Ichigo came to slowly, mind fogged and senses muddled. He blinked sluggishly, the rough, stone ceiling of his lair coming focus little by little as the haze of a deep and unexpected bout of unconsciousness lifted.
“Wha-” he mumbled, tongue feeling heavy and unresponsive. He groaned, shifting his weight slightly in an attempt to roll onto his side. A sharp pain spiking through the small muscles around his shoulder blades had him aborting the movement with a surprised yelp, a hand coming up automatically to clutch at the book that had lain cracked open on his bare chest as his abrupt collapse caused it to slide precariously.
He cringed as the hard landing, buffered though it was by the soft pillows that lined the shallow wallow he used for lounging pressed his large, leathery wings, already strained after being pinned there for far too long, uncomfortably beneath him. He grit his teeth, breathing shallowly for a few moments, clawed fingers scraping along the spine of the book. He winced in sympathy as his sharp ears picked up the sound of the bindings creaking as the book was forced to bend unnaturally under his too-heavy grip.
Relaxing his hold, he lifted the old paperback off his chest, closing it gently and tucking it securely against his body before trying again. Opting for a slower approach, he rolled over in small increments until he was sprawled out on his stomach, groaning as waves of pins and needles rushed down his shoulders and through his wings.
Ichigo laid there a few more moments, cheek pressed into the soft pillows and breathing deeply as the prickling in his wings slowly subsided, the delicate membranes regaining feeling as blood began circulating through them again. He extended one of them cautiously, grimacing as the movement triggered a fresh wave of pins and needles to prickle through the limb.
Why had he been sleeping on them like that for so long? The discomfort should have had him up and moving around hours ago.
He needed to get up. The longer he laid there, the more a nebulous, yet persistent anxiety grew within him. This sleep had been heavy and unnatural, and though he could not sense another presence for miles, he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone or something else had been responsible for it.
Setting his book safely aside, he braced his hands beneath him, digging the sharp talons of his scaled, lizard-like feet deep into the into the bedding until they scraped against the floor beneath. He braced himself against the smooth stone, taking a deep breath and tasting the fading scent of something sweet, cloying, and almost tingly on the air as he prepared to fight through the last of the lingering disorientation.
His head spun, the strength fleeing his limbs as he fought to keep his eyes open against a fresh wave of lethargy. He breathed out slowly though his nose as black spots danced across his vision, pressing his face deeper into the soft pillow beneath his head and breathing shallowly, heedless to the way the fabric split under the razor-sharp edge of his horns. .
“Damnit,” he groaned, sleep-rough voice muffled by the fabric. The anxiety in his chest spiked at the display of unexpected weakness. He crawled out of the wallow, back arching up and wings extended to their full span as he heaved his torso up on the edge of the shallow basin, gripping the edge tightly enough for sharp nails to scrape grooves into the smooth surface as he braced himself on it with one hand. He brought the other up to drag down his face, pinching the bridge of his nose as he squeezed his eyes shut tight.
“Wha’ the ‘ell.” he slurred, gracelessly letting his hand fall to grip the edge of the wallow. He grit his teeth as another wave of disorientation hit him and the world seemed to tilt. After a few quiet moments broken only by the shallow pants of his breath, he finished dragging himself out of the wallow and rose unsteadily to his feet. He stumbled across the open expanse of his lair, cringing as his long, sinuous tail sent a stack of old tomes toppling over as he passed it on his way towards a wooden table piled high with documents ranging from crumbling 17th century manuscripts to glossy new paperbacks, each bearing the title of a Shakespearean work from the popular The Tempest to the obscure Troilus and Cressida.
What had happened? He wondered as he stumbled into the table, palms thudding flat and heavy against the surface as he stared blankly at an ornate, leather bound 18th Century German translation of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare . He remembered going out for an early morning flight around his territory, coming back and enjoying the young deer he’d caught while sunning on the wide ledge at the entrance to his lair, then retreating further into the large cavern to spend the afternoon surrounded by his Hoard, no pressing responsibilities to pull him away.
The day had been pleasant, sunlight streaming through the south-facing entrance of his lair, bathing the massive cavern in golden light as a gentle breeze flowed through the environmental wards that kept out the dust and damp. He’d curled up in his wallow with a well-loved, Cantonese translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet , whiling away the hours immersed in the namesake prince’s downward spiral into insanity as he attempted to take back his throne.
Then there had been that odd scent on the breeze. A sweet perfume that didn’t quite mask an underlying scent of rot. An overtone of something tangy and electric. It had settled heavily around the lair, inexorably lulling him into a drowsy haze like the stagnant heat and golden sunlight of a late summer afternoon.
After that, his awareness had faded as he’d been pulled into unconsciousness.
His gaze swept across the cavernous lair, keen eyes looking for anything out of place. A glowing arch of runes outlying the wide entrance confirmed that the wards had not been disturbed. Every book, scroll, manuscript, and recording that made up his Hoard appeared to be in their places in the solid cherry bookshelves that lined the perimeter of his lair. Even the large stacks of books that had developed as his Hoard had outgrown his current storage capabilities appeared to be undisturbed.
By all accounts, there was nothing to arouse suspicion.
And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong.
Slowly, he turned his head towards a set of cherry doors inset with panels of frosted glass that sat opposite the entrance to his lair, an enraging suspicion taking root as he considered the odd situation. Ichigo growled low in his throat. For all that they appeared to be locked and untouched, the sense of wrongness that had plagued him since his awakening spiked higher the longer he stared at them and he found himself rushing for them before he had even made a conscious decision to. A litany of snarls and curses fell from his lips as he stumbled towards them, feet still heavy and slow. After a few precious seconds spent fumbling for the key at the belt of his long, red battle kilt, he had the door unlocked, slamming them open so hard that the glass shattered, raining down onto the smooth stone floor.
Ichigo swept the small room anxiously. The glowing yellow and green runes of the environment and preservation wards that protected the space shone their active status bright and steady, starting at the ceiling and trailing their way down the walls until they were hidden by rows and rows of packed shelves. The most valuable and fragile of the items in his Hoard were housed here securely, neat and untouched, but here, where the wards were stronger and that dizzying scent wasn’t pervasive enough to hide it, he could just make out a faint scent of something— or someone? —old and dark and undefinable with too many facets for his muddled mind to grasp.
And there, right in front of him, where the most precious and longest-held object in his Hoard should be, stood and empty pedestal.
Ichigo’s snarls grew in intensity, bleeding together into a crescendo ending with an enraged roar. The ambient temperature in the small vault rose a few degrees as he struggled to contain the raging aura of his dragon fire, the wards brightening in response as they tried to compensate for the sudden change in temperature in the small room and bathing him in an eerie yellow-green glow.
Someone had caught him off guard and waltzed into the heart of his territory.
Someone had stolen his most prized possession from his grasp while he was present.
Ichigo ground his teeth as he glared at the empty pedestal, fist clenched so tightly that his sharp claws dug into the meat of his palms, sending rivulets of blood dripping down his hands and splattering against the floor.
This was an insult that would not stand.
He swept out of the vault and back into the main cavern, tail thrashing about in his rage, just missing an old gramophone tucked between a bookshelf and the glass-paned doors. He scanned the cavern intently, stalking between the shelves and stacks as he searched for even the smallest clue that the thief may have left behind. The old-dark-too-many-layers scent in the vault had been almost familiar, itching at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t tell with his mind still fogged from the lingering effects of that dizzying scent that had invaded his lair. He’d need something else to go on.
A small pile of half-burnt leaves, ash, and twine. Something that could have easily been mistaken for detritus carried there by the wind if it hadn’t been for the fact that it was on the wrong side of his wards.
Ichigo growled lowly as he crouched over the small pile of charred material, upper lip curling into a snarl as he dragged a sharp claw through the remaining pieces, the tip catching on a bit of twine and dragging it behind his finger.
This was Spellwork. The remains of an incense bundle. He gingerly picked up one of the larger remaining bits between his claws, raising it to his face to take a cautious sniff. The same sweet-cloying-electric that had sent him reeling earlier hit him like a battering ram, sending black spots skittering across his vision and he was forced to catch his balance against the cavern entrance while he fought against the magic that tried to roll him under.
Definitely Spellwork. The product of a very skilled practitioner of the Arts if the potency was anything to go by.
He stumbled away from the pile, swaying unsteadily as he made his way to the small kitchen tucked into a shallow alcove. Glass rattled as he shoved his hand into a basket of empty containers, fishing around until his fingers closed around a small spice jar with a hermetic seal. Container acquired, he made his way back to the pile of evidence, snatching a thick sheet of paper from the table as he passed by.
Ichigo held his breath as he swept the ashes onto the paper, careful to gather as much of the evidence as possible, then tipped the contents into the jar and engaged the seal. He released his breath in a slow, fortifying exhale as he clenched the remains of the sleeping spell in his fist.
This thief would not be in possession of the crowning jewel of his Hoard for long, and Ichigo would make sure that they paid for their insult with their life.
He stormed out of the lair, snatching up a small canvas bag he kept near the entrance and slipping the small jar of evidence inside it as he breached the wards. Immediately, the wind picked up from the gentle breeze that kept his lair fresh and comfortable to the full force of the howling gales that blew through the mountain tops as the temperature dropped and the sun set low and red-gold in the west.
He strode to the edge of the wide, flat ledge that extended from the entrance of his lair and ended abruptly in a towering cliff, his long orange hair whipped around him and tangled around his horns, caught in the currents of air that raced up the cliffside as he looked down the long valley that stretched out before him and towards the city of Seireitei where it lay with its tallest towers silhouetted against the flat, red disk of the sun.
Looping the bag containing his precious cargo securely around his wrist, Ichigo dove off the edge of the cliff, stretching out his wings to slow his descent as he pulled on the bonfire of power within him, letting it spread throughout his body and change his form. Black scales edged in white raced up his arms and torso as his face and neck elongated and his body grew, forearms shortening and hands transforming into wicked, clawed talons as he settled into his massive, draconic form.
His wings caught on an updraft, jerking him out of his steep dive as the force of the rising warm air carried his massive form high into the sky. He shifted his wings as he reached the top of the thermal, wheeling around in a tight, controlled turn that set his bearings for Seireitei and letting out a furious roar that seemed to shake the mountains to their foundations.
Twenty minutes later, Ichigo touched down heavily in the middle of a large, circular lawn surrounded by japanese maples that marked the end of the main thoroughfare running through the heart of the city of Seireitei, talons leaving deep gouges in the soft ground as he turned swiftly towards the road and lashing tail narrowly missing the ornate dragon shrine that sat opposite the break in the trees that led to the street. He strode forwards quickly, skin prickling as his body shrunk and scales receded until he was once again standing upright and looking relatively human by the time his clawed feet met the cobblestones.
The sun had dipped fully below the horizon during his flight, leaving the city bathed in the weak light of the electric lamp posts that lined the road, the intricate edison bulbs housed behind the glass painting the streets in tungsten-yellow. As usual for his visits, the residents who found themselves nearby for his arrival had gravitated towards the lawn, intent on offering a warm welcome to their beloved guardian dragon. They came up short however, greetings dying on their lips as they took in the deep scowl that twisted across his mouth, the murderous rage in his eyes, and the way the air around him warped and rippled with heat. The crowd cleared quickly before him as he flung the long strap of the canvas bag over his shoulder and stormed down the thoroughfare, the people returning slowly and cautiously to their business in his wake.
Ichigo soon left the main road, traveling deeper into the city through a twisting maze of side streets that circumvented the densest concentrations of people and traffic. His wandering path eventually led him to a quiet side street tucked between an apartment block and the city library that ended abruptly at a small, traditionally built shop displaying the words Urahara Shoten on a slightly crooked sign in flaking paint and surrounded by an empty gravel yard.
Ichigo pushed through the gate in the aging bamboo fence enclosing the yard, the creaking hinges grating sharply on his nerves. He stormed up the path, paying no mind to the dimmed lights and the shabby placard that hung beside the door announcing that the shop was closed for the evening.
“Oi, Kisuke!” He barked as he forcefully slid open the flimsy door, nearly sending it crashing off its tracks. “Get your ass out here!”
He was met with a few seconds of silence that had him grinding his teeth together in irritation before his keen ears picked up the hollow clack of geta and the steady tapping of a cane against bamboo floors, indicating movement deeper within the building. He strode into the darkened space, making for the door that separated the small potions shop from the proprietor's living quarters and reaching for the handle just as the door slid open from the other side to reveal the man who owned the small business. The warlock’s sudden appearance forced him to come to an abrupt halt to keep from bowling the much shorter and slighter human over as he stood his ground in the doorway, looking up at him beneath the brim of a green and white striped bucket hat.
“Why, Kurosaki-sama.” He greeted the dragon with a respectful nod as he flipped light switch beside the door. He folded his hands on the top of the cane he held in front of him as Ichigo hissed in irritation, blinking rapidly as his sensitive eyes were momentarily blinded by the shop lights. “This is an unexpected visit. What can a humble shopkeeper such as myself assist you with on this fine evening?”
Ichigo scowled, thrown off as usual by the shopkeeper’s disarmingly cheery front before he remembered his purpose and his rage returned full-force. He dug around in the canvas bag slung across his chest, coming out with the glass jar.
“Tell me everything you can about this,” he hissed through clenched teeth as he shoved the small container into the shopkeeper’s chest. The man rocked back with force of the thrust, but made no comment other than a slight raising of his eyebrows, barely visible through the curtain of his shaggy, blonde bangs.
"Oh? And what's this?" The warlock asked as he clasped the jar, bringing it up to eye level to examine its contents with curiosity.
"A sleeping spell," the dragon huffed sourly as the warlock pushed past him into the shop, setting the jar on the shop counter as he fished underneath it for a small dish.
“How intriguing.” The shopkeeper hummed as he unsealed the jar, tipping the contents into the dish and sending up a small plume of ash. He sniffed at it lightly. “An herbal bundle is a rather standard vector for a sleeping spell,” he informed the dragon, pinning him with a sly glance from under the brim of his hat. “This one must have been something special to capture your attention.”
Ichigo crossed his arms defensively, glaring daggers at a large jar of preserved kelp leaves that sat on the counter near the warlock’s elbow. His tail twitched in umbrage as he recalled what little he remembered of his afternoon.“It was strong enough to put a centuries old dragon to sleep,” he grumbled reluctantly once the ash had settled.
The shopkeeper shot him a look, eyes alight with interest as he fished out a pair of tweezers from under the counter, poking the larger remains around the dish before selecting a semi-charred bit to examine more closely under a magnifying glass. “These are unusual ingredients,” he mused. “I wouldn’t have expected to find dragon’s tongue and valerian root in the same spell. They don’t usually play nice together. You said it put you to sleep? I can’t say I’m feeling any effects.”
“It did.” the dragon hissed darkly, the air around him starting to shimmer with heat in response to his growing rage. The things he was going to do to this impudent thief when he got his claws on him...
“Kurosaki-sama, I must ask you to control your fire within the shop.” the shopkeeper reminded him, his falsely-light tone starting the dragon out of his downward spiral of murderous thoughts. “Exposing quite a few of the mixtures in my inventory to heat is bound to end...explosively.”
“Apologies.” the dragon grunted half-heartedly, even as he complied with the request and reigned in his aura. It was hard to care about such things with his rage roiling hot under the surface.
Kisuke clicked his tongue in exasperated displeasure at his lack of care, but let the matter drop. “Can you describe the effect? Did it act quickly or slowly?”
“Slow. It made me drowsy, the kind of heaviness you might feel during an afternoon lull.” Ichigo clenched his fists, digging his sharp nails into the already abused meat of his palms, entire frame shaking with a new wave of rage as he hissed the rest through his teeth. “Then it pulled me under deep enough that I didn’t detect the bastard that dared to enter my lair.”
Kisuke’s head snapped up, shock flitting across his face at the admission. “I’m sorry, they did what? ”
“They had the gall to invade my sanctum while I was present.” the dragon growled, voice going low and deep in a way that sent all the air in the shop vibrating in resonance with his rage. “They stole from my Hoard, Kisuke. I intend to make them pay with blood.”
Kisuke tilted his head consideringly, gaze distant as he mulled over a developing thought. “And the scent? Did anything stand out to you?”
“It’s sweet, but underneath it smells like rot.” Ichigo replied, eyes narrowing into a suspicious frown as he caught a flash of realization in the warlock’s eyes. “You look like that means something to you.”
“Perhaps,” the warlock hummed. “I will need to look into a few things before I can confirm, but what you describe brings to mind a few reports that I remember from Seireitei’s historical records. Perhaps the information that you require to find this thief may be found there.”
Ichigo straightened up in interest. “Where do I find these records?”
Kisuke hummed thoughtfully. “I believe that I have personal copies of the historical tomes in question,” he mused, starting as the dragon made to step past him towards the living spaces behind the shop. He sidestepped quickly in front of him, sketching a short bow. “Ah, not so fast, Kurosaki-sama. This will go much more swiftly if you leave the research to me. I should be able to confirm my hypothesis within the hour.”
Ichigo scowled, eyes narrowed in a mixture of annoyance and confusion. “But-”
But the shopkeeper didn’t give him time to speak, expertly herding the dragon towards the exterior door. “Until then, perhaps some time spent around your people will do you some good. Might I suggest getting a drink? You may find someone of use for this-”
“Kisuke,” he snarled, spinning sharply on his heel as he was herded over the threshold and digging one clawed hand into the door jamb hard enough the shred the wood as he loomed over the shopkeeper. “I’m not leaving until I have enough information to hunt down the bastard who violated my hoard so I can tear them to shreds. ”
The shopkeeper tilted his head up, pushing back his bucket hat so that he could meet the dragon’s yellow, slit-pupiled glare with his own resolute gaze. “I understand, Kurosaki-sama,” he replied, steady in the face of the dragon’s wrath, “but I must insist that you leave me to my research for a little while. I will be able to retrieve the information that you require far more quickly without you breathing dragonfire down my neck.”
“In the meantime, perhaps you should consider finding some backup for this murder jaunt of yours, lest my suspicions prove correct. A rather reputable mercenary by the name of Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez has been haunting the local bars recently. Perhaps-”
Ichigo flared his dragonfire high enough to singe the brim of the warlock’s striped hat with his aura alone. “Are you suggesting that I’m incapable of-”
“I can assure you I think nothing of the sort.” The warlock interjected calmly. “I merely suspect that you will benefit greatly from setting aside that infamous dragon’s pride your kind are so well known for on this venture. I do not believe any attempt to retrieve your stolen property will be resolved simply.”
Ichigo narrowed his eyes at the shopkeeper, the corners of his lips turned down in a deep scowl as he contemplated his options. After a few moments of the blonde bastard meeting his glare with no sign of relenting he let go of the frame, straightening out so that he was no longer looming over him threateningly.
“This Jaegerjaquez, then,” he huffed impatiently. “What does he look like?”
“Decidedly cat-like, for one.” The shopkeep replied blithely. “Between his blue hair and prickly attitude he should be easy enough for you to pick out from the crowds. La Pantera , as he goes by, usually hangs around The Howling Dog this time of night, hoping to network with potential clients. Business has been scarce for him lately, but I believe he will be worth your time.”
“He better be,” the dragon growled as he turned away from the door and stalked down the path. “I’ll be back within the hour. Be sure to have that information ready for me when I return.”
The walk to The Howling Dog was a short one. Though businesses stayed open late during the long summer days, most had closed long before with the setting sun and all but the more nocturnal of the city’s denizens tended to clear off the streets after sundown. Seireitei was a modern city by most standards, but the electric street lights didn’t extend much further than the central areas, leaving large swaths of the city’s streets empty and dark in the evening hours.
The dark wasn’t much of a problem for him though, and the quiet walk gave him time to stew in his thoughts. He tried to look beyond the possessive rage that roiled inside of him, the insult of being told to find backup to defend his own Hoard. Kisuke had a history of giving out solid advice, he reminded himself sternly. If the wily shopkeeper truly thought that bringing a mercenary along was a good idea, then he was probably right.
The least Ichigo could do was see who this Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez actually was. If he didn’t like him, he could always toss the idea of bringing him along. Potential consequences be damned.
Soon, he was pushing through the heavy wooden door—complete with grimy windows—into the pub. The place was a little dirty and rough around the edges, but favored by mercenaries, misfits, and other such people with a connection to the magical underworld as the city’s primary hub for gray-area business. Many dragons discouraged such activities in their territories, but Ichigo had found he preferred to let them be unless the activity was sufficiently harmful or despicable.
The tolerant approach was paying off in spades tonight, if only because it meant his unannounced entry into one of the city’s less-upstanding establishments merely raised a few eyebrows instead of inspiring the kind of panic that would have broken up the bloody bar fight currently in full swing on the far side of the room and sent the patrons disappearing into the woodwork where he couldn’t easily find them. He scanned the crowd as he waded through the packed bar, gaze sliding over the regulars with disinterest as they cheered and taunted the combatants and placed bets, searching for anyone that fit the scant description that Kisuke had provided him with. The sound of shattering glass drew his attention to the bar fight itself, where one of the regulars, a bald mercenary with smudges of red around his eyes, was being dragged across one of the round tables that littered the room by the very blue-haired, cat-like man he had been directed to seek out.
Even among that diverse patronage in the pub, Jaegerjaquez stood out. His lithe body was covered in short, black and white fur from the waist down, digitigrade legs ending in padded toes and deadly claws. The riot of blue hair atop his head framed a striking face, currently overtaken by a manic grin that exposed sharp teeth as he threw the other man—a member of a rather rough-and-tumble company if the dragon remembered correctly—into the nearest wall, where he slumped in a crumpled heap.
Ichigo watched from the middle of the cheering crowd, eyebrows raised in impressed surprise as the cat—a were-creature maybe? Ichigo couldn’t be sure—slipped nimbly between the remaining members of the company as they advanced on him, crying out in outrage at their comrade’s defeat. His movements were quick, efficient, and brutal as he opportunistically whittled away at his competition until only the company’s leader remained. The hulking, black haired man had his jagged blade half-way out of its sheath and teeth still bared in a bloodthirsty grin when the cat slammed his face through the already trashed table, rendering him unconscious.
Ichigo hummed in satisfaction, yellow eyes never leaving the cat’s form. Well. La Pantera could certainly hold his own in a fight.
A beat of silence passed as the audience processed the abrupt and brutal end to the fight. Jaegerjaquez tugged the lapels of his jacket straight as he stepped away from the merc’s unconscious body. “Any’ne else?” he drawled, absently swiping a small trail of blood off his bottom lip with clawed thumb, tone equal parts lazy and defiant. He scanned the crowd, his crystalline blue eyes framed by a blue-green estigma running from lower lash to long, pointed ears covered in fur in shades of blue and black, were wild with a turbulent mixture of indignant rage and something colder, sharper and more jaded. His wandering gaze locked briefly with Ichigo’s, and he tensed up slightly in wary recognition under the dragon’s scrutiny. The connection lasted only moments before he was back to scanning the now dispersing crowd with an unhappy sneer, ears flattened and lips curling back to bare pointed canines as his attention finally landed on the approaching barkeep.
“I don’ fuckin’ think so,” he snarled before the portly man had even opened his mouth. He jabbed a black-furred finger tipped with a sharp claw at the unconscious mercenaries. “These fuckers started the figh’ an’ they can damn well pay for it.”
Ichigo narrowed his eyes in suspicion. Even as he spoke to the barkeep, Jaegerjaquez never fully turned away from his direction, tension winding tighter in his lithe frame the longer he was under the dragon's unwavering gaze, his feet subtly shifting into a stance that signaled fight rather than flight.
What exactly had gotten his back up like that? Had Kisuke been wrong in his assessment that the cat was reputable? The wily bastard wasn’t usually wrong about these kinds of things, but in the few instances he had been, the consequences had been disastrous.The dragon’s upper lip curled into a snarl, his already black mood soured even further as he contemplated the possibility of yet another troublemaker in his territory. Enraged as he was with the current situation, the cat would end up torn to shreds if he even thought about stepping out of line.
Icigo’s continued scrutiny didn’t go unchallenged for long. Crystalline blue eyes once again locked with lizard-yellow and Jaegerjaquez must have read the intent in his glare because his arms were quickly released from their tight fold across his chest, wickedly clawed fingers flexing with the instinct to rend. He tilted his chin up in a small display of defiance as he returned the dragon’s silent snarl with one of his own. The other patrons inched away from him slowly as they became aware of the renewed rise in tensions, increasing the already unnaturally wide berth he’d earned since the conclusion of the fight. Nobody wanted to get between what looked like a bloody confrontation brewing between the city’s guardian dragon and an uppity mercenary.
Jaegerjaquez’s tails lashed back and forth in an unconscious display of agitation and—Ichigo blinked, rage ebbing away from critical as his attention was diverted to the pair of white and black-barbed appendages tucked behind the cat.
Ichigo’s gaze flickered back up to the cat’s face just in time to catch a hint of something a little more tired and wary entering his expression, not quite hidden by the deepening sneer and flashing fangs.
“Can I help you?” the nekomata bristled, not quite managing to hide his discomfort behind the confrontational tone.
“Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez?” Ichigo asked. Not that he had any doubts at this point.
“That’s me,” the mercenary replied with a grin that was more a baring of teeth. His eyes traveled down the dragon’s form in a slow survey, taking in everything from his wickedly sharp horns and leathery red wings to his powerful, scaled legs. “I gotta say, I wasn’t expecting a visit from the lizard in charge.”
Ichigo blinked, nonplused, then narrowed his eyes in annoyance as he jerked his head towards the door. “I’ve got something to discuss with you.”
The nekomata eyed him suspiciously, stuffing his hands into his jacket pockets in a front of casual defiance. “If ya’re here to kick me out of the city, I ain’t done anythin' wrong,” he bit out. “And I ain’t gonna’ let another one of ya' scaly assholes turn me out without due cause.”
“That’s not what I’m here for.” The dragon growled over his shoulder as he headed for the door. “Leaving kittens on the street isn’t all that appealing.”
“Is that so?” the cat’s tone was disbelieving, but the tension in his shoulders relaxed slightly and his ears tilted up in a way that said that while he was still wary, he was pleasantly surprised by Ichigo's declaration, veiled in insults though it was. “Then what could one of ya’ scaly bastards want with someone like me?”
“Outside.” Ichigo insisted, jerking his head towards the door once again, flaring his wings just a little bit in the cramped space in an uncharacteristic show of discomfort. He reached for the handle, yanking the door open and gesturing pointedly for the nekomata to proceed.
Jaegerjaquez rolled his eyes, but relented. “Yes, your majesty,” he snarked as he sauntered past Ichigo and out into the night, feeling the dragon’s eyes crawling down his body the entire time.
Once they were out in the quiet of the night, Ichigo led them a short distance down the empty street, pausing in a small pool of light created by one of the few lampposts on the block. The cat probably didn’t need it any more than he did, but there were advantages to being able to see him illuminated in the tungsten-yellow glow.
“So what’s so important that King Lizard decided to pay lil’ ol’ me a visit?” Jaegerjaquez drawled as he leaned against the lamppost, hands still shoved deep in his pockets in feigned nonchalance. The tips of his tails flicked in agitation.
“I hear you’re looking for work,” the dragon huffed, only mildly irritated to his own surprise. The nekomata’s biting irreverence should have set him off with his rage so tenuously contained, but the tit-for-tat snark it inspired instead was kind of...nice. “I have work.”
Ichigo’s answer, blunt and to the point, was clearly unexpected from the way that the tension in Jaegerjaquez’s shoulders went slack all at once and and his eyebrows disappeared beneath his carefully styled bangs. “What?”
Ichigo knew he needed to elaborate, but admission of weakness stuck in his throat like glue. He hissed sharply through his teeth, jaw clenched together so hard he could feel his teeth creaking under the strain. “There’s a situation that I may need some assistance with.” he finally ground out, his pride a bitter pill to swallow.
“Uh huh. ” Jaegerjaquez squinted up at him, suspicion flashing though his eyes at his reticence. He shifted his weight away from the lamppost, widening his stance like he was preparing for the conversation to go south. “I'm gonna need more detail than that before I agree to anything.”
“Somebody stole something from me,” Ichigo snarled, yellow eyes incandescent with fury as he glared down at the mercenary. He flared his wings in an effort to feel larger and more in control. This entire situation was humiliating. “From my Hoard. I want it back.”
The nekomata rocked back heavily into the post, ears perking up in surprise. “They fuckin’ wha-” he cut himself off with a sharp shake of his head. When he had composed himself he looked back up at the dragon with an odd mix of anticipation and suspicion. “Why me?”
Ichigo lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “You came recommended.”
Jaegerjaquez blinked, once again visibly caught off guard. “Huh.”
They lapsed into silence, Jaegerjaquez peered up into the night, tongue peeking out to run over the edge of one sharp canine as he mulled over the proposition. Overhead, thousands of stars twinkled in the ink-dark sky, the brilliant cross of the summer sword shining bright at zenith.
“Well,” Ichigo prompted when he reached the end of his patience. “Are you interested, or was this a waste of my time?”
Jaegergaquez directed his attention back down at the dragon, hitting him with a considering look. “I ain’t walkin’ into anythin’ a damn lizard needs help with for only a handful of Kan,” he eventually replied. Maybe it was a bad idea to piss off an already enraged dragon by saying anything that could be even peripherally interpreted as extortion, but hell if he was targeting someone with enough gall to steal from one of the prissy reptiles for his usual rates.
“I’ll pay you 5000 Kan.”
The cat’s eyebrows once again disappeared into his hairline. “I know you lizards don’ really have a great sense for the actual value of things, but that’s an absurd amount of money.”
Ichigo leaned forward until their faces were mere inches apart, one hand on the lamppost above the nekomata’s head to box him in. “Some asshole,” the dragon growled, words slow and careful like he was explaining things to a hatchling, “waltzed into my lair and stole the most prized item in my Hoard from right under my nose. It’s worth any amount of money to get it back.”
“Okay, okay.” the nekomata snarled, shoving futilely at the dragon’s bare chest, claws scratching uselessly against his pecs. “I get it, ya’ scaly bastard. I ain't sayin’ no to that kind of money anyway.”
“Che.” Ichigo withdrew, a satisfied smirk on his face as Jaegergaquez stepped away from the lamppost and busied himself with smoothing out a few imagined wrinkles in his jacket, though his flustered state didn’t last for long.
“So, ya’ prissy lizard,” he drawled, a cheeky grin turning up the corner of his mouth and exposing sharp teeth as he shoved his hands back into his pockets and bumped the dragon in the ribs with an elbow, “do ya’ got anythin’ to go on, or we goin’ on a wild goose chase for this thief of yours?”
Ichigo rolled his eyes skyward and cuffed the back of Jaegerjaquez’s head with enough force to send the cat careening forward, quick reflexes only just saving him from face planting into the road. “I’ve got contacts. Follow me.”
Kisuke was waiting for them when they arrived back at the small potions shop, smoking a small pipe packed with sweet herbs as he sat on the stoop and enjoyed the lingering warmth of the summer night. Behind him, the inviting yellow glow of the shop lights spilled out the open door, illuminating the dusty path through the gravel yard.
“Ah, Kurosaki-sama,” he greeted them airily as he used his cane to lever himself upright, absently brushing the dust off his jinbei , “I see you’ve managed to recruit Jegergaquez-san.”
Beside him, Jaegerjaquez raised a skeptical eyebrow. “This crazy bastard’s your contact?”
“Yeah.” the dragon replied with an impatient huff and a grimace. “And drop the honorific Kisuke, you know I hate it.” Kami. He’d been so blinded by anger earlier he hadn’t called the wily bastard out on it. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I did,” The shopkeeper nodded, his voice taking on a solemn tone. He gestured them into the shop with a slight bow, sliding the door shut behind him as he stepped in after them.
“So?” the dragon prompted impatiently as he approached the shop counter where a stack of old, leather bound tomes sat beside the ashen remains of the Spellwork bundle, once again contained in the small, sealed jar. “What did you find?”
Kisuke hummed consideringly as he stepped behind the shop counter, trailing a finger along the lines of text in an open tome. “Correct me if I am wrong,” he began, “but I believe you recently acquired a new neighbor to the north of your territory.”
Ichigo raised a questioning eyebrow. “I have.”
“Can you tell me about them?”
Ichigo’s other eyebrow joined the first, disappearing beneath his long, orange bangs. “Why?”
Ichigo rolled his eyes, puffing out a long breath as he deflated into a resigned slump, folding his arms across his chest petulantly. “He showed up a couple of months ago.” he grunted. “Few centuries older than me, doesn’t seem very hungry for territory and had no interest in the town. We met for long enough for me to lay down the law and then went our separate ways. I haven’t seen him since.”
“And his name?”
“Koga? Hm- no. Kubo? Something like that. Can’t say I bothered to remember it.” He shot the shopkeeper a pointed glare. “What does he have to do with this anyway? I thought you were following a lead in the historical records, not recent events.”
Kisuke dragged his finger down the lines of neatly inked letters as he skimmed them with a critical eye. “The records show that long before you came to these lands, Seireitei was within the guardianship territory of another dragon,” he began ominously, peering up at them from under the brim of his striped bucket hat.
Ichigo raised an unimpressed eyebrow, clawed fingers tapping impatiently on a scaled forearm. “There was no sign of another dragon that I would be competing for territory with when I became the guardian of this area. From the lack of markings, that had to have been centuries ago.”
The shopkeeper inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Indeed. The dragon that claimed this city before you was forced to abandon it over two hundred years ago.”
An exaggerated yawn from behind Ichgo had the two of them glancing back to where Jaegerjaquez had taken up residence atop one of the short, glass fronted shelving units that held some of the more valuable potion stock, inspecting his wickedly sharp claws with an expression of extreme boredom.
“Sorry,” the cat snarked, entirely unrepentant. “This is a nice history lesson and all, but I was under the impression that we’re trying to retrieve King Lizard’s stolen goods. Ya’ know, in this century. ”
Ichigo looked back to the shopkeeper, an eyebrow quirked in agreement. The guy had a point.
The warlock clicked his tongue. “Patience, my dear neko,” he said amiably as he flipped the page of the tome. “I assure you that this history lesson is important to the current situation. You see, the populace’s general opinion of dragons after their experience with this particular one was so low that the people of Seireitei opted not to accept the protection of any dragon after that. It wasn’t until long after the details of this dragon’s guardianship had faded from public memory that another dragon, our dear Kurosaki-sama here, was able to come in and claim the territory without issue.”
Ichigo’s pointed glare did frustratingly little to cow the wily shopkeeper as he smiled benignly in the face of the dragon’s annoyance.
“Dragons are as possessive over territory as we are of our Hoards,” he growled. “If only because an established Hoard is nearly impossible to move. You said that he abandoned it. Why?”
Kisuke tilted his head down, pulling his bucket hat forward so that it shaded his eyes and creating an air of mystery as he peered up at them. “In this case, the trouble had to do with the nature of this dragon’s Hoard.” He turned to Ichigo. “You are aware, of course, of dragons who hoard objects stolen from the Hoards of their kin.”
The sharp sound of shattering glass pierced the air as several of the more volatile potions in the shop exploded as Ichigo's temper peaked and his control of his dragonfire slipped, sending the temperature in the room skyrocketing.
“Oi!” The nekomata yowled as he startled off of the shelf he’d been lounging on, now rapidly dissolving under the influence of the exploded potions contained within. He stomped up to the dragon’s side, ears flattened tight against his skull and glaring darkly as he jabbed him in the ribs. “Keep that fire under control ya’ damn lizard!”
Ichigo ignored him. “I am,” he hissed through his teeth, jaw clenched tight as he glared at the warlock.
“Kūgo Ginjō was one such dragon,” Kisuke informed him, stepping nimbly to the side to avoid a shower of glass as recognition sparked in Ichigo’s eyes and a few more potions exploded in a fresh wave of heat. “Ah, I suspected as much,” he hummed. “With the help of his favored servant, a powerful warlock, he devised a very clever method for pillaging the Hoards of other dragons. As I’m sure you know, dragons with hoarding tendencies of Kūgo’s nature do not live long lives, as those they target will ruthlessly track down and kill them in revenge for stealing their carefully curated possessions.”
Ichigo inclined his head in acknowledgement, glaring yellow eyes boring intensely into the shopkeeper's calculating gray.
“It is my belief that Kugo was able to avoid this fate through the implementation of the methods that he and his servant developed. While slighted dragons would inevitably come after him to reclaim their Hoards—often harming the city of Seireitei in the process—he was able to win his battles, even those against dragons much older and stronger than himself, by—”
“Putting them to sleep.” Ichigo finished grimly.
Grimmjow shifted at his side, tails lashing uneasily. “If this lizard was winning his battles, why wasn’ he still in control of the territory when Kurosaki moved in?”
“There were only so many times that the people of Seireitei were willing to put up with a dragon attack before they decided that being under the ah, protection of a dragon that brought that sort of trouble was unacceptable.”
“You say that like an angry mob had any hope against a dragon.” the cat grumbled. “Wouldn’ he ’ve been better off wastin’ the town and keepin the territory?”
“Maybe so, but Kugo’s methods rely on keeping beneath the notice of other dragons until such a time that he chooses to draw their attention.” He glanced down at the old tome, eyes skimming critically over the text. “I doubt his warlock would be able to subdue more than one at a time. I can only hypothesize that he believed leaving the area until such a time that he had faded from public memory was the most prudent way to deal with the situation—even if it meant being separated from his Hoard for an extended period of time.”
“No self respecting dragon should leave their Hoard like that,” Ichigo muttered darkly.
The nekomata scoffed. “It ain’t like this bastard was a shining example of lizard kind to begin with. Do those history books actually say where the bastard’s roost was? S’all just fairy tales unless we can actually track him down.”
Ichigo had to agree with him. “I’ve been here for over a century and I’ve never seen evidence of an abandoned lair in the area.”
Kisuke reached for another of the leather bound tomes stacked on the counter. The title, Modern Cartographies, gleamed in ornate, flaking gold leaf along the spine as the shopkeeper cracked the volume open, flipping to a dog eared page. “Kugo’s lair can be found on the northernmost end of your territory,” he explained, tapping at that small dragon’s skull that some past scholar had painstakingly inked onto the map. “There is a small valley in the foothills that he dug his lair into. To my knowledge, this area has long since become overgrown with a thriving forest.”
Ichigo leaned over the counter, scrutinizing the lay of the land around the lair with narrowed eyes. A pleasant shiver raced down his spine when Jaegerjaquez stepped up beside him, pressing a long line of warmth against his side as he leaned in to get a look over his shoulder. After a few moments he tapped one sharp claw against a small dot inked onto the map at the head of the small valley the lair was located in.
“This town, Zaraki. I recognize it. It’s a 2 hour flight from here. If we leave now, we should be able to reach his lair before dawn.”
“About that.” The cat drawled, chin practically resting on his shoulder, warm breath ghosting over a pointed ear. “How am I gonna get there with you? I ain’t flyin’ clutched in those forearm sized-knives you lizards call talons.”
Ichigo jerked his head around to scowl at him, nearly whipping the nekomata across the face with a horn. The cat sprang back, quick reflexes saving him from a bloody meeting with the razor edge, and eyed him carefully.
“You aren’t riding on my back,” the dragon insisted, skin burning from shoulder to thigh with the abrupt loss of contact.
Jaegerjaquez’s lip curled up in a snarl, but his retort was stopped in its tracks by Kisuke’s tittering laugh. “I’ll call you two a taxi,” he simpered, hiding a smirk behind the fluttering fan that had mysteriously appeared in front of his face. “I’m sure they can find a driver, even at this time of night, for our beloved Kurosaki-sama”
Ichigo whipped back around to face the shopkeeper. “How the fuck do you expect us fit in a taxi!” he cried, gesturing down the length of himself to emphasize his point. “And don’t call me that, damn it!”
20 minutes later the two of them were stuffed uncomfortably close in the backseat of said taxi, Ichigo's wings extending over the back seat into the trunk and Jaegerjaquez doing his best to squeeze himself into whatever small part of the bench seat wasn't already taken up by the dragon's too-large-for-conventional-transportation body.
It wasn't going well.
"Let me just-" Ichigo shifted, trying to wiggle his tail out from where it was pinned in place under the nekomata, his whole body rocking awkwardly as he tried to maneuver in the small space. There was a loud screech as his wing claws caught along the steel ceiling, scoring deep gouges into the surface and causing both sharp-eared creatures to cringe.
Accidental as it was, Jaegerjaquez's full-body flinch away from the source of the noise was just the opportunity Ichigo needed, and he was quick to take advantage of the modicum of space it afforded him. He planted himself solidly in the corner of the seat, dug his claws into the rough carpet, and yanked his tail out from under the cat, sending the cab tipping precariously on two wheels. Jaegerjaquez let out an undignified yelp as he was sent pitching forward, forced out of his seat by the upheaval.
"That's better," Ichigo sighed in relief when the dust settled and the cab had righted itself, slumping back into the seat as best he could as feeling returned to his tail in a prickly rush.
Jaegerjaquez snorted, tense and wary for a few moments in his new position perched on Ichigo's knee. He eyed the tiny, unoccupied portion of the seat with distasteful consideration before slumping back into the solid chest behind him. “If ya' wanted to get me in yer lap, ya' could have jus' said so,” he snarked. "Though I guess nobody would say yes with these pointy-ass knee scales. Gotta trick 'em."
"Don't kid yourself," Ichigo grunted as the cat squirmed into a more comfortable position between his thighs. "Your heavy ass was just putting my tail to sleep." He raised an eyebrow as the cat sank deeper into the tight space in response, hands hovering uncertainty above the short fur on his waist. "Comfy?"
Ichigo rolled his eyes, hands still hovering awkwardly when the nebulous problem of what to do with them came to an abrupt end with their driver slamming on the brakes, the entire cab shuddering as they ran through a deep pothole at full speed.
Ichigo found his arms closing around Jaegerjaquez like a bear trap, stopping him from pitching forward again and smashing his face into the passenger seat. He ignored the cabby's frantic apologies and nervous glances through the rear-view mirror as he settled them back into the seat, loosening his grip slightly as the mercenary hissed out a half-hearted litany of insults. "You wouldn't have to deal with my pointy knees if you'd agreed to fly."
"Ain’t no way I'd risk gettin' shredded when you start thinking of that bastard an' forget i'm in your claws," the mercenary huffed, closing his eyes as he settled back into place. “‘Sides, your knees ain’t tha’ bad, I guess.”
"As if I'd ever do that,” Ichigo insisted, dutifully ignoring the way his grip tightened around the nekomata. "I can control myself."
Jaegerjaquez pointedly yanked at one of his fingers, prying sharp claws away from soft skin. "Keep tellin' yerself that, ya' prissy lizard." He replied drolly, cracking one eye open to shoot him an indecipherable look. "We still could've flown if you'd let me ride you."
Ichigo face flushed red, even as he bristled in outrage. "It's demeaning! I'm not a pack animal!"
"Yeah, sure. Now shut up, I'm trying to sleep."
The sun was inching towards the horizon by the time the taxi pulled up in front of Zaraki’s tiny, one pump fuel station, their driver apologizing profusely for not being able to take them further into the valley until the station opened for business in a few hours’ time. Jaegerjaquez slipped out of the vehicle, turning back to watch in amusement as Ichigo finished waving off the apologies and squeezed himself through the door, cursing when a wing claw caught against the ceiling of the vehicle. The dragon glared at him through a curtain of hair as he pulled himself upright on the door.
“I didn’t say anythin’,” the cat insisted, hands raised in defense.
Ichigo deepened his glare until his eyes were narrow, gold slits. “No,” he agreed, “But you were thinking it.”
He shot the merc one last disgruntled look, then stretched his arms upwards, looking skyward as his muscles uncoiled and he entered a deep, backwards bend. Above them, the sky was washing out into the pale navy of early dawn, just visible through the occasional break in the thick valley fog that blanketed the foothills surrounding the town. Taking a taxi had been time consuming, but the sleep it had afforded them was an underrated boon.
Rested and not keen on wasting any time, the pair didn’t linger in the village, opting to head out immediately on an unpaved track that led deeper into the valley. Jaegerjaquez quickly morphed into his feline form as the mist swallowed up the town behind them, padding silently along the rutted dirt under their feet. Ichigo took in his new form with interest out of the corner of his eye, gaze trailing down the graceful apex predator that had replaced the man, taking in every detail from whiskers to tails.
“Aren’t most of you house cats?” he asked.
Jaegerjaquez scoffed, the sound a strange rumble from his feline throat. “They don’t call me La Pantera for nothing.”
“Yes,” the dragon drawled, eyes crawling back up his sleek form to lock with crystalline blue. The nekomata was all dense black fur, sharp teeth, and powerful muscle. Perfect. “I can see that.”
The nekomata bared his teeth, showing off a wicked set of canines. “Go fuck yourself,” he growled without any true heat.
Ichigo could think of a few choice replies to that.
They kept the bickering up until they reached the point where the road passed into dense forest and dwindled down into an unmaintained track, regarding their surroundings with quiet vigilance. Around them, the forest was waking up as the sun crept over the horizon, the first strains of birdsong carrying through the trees. They picked their way along the abandoned road for nearly an hour before it ended in an overgrown plot of land, whatever homestead that had been there long since swallowed up by vegetation, not even foundations left behind.
Ichigo frowned, preparing to march straight ahead into the forest in a direction that would theoretically take them up the valley in as straight a line as possible when Jaegerjaquez swiped at the back of his legs, sharp claws shredding though his long kilt to score thin lines on his calf.
Ichigo swung around, whipping his tail to cuff the merc upside the head, but Jaegerjaquez was already moving aside, making a beeline for what appeared to be a narrow game trail.
“Someone’s been through here recently,” the panther said, sniffing at the ground. “More than once. Doesn’t smell like another dragon, though. More like that tingly electric scent Spellcasters get.”
Ichigo inhaled deeply, catching a trace of the scent the cat had picked up on his tongue. Underneath the charge of Spellwork he could taste the scent of old paper and ink. “Hmm. It’s not the one from my lair,” he mused, though it did explain why he hadn’t picked up a second scent in his disoriented state. “It’s probably his warlock. I’m assuming the scent I picked up in my vault was Kugo himself.”
“I thought you’d met him.” The merc chuffed. “Can’t you lizards recognize each other by scent?”
Ichigo’s face twisted down into a scowl. “Only once,” he snapped. “And not with that Spellwork clouding my mind.”
Jaegerqauez rolled his eyes, his whole head turning with the gesture to convey the strength of his emotions where his facial features couldn’t. “Yea, yea, you prideful bastard. I get it.” He stalked off down the track without waiting for a response, nose to the ground as he tracked their lead.
The trail soon became more distinct as they traveled along it, the earth packed bare from frequent use. Soon after territorial markings started to appear carved into the trees edging the narrow track. Ichigo regarded a series of deep gouges carved into the trunk of an ancient cryptomeria tree with black fury, all the rage he had tempered down into a simmer in the intervening hours since the theft flashing back up to full-boil. Around him, the plants withered, turning brown and crumbly as his dragonfire warped the air with heat.
The theft of the most prized possession in his Hoard was more than enough offence to bring the full might of Ichigo’s fury down on Kugo’s head, but the dragon hadn’t stopped there. No, he had begun encroaching on his territory little by little as he masqueraded as a harmless neighbor. Slowly, but steadily whittling away at his claim.
And once again, he’d done it right under Ichigo’s nose.
Ichigo grit his teeth and flared his wings aggressively. He was going to tear the bastard to shreds and incinerate his remains in fire so hot there would be nothing left of—
He blinked, the sharp exclamation sending the world sliding back into focus and he craned his neck around to look at the source.
Jaegerjaquez had retreated to a safe distance, perched on a high branch of a nearby tree. He squinted down at him with a disapproving glare that only a cat’s face could truly manage, tails swaying in agitation. “Maybe save the inferno for when we get there instead of burning me alive, ya’ damn lizard,” he hissed, spine arching to convey his annoyance.
Ichigo hissed back, yellow eyes burning with fury, but the wavering air around him settled little by little as the temperature dropped to safer levels.
The nekomata peered down at him with narrow eyes. “Ya’ good?” He asked eventually, deciding that a secondary eruption was unlikely for the time being. “Ya’ can tear the guy to shreds soon enough.”
Ichigo nodded sharply, jaw still clenched too tightly to speak, then stalked down the path, body visibly shaking with his contained fury. The nekomata stared after him for a few moments before following along, sticking to the trees and giving the enraged dragon plenty of space.
They had been following the twisting path for several hours when the trees began to thin, rapidly declining in number until only the largest old-growth giants remained. On the ground, the dense underbrush gave way to moss covered boulders and scattered bones. The sun, now peeking over the protective valley walls, had burned away most of the early morning mist, leaving only thin wisps of ground fog to curl through a graveyard of massive dragon skulls that grinned at them with empty eyes and huge rib cages long-gutted of their innards and overgrown with moss and vines. Beneath their feet, the dirt was littered with a thick layer of detritus composed of broken horns, palm sized teeth, and thousands of bone fragments.
“We’re getting close,” the nekomata growled, coming close enough as he slunk around Ichigo that he could feel his flank brushing against his legs. The panther crouched low, using powerful legs to spring atop a large boulder to warily survey the land for signs of life through narrowed eyes. They’d heard no wildlife for some time. “How many dragons do you think are here?”
“Too many.” Ichigo growled as he stalked past him, barely sparing the bones of his kind a glance as he marched forward towards a high valley wall still some way off, but easily visible through the remaining scattered trees. The game track had petered out as they had left the protective cover of the dense forest behind, but he no longer needed to rely on anything but the roosting instincts of his own kind to lead the way.
The closer they got to Kugo’s lair, the thicker the boneyard became until the only way forward was a narrow path that cut through a veritable wall of old bones and bleached white tree trunks before ending abruptly in a large clearing of packed dirt, completely devoid of cover. On the other side, about 50 meters distant, the yawning mouth of a large cavern waited temptingly at the base of the steep cliff.
Jegerjaquez morphed back into human form as he glared at the exposed clearing from the cover of one of the last of the ancient trees. “That has trap written all over it.” he growled as he scanned the unnaturally clear area for signs of anything amiss.
Ichigo grunted a distracted affirmation, peering around the other side of the tree, eyes locked on the dark lair beyond and whole body tilting forward in anticipation of what he’d find inside. He hissed as pointy knuckles jabbed into the soft tissue of his shoulder, and begrudgingly tore his attention away from the cave mouth to glare at his companion, rubbing idly at stinging skin.
The look Jaegerjaquez pinned him with in return was entirely unimpressed. “Now that I have your attention,” he drawled, “I’ll go in first. If I can draw the warlock out into the boneyard I can fight him on even ground. Once he’s distracted you can take Kugo.”
“Fine,” Ichigo growled. “Can we get this started or do you need to plan this whole thing out over tea?”
Jaegerjaquez punched him again, zeroing in on already tenderized skin with pinpoint accuracy. “Rushin’ in is what got all these other dragons killed, ya’ dumb lizard.”
Ichigo glared balefully at him but settled down behind the tree. “ Fine. ” he relented petulantly. That was going to bruise. “Just make sure you get him out of the lair before he has a chance to activate any of that sleeping Spellwork.”
The mercenary pinned him with a wry look.“Isn’ that the reason I’m here?” he snorted. “I’ll take care of the bastard. Jus’ wait for me to get his attention.” He turned his back to the dragon, scanning the area around the lair one last time, then padded out from the cover of the tree. Ichigo reached out, wrapping a large, clawed hand firmly around his bicep before he had taken more than a step. Jaegerjaquez craned his neck around to look back at him, an eyebrow raised expectantly.
“Be careful, Jaegergaquez.”
The nekomata barked out a laugh, flashing him a roguish grin that showed off sharp, pointed teeth. “It’s Grimmjow, ya’ big lizard,” he said. “I was sittin’ in your lap last night. The least ya’ can do is use my firs' name.” Without waiting for an answer, he morphed back into a two-tailed panther, scampered up the wall of bones and leapt into the clearing beyond, dashing across the packed dirt and into the dragon’s lair.
A few beats of silence passed before he heard an enraged yowl followed by a large crash sounding from the cavern. Soon after, the nekomata darted back out of the mouth of the cave just in front of an explosion of Spellwork. A tall, lanky human with shoulder-length black hair exited the cavern behind him, sprinting across the packed dirt in pursuit and barely dodging sharp claws in time as the panther did an abrupt about face to swipe at his abdomen with a blow that would have easily torn the warlock open.
The warlock was quick to counter with a burst of electric Spellwork that had the cat retreating a few meters in one large leap, back arched in aggression and fur puffed up with static. They kept up the dance, the mercenary slowly drawing the man into the graveyard of ancient bones beyond.
Ichigo broke cover as soon as the two of them had cleared the narrow gap in the wall of bones, taking a powerful running leap and beating his wings once to boost himself up and over the barricade and gliding down to alight at the mouth of the lair. A jet of Spellwork zipped past his shoulder, close enough to clip his cheek before bursting into a shower of sparks some feet ahead, but when he glanced back, Jaeger- Grimmjow was already handling the situation, leaping for the nape of the warlock’s unguarded neck, jaws open wide and slashing claws outstretched in front of him an immediate threat that couldn’t be ignored in favor of subduing a dragon.
With the warlock engaged, Ichigo stormed into the murky-dark of Kugo’s lair, a deep, echoing snarl rolled out of his throat as he let his dragonfire flare until the air around him glowed plasma-blue with heat.
“Where is it, Kugo,” he snarled, flaring his wings aggressively as he glared into the darkness. The morning sun didn’t penetrate far into the dimly lit cavernous space, but his keen eyes could see the other dragon clear as day; white, shoulder-length hair standing out starkly against the dark as he stood in the center of his hoard, leaned against an oversized leather chair with a cruel smirk curling up the corners of his lips and rage burning in his red and silver eyes. The shattered remains of a large shelf lay at his feet, its contents broken and scattered across the floor.
“I expected you to show up sooner,” the dragon drawled, unthreatened by Ichigo’s rage. “I was starting to think that you didn’t care as much about that book as the pedestal suggested you did.” He looked down, picking at his claws with disinterest. “That would have been such a shame. After all the trouble I went through to get it.”
Ichigo flared his dragonfire higher. beneath his feet, the stone took on a glassy sheen. “Where. Is. It.”
Kugo laughed in his face. “Why? It’s mine now.” He replied, a mocking edge in his confident tone. He pushed off the chair, closing the distance between them with slow, threatening steps until he was looming over the younger dragon. “Just like this territory will soon be.”
“Like hell,” Ichigo growled, fingers twitching with the instinct to rend. “I won't let you take what's mine."
"Correction," Kugo purred. "This territory has, and always will, belong to me ." He pressed a sharp claw to the younger dragon's chest, using just enough pressure to break skin. " You are the interloper here."
Ichigo leaned in, hissing in indignant fury as he pushed the accusing finger away. Blood beaded along the shallow scratch left scored across his pec in its wake. This man? Accusing him of encroachment? The audacity . "You abandoned your claim." He snarled.
"I prefer to think of it as a tactical retreat. Those worthless city dwellers were getting so...bothersome."
"Can you blame them? You utterly failed in your duties as a—"
“—A guardian dragon?” Kugo scoffed. “What’s the point? Those ants aren’t worth protecting.”
Ichigo's snarl morphed into a vicious, sharp-toothed grin. “Jealous that they like me more than they ever liked you?”
Kugo lunged at him, a clawed hand backed with red scales going straight for his neck. Ichigo directed the hand away, stepping around the enraged dragon and sweeping his tail around to knock his feet out from under him.
Unable to dodge the tail, Kugo went down, falling easily into a forward roll and extending one of his leathery red wings to bash the younger dragon in the face. Ichigo stumbled back, disoriented, and Kugo pressed his advantage. He grabbed onto one of Ichigo’s horns, ignoring the razor edge cutting into the unprotected skin of his palm as he dragged the younger dragon down with him. They tumbled out of the lair in a tangle of limbs, separating briefly as they lost momentum, then crashing back together, humanoid forms discarded in favor of hulking bodies, sythe-like talons, and impenetrable scales.
Kugo lunged forward again, neck uncoiling like a viper’s and jaws snapping shut a hair's-breadth from Ichigo’s throat. Ichigo responded in turn, swiping at the soft silver scales of the larger dragon's underbelly and following through by ramming his body weight into the other, once again sending them into a tumble of sharp talons and snapping jaws.
Ichigo bit down hard on one of Kugo’s horns, using the spiraling ridges at the base to gain enough purchase to stop the other from goring him while he attempted to shred the older dragon’s underbelly with his back feet. Kugo retaliated by jerking his head around with enough force to shatter the horn in Ichigo’s jaws and exhaled a blast of fire, forcing him to disengage as he spat out shards of horn.
The red dragon rolled away and crouched low, muscles bunching and uncoiling with enough force to launch his massive body skyward. Ichigo let out an earth-shaking roar and followed close on Kugo’s tail as they took the battle to the air.
On the ground, about a hundred yards away, Grimmjow was engaged in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. Kugo’s warlock had started out confident in an easy victory, but had quickly revised his opinion once the nekomata had reminded him exactly why the stigma against his kind was so strong. It turned out that the Spellcaster, while capable of putting dragons to sleep, had prioritized being able to do so at the expense of most other applications of Spellwork. Overpowering him was proving to be an easy task, and Grimmjow had resorted to the age-old game that every cat played with their prey to stave off boredom.
His ears twitched in interest as he tracked the human’s progress through the boulder-strewn boneyard by the sound of his heavy footsteps and panicked breathing, slinking out of sight under a curtain of moss growing off of the hollowed out ribcage of a long dead dragon and stalking his prey on silent feet.
He lay in wait until the warlock paused to catch his breath a short distance to his right, then padded out from the other side of the massive rib cage and leapt onto a large boulder, peering down the back side of to see the lanky black hair of his prey as he pressed against it in an attempt to hide. He crouched down, tails swaying excitedly as he judged the distance, then pounced, jaws wide and ready to maul his prey. The warlock saw the danger coming at the last possible moment, stumbling away and hastily throwing up a weak barrier. Grimmjow's claws slid along the transparent shield with an ear-splitting screech before it shattered under the pressure in a shower of green shards.
Grimmjow hissed in annoyance, ears flattening against his skull as a weak jet of sparks aimed at his face followed in quick succession, keeping him from going on the offensive as the warlock reatreated, palm outstretched and Spellwork already sparking between his fingers as he primed his next attack. Disregarding the threat, the nekomata slowly advanced, pressing just enough to keep the warlock's attention firmly on him while still letting the man put a few extra feet of distance between them.
Grimmjow licked at his fangs tauntingly, eyeing the way the warlock relaxed a little more with every foot of distance the he allowed between them with indulgent anticipation. He waited until the man had backed up level with a large pile of ancient bones before waving a forepaw in a lazy arc. An ancient dragon skull resting atop the pile came to life, glowing with an unearthly blue fire and snapping its jaws down around the unsuspecting warlock's arm.
The man cried out in pain as a few of the skull’s remaining teeth punctured straight through the flesh of his arm, biting down with enough force to shatter the bones. “You cursed fucking cats.” He spat through gritted teeth, glaring at Grimmjow through a curtain of long bangs as he hung limply from his trapped arm. “Your kind should have been hunted to extermination centuries ago.” He let out an agonized groan, the spell between his fingers fizzling out as Grimmjow bared his fangs and the dragon skull tightened its jaws until its ancient teeth ground together.
“Pity for you that we weren’t,” the nekomaka snarled, one massive paw drawn back and ready to deliver the final blow.
But their attention was diverted by an earth shattering roar and the sound of powerful wingbeats. The two of them looked up in time to Kurosaki chasing Kugo into the sky, snapping at the spiked end of his tail with sharp teeth.
The battling dragons circled around each other as they cleared the tops of ancient trees, Kurosaki’s gleaming black and white scales contrasting against Kugo’s deep red as they repeatedly met, striking at each other with claws, teeth, and fire, before disengaging back into their spiraling dance.
Grimmjow watched Kurosaki with awe as he caught one of Kugo’s wings between his teeth and tore, shredding the silvery wing membrane like rice paper. What the younger dragon lacked in size and muscle mass, he was making up for in spades with speed and sheer tenacity that Kugo couldn't hope to match and the red beast was suffering for it.
The older dragon roared in pain, raking his back claws down the younger's unprotected side. Kurosaki flinched as they skidded and screeched over his scales, splitting his hide where they found purchase between the weaker scales of his underbelly, but held on tightly as he tucked his wings and dipped them into a roll.
Grimmjow grinned in fierce satisfaction at Kurosaki's cleverness, his own prey forgotten as he watched the scene unfold. Wings damaged and off kilter, the red dragon was forced into a freefall that he couldn’t pull out of, desperately twisting his hulking body in an attempt to get out from under Kurosaki as they dropped hundreds of feet like a heavy stone.
A small explosion dragged his attention abruptly back to earth and he sprung back a few feet, raising a massive paw to shield his face from a spray of shattered bone. Seconds after, a heavy impact rocked the ground, showering the surrounding area in debris as a pained roar resounded through the valley.
Grimmjow cursed loudly as he reared up on two legs, black fur receding and features morphing until he was once again in human skin. He ignored the litany of roars and growls from beyond the wall of trees as he steadied himself on the remains of the pile of bones and squinted through the haze in search of his prey.
When the dust cleared, Kugo's warlock was some distance away, stumbling through the boneyard in a desperate bid to get to where the dragons' battle was fast drawing to its conclusion. Grimmjow hissed in annoyance and trotted after him. The warlock just cleared the gap, Grimmjow hot on his heels when the noise of the battle beyond faded out with one final yelp, abruptly trailing off into a quiet gurgle.
Ichigo stepped back from Kugo's cooling body, breathing hard as he released his dragon’s fire and returned to his smaller form. He wiped off the blood trickling down his chin with the back of his arm, and eyed the red dragon's savaged throat in satisfaction while pressing the palm of his other hand against his ribcage, where blood still flowing sluggishly from a set of parallel wounds. He hissed as the pressure sent acute flares of pain racing along the torn skin. Kugo certainly hadn't made things easy.
Hopefully Grimmjow was finishing up with—
He turned his head towards the breach. Kugo's warlock stood there trembling with rage, the mangled remains of one arm held tightly to his chest and magic sparking around him in yellow-green arcs as he reached for a large leather satchel looped around his belt.
Ichigo hissed in annoyance, pinning the warlock with a yellow-eyed glare and flaring his wings threateningly, but a black-furred hand tipped with sharp claws was exploding through the Spellcaster's chest, still-beating heart grasped in its fingers, before he'd taken a single step.
The warlock coughed wetly, blood spilling down his chin and expression frozen in shock, but Ichigo had eyes only for Grimmjow and the wild, hungry look the nekomata was pinning him with over the warlock's shoulder. The mercenary didn't drop their locked gazes even as the man's knees finally gave out, lowering his arm so that he slid off with a wet squelch and collapsed in an uncoordinated heap on the packed dirt as he struggled through his last breaths.
An excited shiver crawled down Ichigo's spine as Grimmjow carelessly tossed the warlock's heart to the dirt and licked at a trailing drop of blood. He watched, entranced, as the nekomata followed the drop from his wrist, all the way up his thumb and drew the digit into his mouth, meticulously cleaning up every drop of the crimson liquid. A curling smirk at the corner of that mouth had him looking up to blue eyes, still locked on him in playful challenge.
Ichigo licked his lips. "Cutting it a bit close?" He rasped.
"Sorry. Couldn't help playing with him."
Ichigo huffed and rolled his eyes. He shot the nekomata one more lingering glance before turning away from Kugo's cooling carcass and heading for the gaping mouth of his lair, smirking in satisfaction as he felt Grimmjow's hungry gaze on him as the mercenary padded along silently behind him.
Kugo's lair was a cool and cavernous, bathed in the dim, eerie glow of small green magelights floating in a cloud just below the rough stone ceiling and still bearing a few signs of disrepair after centuries of being uninhabited. Kugo's hoard—smaller than most due to its composition, but large enough to signal the success if his underhanded methods—was spread out among a myriad of tables and shelves set in concentric arcs around the living space at the back of the cave.
Ichigo ran a hand along a shelf cluttered with small objects at the edge of the red dragon's Hoard. The furniture itself was richly made, but the finish was peeling with age and his hand came away covered in dust. The objects it contained weren't in much better shape, either dirty or moth eaten, some even disintegrating with age.
He brushed off the dust on his battle kilt as he started deeper into the Hoard. Deeper in the shelves looked cleaner and recently cared for, but it was clear that restoring the Hoard to glory had been an ongoing project.
How humiliating had it been to come back to a Hoard in such a state?
“What are we looking for?” Grimmjow asked from behind him, snapping him out of his musings. He shook his head to dislodge those thoughts. A hoard-thief should be undeserving of such empathy.
“It’s not this weird fucking painting is it?” the mercenary pressed after Ichigo took a few too many seconds to respond. "'Cause if it is, I'm definitely judgin' ya."
When Ichigo looked over his shoulder, the mercenary was eyeing a large 18th century painting in an elaborate gold filigree frame. On the canvas, a woman in a frilly pink dress sat on a garden swing, pushed by a man while another looked up her billowing skirt.
“Of course not,” Ichigo scoffed, turning away and scanning the Hoard for a good place to begin his search. “Do I look like the kind of dragon that Hoards paintings?”
“How the hell am I supposed to tell?” the cat grumbled petulantly, ears flattened back against his hair. "You lizards collect the weirdest shit."
Ichigo huffed distractedly as he moved aside a cracked pot containing the shriveled up trunk of a long-dead bonsai tree to examine a tower of precariously stacked tomes behind it. “We’re looking for a book.”
Behind his back, Grimmjow rolled his eyes, stuffing his hands in his pockets. The nekomata quickly cased the large cavern, making note of the plethora of books crammed into shelves and strewn randomly across the tables. “Yer' gonna have ta' be more specific than that.”
“It’s Shakespeare. Paperback.”
Ichigo heard him pad off deeper into the cavern, idly tracking his movements by the occasional soft grunt or shifting of objects as the nekomaka sifted through the Hoard.
Not finding his prized book among the stack, Ichigo moved on, picking his way through the rows as he slowly made his way towards the better kept shelves that bordered the red dragon's living space. New items were often kept closest after all.
But after a thorough sweep of the inner ring, he was still empty-handed. He tapped his claws on a heavy wooden bookshelf—recently restored to immaculate condition and housing an elaborate china tea set—a dark scowl turning down the corners of his lips as his eyes wandered around the cavern. Where would that hoard thief put it if he knew Ichigo was going to come after it?
His gazed paused briefly on a long, dark tunnel with an armless marble statue standing guard at the entrance, but the air wafting from its depths carried a faint trace of herbs and Spellwork that warned him away. Instead, he made for the living space at the center of the Hoard, carefully stepping around the wrecked shelf from Grimmjow's earlier distraction. The shattered remains of an elaborate music box crunched unnaturally loud beneath his feet.
He was just reaching for a small stack of books piled on a small oak table set beside the low-backed leather seat where he first encountered Kugo when Grimmjow broke the quiet.
“What the fuck Kurosaki, we killed that fucker over this piece of trash? How the fuck is this the most valuable thing in your Hoard?”
Ichigo was at his side in seconds, snatching the book from his hands and clutching it tightly to his chest as he puffed up in insult. “My mom gave it to me, you dick!”
Grimmjow's leveled him with a skeptical look before dropping his gaze down to the grungiest, most dog-eared paperback book he'd ever seen in his life; the words A Midsummer Night's Dream glinting from the cover with only the barest hint of the original gold paint and pages so warped with use that they fanned out to nearly twice the width of the abused spine. When he looked back up to Ichigo's face, he found himself caught in yellow eyes practically spitting fire at him. He licked his lips. Magnificent . "You like that I'm a dick. 'Sides," his eyes returned briefly to the battered paperback, then he bared his teeth in a cheeky grin. "It becomes me well enough, don't ya think?”
Ichigo choked, outrage evaporating as quickly as it sparked as the nekomata wiggled his eyebrows at him suggestively. The haughty look he shot the other when he recovered was ruined by his answering grin. "You're terrible."
"Terribly irresistible, you mean."
Ichigo closed the gap between them, crowding forward until the small of Grimmjow's back bumped against the solid wood table behind him. He reached out, eyes never leaving Grimmjow's as he pushed a pile of gaudy costume jewelry to the floor and carefully set down his prize before pressing palms flat to the hard surface, caging the nekomata in. This close, he could feel the excited shiver racing down the Grimmjow's spine as he leaned down and rumbled in his ear. "Sounds like you're overcompensating for something."
Grimmjow grinned up at him in challenge. "Wanna find out?" He purred.
Ichigo had his lips pressed to Grimmjow's in a heartbeat, hot and desperately rough, tongue licking demandingly at the seam of them until Grimmjow exhaled a needy whine through his nose and opened his mouth. He growled in satisfaction, tasting blood and lust and something sharp and wild that had him shuddering with want as their tongues twined.
When they parted for air, panting and breathless, Grimmjow's pupils were blown wide, the bright blue of his irises barely visible as he looked up at Ichigo in something close to awe. Ichigo grinned sharply at the quiet fuck murmured against his lips and went willingly when Grimmjow yanked him down, smashing their lips back together and pressing their bodies as close as he could manage while Ichigo devoured his mouth, hungry for contact.
Ichigo pulled one hand off the table, slipping it beneath Grimmjow's jacket to pet along his side, sliding a rough palm firmly up his ribs all the way to his neck. He paused there briefly, squeezing gently at the nekomata's throat and reveling in the reedy whine and the faint press into his palm that earned him before tangling fingers into soft blue locks. He tugged firmly at the short strands, tearing a sharp gasp from Grimmjow's lungs and sending claws scrambling for purchase on the small of his back while he bullied a thigh between Grimmjow's legs, pressing it firmly against his crotch and coaxing him into a steady, rolling grind.
Ichigo grinned against Grimmjow’s lips, reveling in the pleasured yowl the sudden friction tore out of him and growled in approval when the nekomata pulled him closer, tightening his grip in Grimmjow's hair as he kissed back just as fiercely and earning a soft grunt as the nekomata adjusted his thighs so Ichigo could grind against him in turn. They rocked together, movements desperate and uncoordinated, too caught up in alleviating the tension that had been building between them since they'd met for any finesse.
It was over all too soon, leaving them sweaty and sated, sharing the humid air between them as they came down from their high. Ichigo nipped at Grimmjow's lips, the gesture possessive despite its gentleness, thumb scratching idly at the base of the nekomata's ear for long moments until he was putty in his hands. He pressed his hips forward in a lazy roll when the chill of the dim lair finally started to settle in.
"Let's get out of here," he rasped, disentangling his fingers from blue strands to rub circles in the short, dense fur of his hip.
Grimmjow's breath caught in his throat as a fresh wave of arousal shuddered through him, his rumbling purrs stuttering out into a breathless whine when Ichigo nipped at his ear. "Do we gotta take tha' damn taxi again?"
“I’ll let you ride me all the way back to my lair.”