, teased a bit, and she said she'd give me tour of the vaults when I have time."

"Good lord. Just so you are aware, she also has a reputation for instantly despising every person she meets, and those vaults are her kingdom. She has to allow captains access to some of them, but she makes it as difficult as possible so that it is easier to send a request and have her team pull items. She hates allowing others inside. She earned my instant respect when she put Ichimaru in the infirmary for taking a weapon without authorization.

"The senior captains get along with her, as do I through my deliberate efforts. But ask anyone else and they'll tell you to stay as far away from those vaults as you can, just to avoid pissing her off."

The laughter that had been building throughout his explanation burst through and Toshiro sat back, staring at me with that combination of exasperation and amusement that I saw so often.

"No way! She's not really like that, is she? No wonder Hinamori was about to have a stroke."

"Yes, she had good reason to be shocked. I think that your ignorance serves you well in these situations."

"Hey!" And here I thought he had started to see me as something other than an idiot.

"Literal translation, idiot. You don't have any preconceived notions. You did not grow up here, train here, and spend your days soaking in rumors. So you decide to rush into battle with a monster in a haori, and antagonize a cold killer disguised as a pretty noble. Then you fall for a violent, asexual, arrogant little shit. To top that you become pals with an outright demon who plays the part of a drunken lecher, and win access to one of the most closely guarded areas of Seireitei by befriending the troll at the gates.

"If you had known beforehand, and truly believed the legends surrounding each of us, what would have changed? Would you have failed to rescue Kuchiki if you knew what captains are and what could happen to you? Or would whatever reckless guardian angels have been working overtime to keep you alive have guided you through it all anyway?"

My laughter had died down during Toshiro's rant and my jaw slowly dropped open.

"Did you just call yourself an asexual little shit?"

"No objections to violent and arrogant, I see."

"Well . . . no, not really. Seriously, Toshiro, I had no plan. I didn't even know her name. But I think she's alright, and so is Shunsui, and so, my love, are you. There isn't anything political about it."

His rueful smile was gone in an instant, back behind the façade he kept in place around others.

"I know, Ichigo, really I do. It is just so foreign to me, the way you see others, that I struggle to fit it into my own cynical paradigm rather than adjust to it. You approach everything with such openness, ready to rely on your own assessment. It's astonishing, and a little terrifying to someone who gathers information, forms several strategies, and prepares for the worst outcome before even saying hello."

That might be one of the saddest things I've ever heard.

It was never far from my mind, how often Toshiro had seen the worst of the world. But to have such low expectations of your fellow souls that you start defending yourself before a single word is spoken . . ..

"Do you think it's wrong? Do you think I make myself too vulnerable, and should be more cautious?"

"No." He blinked a few times, and I realized that he had just surprised himself with his answer.

"I can't say that I could ever understand why, but the way you are . . . it is not something I would ever want to see changed. You lost it for a while, that ability to instantly form trust with others. I think that loss had a lot to do with your lack of trust in yourself.

"My over-caution has already saved my life more than once. But it might also cost me dearly if, for example, my distrust makes an enemy where I should make an ally or if I fail to act when I should have rushed in. I can consider these things rationally and weigh possibilities to allow myself to change my mind, rarely. This is my nature.

"You may trust someone who betrays you. You may form a bond that will save all that you love without you even knowing it. I cannot tell you if your nature or mine is more reliable or carries greater risk. This is what I meant when I said that you are all heart. I worry for you that your heart will be broken, and you probably worry for me that I will never once allow my heart to be broken. It is simply who we are."

I slouched in my seat, a bit shocked and a bit excited as I thought about it.

"You're right. About all of it, I'm sure. But about me trusting others, that's exactly it. The worst part about living in Las Noches wasn't the torture, or the subservience, or even the constant fear for my friends and family. It was that everyone, everything was hostile. Not just murderous, but incapable even of being reasoned with or showing any speck of compassion."

"Aizen's job was already halfway done the moment you arrived. I wonder if he knew that. You thrive when sharing everything with others, and suddenly you could share nothing, trust no one. The very atmosphere of Las Noches was poison to your soul."

"And I started to heal when you arrived. I didn't trust you, but I wanted to, and I knew that I could. Shit, that's what let me finally trust Ashido to do as he promised. And to take a risk on Grimmjow."

Dinner arrived and Hayashi waved a hand in front of my face after he set the food down. He laughed at my dazed expression when I looked up at him.

"What, did he just tell you he loves you or something?"

"No. I told him that one month ago today."

Hayashi guffawed as I turned my wide eyes to Toshiro.

"What? Toshiro, it's our anniversary!"

"No."

"Yes, our one-month anniversary, right Hayashi?"

"Ichigo, it most definitely is not. Since when does anyone celebrate an anniversary of someone saying they are in love? Especially one month, that doesn't qualify anything as an anniversary."

"I'll bring a special desert for you, captains, on the house. Congratulations!" He walked away still laughing heartily.

I grinned widely but Toshiro just rolled his eyes and started eating. I didn't think I'd gone too far; I knew he didn't like being embarrassed in public. I took a few bites to work up my courage, unable to gauge his mood when he wouldn't look at me.

"Did I tease too much, love? I get carried away sometimes."

He scowled at his plate and then at me. "I told you I was an arrogant shit. I once had to explain to Hyorinmaru my reasons for not dating or at least trying it out. One of my top complaints against love was the demeaning situations a lover puts you in, such as public humiliation by needing affection or reassurance and forcing it in front of others."

Oh, shit. I thought I knew where all the landmines were, but I've gone and stepped on a big one.

"What can I say? I know that wasn't what you intended. And anyway, I was wrong."

"What?"

"I'll kill you if you ever start hanging all over me or throwing tantrums in front of people. But acknowledging you in public is . . . nice. And your little joke just now, I don't know, it made me feel like you wanted people to know, to show off. And, well, I did not mind it."

That set a new record, the cutest thing he'd ever said. And the way he stumbled all over the sentences! I just wanted to kiss him so badly.

"That was the most romantic thing anyone has ever said in the history of words."

His scowl darkened. "Enough. Eat your dinner or change the subject."

In the interest of self-preservation, I shoved a huge piece of fish in my mouth to shut myself up.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Increasingly, there were times when I did not recognize myself. So much had changed in such a short time, all of it for the better. Had it really been just over a month ago I had been defeated, captured, and begging for death? So many years had passed so slowly, I barely noticed the passage of time. My only progress had been in gaining power and control over my division, and the price I chose to pay for stability was isolation.

Looking at the young captain across from me, I marveled at what he had accomplished in comparison. Not only his own journey, remarkable enough to become a legend, but at the changes he had caused in all who knew him, in Seireitei, and especially in me. I still kept most of the world at a great distance. I expected I always would, that I would never be able to fully trust or even understand others the way Ichigo did. But I was no longer alone, and no longer afraid that I would drag myself through centuries in solitude.

Did he understand why I rushed him out, instead of allowing him to chat with Hayashi before we left? Did he wonder why I pulled him into a dark side street a block from the restaurant instead of waiting for the privacy of our home? He certainly did not mind, and after the initial moment of surprise he responded eagerly to my insistent lips.

The late hour and the cold of the winter night made it unlikely that there would be any awkward encounters; I was completely ready to let him push me against the wall and take me there in the street. But I did not resist when Ichigo broke the kiss and pulled me along as he flash-stepped to our home and straight to our bedroom.

Immediately I reclaimed his lips, wrapping my arms around his neck and pulling him down as he struggled to remove the two blades and then mine. It was so irreverent, the way we simply dropped our zanpakuto to the floor like inconvenient obstacles. Even that he had changed, I would never have tossed Hyorinmaru aside so carelessly before I met him. What an odd thing to be thinking of anyway, when I had my delicious lover clawing desperately at my clothing while I surrendered his tongue to begin sucking the sensitive skin below his ear.

I lost my hold on him as he tossed me onto the bed. Blinking as I reoriented, I propped myself up on my elbows to watch him. He moved fast, shedding clothing as I hummed my approval. Somehow I was in nothing but footwear, and I stuck my right foot out as he closed in. Obediently, he pulled off the waraji and tabi, making me flinch as he ran his fingers along my foot. Grabbing and denuding the other foot, he leaned in and kissed my ankle. I struggled to pull the foot away, realizing my mistake far too late.

"No, Ichigo, don't!"

He captured my right foot when I tried to rescue my left by kicking his hand away. I was helpless as he swiped his tongue along my left instep. Strangled, choking noises accompanied my futile attempts to free myself. Then he blew on the wet skin and I bit my lip to keep hysterical laughter at bay.

"Let go, dammit!"

My shout was wasted as he grinned and leaned closer to scatter light kisses and licks over both feet. I could only feel the first few before I was laughing so hard that I stopped trying to break free. It was awful, a completely autonomous response, quite against my will, and the horrible tingling, itching, distracting sensations were all I could think about.

"Stop!" My sobs of laughter were breaking as I couldn't suck in any air. "Please, stop!"

His own laughter saved me, I think. The very second his hold on my ankles lightened I had pulled them away. He had forgotten how fast I could move, and his surprised grunt as I pulled and twisted was the start of payback. He landed on his back next to where I had been, and I was on top of him, hands pushing down on his shoulders.

"Don't you ever, " I bit the side of his neck hard, "ever," I bit the other side, loving the hiss I got in return, "do that to me again." He deserved more punishment, perhaps even being left lying there, painfully aroused and all alone. But that would just be punishing myself in the end, so when he grabbed my arms and held me still for a kiss, I let myself fall into the much more satisfying loss of control he offered.

I melted into him, completely relaxed onto the warm body and into the heat of his mouth. His strong tongue chased mine, pushing into me, stroking and teasing my favorite places in a prelude to the pleasure he would give my entire body. How I loved this, how I loved shutting the world out and surrendering all concerns, responsibilities, worries, schemes. All of it lost during these precious interludes of passion and peace.

My hands cradled his face tenderly, running my fingers lightly over the curves of his cheeks, feeling the movement of skin and bone. Breaking away with a deep breath, I tucked my head to kiss the places I had bitten on either side of that damned tattoo, the marks already gone from his silky skin. Pushing my fingers into orange hair, I was pleased that it had grown a bit and it was easy to twine around my thin digits. Sucking and nipping his neck and shoulder left no pretty marks behind for long, but earned me a few pleasant moans of appreciation.

Shivering under his hands as they stroked slowly down my sides, I did not hold back little moans of my own. I never held back, never saw the point. Nor did I see any reason to resist when he rolled us over to trap me under him and moved his lips to leave more lasting marks on my neck. I stretched my head back with a content sigh, fingers still playing with his hair. He was intending to take his time, I could tell already by the slow drifting lips and the time he spent tasting every inch of my skin.

Trying not to rush him, I still could not resist arching my back when he started paying very close attention to my chest, tongue swirling, lips and teeth nipping on one side, fingers caressing and teasing the opposite nipple. Jolts of electric sensation had me gasping, now fully aroused and feeling his own hot erection against my thighs. My hands slid down to his shoulders, delighting in the taut skin over flexing muscle.

"Mmmm . . . Ichigo, love you . . . " His muscles all tensed suddenly, and I regained enough awareness to look down and meet his wide eyes. "What?"

He gave a wide smile. It lit his face and made my already taxed heart skip a few beats.

"Nothing, love."

He kissed my chest without breaking eye contact. His lips met mine briefly and then he moved back down, kissing down my breastbone. My body wanted my mind to stop interfering, but I couldn't help but think of what I had said, how he reacted. How big of a fool was I? I squirmed a bit, and moved my hands back to his face, lifting it to look me in the eye again.

"Ichigo, I love you. If I don't say it, it's only because I am always thinking it and I may not realize that I don't . . . "

His lips stopped me, the kiss more forceful, pushing thought back down. As my eyes fluttered closed he turned us again. I heard his hand rummaging around the nightstand, and I drew my legs up without letting go of the tongue I was sucking on, my knees coming to rest on either side of his waist.

My low moan announced my distraction as slick fingers pushed into me, and he caught a breath before kissing me again. Our mouths could not seem to get enough, licking, biting, sucking as I rubbed myself shamelessly up and down his body, up and down on his fingers.

This, too, I loved. To simply give myself to whatever brought ecstasy. Ichigo rarely teased, and never belittled or sought to control me through words or looks condemning my needs. He never tried to dominate by using crude words or actions to make me feel humiliated. No, he responded in kind, groaning in approval when I turned into a lascivious lover, a demanding, needy creature that would not stop pushing until I had what I wanted. When I stopped being able to control my contortions and lustful, senseless noises, that's when he knew he could do anything he wanted to me. And he never took my surrender for granted, but gave selflessly what I asked for.

Thus I could trust him unconditionally, could allow myself to forget everything but sensation. I did not know when his hand pushed me upright, I only knew suddenly I was sitting up with his cock pressing against my ass. It did not require thought to lift myself onto him, my body knew what to do without any directive from my mind.

Oh, what the expression of my lover did to me as lowered my weight fully, such awe and bliss, all brought by me. I shuddered and called back enough of my will to hold back the waves of rapture as I gazed down at the bronze god that shared my bed and my body. With a sound part growl of possession, part whine of desire, I moved. My body knew what to do, tightening and flexing to shove him quickly to the edge. I could end this soon, with only a dozen or so languid lifts and swift falls before large hands gripped my hips and he shouted my name. His rough thrusts, the feel of his release inside of me, I grabbed his hands as I stiffened, nearly blacking out with the overwhelming bliss.

My grip on his hands held me up as my body almost fell backwards. I laughed as I realized I was panting words, "Ichi . . . more . . . oh, more . . . again . . . please." Good lord, how wonderful!

And even more wonderful that Ichigo responded immediately, pulling himself up and settling me in his lap, kissing and fondling without pulling out, without stopping to clean up the mess my orgasm had made between us. Forget afterglow, I simply wanted him to give me that piercing ecstasy, again and again until I was too exhausted to ask for anything more.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Recollection made me pause as I blinked at the bright winter dawn. I was alone in bed, my amazing, tantalizing, wanton partner already up and based on the aroma he had breakfast taken care of. Leave it to Toshiro to let me sleep in after such an incomparable night. Stretching with a wide yawn, I tossed off the blankets and just lay for a while, sprawled alone in the huge bed.

Reaching out my awareness, I sensed Toshiro downstairs, his reiatsu quiet. I went for a quick shower before heading down to see him. Pausing in the kitchen, my stomach rumbled as I peeked under the cover at the breakfast my love had prepared for me. Hunger was not as pressing as the desire to see him, so I followed my senses to the library and slid the door open quietly.

Toshiro sat at the desk, writing with as much concentration as he usually showed at the office if a slightly more casual posture. He smiled to show that he was aware, but didn't slow down for a few more seconds, finishing his thoughts. He went from complete stillness to energetic movement as he stood quickly and practically skipped over to me, flinging his arms up around me in a tight hug, his cheek pressed to my chest. Wrapping my arms around him, I chuckled as his good mood lit up my morning like the sunrise.

"Good morning to you, my love."

He stepped back, and his hands slid down my arms, weaving his fingers through mine between us.

"Good morning, Kurosaki-taicho. Come have breakfast with me."

He kept my right hand in his left the entire time as he put my tray in the oven to warm and then made himself a small plate of leftovers. Amused, I followed him around and helped where I could fit a free hand in. Then he tugged me along, getting the food and tea to the dining area took two trips with each of us one handed. He sat across from me, hand still holding mine across the table as my thumb brushed back and forth over his skin. He hadn't stopped smiling except when he was teasing me. It was all somewhat surreal, so out of character that I didn't know what to think.

"What has you so affectionate this morning?" I rubbed my thumb against his hand as I asked.

Turquoise eyes glinted with something like mischief. "What, I'm not allowed any secrets? A little mystery keeps a relationship interesting."

"Mystery is one thing you are definitely not lacking, love. But fine, I'll reap the benefits of whatever has you in such good spirits."

He chuckled and I was amazed. I had never seen him like this, and I'd lay odds that no one else had, ever, and I had to admit I was as curious as a cat with an empty box. I kept watching him as we focused on food for a while.

"So, what do you have planned for today?"

"I had the morning set aside for one-on-one training, but no one is brave enough to sign up for sessions with me yet. We start try-outs after lunch, so I guess a quiet morning of paperwork and planning. Maybe I'll start checking in with patrols."

"Sounds like you might be able to make your morning free. Do you think you could help me with something?"

"Of course. What do you need?"

His smile turned wicked. "A target."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Shaking snow out of my hair and clothes, I climbed out of a hole in the ground for the 20th time or so. I understood that the nature of Toshiro's abilities required open space like this isolated plateau, but I longed for the relative warmth of the cavern with the reward of the hot springs waiting.

Looking up at my horrid, violent, abusive boyfriend, I sighed and gathered my reiatsu for another round of having my ass kicked. There were only two petals left behind him, so maybe this would be the last.

He did look amazing from this angle, crouched on the air with wings of ice spread above him. The backdrop of billowing dark clouds made his whites and blues shine brighter, and the swirling mists and flakes around him screamed of his power. He gazed down at me with an unnerving, cold smile, an omnipotent and vengeful angel.

Appetite for punishment at his hands restored, I launched myself at him. Halfhearted evasion provided the needed target without making it too unrealistic. The obvious attacks came, the powerful dragons and a wave of ice. But the mist coalescing behind, below or above was the real threat. Knowing what was coming didn't help, I was the practice dummy after all and I only managed block two of the smaller but deadly dragons that appeared out of thin air and struck three times as quickly as the larger ones launched from Hyorinmaru's tip.

A snowbank softened the impact of my body with the ground, but not much, and I quickly crawled out of my freezing grave as the snow collapsed in on me. Just as I shook most of the bitterly cold powder away I was knocked right back down into the crater I had crawled out of.

But I didn't mind this time, and I watched the shattering of ice through half closed eyes as Toshiro dismissed his Bankai. Then his cool tongue was practically down my throat as his hands ripped at my clothes. One last rational thought fled my mind as he grabbed at my cock.

This is going to be the hottest way a man has ever frozen to death.

Toshiro was more aggressive than I had ever seen him. Well, he had been pretty aggressive when I was on top, but when he was taking me he was always gentle until we were both out of control. But this time he was all over me, biting at my throat with little growls as he jerked me off with precise movements enhanced with pulses of reiatsu even colder than the snow surrounding me.

I clutched at any part of him I could reach, drowning in lust and shivering with cold and anticipation. It wasn't long before the heat inside of me drove away the chill, and the cold waves of reiatsu seemed refreshing against my hot skin.

I knew I was panting and moaning as I gave myself over to his desire, and when the teasing tongue on my nipple was replaced by sharp teeth I bucked my hips up into his hand with a gasp.

His low chuckle rang in my ears, I loved that sound more every day. His hand swiped up the cum from my stomach and quickly, before it could get too cold, he pressed his damp fingers to me and pushed inside.

Groaning as he worked his fingers in and out of me much more forcefully than usual, I spread my thighs wider and lifted my hips. He looked up from where he had been licking at my stomach.

"I want you so badly, my Ichigo, my beloved one."

Beloved! Oh, that will do just fine.

He flexed his fingers just so and I was suddenly pushing against his hand to encourage more of that mind-numbing pleasure. Instead, his fingers left me. He gripped my waist and with strength and reiatsu he flipped me over and lifted my hips.

I brought my arms up to support myself and felt him positioning behind me already. There was a rush of panic that I did not fully grasp before he was pushing into me, carefully at first but then surging forward not too hard, but quickly enough to earn a shout from me. His groan was welcome, his voice reminding me that it was Toshiro. Then I understood the panic. Unable to see him easily, in such a vulnerable position, his unusual aggression when he had always been excessively gentle. Dark memories that I did not want had surfaced. Nightmares of two men I did not wish to remember. I trembled with the effort to control my fear.

Despite his own acute need, Toshiro sensed my tension. He stopped, and leaned close to stroke my back.

"Ichigo . . . Ichigo, are you alright?"

I turned my head enough to see him, and sighed in relief. His sharp eyes caught my reaction and I knew his brilliant mind understood the memories that haunted me, understood my inability to stop the rising terror, understood everything. And he was thinking of stopping entirely.

"Please don't stop, love. Please."

A tense look as he debated internally, and then he kissed my back tenderly as he moved more gently within me. He whispered warmly to me, calling my name to reassure me, calling me his beloved. He knew what I had survived, and he made certain I could hear his voice and feel his loving touch.

I was still a mess, still broken in a myriad of little ways that crept up on me and crippled me when I least expected it. Focusing on the tender concern that proved I had no reason to fear, I let my eyes close. I faced down the dark memories, replacing them with the light touch of cool hands, the gentle passion in turquoise eyes, and the growing heat that only Toshiro could bring to me now.

When I relaxed he cautiously moved a little more firmly, and I waited until my body told me it was time before I began to push back against him. One hand soothed my anxiety with caresses, and the other began stroking my growing erection.

Toshiro had gone from greedy and forceful possession to complete devotion to my needs in an instant. Just the thought of that brought my love and my lust for him back full force, and I let him know it.

"Tosh . . . harder, aah now!"

He moaned my name as he complied, and the world became nothing but the feeling of him moving within me, his voice still calling to me, the bursts of light behind my eyelids, and the swiftly building tension. When I came he was the one who shouted, and one more hard thrust was all he needed to join me. Moments later we fell into the snow.

Toshiro took care to land on the side I was facing, immediately reaching for my cheek and only relaxing once I opened my eyes and he could see that I was truly okay.

If only it were possible to love him more than I already did. Reaching out to him, I pulled lightly to encourage him to scoot closer as I turned onto my side. At least I had my discarded kosode between most of my body and the snow. Of course, he didn't seem to mind the cold contact on bare skin.

"I'm sorry, Ichigo," he said as he slid into my arms, "you must be freezing."

My hand ran along his waist and hip, perhaps my very favorite place to pet Toshiro.

"So worth it." I drew him into a long, deep kiss. He was hesitating, and I made my tongue drift lightly across the roof of his mouth to feel him shiver with pleasure. I pulled him with me as I turned on my back, so the he was leaning over me into the kiss.

His hands traced the lines of my ribs, something he did often and it always made my muscles jump in response. I loosened my hold on the back of his neck and he broke away from my lips to stare into my eyes. What he saw there made him smile, and his lips returned to mine more passionately as he committed to a second round, face to face, slow and intense. The cold was soon forgotten.