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To Be By Your Side

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It had never taken so long. Well, in my not-so-vast experience, that is. I had waited for him two times now, what did I know? I tried to decide if it was a good sign that this was dragging on and on. Possibly it meant that he was going to be able to gain more understanding, but he said that he had lived that entire life before and it had faded away like a dream when he woke.

This is pointless, you have one job to do. Be here.

I watched his face, beautiful and serene. Just after he started to meditate, he had whispered my name. Mine. Since then he had been quiet. I caught little flashes of emotion, rage, excitement, sadness, distress flitted across his features. Then I was truly unsettled by the increase in his breathing, the flush of his skin, and a faint moan of pleasure. A stab of jealousy was inevitable. No one had ever touched Toshiro but me, and he promised me no one ever would.

Don't be a fool, a memory is nothing to be jealous of. What if he had a dream about another man or woman, would you turn into a controlling savage, then?

I sighed. Yes, I probably would. Even now Zangetsu was gnashing his teeth. When Toshiro came back to me, he would flat out require sex. Would he be thinking of me, or the ghost that he was with now? Mentally smacking myself, repeatedly, I forced myself to calm down.

Would it be offensive if I got up and took a cold shower?

My attention snapped back when Toshiro screamed and clutched at his chest, falling forward and curling into a tight ball. I moved to him, lying down and wrapping myself around him. His hands were clawing at his clothing, ripping the fabric to try to tear the skin underneath, and I grabbed them, forcing them to still.

So much pain, how could I be so selfish? If his past self had the tiniest hint of pleasure to mitigate this agony, I should rejoice. Instead, like a true bastard I had wished to take it away. I wanted to kiss him, to stroke his cheek and his back, to tell him it was okay. But I let go of his hands when he stopped fighting and just held him lightly, silently, letting him do what he needed to do.

He was quiet for a long time after that, an occasional sigh and even a few moments of laughter. Lying on my side, wrapped around his small frame, I too became quiet and content. I crushed any feeling of jealousy when I suspected he was remembering times with Raiden. How absurd to wish I could punch the man, when everything we had learned said that the long dead lover was actually me. I couldn't help but chuckle at the irony.

Was this okay? It had been well over an hour now, longer than expected. I nestled my face in his hair and closed my eyes, too tense to worry that I might drift off but trying to relax while he was still. I had some time to just breathe and not think before he suddenly went from peaceful to screaming and clawing once more. I fought to keep him from harming himself. My mind went to my own history, the dark days of torture and pain. I knew the kinds of things that made me want to tear off my own skin, and I prayed fervently to gods I didn't believe in that Toshiro was not living through that at this moment.

Things only got worse from there. I held him more tightly as he whimpered and grew quiet, raged and wept, never again peaceful, his entire body shaking and the temperature in our bedroom plummeting. Outside another blizzard was being born. When he started to howl in grief, I thought perhaps it was ending. Moments later maniacal laughter made me shudder, never did I expect Toshiro to make such a sound. It reminded me of Zangetsu in a particularly good mood, bone chilling and inhuman.

My teeth clenched and I fought back thoughts of what could cause him to make such a sound, what horrors he might uncover. I knew he had to do this, I would have done the same. But how I wished he could leave the dead buried.

A sharp gasp and I drew back slightly to see Toshiro's eyes opened wide. Then they shut tightly as more tears escaped. I braced myself for that horrid howl of despair, but it didn't come. Instead his voice was barely a whisper.

"No, no, god no, no, no . . ."

"Shhh, Toshiro, it's okay."

"No, no, I couldn't, I will not, no . . ."

"Toshiro, my love, shhh, easy now. Everything is okay, you're safe now."

"NO! What could you be thinking? We will never be safe. No, I have to kill him, kill them all, I have to."

I sat up, pulling Toshiro up and turning him to face me by force. He lashed out, but feebly, pushing against me in a kind of panic.

"Toshiro, enough! Look at me!"

I gripped his upper arms and shook him hard enough to make him cry out and he finally looked at my face. I saw no recognition there at all, and nothing familiar. Only fear and desperation, two things that did not belong anywhere near him. Completely desperate myself, I yanked him toward me, pressing my lips hard against his. He held himself stiff and drew back his head slightly. I followed, but nothing in his expression or stance changed.

"Toshiro," I whispered against his lips, "baby, come back to me." I kissed him again, though still he did not respond. I pulled him tight against my chest, just whispering his name in his ear. Everything was different this time, and I wasn't sure how to snap him out of this.

When he sighed and sagged into me, I sobbed in relief. Releasing the tight hold I had on his arms, I stroked his back with one hand and his hair with the other. I swayed slightly side to side and kept whispering his name as minutes passed. Eventually he scooted closer, nuzzling his face into my chest and wrapping his arms around me.

Then he spoke, his voice calm and completely normal except for the words. I stilled and listened.

"You should run, my golden one, run fast and far from me."

"What?" I was stunned. "Toshiro? Who are you speaking to?"

"To you, my beloved. I betrayed you and abandoned you. Traitors can never be trusted again. I am a murderer and a villain. If you will not run, then you should do your world a service and kill me."

The words were so absurd that I couldn't hold back a derisive snort, and he tensed against me, drawing back to look at my face.

"Uh-huh. If you are Hitsugaya Toshiro, think about what you just said to me and then apologize for being a complete dick. If you aren't Hitsugaya Toshiro, shut up and go the fuck away already before I knock you out again."

Those turquoise eyes that I loved to get lost in blinked slowly. Then they narrowed as his brows drew together and he scowled.

"And just who are you calling a dick, you idiot? And what the fuck are you implying? If you don't think I have reasons for what I say, then you have not been paying attent . . . mmph!"

This time he responded, though it took him a few seconds to stop trying to yell at me. I put everything I had into that kiss, sliding my tongue along the roof of his mouth the way I knew he loved, drawing him closer and bending his head back aggressively to make him moan, and biting his lip as he sucked in a breath.

That's better.

A slightly dazed expression as he looked up at me, lips wet and still slightly parted. He reached up and cupped his palm to my cheek and I smiled, waiting for him to say something tender and sweet.

"My head is fucking killing me. Go get my pills."

I chuckled as I climbed off the bed. So tender and sweet.

"Don't think this conversation is over, Kurosaki."

"Of course it isn't. You still owe me an apology, dick."

By the time I returned with the bottle of medicine Toshiro had disappeared into one of those trances of deep thought. He sat straight upright near the middle of the bed, his head tilted down slightly. His eyes were what unnerved me when he was like this, staring through everything, unblinking but not truly unfocused. It was like he was seeing a completely different reality, somewhere I was not. It almost made me feel lonely, and that was not a feeling I wanted to become accustomed to.

"Would you stop doing that?"


I sighed and poured a glass of water, holding out two pills. He took them and drained the glass.

"You feeling alright?"

"Yes. I have a lot to sort out, a lot to think about. But, surprisingly, I'm fine."

I settled with crossed legs facing him, figuring we were in for a long night. I wanted to tell him that it was okay to wait if he wanted to think before talking, but he stopped me by crawling into my lap and setting a finger on my lips.

"First, Ichigo, I am so sorry for being a complete dick. I treated you like a stranger, and I was so very wrong."

I smiled, letting my arms reach around him lightly, hands not pushing but just resting behind him on my ankles. "You were forgiven the moment you said it. I don't know what you went through tonight, but you can't be thinking clearly."

"You are right about that. But it does not excuse forgetting who you are for one second. You are the most trustworthy and honorable person I have ever known. Even implying that you would abandon me was an insult to everything that you are.

"What I, what we lived through in the past was horrible, but it was worth it. Not only for what our former selves had together, but to clear the way for the present. Ichigo, thousands of years alone was worth it to find you. Not the incarnation of someone long dead, not the memory of a former lover. Just you."

What did I ever do to deserve him? I leaned into him, resting my forehead against his. I had thought I could hide my anxiety about his feelings, my fears that he did not love me as much as my former self, or that Toshiro only loved me because of lingering love for him. He saw right through me, as always. I would get over it, I always did once I let reason take my emotions down a notch or two.

"I'm flattered, my love. I'm not sure I'm worth as much as you think, but what I have is yours. Now will you please stop worrying about my insecurities? It's not possible for me to feel jealous of anyone while you're sitting in my lap."

"Is that so?" His delicate, strong hands had been on my shoulders. Now they slid slowly up to allow fine fingers to twine in my hair. "I suppose I will just have to stay here indefinitely, then."

He tilted his head back and I let him be the one to connect our lips as my hands pressed him just a little bit closer, and a little closer still.


I let him start toweling me off since he was standing there expecting the honor. Everything else I had to say needed to be face to face. I had planned to tell him everything before so much as kissing him again. I knew, despite irrational fears, that he would not leave me, but he deserved to make an informed decision. I was pulling some mighty enemies into our lives and revealing some pretty big secrets. Who knows what might change between us?

And yet I had taken advantage of him. Twice. It was not possible to regret it. Being with him, having him inside me physically as well as emotionally, was too perfect to ever regret.

"How tired are you?"

"Hmm? I don't think I could sleep without at least knowing what the hell is going on in that brain of yours, if that is what you are getting at."

"Do you remember that time you piled all of the cushions on the floor? Would you do that again? I'll get some food for both of us. It's going to be a long night."

"Okay. Anything else?" He was treating me like I might break at any second.

"I do not want to start this story here. But I want you to stop worrying. I'm okay. And we never have to go through this again."

He stopped rubbing my hair with the towel and stared at me. "You mean . . .?"

"I mean that I know everything that I could have learned from the past, and we are not having this conversation here."

I pushed his hand away and walked out to get a robe and head downstairs. I did not look to see his reaction, because I suspected he would be relieved and happy and have that ridiculously hot smile on his face and I would not be able to resist jumping into his arms yet again.

By the time I had prepared a tray with tea and a plate heaped with random bits of leftovers and fresh fruit he had already settled in a familiar looking nest and I smiled as I set things down. I turned my back to him and fell straight back onto the cushions, head landing in his lap as he laughed. I sighed and relaxed as a large hand stroked through my hair, indulging in a few quiet minutes before I took one more irrevocable step into the future.

"Can I have a very serious conversation from this angle? No, probably not." I twisted around and sat up facing him.

With no incantation and only a moment's concentration, I created a strong barrier around us. I couldn't help but smile again. With a little practice, I would achieve a level of kido mastery unseen in millennia, tapping into the memories that told me exactly where magic came from and how to use it without fighting and twisting it into an unnatural form. There was so much power and knowledge just waiting for me to call it into service. And I knew even more would be within my grasp once Hyorinmaru and I had a long, long overdue conversation.

"Now, this story starts thousands of years ago, before humans and demons went to war . . ."


Between the length of the story and all the questions and comments, it was nearly dawn when I thought perhaps we were somewhat close to being nearly finished talking . . . maybe. Just as Raiden had simply believed every word Ryu told him without any proof, so Ichigo had always believed me. I told him the history of us, and the history of humanity, and it was now his truth based on nothing but my word.

God, how I loved him.

"I have no luck with fathers. And you think he's still the king?"

"I know it. He is nothing close to human anymore, and I am not even sure he is conscious in the way I understand it. What was left of him after my revenge was salvaged, his reiatsu too inextricably linked into the foundations of this world. His servants kept the core of him alive, to preserve Soul Society, an inhuman remnant, little more than a conduit for his stolen power. But the essence of him is still there, in that horrid, barren palace."

"What will you do about him?"

"Like Yamamoto, nothing at all until there is no other option. Do you see what has been happening to me throughout my lives? As soon as I achieve enough power to start learning the truth, there are only two outcomes. I find you, or I continue the war. That's the trap I set for myself. Each time one of my past selves started to gain power and started questioning, they must have then attacked, trying to wipe out the Shinigami or the Soul King himself."

"But you had Bankai and started questioning long before I came into the picture. Why didn't you end up dead like the rest of them?"

"The same reason Saito lived a little longer than the rest, I kept just enough control to keep my mouth shut. How much longer would I have lasted? You saw me, heard me, I could easily give in to what the others did, the need for vengeance. When I think about what was done to create the current order, a big part of me wants to tear it all down. They know it, the old ones. They know I will turn on them. What are they waiting for? They all know I will turn traitor if I lose control. Betrayal seems to be the only constant through my lives."

"Come here." He held out his arms and I hesitated. I had kept a small space between us all night, to keep both of our heads clear. He raised an eyebrow and I sighed, crawling over to him and settling beside him, snug in his arms, leaning on his chest.

"There is one harsh thing I have to say."

I winced. "Just one?"

"Just one. You, the past you, Ryu . . . Hyorinmaru . . . jeez, this is confusing. Anyway, you were right. If Raiden thought anything like me, which seems likely, he would have been furious with you at the end. I would never want you to do something like that to yourself. Not for me. For your own freedom and pride, you do what's necessary. But not for me. That was the betrayal, the only betrayal, Toshiro. To turn what Raiden loved into something broken and in unbearable pain, to condemn the soul he loved to lifetimes of misery in his name, that was the betrayal."

I wasn't sure I agreed with him, but I had to take his word for it like he took mine. He may not have relived that life, but the similarities . . . it took very little effort to see Raiden in him. The same humor. The same unexpected deep wisdom. The same golden light. It took me a moment to bring myself to look up at him. He smiled.

"And it wasn't you. You are not responsible for the faults of anyone else, even your past self. Get that through your stubborn head."

I was exhausted, mentally and physically exhausted. But I had no right to complain given what I had gained. I was in no more danger than before, and now much better equipped to handle anything that might come my way. He felt how tired I was, barely able to respond to his kiss.

"I need to send a quick message. You rest and I'll be right back, I need sleep, too. Can I get you anything?"

"You had plans for our day off, didn't you?"

"Stop seeing through everything I do. At least pretend I can surprise you every now and then." He got up and I stretched and twisted against the cushions, muscles that had been cramped by sitting for hours unwinding with little aches of pain and pleasure. Ichigo had paused over our nest, staring at me with a predatory glint in his eye. He literally shook himself before turning away. I chuckled and got comfortable, drowsier by the second.


It took me at least twenty minutes to convince Toshiro to stay and rest until the evening, though he would probably end up in the office instead. The afternoon was going to be one awkward moment after another, punctuated by moments of anger, obstinacy, and grief. He had enough going on without having to stand by and watch, probably blaming himself for not being able to help.

Even I hadn't expected the drama to start the second I stepped through the gate at Hat-and-Clogs' little dive of a store. Kon had been waiting for me, ready to berate me for not being in touch, and especially for not showing up at my own funeral. I stared at him in amazement for that one.

But it was easy to distract him, I simply mentioned that he looked good and his attention completely shifted to showing off his Urahara-custom-made-long-term gigai. It suited him, a build like mine for familiarity, dark hair and eyes to blend in, and good-looking but not distractingly handsome features. In addition to working for room and board at Urahara's, he'd started working as an instructor at a dojo, teaching kids. It was good to see that he hadn't been forgotten and was happy with his life.

The gigai Urahara had ready for me was nearly a twin to Kon, and I grimaced as I endured his teasing, glaring at Urahara. But I could not go about Karakura looking like the recently deceased teen, so easily recognized by so many. I scowled at my reflection in a large mirror, sighed in resignation, and decided I could at least go shopping to replace the frumpy, unflattering outfit.

That happy note faded as I approached my old home. I had considered asking Karin and Yuzu to meet me elsewhere. But I had been doing a lot of thinking. I could choose to hold on to resentment and anger, or I could move on. It seemed a simple choice on the surface, but I knew it would not be quite so easy to face my father without bitterness. My end goal wasn't a loving relationship, I didn't need that from him. But like every human ever born, I couldn't deny that I wanted a relationship of some kind, even if I had told him I would forget him.

I had made some pretty poor choices myself and lived with the consequences. So had the goat-faced bastard that raised me mostly on his own, taught me to fight, made me laugh when I was hurt, helped me through my mom's death, and perhaps let me have too much independence. From my perspective, I had always tried to make the choice that seemed right, that kept everyone safe, that hurt the fewest people. Whether I succeeded in choosing the lesser of evils was a matter of debate, but I suspected I had failed more than once. From his perspective, maybe he thought he was always doing the right thing, too. At least I hadn't decided to bring children into this dangerous world knowing that they would be cursed from birth, vulnerable and targeted due to their parents.

As I knocked on the door, I tried to minimize the anger I still felt just thinking of him. Whatever motivational speeches he had been giving himself were more effective, and I could barely see the coldness deep in his eyes behind the smile and cheerful voice welcoming me home. Tempted to simply wait at the door, I made an effort and walked in with my hands stuffed into pockets to hide how tightly my fists were clenched. Karin's voice announced that they would be right down, and I was not fooled. They would make me stand here with our father for a while.

He already had a couple of mugs out and a fresh pot of coffee. Fine. I slouched in a chair at the dining table, not wanting to enter as far as the living room. He sat across from me and I ignored the coffee even though it smelled divine.

"So, how are things going for you, son?"

I stared at the table rather than glare at him.

"Don't pretend Urahara doesn't keep you informed."

He took a slow drink of his coffee. I did not look up. I felt like a divorced spouse, waiting for my custody weekend and wanting nothing more than to leave before we ended up screaming in front of the kids again.

"Ichigo, I can't change the past and I can't make . . . "

"Stop it." My voice was perfectly calm, but as I looked up I knew he would see that I was two seconds from losing my temper. "Just stop, old man. Tell yourself that I'm not ready to hear reason. Don't ruin this; this is not about you."

The girls were lurking on the stairs. We both knew it, so we weren't surprised that they came bursting in just before things got ugly. He immediately turned into the hyperactive moron that used to annoy and entertain me, and I did my best to disregard him entirely. I did not put on a false front, though Yuzu teased a smile out of me soon enough by poking and grabbing my cheeks, stretching the skin and wondering aloud if I was made of putty or mud or plastic.

Ignoring the offer of money, quickly grabbed out of his hand by Karin, I left with a disrespectful wave over my shoulder and no further words said. The girls trailed for a second, then each grabbed an arm as they chatted excitedly, trying to cheer me up. Honestly, I was glad it went so well. If he would just keep his damn mouth shut, maybe I could drink that cup of coffee with him in five or ten years.

"So," Karin got a word in edgewise when Yuzu took a breath, "when do we get to meet this boyfriend you wrote about?"

"At Chad's, around 7. Then we'll go to the festival after dinner. And please, please remember what I told you about him."

"That he looks like he's our age but he's like 50? Who could forget? I just have to figure out which one of you is the pedophile."


"Ichi-nii, that's like two hours away! I can't wait that long."

"But Yuzu, I can't let him see me looking like this."

"I thought you had to be disguised?"

"I do, but I don't have to look so shabby, do I?"

"Do you mean . . . shopping!"

"And I don't have any idea what goes with this coloring. I'm afraid you're going to have to pick out everything. And just look at my hair! Do you think we have time for a haircut? Whatever you think will make me look good."

Yuzu squealed and swung my arm back and forth as she walked.

"You know she'll dress you in pink and yellow. You'll look ridiculous. But your pedophile boyfriend might like that sort of thing."

"Say pedophile one more time, Karin, and I'm taking you both back home."

"Pedophile. Pe … do ... phiiiile. Pedophilepedophile PEDOPHILE!"

I chased her down the sidewalk while Yuzu ran after us yelling 'Shut Up' just as loudly. The Kurosaki reputation in the neighborhood was quite secure for another year.


Pausing at the door for a moment, I calmed my nerves. Social gatherings had never been comfortable for me, I simply did not enjoy being surrounded by people, each with their own agendas and concerns that they insisted on sharing with everyone around them. I had been dragged to a few informal gatherings by Matsumoto, and always left early with the distinct desire for a long shower to wash away the opinions, worries, and silly antics that people that barely knew me yet had the audacity to insist I pay attention to and care about them and their lives. No, I was definitely not the life of the party.

But here I was, squished into a gigai, knocking on the door and being greeted by a pleasantly stoic Sado and dragged inside by cheerful Inoue. Ichigo's friends. Trying to keep a polite smile, I felt some relief at the feel of Ichigo, Kuchiki, and Abarai close by, then tensed again as the two young girls rushed into the room and headed straight for me. The lighter one grabbed both my hands, bouncing in excitement as I took a half step back and froze, resisting the pressing need to pull away and bolt out the door. Ichigo's little sister, I reminded myself. The whole point of this was to reconnect him with his sisters.

"You must be Toshiro," I winced as she squealed, a miniature Matsumoto. "Oh, you are so cuuuute!"

Oh god, just let me die.

"Yuzu!" The darker one glared at her sister and tugged her hands away from me.

"Oh, right, sorry Hitsugaya-taicho. I was just too happy to meet you!"

I managed to put on a smile again, even if all I ever wanted in this vast Toshiro-hating universe was to leave.

"I'm glad to meet you, too, Kurosaki Yuzu, Kurosaki Karin."

"Oh, please, just Yuzu and Karin. I remember you, you were hanging around my soccer game staring at my brother. And then that day . . .."

Her face darkened with the memory of the day her brother was taken from them, and I was failing to think of something comforting to say.

"Staring at me, were you?"

Even though I expected it, it was still very distracting and annoying to see Ichigo and not see the face and body I adored. But there was that lopsided smirk and the look in his eye, appreciation, love, humor, and still that root of sadness that never left. My smile turned genuine as I gazed at him, leaning against the doorframe and watching me and his sisters.

"Yep, I remember. He was watching you, lurking in the shadows like some creepy stalker. Told you he was a ped . . .."

Ichigo had lunged forward and clapped a hand over his sister's mouth, wrapping an arm around her struggling form. Inoue clumsily tried to smooth over the awkwardness that I dragged into any social event. She ushered me into the other room where more familiar company and a vast array of food and drink waited for me. I relaxed a little, deliberately not listening to Ichigo whispering lectures to his sisters.

Kurosakis. Each one larger than life in their own way.

Oddly, I found myself glad to see Abarai. His lingering fear of me was just what I needed to regain my footing. I wondered absently if he had ever told Ichigo just why he jumped every time I looked at him. Kuchiki, on the other hand, was becoming more casual, but with enough respect not to annoy me. I settled comfortably with the pair and Ichigo's human friends. No sign of the Quincy, which was just as well. By the time Ichigo had calmed down his sisters to his satisfaction, we were all enjoying the food and small talk.

I was pleased. I was very proud of my beloved for the emotional strength he was showing. He would have had my support if he cut all ties to his past. It is what I would have done in his position, and I understood the advantages of that option much more clearly than I understood his choice to reconnect. Ichigo thrived on relationships with others. I had once thought that I alone could be enough but watching him with his friends and family it was clear that Ichigo still wanted a network of connections, like deep and varied roots to support his generous spirit.

He caught me 'zoning out,' as he always called my expression when I became lost in thought. He moved to sit closer to me, wrapping an arm around my waist and snatching food from my plate. Abarai and Kuchiki still reacted with disbelief and awe at signs of humanity from the ice captain. I kept part of my attention on them for entertainment as I smacked his hands away from my plate, then leaned into him and fed him some of his favorite salmon sashimi with my own chopsticks. My smirk was directed at Ichigo, but I could tell by his glances at his shocked friends that he knew exactly what I was thinking.

It was a happy, chaotic little crowd we created as we strolled to the street festival. The two young girls and Inoue dragged the rest of us along on a cloud of their energy, and I did my best to just go along with it. Though my appearance still earned some odd looks from strangers, it was New Year's Eve and the easy joy of the crowd made the entire experience rather pleasant.

As the girls played a game at one of the booths, I leaned a little closer to Ichigo.

"Did you notice?"

"You mean the fact that Rukia and Renji snuck off into that little, dark corner under the trees and they haven't come back? Nope, I didn't notice a thing."

"Is this new? I've lost the bet by several years, but we are going to need an accurate date to settle the pool."

"Good lord, you guys bet on this?"

"We bet on just about everything. You don't even want to know how much money changed hands when I went off the market. Do you know which one of them finally confessed?"

"Renji. And let's see, if he went through as planned it would have been three days ago."

"Three days? They're making up for lost time quickly."

"You mean, right now? In the park with a crowd all over the place?"

"Yes, right now. And now you know what that particular texture of reiatsu means. You should mention to them that barriers are useful in these situations."

"Hmm. Wanna sneak off?"

"No, you pervert. Your sisters are right here. Not to mention I do not feel like cheating on my boyfriend. You don't look a thing like him."

"But the crowd doesn't even make you hesitate, does it? Call me a pervert."

I snickered at that. He was right, after all, I would have no hesitation about finding a secluded spot just out of the spotlight if this outing was only about the two of us. But it was not, and I pretended enthusiasm as his sisters showed off the little charms they had won playing their games. Then I turned my attention to finding a gift for Matsumoto. I tried not to think about her New Year's Eve plans with the snake. Love makes one do strange things.


Keeping a carefully neutral expression when Renji and Rukia rejoined the group, I simply let myself enjoy this. I had thought they were all lost, my family, my friends. Even when I was free again, I was certain I would never be able look into my sisters' eyes without seeing the pain I had caused. I was certain I would not be able to be around my human friends, unable to feel any gentle emotion and not wanting to make them endure my company, a hollow shell of the friend they remembered.

Further pleased when Toshiro did not pull away as I twined my fingers in his, I wandered with my little pod of loved ones through the unhurried crowd of celebrating humans. We may ever be as close as we once were, hell, it wasn't like I would have a lot of free time to even visit, but it was so good to be with Chad and Inoue again. And my Yuzu, my Karin, happy and growing tired with all the activity. My fingers tightened their grip for a second. I knew to whom I owed this night.

Staying out until midnight was not an option. By 10, Yuzu was falling asleep as we took a break with some snacks at a picnic table. Karin was holding up a little better, but she wouldn't make it much longer. We made our plans to break up the night, Rukia and Renji determined to stay but everyone else ready to head home. Toshiro and I had work to do in the morning, anyway, and after last night's events we needed at least some solid sleep. Karin managed to walk between me and Toshiro, Yuzu in and out of sleep in my arms.

"Ichi-nii, you'll come visit again?"

"Of course I will, Karin. And I'll ask about you coming to visit me."

"In Soul Society? We can do that?"

"I can't promise, but we'll see."

"I . . . I don't know if I want to go. Dad cried so much."

I caught Toshiro's glance as Karin stared at her shoes.

"Then we won't worry about that. I'll just visit you when I can. You'll have to send me your game schedule, and I'll try my best to make it for your birthdays."

"It's okay. We know you're busy. I'm just glad you came tonight."

"Me, too."

We had made it to the house, and Karin opened the door. I carried Yuzu up to her bedroom, Karin plopping down on the couch by our father who smiled and listened to her stories about the festival. She was still talking through repeated yawns, goat-face was still smiling and nodding but shooting occasional looks at Toshiro. My love was standing with crossed arms, a dark scowl on his face as he glared at his former captain. His face softened as I came back into the room.

Walking over behind the couch, I leaned over and kissed Karin on the top of her head. She was too tired to fuss about it. I gave my father a brief nod and for once he kept his mouth shut. Returning to my boyfriend, who was bristling again, I put my arm around his shoulders and pulled the door shut as we left. As we walked the long road to Urahara's shop, I kept my arm around him and we found a rhythm of steps to stay close.

"Thank you, my love."

"For not killing your father?"

"That, too."