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To Be By Your Side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"That works."

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

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

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

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

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

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How is Kurosaki-taicho?"

Okay, not avoiding that, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But you will."

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

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

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

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

"I'm not a fool, Hitsugaya-taicho."

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

She blinked. She did not know.

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

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

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

I smiled and relaxed again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"How was your first day?"

"A bit tense, honestly."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, a little back talk already, very good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops. Of course, she would think the worst.

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

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

Atta girl. Stand up for yourself.

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

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

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

"I guess so, taicho."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes dropped and she wiped at her cheeks.

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes, I think that's better."

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

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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

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

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

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

"Traded in for newer models. You like?"

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked and looked longingly at the vaults.

"Stop drooling, newbie."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's a date."

"Don't tell my old man."

“Ha! Don't tell mine.”

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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

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

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

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

Toshiro shook his head as the restaurateur walked away.

"Ichigo, you never fail to amaze me."

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

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

"So, you come here why?"

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

"Politics."

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

"So, what do you gain from this?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hayashi guffawed as I turned my wide eyes to Toshiro.

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What?"

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

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

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

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

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

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, Ichigo, don't!"

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

"Let go, dammit!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing, love."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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

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

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

"Good morning to you, my love."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Of course. What do you need?"

His smile turned wicked. "A target."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved! Oh, that will do just fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Tosh . . . harder, aah now!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter Text

"It's beautiful, but what exactly do you expect to happen now?"

"You're going to learn to do what they are doing."

"Why? It seems rather pointless. No one is actually going anywhere, just up and down."

"Have you never heard that the journey is more important than the destination?"

"Granted, so why keep making the same journey over and over again? And look at that, he probably broke a bone or three. Why do something that accomplishes nothing and may harm you?"

"Because, oh great ice prince, it is fun."

"Fun."

"Yep. And because I dare you."

"Really?"

"Really. You get one hour with the instructor, and then I expect you to at least make it down the green trail without falling."

"Snow belongs to me, Ichigo. Stakes?"

"Hadn't thought about it. I honestly figured you'd be eager to try it if you hadn't already."

"Alright, in an hour I will go down that one. If I succeed, you get to be my target again."

"That's an intermediate slope, Toshiro, better start over there."

"Not game, Ichigo?"

"Fine. You fall on your face and you're the one who's the target. I haven't had a decent workout since Kenpachi."

"Deal."

"So, you want skies or a board?"

"What do you mean?"

"This is going to be the easiest bet I've ever won."

I left Toshiro with a board and an instructor who immediately made the deadly mistake of assuming his student was a child. That pretty much guaranteed my victory, since Toshiro would probably be too irritated to learn anything. It was tempting to stay and watch, but I decided to save the fun until he tumbled down a slope too advanced for a never-ever.

Two runs down the slope Toshiro had chosen and I knew where he'd run into trouble. Now I just had to wait a little while longer and then hope he didn't hurt his pride too much. I felt a little guilty, knowing he was likely to fail. This was part of his birthday present, after all, and I really wanted him to just enjoy himself. But he was the one who turned it into a bet.

He joined me near the lift with a determined and mildly pissed off expression. Looking behind him, I verified that the instructor was still alive alive and unfrozen. I owed the poor man a drink or three. I put my arm around Toshiro's waist as we rode up, grinning at the way he was craning his neck around, dangling dangerously on the edge of the seat to get a better view.

"Well, this part is fun, anyway."

"Last chance to back out, love."

"Dream on, Kurosaki."

I explained how to get off the lift as we went, and gave a wave to the operator to slow it down. Though he was clumsy, he did not fall. Not bad for a first time. Toshiro watched other skiers and boarders while we sat and fixed our straps.

"I should have picked the two. This is just plain silly."

"Lighten up, you sprawl around in the snow for no reason all the time."

When we were prepared, we waited until there was a decent break in skiers. I made an exaggerated 'after you' gesture. Toshiro flashed me that wicked grin and shifted his board as his right foot pushed down.

Sometimes, I really can be a complete idiot.

I caught up and kept pace with Toshiro easily. He certainly didn't ride like a beginner, but he had a few hairy moments right where I had predicted, and he was cautious enough to not push too fast too soon. Still, the bet was completely lost and I knew it the moment he made his first turn with all the grace of an ice-skater. Ice skating. Hmm, maybe next date.

More importantly, he was smiling.

He had no trouble stopping and he leaned down, hands on his knees. I was concerned for a second until I heard his laughter. He looked up, bright eyed and flushed, and completely adorable.

"You were right, that was fun. We can go again?"

I could hardly wait to get him back home, where I could praise and cuddle him and then ravish him, or perhaps the other way around. But there was a lot more fun to be had on the slopes first.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"For crying out loud, it's your birthday, Toshiro."

"Oddly enough, the world does not stop for the event."

"Fine, I could use the time to fix dinner, anyway."

"You are cooking dinner? Is that revenge because I won the bet?"

"You just wait. I'll make you eat those words, literally."

I chuckled and gave him an appreciative kiss before he went on his way, toting the large gift basket Ukitake had left on my desk. The smaller package from Matsumoto, suspiciously wrapped in plain brown paper, I had fortunately managed to slide into a desk drawer while he was distracted by the bright, shiny candy. At least it wouldn't be wasted this year. When I was sure he was gone, I opened the drawer. Cautiously, I removed twine and paper, gritting my teeth when I saw the name of the store. 'Adam & Steve,' really? I planned ways to make my lieutenant's death look like a training accident as I opened the box.

Relief. Five small tubes of lubricant. Still not anything close to an appropriate birthday gift, particularly for one's superior officer. But at least it wasn't a dildo or fuzzy handcuffs like I had expected. After noticing the strawberries all over one of the tubes, I looked closer. Strawberry flavored lubricant? I stuffed the entire set in my pocket without examining the rest, certain my face was the same shade as the strawberries by now.

Shoving both murderous and lecherous thoughts completely out of my mind, I gave all of my attention to work. There wasn't much, but I would enjoy a relaxing evening better knowing that I was ahead for tomorrow. As I flipped through paperwork, I found myself smiling and humming. I had never looked forward to birthday celebrations, but spending the day in the snow with Ichigo was the best gift I had ever received. And I knew he had more treats lined up for me.

Time flew, and I realized it was already time for dinner. I cleaned up my work quickly. The last thing I wanted was to be late. Ichigo was enjoying pampering me so much, and I wanted him to feel just how much I adored his efforts to make every moment special. The smell of seafood and something tangy made me salivate as he called out from the kitchen to welcome me home. Beautiful voices filled the air, an operatic duet.

What a silly, lovesick sap. If there are rose petals on the bed I just might lose it.

"Do you like Italian?"

"Who doesn't?"

"Good. I took an immersion class, and one project was to make a full Italian meal. It's on my short list of things I can cook without poisoning anyone."

"What can I do to help?"

"Just relax. The table's set and it will be about 10 minutes. So go change if you like, and maybe you could pick some white wine. Snobs say it goes well with fish and pasta."

I paused to soak in this moment, and the changes in my life. Then I did as he suggested, washing my face and hands and changing into a yukata. As I slipped past him in the kitchen to fetch wine and glasses, I made a point of brushing up against him lightly. I poured the wine as he brought out two large bowls, then went back for two larger plates. The seafood soup was amazing, with fish, shrimp, mussels and crab all stewed together with fragrant herbs. A crusty bread, fresh and hot, made it even better. And the pasta with vegetables was nearly as good.

"Ichigo, you shouldn't sell yourself short, this is delicious."

"I'm glad you like it. I suppose I could try other things. These two dishes took me a month to master, and everyone in the house had to eat peanut butter sandwiches for weeks so I could afford to waste ingredients. It was horrible."

"On second thought, I'll continue being the chef and you stick to breakfasts."

He went to the refrigerator and removed a pan. I had only managed half of my meal and that was as far as I was going to make it. Dessert would be pushing it. He came back with two small plates. I looked dubiously at the sloppy little cake.

"At least try it. It's not too sweet, I promise."

It looked a soggy, ugly mess, but it tasted like Heaven. There was some sweet in there, but the rich cream and dark, almost bitter tones balanced that out. Every second that it sat on my tongue, the flavor changed. It was simply the most wonderful dessert I had ever tasted, nothing at all like the pound of sugar with a dash of vanilla that most people pass off as cake. His face lit up at my expression, and I went for a second bite immediately.

"I thought of you when I had this. It's called Tiramisu. I brought the harder to find ingredients over with me on our last trip to the living world."

The music suddenly changed style, and it took me a moment to realize that I was hearing the song I was always humming, the song from my childhood. I looked toward the speakers, and then back at Ichigo. He was watching me with a warm smile, waiting for my reaction.

"Ichigo, how did you . . .." Words failed me as I listened in amazement, memories flooding in with the trills of the shakuhachi.

"Hinamori helped. We had to find some of the folks from your old neighborhood, the man who played it was long gone but some remembered it enough. Then I just had to find someone to play it while I recorded."

A sudden wave of affection washed over me. This was new. I felt affection for him, of course, I loved the man. But I had never been totally overtaken this way. All I could think of was how dear he had become to me, how much I loved it when he took care of me, and how I wanted to take care of him. My life was so much richer now, every aspect of it. He was more than a lover and a friend, he was a partner in everything I did.

And yet he had been alive and suffering unspeakable torment while I existed, and I had done nothing. I was one of the first to learn that the bright, young ryoka Kurosaki Ichigo had been taken. I knew what that meant. I knew what he would endure if he wasn't killed outright. And I did not lift a finger. I chose to follow orders and leave him to be consumed by darkness rather than upset my orderly, pointless life.

I had been oblivious to the fact that someone who would become everything to me needed me. I never heard his soul calling out for help. He was tortured and subjugated while I sat on a roof sipping tea. He was ripped away from all he loved, and then ripped apart slowly while I spared barely a thought for his fate. Cruelly broken, his body and his mind were trampled under the feet of traitors.

How could I have been so blind? How could I have allowed such a thing to happen?

He looked at me in alarm and lurched around the table to reach for me.

"Toshiro, what's wrong?"

What the hell is wrong with me?

I buried my head in his chest and sucked in the smell of him, pressed myself close to his solid warmth and shook uncontrollably.

I'm so sorry. I love you so much. Please, please forgive me.

He rocked me slowly, stroking my hair and whispering over and over again, "Shh, shh my love."

Make this stop. Ichigo, please make this stop!

He picked me up and I clutched at him.

No, please no. I can't live through it again.

It was too late, I could feel the searing heat and the scalding wind coming for me, stronger than ever before.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"Shh. Shh, I'm here. Shh."

What was happening? He wouldn't stop shaking. No tears, no sounds at all, and that was somehow more terrifying than if he'd been sobbing or screaming.

"Toshiro, please, what is it, love?"

Before he'd hidden his face his eyes had been wide and completely unseeing. He was shaking so hard that he could barely breathe. I stroked his hair and started to panic.

"My love, please. Shh."

I picked him up. Unohana, she could help. She had to.

Suddenly he went limp, limbs and head dangling like a puppet whose strings had been cut. His eyes were still wide and glassy.

"TOSHIRO! NO, PLEASE NO!"

I staggered toward the door as the world froze. I pulled the door open and stepped into an empty field of snow under black skies sparkling with starlight. Cold wind chilled my tears as I whirled around to find nothing but snow, the house nowhere to be seen. I clutched Toshiro closer to me.

Kurosaki, can you hear me?

How could I not hear it? The booming voice was everywhere, in the empty sky, echoing in the frozen ground, and in my very head.

What? Who are you?

I am Hyorinmaru. Listen and understand. Do not take my young master to the healers. They can do nothing for him.

Then what can I do?

Stay with him. Do not let him wake alone.

What is happening? Tell me what's wrong with him!

He will survive. Do not let him wake alone.

Damn you, tell me what's wrong with Toshiro!

But the zanpakuto was gone. The fields of snow were gone. But snow had begun to fall heavily through cold winds. I stepped back and shut the door. Wincing at the significance of the action, I slid his eyelids down, hiding those astonishing eyes.

Swallowing my fear, I took him upstairs and laid him gently on the bed. I undressed and climbed into bed in just my underwear. I knew how he should wake. I carefully pulled him on top of me, adjusting his head so that his cheek rested on my chest. My hands stroked his back as I focused on breathing deep and even, providing the only comfort I could while I counted his breaths.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

When it stopped . . . when I stopped reliving the horrors of my past it was like waking in a deep pit of darkness. I could stay here. I could curl into a tiny ball and let time bury me here in peaceful silence. I had chosen that option before, to die here and not have to face it again. And yet I would come back. This life could end, but my soul would still have to make this choice between death and despair again and again.

I howled my anger and grief into the darkness until my throat was raw. And then I stood. And then I walked to the edge of the pit. And then I began the symbolic climb out of darkness.

At the beginning of the climb every hand and foothold was a knife. Dark memories, even the ones that would have been joyful beyond belief were poisoned, and they tore at my mind, leaving open wounds that seeped that poison into my soul. Sometimes I would end here, unable to go further. I would cling to these distorted images until any remaining light would fade out of my world, until I died yet again.

More than halfway up the holds became soft, half forgotten and unreliable. Inconsequential things, these memories. Wasted days, wasted opportunities. Careless choices and meaningless deaths. So many lives thrown away with nothing gained. I never ended here. This place made me furious, and gave me the strength to continue.

Near the top the light began to seep through. Was there light last time? No, all had been black. So young, these memories, not yet tainted beyond hope of recovery. But there was darkness already creeping in. Kusaka. And such bitterness. Momo.

I forced my torn hands to drag my worthless carcass up. I forced my bloody feet to find purchase one more time. Into the light. Rangiku. Into the warmth. Ichigo!

Oh, my beloved, I remember you.

Please, let me find him again. Let me find him one more time. My golden soul. My only love. The only one who held my heart in his hands.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Warmth. Excruciating pain. But at the same time delicious warmth.

My eyes opened just a crack and immediately I shut them again. I drew in a cautious breath, fearing my head might explode if the air moved too quickly.

I was warm, and familiar hands rubbed my back. Was he here? Had I found him?

I stayed motionless and breathed carefully until the pain lessened just a touch. Trying to open my eyes again, I managed to hold onto a sliver of light, and I stayed very still. By the time I could hold my eyes halfway open, I started to remember. My eyes snapped shut and I cried out as an ocean of grief came pouring back in, and I tried to scream it back away from me.

My body was wrapped up tight and I just lay there and fought the pain and the sorrow without even knowing why. The truth was gone, like a nightmare leaving behind only the wreckage of a dream. All I knew was despair. My voice gave out and I lay still, cocooned in warmth, tears, and agony.

Time passed. Gradually the sea of darkness receded. I heard singing. He had always sang to me, every night. No, it wasn't a song, but a soft voice whispering Toshiro. So many names, so many after so long with no name at all. My name was Toshiro now. And he was gone, my beloved was gone forever.

I listened to that voice, and each time it spoke the dark water ebbed a little farther from me.

Please let me go. Let me find him.

"Toshiro. Toshiro. Toshiro, my love."

Who was that? That voice meant something to me.

Who?

Slowly the warm cocoon moved.

"I'm here, Toshiro. I'm here."

That voice meant something, I knew that voice.

Ichigo?

His arms unfolded and he rubbed my back gently. I opened my eyes, forcing the pain to obey me, to back down.

"Toshiro, I'm here, my love. Toshiro, come back to me."

I couldn't raise my head, not yet. It took monumental effort just to raise my hand and rest it on his arm. His arm moved and he took that hand in his.

"Toshiro, what can I do? Please, love, let me help."

My throat was so sore, it actually distracted me from the migraine. I knew now what had happened, as much as I could. It was not the first time.

"Just stay. Stay with me, Ichigo." My voice was barely a whisper, and I prayed that he could hear me.

Please stay. Oh god, please don't leave me.

"I'm here, my love. I'm not going anywhere."

He rubbed my back and my hand, whispering my name over and over. When I could tell that the migraine wasn't going to get any better, I decided it was time to get myself together.

"Ichigo?"

"Yes, love?"

"Water, and the bath, warm not hot. Medicine, top drawer of the bureau in the closet."

He knew what he was doing. He wrapped one arm around my head, the other resting full along my back. He tilted slowly, supporting me and settling me gently beside him. Still I winced at the stab of pain behind my eyes as I let them close.

"I'm here, Toshiro. I will be so close, my love."

I heard him rushing to get the bath started, and he came back with a glass of water and the bottle.

"How many pills, love?"

"Two."

He handed them to me and gently lifted my head so that I could drink.

"Are you hurt? Will healing help?"

It would. At least for the throat. And it might ease the migraine a little. It would not do anything for the darkness, the aching emptiness left behind in the wake of staggering grief that I could not understand.

"Yes."

I felt his hand on my chest, and the relief in my throat. As I thought, this specific pain wasn't going to be chased out like a normal headache. I looked at him. His eyes were so red, tear streaks in every direction. And it had been such a wonderful day, such a perfect evening. He had tried so hard. Why did it have to happen on that day?

"Can you take me to the bath?"

He picked me up gingerly, straining his muscles to keep from jostling me too much. I rested my head against his shoulder, regretting the tears that still slid uncontrolled down to wet his warm skin.

"Can I set you on the edge to undress you?"

"Okay."

I was able to sit upright, my strength was returning. He pulled off my tabi and untied the sash. I stood and he took everything off, going slow, especially with the underwear so I wouldn't fall. He lifted me and set me down in the water, and I sank onto the underwater ledge with a sigh. Ichigo folded a towel and rested it behind my head. Water was magic. I would love to see what that hot spring could do to a migraine, but even just this tub of tap water was restoring me and soothing my head. Ichigo left and returned with the glass, filling it again at the sink. I took it and slowly drained it. He filled it again and set it near me when I did not reach for it.

"You are a good nurse."

It was my first normal sentence, and I could see the relief it brought.

"Years of practice, my love. Anything you need?"

"Just time. I'm sorry, dinner was so perfect."

"Don't," his voice shook. "Don't do that, love. Just rest, okay?"

He bent over the edge of the tub and kissed my forehead softly.

"How about tea, love?"

"That would be nice."

When he left I let myself sink all the way down in the water. I stayed there, watching the rippling light, for as long as I could. The weightless pressure of the water was as comforting as Ichigo's kind touch. The need for air forced me to push myself back onto the ledge, and I let my head fall back as the water dripped from my hair and cooled on my face.

I needed to remember, but I did not want to. Would it do me any good if I could dredge up the memories that kept dragging me down? Who could say? But I couldn't stand not knowing something that had so much power over me, that could leave me so fragile and broken.

Not now. Just rest.

"Toshiro!"

I jumped and looked at him, startled.

"Sorry, you were staring . . . I thought you . . . you were just thinking, right?"

"Just keeping you on your toes." I took the hot tea and sipped the scalding liquid gratefully.

Ichigo sat on the edge of the tub, blowing on his tea. He was showing remarkable patience, and had not asked a single question about what had happened. Was I ready to talk? It wasn't like there was a lot I could tell him.

"Ichigo, obviously there is something about me that you do not know," I began.

"No. Not right now, love. You don't need to relive that."

I flinched. No, I did not need to relive it. But I would. Again and again if I could not find some way to break the cycle.

"Well, so I do not frighten you again, I may have nightmares tonight. I usually do."

Thankfully, the tears had stopped, though the sorrow was still there, unexplained and nearly unbearable. He reached for me and I pressed my cheek into the palm of his hand.

"You're freezing!" He dipped his hand in the water and jerked it back. "Let's get you out of there."

"Not yet. I'm the ice captain, remember? This feels perfect right now."

He looked unhappy, but he didn't try to grab me as I sipped more tea.

"And the blizzard outside? Is that your doing?"

I smiled and took another drink. I was starting to feel alive again, so to speak. That was a pleasant surprise. I was usually incapacitated for at least a day.

"Maybe you could just toss me out in the snow. That should fix everything."

At least I got him to smile back. I must have taken a century off his life tonight.

"Ichigo, I hope you put that cake away. I only got a few bites."

"I saved it for you." He draped a towel over my head.

"Fine, I'll get out as soon as I finish my tea."

He left again and came back with a pair of slippers. Then he grabbed an oversized towel and waited with a stern look on his face. I sighed and emptied the cup with a few swallows. The headache was just a dull pressure now, and I felt a little drained but nothing more.

I stood and stepped toward the edge only to have him put his hands under my arms and lift me straight up, then turn and set me down. He wrapped me in white cotton and proceeded to rub and massage starting with my shoulders. Far from complaining, I lifted my arms and turned as he indicated. He gave me a full rub down, then wasted another towel to wrap around me while he rubbed my hair.

I turned to look at him, and he actually laughed.

"What's so funny?"

He turned me to face the full length mirror. With a towel hanging over my head, and another covering me from neck to ankles, all you could see were two huge blue-green eyes and a hint of a face in acres of fluffy white. Okay, that was pretty funny looking. But I wasn't going to let him get away with it.

I worked a hand free from the warm cotton, and knocked the towel off my head. I ran my hand through my hair, giving it the messy look that I knew suited me. He was still grinning, watching me. I dropped the other towel and his grin faded. Watching myself in the mirror, I stretched and twisted, as if checking my body for any blemishes. It didn't take a genius to realize that my normal habit of stretching could bring him to his knees. I turned toward him, looking over my shoulder to see my back in the mirror. Then I deliberately made eye contact in the mirror.

Not laughing anymore, are you?

I turned my head slowly and lifted my arms. He picked me up and my legs wrapped around his waist, arms around his neck. I felt him shiver as my cold skin pressed into him, and he gasped as my freezing lips met his. I took the opportunity to slide my tongue into his mouth, and he shivered again as I stole the heat from him in slow, leisurely licks.

He pulled back. "Toshiro, you should rest . . ."

"Ichigo," I whispered into his ear, "I need this. Please, beloved. I need you to remind me what it's like to feel safe and warm. It's too dark here . . . I don't want to do this alone again."

The heat returned as he gave me back his lips, and I sucked lightly on his tongue as he carried me to the bed. He laid me down and I pushed myself up so that I was resting against the pillows. I was tired, so tired. Not the kind of weariness that called for sleep, but for a stilling of the mind.

Ichigo had shed his underwear, his erection saying that he was not as opposed to this as he tried to pretend. He knelt at my feet, and took my right ankle in both hands. What was he doing? If he touched my foot I would happily kick out his teeth, and he knew it.

His large hands slowly moved up my leg, his mouth following with firm kisses. Heat moved with him, and I rested my head back, wincing at the almost painful return of sensation, the sharp tingling of needles in the wake of his touch yielding slowly to warmth. When he reached the top of my thigh, I clenched my teeth in anticipation. But he moved away, holding my left ankle and repeating the movements. I sighed and closed my eyes, completely subdued by the mastery of his hands.

Once again he left my thigh and moved away. I felt him over me and opened my eyes as he pushed his hands into my hair and kissed my forehead, my temples, my eyelids and cheeks. I didn't know what he was doing, or if he was doing anything at all, but everywhere he touched the cold retreated.

Strong hands slid to my shoulders, then down. Long fingers closed around each arm and he kissed down the right arm, then the left as his hands enclosed mine. He moved my arms out away from my body and I lay the way he positioned me. Trembling all over, I moaned as he ran his tongue down my neck. My body had been slow to respond, numb and cold as it was. But now I felt the stir of desire deep within, and the physical arousal that followed.

He kissed and suckled along my jaw, down my throat, along my shoulders while his hands slid around my waist, slightly lifting me to stroke my back. Ichigo had gone about all of this silently, deliberately. As I finally started to react, he moved more ardently, though still with great care.

Why he chose then to pause is a mystery. His hands were cupping my buttocks and I had thought his mouth was about to fasten on my right nipple when he lifted his head and whispered my name.

"Toshiro. Are you okay, my love?"

I met his eyes, and saw the fear and concern where I only wanted to see love and lust. I was tempted to lie, to ease his suffering. I tried to never lie to him; he had been lied to quite enough for one lifetime. He deserved honesty.

"I'm not okay, Ichigo. I am so very far from okay right now. But it will pass. Now will you please continue?"

He swallowed hard, perhaps more than a little hurt by my words. But his warm mouth descended and I pushed up against him, determined to make us both forget for even an instant. He slid his hands forward to my hips and up my sides, pressing me back down and I relaxed again. As long as he didn't stop.

Trailing fiery kisses down my center, he moved his hands back down, firmly pushing his heat into my torso. Hands trailed over my hips and then pushed my legs wider. He reached under me from below to grip my ass once more, lifting me as the tip of his tongue teased my inner thigh.

I cried out as he took a long, slow lick across my exposed hole, along the sensitive skin, and then he sucked my balls into his mouth. My hands flew up, gripping at the headboard as my mind finally went mercifully blank.

He nuzzled and kissed for an eternity, his nose and forehead brushing repeatedly against the base of my now throbbing cock. His hands didn't let me escape as I writhed, yes that was the word for it.

Lifting me further, his tongue slid back down and I yelped as it pushed inside of me. I looked down in shock, not believing what I felt happening. It had never occurred to me that he would . . . my head slammed back again. Fuck! It felt amazing!

"Nnnng . . . Ichigo . . . aaah"

Involuntarily I bucked against him as he pushed a finger in alongside his tongue. I lost track of what was happening again as heat gathered within me. When his tongue eventually made way for a second long, skilled finger I nearly came. Finally warmth embraced my neglected erection, and only moments later he was swallowing as I shouted.

Oh, that was the remedy all right. No cold remained now, no sorrow, no darkness. Only gratitude and warmth and desire. His fingers had left me bereft at some point, and he moved away, then started to settle beside me. My hands unclenched from the headboard and I reached for his hair, pulling us toward each other.

"What do . . . you think . . . you are doing?" I asked between desperate breaths. I locked his mouth to mine, short, intense kisses in between my panting. He had thought to please me this far and neglect himself.

"Why can you not get it through that thick skull?" I growled at him. "I like being fucked."

His body shuddered and his eyes finally showed nothing but lust.

"God, I love you," and he was back on top of me, long arm reaching for the lube as he bit at my neck. I returned the favor, nipping his shoulder before he pulled up.

Ichigo prepared himself, then closed his eyes and took several deep breaths to calm down. His leaking erection was red and painful looking from taking so long on my pleasure. I debated reaching to finish him off and start again, but he was already moving. My legs wrapped around him and I watched his face avidly as he pushed inside of me.

No tricks, no pulling him in. I let him enter slowly and then was delightfully surprised as he thrust hard. My back arched and my legs tightened around him, holding him close as I cried out my appreciation. I was suddenly getting very hard again, but three fast thrusts and he reached his limit. I watched his face as I captured this heat from him deep inside, the expression similar to pain that morphed so fast into an image of ecstasy.

When his head dropped I slid my fingers into his hair, raising his head. I stole his remaining breath as well, running my tongue along the back of his teeth and nipping his lips as I withdrew.

"Toshiro," his dark eyes held a plea and I didn't make him ask. I drew him down with me, and sucked on the skin of his chest while my hands joined the game, tracing lightly down his sides to his hips. With calculated effort I clenched my muscles, and flexed my hips lightly while my heels pressed into his thighs.

His long moan reminded me of that first time. That sound had broken my will to resist him, and opened my eyes to a world of possibilities I had thought lost. That sound would always haunt my sweetest dreams, and I shuddered around him. I could feel his length hardening inside of me, and it made me delirious enough to be bold.

Small hands for once a blessing, I had to twist a bit to reach past where we were joined to toy with his balls, wrist brushing the base of his cock where it pressed into me. I loosened my legs to provide space for my hand as he convulsed. I massaged and wished my arms were long enough to allow me to finger him at the same time, but that was out of reach.

"Fuuuuck, Tosh . . . . " He pulled my arm away and lifted himself and my hips, starting an already fast rhythm. We thrust against one another, each of us fighting to reach that pinnacle of pleasure for a second time.

With the precision of one who had sought to please me at every turn, he made sure that he was pushing right along the wall, setting off the nerves of my prostate and sending shockwaves through my body. In return I struggled to match his thrusts, and I let my voice go, calling his name and driving him on.

His hand took my cock and slid in time with the quickening pace, and my hands left rapidly fading marks along his back and sides as I clutched at him. With sharper thrusts he released within me again, and a stroke later I jerked against him, my head flung back in a cry of passion.

I whimpered in exhausted bliss as we rocked together, and he kissed my tightly clenched eyes. My hands slid off of his back and I unlocked my ankles. He slid out of me with a groan, and kissed at my eyes again until I opened them, dazed and content and almost stunned, unable to believe what he had achieved.

Ichigo, what you have done for me cannot be measured or repaid. But I will demand so much more.

 

Chapter Text

The man I had chosen to be my strength had crumbled and disappeared in my hands. I finally saw him behind those misery-soaked eyes, but for hours I had lived in terror of never seeing him again. Where had he gone? What enemy had tried to take him from me? And all I could do was comfort him. There was no one I could kill, nothing I could destroy to save him.

'Stay with him. Do not let him wake alone.'

Stupid overgrown lizard. Just point to an enemy!

And when he finally woke, that howl of soul-crushing anguish had torn out my heart. I had heard that sound before, not as loud, not as long, but every bit as painful. Had he gone through this back then, when I cruelly severed his power after Hyorinmaru had been taken from him? And I had left him to face it alone.

'He will survive. Do not let him wake alone.'

When would I stop hurting him?

I pulled him into my arms, turning to let him rest on top of me. I didn't want him to read these thoughts in my eyes. My head turned. The blizzard had died down. Large, lazy flakes appeared, spun and vanished, drifting through the darkness like ash in the wake of a great fire, deceptively beautiful heralds of destruction. I found them soothing, and let my eyes drift with various puffs of white on their wandering journeys.

As time passed my questions and fears subsided. It only mattered that I was here, he was here, and all else was just a distraction. Even the worst we faced would only be turned into a hurdle to overcome or an opportunity to be seized. There was nothing in or under Heaven that we could not conquer together. By the time he was awake enough to kiss my chest and move his hand up to my shoulder, I had regained peace and could face him without doubts. I smiled down at him.

"Did you see?" I turned my head back toward the window as my hands rubbed his back.

"Mmm. It's lovely."

"Odd, there was no snow forecast."

"Everyone knows not to trust weather predictions, Ichigo."

I chuckled. "I remember my obligation, I have to carry you to the shower. Or should I carry you out there and let the snowflakes clean you?"

"The neighbors would be scandalized."

"Better settle for the shower then," I said as I scooted us to the edge of the bed without letting go.

I felt his silent laughter at the strange movements, and I wrapped my arms around him as I stood. His legs firmly hugged my waist. I would never get tired of that. He kissed my shoulder and licked at my neck as I walked. While I waited for the water to warm, he nibbled on my earlobe and then suckled on the skin behind my ear.

"Toshiro, if you keep that up . . ."

He ran his tongue along the edge of my ear. "If I keep it up . . . what?" He licked the inner shell and then blew on the ear as I shivered. His long, golden neck was right there, white hair contrasting beautifully with the smooth skin, impossible to resist. My lips skimmed across the flesh, getting an answering shiver.

As I stepped into the water, he sighed to feel the warmth sheeting across his back. I left bruised flesh behind as I kissed and sucked water from his shoulder. My grip shifted to support him with one arm, the other hand now free to caress that pale, perfect ass and slide between his legs from behind.

We groaned together as he pushed against me. His hand pulled gently on my hair, and my hand stilled as I drew my head back for a kiss so deep and slow that that the world faded away.

Toshiro was trying to say thank you, and I love you with that kiss, and I responded with all the love I could convey. When we parted for breath he was smiling, and he tilted his head back to let the water rain on his face. He pushed against me again, and my hand resumed teasing as I ducked my head to drink the nectar from that sweet little notch at the top of his breastbone.

He dipped his weight down against my hand, putting sudden pressure on my hard cock and I groaned. I stepped forward, and Toshiro leaned back against the wall of the shower. One hand remained wrapped around the back of my neck, and the other he used to brace his weight against the wall.

I guided myself to him, and easily entered, pushing up and forward steadily, no fast, sudden thrust to start this time. His satisfied moan was a balm to by still bruised heart, and I captured his lips again as I paused to enjoy being fully sheathed inside the most captivating man who ever existed.

We moved together slowly. I held him against the wall as I rocked into him and dragged back out, pushing my body against him to provide friction for the erection pressed between us.

Toshiro pressed both palms to the wall on either side of his head, which would have looked uncomfortable if not for his lithe build and dancer's grace. He used the leverage to tilt his pelvis, changing the angle. He cried out with my next stroke and sighed as I pulled slowly away.

"Oooh, that's too good," his breath sighed around the words and I closed my eyes to savor the sounds as I moved a little faster. He made it difficult to stay slow, the sight of him and his words pushing at my control.

I focused on my own pleasure instead. The tightening of his muscles, the smooth skin under my hands, the strength wrapped around my hips. I loved to move slow inside of him, to revel in the contact of every inch of my cock being swallowed by that tight heat. And so I tortured myself by dragging slowly out of him, all of the way, and then thrusting firmly in to the hilt.

Toshiro had pushed against the wall so far that his head could drop back and his back arched, water streaking down and highlighting the tensed muscles of his fighter's physique. I was moving as it pleased me, but obviously it pleased him just as much. He was keening, the sound pulsing with each stroke. I fought to hold this wonderful pace, and with all my will I made it last as long as possible.

"Ichi . . . go . . . I can't . . AAAH . . . fuck!"

I moved a hand up between his shoulderblades, holding firmly to protect his head and back from the tile wall before I slammed into him, thrusting fast and deep, seeking my own release and trusting his was close.

Shouting with each stroke, my voice blended with his and echoed in the confines of the shower, until he tightened around me and the delightful pressure was more than I could endure. My legs shook as I stepped forward, letting the wall support him as I indulged in a few more thrusts.

I pinned him to the wall as I leaned my weight forward, forehead resting on the tile above his shoulder. I was completely spent, every muscle quivering in bliss and exhaustion.

Toshiro's arm draped over my shoulder as we gasped for breath, his other hand slid into my wet hair as his head tilted to rest against mine. This was nice. We stayed that way until I had enough strength to move. Lifting my head, I kissed him and felt his lips smile against mine. Black lashes heavy with silver droplets fluttered open and I caught my breath at how those eyes still had the power to stun my heart.

"At the risk of making you even more arrogant, I have to say that was incredible. All of it."

"I bet you say that to all of your sex slaves."

"Who would need a second with you around? Was that three times tonight? Three the night you burnt the living room rug, well four for me. But only two each on the two nights in between. Hmm, maybe I could use another."

I pulled out, shutting him up for a second. "What, you're keeping track?"

"I can't help it. By the way, we have 180 seconds at most before the hot water runs out."

"It's NOT sexy when you use your tensai powers for evil." I set him down gently as he laughed and handed him the soap while I used the shampoo as a wash to save time. I beat the deadline anyway and left to get towels. He took his time, of course not minding the cold water.

I held out the towel with a grin, offering to dry him off and wrap him up again like a cute little sushi roll. But he grabbed the towel away from me. Then he shook out his hair.

"Hey! I just got dry." He snickered and I was just too happy that he was sounding and acting normal to complain any further.

He grabbed the glass by the tub and drank it all down, filled it again, and walked to his closet. I made sure the bathroom was tidy, rinsing the tub and collecting the mountain of towels we had used today. I went to my closet and slipped on underwear and a dark gray robe.

When I stepped out my breath was stolen again. Toshiro stood in front of the wall of windows, back mostly to me but slightly in profile with his arms tucked into opposite sleeves. His reflection was clear on the window, snowflakes drifting through it like a ghost. His silky robe was the palest silver blue at the shoulder, shading to deep navy at the hem. His eyes picked up the color, shining like flawless sapphires above his soft smile as he gazed out at the swirling snow. I stared in awe until he noticed me, turning his head over his shoulder and widening his smile before looking back to the winter scenery.

I walked up behind him, letting my arms fall over his shoulders, resting my hands on his folded arms. He leaned back against me. Eyeing our reflection, I realized we were an impressively handsome couple, though I might have been biased. I couldn't help but wonder what that reflection would look like when he was taller. Would his face be narrower, or broader? Would his eyes remain so wide? Would his lips thin or retain their fullness?

Toshiro would redefine beauty no matter what little changes came with time. I turned my eyes to the snow as it transformed the landscape into diamonds of white and blue in the night.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Ichigo had to shake me out of nightmares twice that night, dark dreams that fled like smoke. Held close to his side, his fingers running slowly through my hair and down my back, the paralyzing fear subsided, and quiet slumber reclaimed me. He tried to make me stay home, at least for the morning. He had argued when I refused, but I remained calm and didn't let him turn it into a fight. Then he had insisted he stay with me for the day. I reminded him that he had duties today. His relationship with his division was new and needed his full attention.

In the end, he gave in to me, as he should. As bad as last night had been, he had no way of knowing yet how much worse it could have been. Having him there when I came out of it, being taken care of as I recovered, and then being thoroughly distracted and transported beyond the reach of the past was an unexpected blessing.

The snow helped. Yes, it was my fault that Seireitei was a pristine landscape of white in the dawn. Storms came when I called, and when I was in pain they came unbidden unless I had enough control to stop them. Before the beauty melted, I needed to take full advantage. Matsumoto would expect me to skip out anyway, with it being the first deep snow of the season. It was the one and only irresponsible habit I allowed myself. I left a note behind and gleefully raced across the shining rooftops.

Ideally, I would have left Seireitei and Rukongai behind, seeking the truly untamed wilderness. But I didn't have time for a long journey today. There were wild spaces to be found everywhere, especially where jagged cliffs cut through Rukongai, creating inaccessible ramparts that sometimes hid uncharted and pristine valleys. One such valley I had discovered as a child. When things got bad enough, I would run away for days. The woman I called my grandmother had not deserved such treatment, but what does a boy care about the worry he causes?

I sprinted recklessly, jumping from ledge to ledge until I stood atop a tall spire in the thin air as the sun peeked over the horizon. The view was astounding, sandy red rocks framing a small valley. A shining stream cut through the entire length between white capped pines and heavy, peaked drifts or rippling dunes of snow. The morning light set everything ablaze in a riot of color.

Fool, you should have brought him. The only thing better than this sight would be seeing it anew through his eyes.

My favorite place within this favorite place was a tree lined meadow. It was graced with a small but deep pool created where the cold stream fell from a rocky outcropping along the tree line. Even in the height of summer I could train or relax, surrounded by water and shade.

Setting my feet down lightly, I smiled at the crunch of fresh snow. Few things could break through the joy this weather brought. Normally, Hyorinmaru would be humming in my mind, as elated as I to welcome the return of our season. His uncharacteristic silence spoke volumes. He was waiting for me, knowing that I would be questioning him about secrets he did not wish to reveal.

The simple strategy I had used on Ichigo was to shake him out of his foul moods and then talk to him once he was happy. I decided to try it on Hyorinmaru. Even if he was being recalcitrant, he would never refuse my call in battle or in training. I called a wind to even out my training ground and reveal any hidden rocks but left a couple of inches of snow so that I could enjoy the sound of my footsteps. I drew Hyorinmaru and began my warm up exercise, the smooth forms flowing into one another reflecting not just decades, but millennia of training as a swordsman.

They called me a prodigy, but I was a cheat. My IQ was only one factor. I had a zanpakuto that had been with me for many lives. As far as I knew, I was the only one with this advantage. I remembered just enough to know that I came back every time a warrior. Of course I learned more quickly, had access to power earlier, and mastered a wide variety of techniques while still a child. Even though I did not recall specifics without some prompting, I had learned all this many, many times.

Long before I released Hyorinmaru to play in the frosted morning, he had joined me in the dance, twisting and striking with me in forms ancient and new. We reaffirmed our bond in the most primitive of ways, deadly and beautiful attacks transforming the landscape with waves and spikes of ice. I roared with him as I launched myself into the blue on wings of ice.

Something was different. There was more and stronger power available than before. But I was too lost in the glory to turn aside. If there was something new to learn, I would settle that after I settled Hyorinmaru. There was still plenty of power, and no one in sight that could be hurt unintentionally. I indulged in a rare treat, calling on the storm, and my peaceful little valley was enveloped in darkness as the sky churned with black clouds.

Snow poured down, crashing into the ground and burying the ice of my earlier attacks. Hyorinmaru's laughter rivaled the sound of the avalanche we had created for no purpose other than to please us. Releasing but not dispelling the storm, the clouds lightened and a normal snowfall lingered. My soul was elated, and Hyorinmaru was purring in the back of my mind. Touching down, I dismissed Bankai and sank past my knees in the softness.

It was good that I had come alone. After that display, Ichigo would probably attack me and fuck me senseless in a snowbank. No, on second thought I would probably be the one making him pass out.

With a swipe of my sword and a push of reiatsu I cleared a little nest in the snow and settled to the ground. The freshly dumped snow was more than 8 feet deep, and the white walls of my meditation area blocked the world out perfectly. It took a few minutes to calm myself down, and my mood was reflected in the crystal blue skies and refracting colors in my inner world.

Hyorinmaru was in fine form, soaring and swooping, creating small tsunamis of snow as he dove and played. I laughed and sat down, stretching my legs in front of me and leaning back on my palms, waiting and watching the show instead of calling him down. When he finally came to me, he swooped low and plowed through the snow snout first, coming to a stop a few feet shy of me. He rolled in the snow, serpentine body wriggling like a dog on its back and I laughed loudly. He twisted back around, an explosion of his breath coating me in frost. I wiped my skin off without losing my laughter.

It has been too long, master.

That it has. I've been neglecting you, though that was more play than training.

You needed this as well.

Mmhmm. It is good to remind myself what we are capable of.

He drew up his head, stretched his wings wide and then folded them along his body, contented purrs shaking the ground.

Is it just the time that has passed, or is our Bankai stronger?

I told you that your power is still growing, young one.

Typical, answering the question by not answering at all.

So, we do need to do Bankai training soon.

Indeed. You will find it useful for upcoming battles.

And would the increase in power have anything to do with these recurring attacks? Last night was the worst yet, Hyorinmaru. You need to tell me what is happening to me.

I cannot. You must recall or not of your own will.

How? It is not simply a matter of me willing the knowledge to return. I have tried, but I have achieved nothing. And these attacks do not come when I am prepared. If I only learn one thing or two each time, I'll have to go through this a hundred times or more. I cannot. I do not wish to and I am not sure I would survive.

Did you learn something new?

I looked at him speculatively. None of the questions I asked were new; I had begged, threatened, and reasoned but he would not yield. He would not share information about this, beyond the broadest strokes of the picture. It used to anger me beyond reason. Sometimes it still did.

I did. I feel like it was all much more intense than before. But as usual it all faded when I woke. I already knew that it is one specific past life that is haunting me, my first life I think. I knew that I betrayed someone very dear to me. I knew that I had caused their death, and the deaths of many, many others.

And what have you added?

Revenge. That is what poisons my memories. Guilt is there as well, but it is buried under an all-consuming need for vengeance unlike anything I have ever imagined. It was a man I loved. And when he died I tore the world apart, slaughtering friend and foe alike.

A very clear vision, then. What else?

Singing. A voice and a name. His or mine I do not know.

The great head dipped down close.

A name?

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

I skipped out a little early to have lunch at the 10th, anxious to check on Toshiro. But I was disappointed when I found only Matsumoto. Toshiro was out somewhere training, she said he usually went pretty far from Seireitei. Suppressing the flash of concern, I went to the house instead of the cafeteria. Toshiro had a terrible night, true, but he was a captain and quite capable of taking care of himself. That was one of the best things about him, so I needed to squash my protective instincts.

I made a meal of leftovers, and a small pot of coffee which I immediately drank down. I was sick of reading, so the library was out. Deciding to make myself useful for the rest of the lunch hour, I went back to the office and took Toshiro's chair. Matsumoto had left, so I had peace and quiet to flip through the paperwork, pulling out any basic forms and completing them.

When I felt the approaching icy reiatsu, I kept working. I was Toshiro for the moment, after all, and I scribbled away intently as he walked in the door and paused. As I moved one sheet to the completed pile and grabbed another, I made the mistake of glancing up. His scowl was chillingly convincing as he glared at me with folded arms and knitted brow.

And he was radiant. There was an aura about him, not just the subtle glow of reiatsu but something . . . ethereal. Not the first time I had thought of him that way, but now it truly fit. Looking at him wide-eyed, it was as if I could almost see something more, something great and powerful just behind him, an afterimage or illusion gone the moment the eye focused.

"What the hell happened to you?"

That was not what he expected, and his brows shot up as he looked down at himself.

"What?"

"Toshiro, you're practically glowing. You've taken another lover, haven't you? You've been off with someone else, leaving me forlorn and alone."

The scowl was back. "Don't be ridiculous."

"Then what? Dear god, you're pregnant?"

"Ichigo," he growled.

"Don't worry, my love. I'll make an honest man out of you. And you'll make a great mom . . . er, dad."

"I'm leaving. We can try this conversation again at a later date."

"Toshiro!"

He slammed the door shut on my laughter. If he had actually been angry, he would have used shunpo and disappeared on me. I caught up with him as he walked out of the front gate. He was still scowling, and I fell into step beside him without a word. After a couple of blocks, he relented a little.

"How are try-outs going?"

"Boring, as expected this early in. How delusional can people get? Every Shinigami with an ounce of reiatsu thinks they're the next captain. Oh, and I got a note from the old man. Bankai training now allowed. Encouraged, in fact. Maybe I can thin out the herd of hopefuls by having them all face me. And your training?"

He glanced at me. "Very productive . . . and fun."

"You did tell me it was your favorite thing to do. Hyorinmaru must be a good deal more pleasant than Zangetsu."

"He has his moments."

He crossed the street to a small storefront and ordered a steamed bun.

"Do you want anything?"

"Nope. You skipped breakfast and lunch, didn't you?"

"Easy, Matsumoto."

I chuckled and let him eat as we continued walking with no destination in mind. The Seireitei snow removal team was efficient, and the roads were clear. It helps when just about everyone can use fire thanks to kido or zanpakuto abilities.

He licked his fingers and sighed. "I should have gotten two."

"I can run back and get another."

"No, but thanks. At least my stomach won't be grumbling."

"So. Is it the snow or the training that has you looking so sexy?"

He snorted. "Both. And you."

"Me?"

"What happened last night has happened before. Usually it takes days before I can function normally. You changed that, made it bearable. Thank you."

Suddenly it was difficult to breathe. This was a conversation we should be having face to face. But if Toshiro wanted to talk about it walking down a public street, I'd take what I could get.

"Of course, but thank Hyorinmaru, too."

"Hyorinmaru?" He looked curious more than startled.

"Yep. I was just about to rush you off to Unohana when he stopped me. Stuck me in the middle of the Antarctic and told me to stay with you and do nothing else. Bossy fucking lizard."

"He did not mention that. But regardless, you did much more for me than simply being there."

"You are now and always welcome."

A smile flashed across his face.

"You can be quite charming when you put some effort into it."

I chewed on the questions I wanted to ask. It was tempting to be late returning to the 5th, since he was being open.

"Thanks, I guess. I have to go get bored to tears again. Preliminary try-outs are horrific."

"Try to behave. Killing subordinates is frowned upon until you've been a captain at least a month. See you soon."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

I woke the next morning to music. Not the polished recordings from that little electronic wonder, but the bright sounds of a real guitar. Short riffs of notes were repeated and altered slightly a few times, a musician practicing. I did not get up, content just to listen.

When a mellow voice joined the guitar I sucked in a breath. Emotions swamped my senses, and for just an instant I remembered another voice, one that had sung me to sleep nearly every night. There were tears in my eyes and a deep pain in my chest. I sat up and rubbed my face harshly. Not my memories, not my life, and not my lover.

Focusing on the easy voice drifting from down the hall, I got out of bed and padded silently toward the lovely music.

He sang a love song in English, one I had heard from his collection though then it was accompanied by piano and stringed instruments. I leaned on the wall outside the door. He paused again, trying a few variations on the guitar before attempting the song again.

'Over the shifting desert plains, across the mountain all in flames, through howling winds and driving rains to be by your side.'

I smiled at the sentiment, and how true those words could be. One could listen to such words and think there was no one who would ever truly follow through. But I knew what I would be willing to do if Ichigo were suddenly beyond my reach. It seemed to be part of my nature, this fast and deep attachment. The one I had been long ago had been just as obsessed, just as dedicated to the man who sang him sweet songs.

'Every mile and every year, for every one a single tear. I cannot explain this, dear; I will not even try.'

Time passed as I leaned there in the hall, listening as he worked out this bittersweet tune on his instrument, and eventually I crept back to the bedroom and let him work undisturbed while I indulged in a completely lazy and beautiful morning.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

It had been three days since his birthday, and the breakdown or whatever that could have been. I hadn't pressed, hadn't asked a single question. He had offered his thanks as we walked together down the street, but no further explanation. My eyes kept sliding to him as I finished putting things away after a peaceful dinner at home, with not one mention of the odd and terrifying event I could not get out of my mind.

What's more, I had learned something equally mysterious and probably connected to whatever Toshiro was going through. I found myself constantly distracted throughout the day. I had pretended it was preparations for the holiday, still surprised that most of Seireitei gave a shit about Christmas. Any excuse to have a party, I suppose. I had thought I'd done well hiding my anxiety, but I'd fallen in love with the tensai. He dried the last dish, dried his hands, and turned to face me.

"Something has been on your mind."

"Mmm, a few things. We've made it through preliminary try-outs, finally. I'm putting off matches with the current officers until after the holiday parties are over." He nodded with pursed lips, but he didn't give in.

"Something else you have been avoiding. Perhaps something you are afraid to bring up?"

Frankly, I was surprised at how he was handling this, dancing around the subject when he had to know what was at the root of my concern. He was the one avoiding a delicate issue, not me. It must scare him a great deal, and the thought of what could cause fear in Toshiro caused terror in me. Sighing, I closed the distance and pulled him close.

"Not afraid, love, just procrastinating."

"Well," he said against my chest, "we do have a few unfinished topics of conversation. Too cold out for the hammock?"

"It's snowing again, you lunatic. I'm going to have to work on my cold tolerance. Check with me again in May."

"I'll make tea then, while you settle on the couch and gather your thoughts." He pulled away and I wandered into the living room.

When he came out of the kitchen with two mugs he raised an eyebrow at what I had done. The couch cushions and every throw pillow I could find were piled in front of the patio door, thick blankets on top to create a cozy nest. I sat with a stack of cushions behind me, propped up looking out at the snowy garden. I folded back the blanket that was over my legs, and took the mugs while he nestled in beside me, resting his head against the arm I draped over his shoulders. We sipped tea and cuddled contently for a little while.

"The 5th division captain quarters are right above the office. It's a nice enough apartment, but you've completely spoiled me."

"I did warn you."

"It will be a good place to crash when I'm checking night patrols or something, I guess."

He sipped and waited, watching the snowflakes. Alright, it wasn't such a big deal after some of what we'd been through.

"I was organizing and got distracted reading the journals you gave me. Then I remembered you saying the author was captain of the 5th, so I looked up Saito Tatsuya in the division book."

"Ah, that's what this is about?"

"I know that I barely understand how Shinigami come to be, and where their power comes from. I didn't think it was possible for two Shinigami to have the same zanpakuto." He stayed quiet, eyes fixed on nothing now.

"But there it was in black and white. Saito-taicho and his zanpakuto Hyorinmaru, an ice zanpakuto known to take the form of a dragon. I expected Saito to look like you, and there was more than a strong resemblance. He looked older, his hair light gray instead of white, eyes a pale green, but otherwise he looked like he might be your brother. Saito sped through the Academy in three years and advanced quickly through the ranks. This is connected to what you were trying to tell me before, isn't it?"

He blinked and took an unsteady breath. "I will tell you, but I don't want to. I have never told anyone, and somehow that makes it less real."

"If you don't want to, then don't."

He looked at me with a faint smile that did not reach his eyes. "No, I need to. I should have told you earlier, then you would have been prepared for what happened. And I suspect that it will become very important for you to know the truth. But before you expect too much, I know very few facts about this. A lot of what I think I know is supposition.

"You understand the basics of the soul cycle? Souls are born into the living world. Upon death, they move to Soul Society unless they are taken by Heaven or Hell, or they are diverted other ways such as becoming Hollows or being preyed upon by Hollows. The majority are reborn again, and at each death and birth the memory is wiped clean."

"That's about the limit of what I've heard. And souls with high reiryoku may become Shinigami while they are here in Soul Society."

"But there are very rare exceptions, oddities like you. Some probably go unnoticed. I am an exception, one not unnoticed but also not clearly understood or properly recorded. As far as I can tell, my soul keeps coming back to Soul Society, skipping the living world. That is not normal. And in many or possibly all lives Hyorinmaru has been with me. That should be impossible. A zanpakuto is a part of your soul, unique to each Shinigami and each life, since your soul cannot be the same as your experiences change."

"So, you're telling me that you were Saito in a previous life? Do you remember it?"

"It seems I was, and no, I don't remember anything of any life except this one and one other. At least I think so. Those . . . episodes involve memories. For a long time, I thought they were not real, just nightmares. But almost every time I remember something that seems as real as this."

My arm squeezed his shoulders lightly for a moment. "And these memories, they're what made you scream, what made you shut down for days."

"That is the life I am struggling to remember. I forget almost everything when I wake up."

"Thank god for that."

"No, I have to remember. I will keep getting dragged back down if I cannot take control of this. But I don't know how. I've tried meditation, I've tried making myself depressed as hell, I've tried drinking until I black out, and of course I've tried Hyorinmaru. He must know everything, but he says remembering is up to me. While he stays silent, I am more tempted each time to just give in, to just die in the darkness. And I know he must have done this to my past selves, held his tongue while they begged for answers and then gave in to despair so consuming that they chose death rather than face it again.

"So how is that, Ichigo? Enough of an asshole zanpakuto for you?"

He was stiff as I pulled him closer, that cold, blank look on his face in contrast to the bitter anger in his voice. I held him close against my side and buried my face in his hair, my hands rubbing up and down his arms slowly. He didn't relax, didn't react at all.

"Can you tell me about the other times, or is it too much?"

He blinked and I stopped the panic that had been growing in the back of my mind.

"I am not sure about the first time. I had died, evidently, and woke up in Rukongai. I have never understood the cruelty of this, that a soul is cut adrift with no connections. If the soul is supposed to recuperate and prepare for a better life, then why throw it back into a society as unjust and violent as the living world?

"At any rate, a scrawny, strange looking child with high reiryoku was an easy target. Junrinan is one of the most peaceful, orderly districts, but wherever there are humans, there are always predators. Before Momo found me, I spent most of my time hiding and running. I was not always successful. The other street rats hunted in packs, and they knew all the hiding places. I had been caught and beaten badly for sport the first time it happened. I cannot be entirely sure that is what happened, though. I had a concussion. Hyorinmaru was not with me yet, and no memories stuck with me except the way it always ends, with me alone in darkness, sick with grief for reasons I cannot recall."

My heart hurt for him and I wanted to say or do anything to comfort him. But this was not in any way about me.

"Some years later I lived in relative safety with Momo and the woman we both called grandmother. My reiatsu was out of control. Hyorinmaru had been trying to reach me for some time, and I was a very real threat to everyone around me. When Matsumoto stumbled upon me one day and recognized what was happening, she told me what I had to do, leave Rukongai for Seireitei.

"Rukongai had never been a pleasant place for me, but the woman who took me in was the only person who accepted me, and Momo of course. Granny's home was the only place I had any happy memories of, the only place I had ever felt safe. It happened the night before I planned to leave home. It took me two days to recover, and all I could remember was dying in pain and fire. That and having to climb out of darkness and despair, with no reason why I had to endure this. I assumed it was some kind of panic attack brought on by the fear of leaving home, that it was all false."

He had started to soften just a little, his eyes still cold but more focused and occasionally tracking the big clumps of flakes drifting in the wind.

"The Academy was both a relief and a trial. The street rats there had bigger teeth but were at least on leashes. And I was rapidly learning to defend myself. Against all odds I made a friend, Kusaka Sojiro. We became very close very quickly. I had never had a friend before, someone to challenge me in training and praise me for my accomplishments. For a short time, life became pleasant, rather than just bearable."

He fell silent for a moment. "Have you heard about this?" he whispered, and the pain is his voice cut me to the quick.

Part of me wanted to lie and spare him the telling. Part of me was begging to know what had hurt him so badly, and who this Kusaka was to Toshiro.

"No, love. No one mentioned Kusaka, just that you graduated at the top of your class in one year."

"Hmph. That's all anyone cared about in the end."

He sagged against me and closed his eyes.

"It is theoretically impossible for two Shinigami to have the same zanpakuto. Hyorinmaru's return over the centuries has fed a number of legends. Hyorinmaru had been with me for some time before the Academy. Why he also appeared to Kusaka, even he has not been able to explain. I know somehow I was responsible, that my feeling close to Kusaka was the cause for Hyorinmaru's choice.

"When the Academy instructors found out that Hyorinmaru had chosen both me and Kusaka, it caused investigations and accusations that landed us in front of Central 46. In their great and benevolent wisdom, they decreed a duel to the death, winner take all. They would not listen when I begged to surrender Hyorinmaru. The old men and women yelled for our blood like savages, egging us on, pushing and taunting, demanding that I murder my best friend or die trying."

My arms tightened, but I immediately relaxed them again. He had once told me that he had lost more than I could imagine. He was right.

"Of course, it was a trial, a test of our motives for power. I did not kill Kusaka. He attacked and I only defended, but the fight was quickly interrupted. For his choice, he was condemned and executed before my eyes as I was restrained. I hate to admit that I understood their reasoning. One who put his own desires before what is right, put his pride before loyalty could not be trusted with the power of such a strong zanpakuto. Yet it was unjust. They never gave him a chance to think it through. He was 20 years old, confused, scared, and goaded into prideful action by those who should have nurtured and protected him. At the very least they should have allowed him to die by my hand, rather than being slaughtered by assassins."

I did not wipe away his silent tears, neither did he. It seemed to me his friend deserved this small tribute. His voice was completely steady but slight tremors ran through him.

"Someone found me in the woods on the Academy grounds. I woke in the 4th, and when I woke screaming, they sedated me for three days. Everyone assumed it was a nervous breakdown. What else would you expect from a child who just rushed through the Academy and then saw his best friend killed in a 'training accident.'

"Unohana couldn't do anything for me, though I told her everything I could about what happened to me physically. I did not tell her about the memories. I died again in fire, with a number of fatal wounds. This time I remembered that I had betrayed someone very dear to me, or they had betrayed me. It seemed it must be a false memory, so connected to recent events.

"They erased Kusaka from history."

I rocked him gently until he stopped trembling. He never made a sound, and the tears were few. This was an old wound, but one I knew never healed. The distance between Toshiro and the rest of the world was wide, and anyone who tried to cross it would be walking through an emotional minefield. His kind and honest heart had been abused at every turn.

"Hyorinmaru and I talked often and for long periods of time after that. He confirmed that it was real, and implied that if I could remember my past I would be able to heal and to unlock my true power. I was naïve enough to be tempted by this. But I couldn't find any way to induce another episode, or to find the memories without the trauma. So, I just fell into the life I had chosen, and focused on gaining power. If anyone ever tried to hurt my friends or fuck up my life again, I wanted to be able to stop them and make them pay for the attempt.

"Three more times in the next 30 years, that was all. As 3rd seat I faced my first true failure. I arrived too late to save an entire squad from being massacred, though I did kill the Hollows responsible. I held it together until that night. No one was too shocked that the little kid didn't show for work the next day. Matsumoto and Shiba kept it quiet. The new memory gained was of blood, a massacre. And as far as I could tell, I was the killer. Again, the memory related so closely to what had triggered the episode that I thought it all false.

"Then my captain died. Your father had given me recognition and a purpose, even if he did not do much to defend me from the consequences of what others saw as favoritism. Suspicion of treachery and the pressure to save the division's honor drove me to desperation, and I pushed myself to achieve Bankai in less than a year. I accomplished my goal, but the glory of obtaining that power was lost to the darkness. I gained no new understanding that time, just a jumble of images that do not make sense.

"Finally came Aizen's betrayal. He left me and Momo for dead, and the dark took me again. That was the worst one, and I almost gave up on living. But I gained a tiny bit of knowledge. I knew that a loved one had been tortured brutally and killed because of me, because I had utterly and completely failed them. That was very, very clear, and I no longer tried to fool myself by connecting the memory to circumstance."

"And then you came to Las Noches. The next time was when I put those cuffs on you."

"Yes." I winced. "It was different, though. Because I was powerless perhaps, or because I was isolated from Hyorinmaru. I went through the pain, but gained nothing, no memories, no clarity. Just misery. I do not know what made me climb back out instead of dying, other than stubbornness. Recovery was easy that time, though I would have preferred some progress at the cost of additional suffering. Each time that I remembered something, even something small, I soon found my abilities were stronger.

"But this last time was the first episode not seemingly triggered by trauma. And I brought back more than ever before. It was a man, my lover. I had personally delivered him into the hands of our enemies and left him to face his end alone. I cannot understand why I would do this, why I would betray one I loved. They not only killed him, they tortured him for many days. And I now know that when I learned of his death, I gave my soul to vengeance."

His hands came up and he wove his fingers through mine, resting our hands on his legs. His thumbs curled in against my palms, rubbing slowly.

"When it happens, Ichigo, it's like I relive that entire life but then it all fades like smoke. It always ends with my death, which was so painful that I flee from the memory into forgetfulness. Thus, it is my own fault that I cannot remember the truth. I find myself in a nonexistent place, somewhere created by my mind, and it takes the form of a quiet, dark, and deep pit. I know that in past lives I have died there, with no will to climb out.

It's horrific, facing that as the memories that give it any meaning disappear. Perhaps the reason I cannot evoke these memories on my own is that I dread revisiting that painful death. If I could face it, maybe the memories would not elude me. Or I fear that challenge at the end, having to decide whether to live or just sleep. And then I wake again, cold and alone, with no explanation for the grief and guilt that drowns me. That is where you found me and pulled me out of that ocean of despair."

His hands squeezed mine.

"You cannot understand what that means to me. Not just the relief this time, but to know that it is possible. That there can be light if I can pull myself far enough through the darkness."

"Oh, my love, I can understand that perfectly. How many times did you shine that light for me to see the way out of my own shattered mind?"

In response he shifted, placing himself in my lap and wrapping our arms around him, still joined by interlaced fingers.

"Do you know what you'll do now?"

"I am going to start trying again. Maybe now that I have a few pieces of the truth I can expect to get more each time. Or maybe without as much fear, knowing that I have someone to come back to, I can face it head on instead of letting it ambush me. But not yet."

"Doesn't anyone know about this? Urahara, or the old man? He's been around a long time, he's had to have noticed Hyorinmaru more than once. Or Shunsui and Ukitake?"

"I have thought about it. There are several past wielders of Hyorinmaru in the records. There is never a connection noted. That tells me that Central 46 is covering it up, but not completely. More like they are hiding the secret in plain sight. Somewhere there may be a clear record stringing all my past lives together, but I will never find it if I haven't by now.

"A few of my predecessors died abruptly, and under odd circumstances. Others just disappeared. And always right about when they would have started pushing their power and questioning. So, it is not something I can just ask anyone about. I don't know what the consequences would be, and I don't want to find out. If the old ones know more than the legend, they aren't saying. And that means it is not safe to ask."

"What's the legend?"

He snorted. "You'll love this. There are a few versions. The most common calls me or Hyorinmaru or both of us the Heavenly Guardian. We are reborn every few centuries, when Heaven or Soul Society will face a great threat. Then apparently we have the grace to die or vanish until we are needed again.

"Where we come from in the first place is even more absurd. Some versions have me as a great royal prince, sworn to serve the Soul King for eternity. Others say I am a dragon that defends the king, or that defends the balance of life and death. But I split my soul to fight as a Shinigami for some reason, or my dragon soul was split by some curse. My own favorite gives me credit for creating Heaven itself, or even for creating humanity.

"In Rukongai, there is even a winter festival where you can find paintings and carvings of an ice dragon said to be the guardian of man. It varies, but in a few districts the dragon's name is Hyorinmaru. Romantic nonsense. Any truth in any of it would be coincidence at this point. But it is clear that Hyorinmaru is no normal zanpakuto. He has been around for millennia, and according to him, so have I."

"And to think at one point you tried to convince me that you weren't interesting."

"This doesn't bother you? I cannot know what I will discover about my past, or how it will change me in the future."

"That's true of all of us, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose it is."

"Whatever you decide to do, you know I'll be there to help any way that I can."

He tilted his head back and to the side. I took the invitation gladly, bringing my lips to his gently. Many sweet little kisses later he turned to face me. We made love slowly and tenderly, falling into the cushions in a tangle of limbs. The little nest I had created kept us warm and safe through the dark.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the deep wounds he had exposed I felt calmer and more connected to him than ever before.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

The holiday came and went with as little interference from me as possible. Ichigo went to a few parties and joined in the fun. He did not force me to participate, and those who knew me let me be. My division knew from decades of experience that they were not excused from duty, unlike a few of the other divisions, and the 10th was one of the quietest places in Seireitei.

My beloved was recently human, and so I forgave him for presenting me with a colorful box. What was inside made up for my irritation, an exquisite antique dragon carved from imperial jade. Instantly envisioning its future, I sent it off the next day to a jeweler to have it set as a necklace.

That evening I picked Ichigo up at his office for our long overdue dinner with Ukitake and a slightly hungover Kyoraku. The man must have been drinking well past dawn to still be feeling the punishment for his sins. Most of the discussion was about the 5th and advice for the new captain. Both senior captains made time in their schedules to train with Ichigo. He had been working hard to master two blades, but pointers from them would be invaluable.

One thing that kept running through my mind was Ichigo's question about the older Shinigami. I had thought of it myself, of course, but had pushed the questions down for decades now, for good reason. Both Ukitake and Kyoraku knew Saito, the captain of the 5th, wielder of Hyorinmaru. It was not possible that they would not recognize Hyorinmaru, and not possible that they would fail to see the physical similarities between me and Saito. They both would have at least some familiarity with lieutenant Adachi, maybe less with 5th seat Tsuchida and 3rd seat Noguchi. All wielders of Hyorinmaru.

Neither had ever mentioned it. I had not asked. I was afraid to ask. Even now, sitting in Ukitake's dining room sipping tea as pleasant and intelligent conversation surrounded me, I was afraid to ask.

I masked my anxiety with well-placed comments and a calm, open expression as I watched their faces. I had never seen a glimmer of recognition, and only the usual speculative glances when we were first getting to know each other. They had many centuries of experience over me, so I never would be able to read them if I had not by now. No, the only way to ever know was to flat out confront them.

But Saito had been killed under mysterious circumstances. Noguchi had simply failed to return from a routine check on patrols in Rukongai. Adachi had been outright murdered, a crazed Shinigami blamed. Tsuchida had succumbed to wounds after a training accident, a highly unlikely event with Unohana in charge of the 4th.

I had researched their lives. Adachi, Tsuchida, and Noguchi were dead within a few weeks of achieving Bankai. All circumstantial, all things that just happen. Something made me suspect that these things just happened after certain questions were asked. Saito lasted longer, perhaps because he kept his mouth shut. That 8th journal he had written was not truly incomplete, and I knew the questions that had haunted him in the end.

If the wielder of Hyorinmaru was truly some hero, a Heavenly Guardian meant to save Soul Society, then four of us, four of me, would not have been discarded by fate in this manner. A grand achievement would have been recorded. And here sat two who had seen the rise and fall of Hyorinmaru multiple times. One was a friend. Both were extremely dangerous.

No, I would not ask.

As I lay comfortable and warm in Ichigo's arms that night, I asked him if he would be with me the following night as I made an attempt to retrieve the memories that might help me or destroy me. He held me tight as he agreed.

Chapter Text

I sat cross legged on the thick, new rug in the living room, the furniture shoved to the side to provide a clear space. Ichigo settled in front of me, scooting close so that our legs touched lightly. He leaned forward, briefly caressing my knees with a small smile of encouragement to mask his anxiety.

"Probably nothing will happen, Ichigo."

"Well, I'm here either way, my love. Remember that I'm here."

I closed my eyes and told myself that I was safe. The past could not truly hurt me. As emotionally painful as the memories were, they were only that, unchangeable and distant. I would face them, and I would return to the comfort of winter and the joy brought to me by my beloved. With the nearness of such warmth, I began to clear my mind, acknowledging and setting aside each fear, each mundane concern, and each and every passing thought as they made their small demands for attention.

When I would normally seek the solace of vast plains of snow and ice, instead I courted fire. The clearest, boldest memory I had found, the one that came to me first and last every single time, was of being wrapped in flames and unbelievable agony. I had fled from this memory time and again, falling into a pit of forgetfulness to escape. No longer.

Hot wind teased my senses and I deliberately embraced the uncomfortable sensation, enduring the bright light that grew as the wind increased. Though my body was distant from me now, there was increasing physical discomfort as a new skin encased my soul. Rough, abrasive heat surrounded me, the irritation of sunburn and sand scratching, tearing. My thick hide was tight and raw as desert air sucked the moisture out of me.

My power stretched far and wide but could find no water which I desperately needed to heal my wounds and destroy the enemies below. Deliberately they had baited me here, cunningly they shielded their bodies to prevent me from stealing the water within, wisely they stayed rooted to the dry earth rather than fight me in the skies. I had underestimated them, deeming them as foolish as their master. These were not worms, but rats, swarming in great numbers to bring down the predator they feared, sacrificing dozens of their own for each drop of my blood.

A deceptively fine chain was wrapped around my neck, three loops circling and pulling, searing away skin while it tried to cut off my air and pull me down. My claws failed to sever the length of metal stretching toward the sands beneath me, or the twin chain that snaked around my right leg. I roared my rage at the insignificant black rats crawling along the dune, struggling for release to escape the heat and the deadly arid air.

Staggering pain shot through me as I watched my right wing shredded by multiple lances of fire. The chains pulled tighter and the sky started to slip away. With a growing sense of horror, I began to realize that I would fail. I had been beaten, tricked and lured into a place where I was weak enough to be brought down by my own prey. I would fall here, so far from home and the beauty of my snow-capped mountains and icy rivers, so far from any memory of the golden age with my beloved. The savage desert would swallow my bones, and time would turn me to sand under the unrelenting sun.

I hissed and forced my damaged wing to cooperate as I turned and dove. One perfect creation, one golden soul this world had witnessed, and destroyed. The world owed me its life for taking my heart. I had torn apart those who had dared laid hands on my beloved, but somehow the tyrant had survived. The vile thing that had enslaved me, that had used me to destroy my kin, that had tortured and killed my beloved had survived. And his slaves still resisted their fates. I would take these, at least, with me as I burned.

My overtaxed and heavily damaged wing snapped under the strain of trying to break my dive, and I hit the unforgiving sands hard. But the chain around my neck loosened and stopped burning as the puny Shinigami holding it was crushed under my weight. I spun, dealing death to the Death Gods with spell, claw, fang and razor-edged tail as swords and magic rained down on me mercilessly. The dead turned instantly to dust as my power snatched any moisture it could find, but it was not enough to keep up with the increasing ruin of my body.

I was already dying by the time their leader called a tornado of fire to be certain my life ended as painfully as possible. With the last of my hatred I lunged for him. His sword of flames pierced my jaw as I tried to swallow him whole, and he pushed my fangs away. Only one claw reached him before he casually flung my weakening body back into the inferno. The scent of his blood was my only reward, a deep but not nearly fatal cut across his forehead. I hoped that I had at least taken out the bastard's eye.

The tattered remnants of my soul could no longer hold, the gossamer threads breaking and disintegrating. I was left with no ability to enforce any more justice on this wicked world. I screamed the name of my beloved, which had not passed my lips since his death, pouring all my grief and fury into one final howl of rage and despair before the fire flowed into my lungs.

The world was red, the color searing through yellow and white, brighter and brighter until no option was left but black. The roar of the fire deafening, merging with the booming of my heart, the rush of my blood, the cacophony building until nothing was possible but silence.

Gasping for air, I tried to unclench my body, my human body. Everything hurt, especially anywhere skin touched skin, and my tears burned my eyes and face. I was in darkness, and after what I had just failed to live through, I drew comfort from the void.

Is this death? Can death be so unmerciful, not allowing me to forget the pain or the unbearable loss?

There was no sight, no movement, no sound as I lay weeping for seconds or for centuries. Until a whisper cut like thunder through the emptiness. It scrapped across my raw nerves, disturbing the only peace I could find. I tried to shut it out, to stay in the quiet dark, but the interruption persisted.

What does this whisper want from me? I have nothing left to give.

". . . here . . . I am here . . ."

My eyes darted around uselessly, and my ears suddenly strained to catch what they had been trying to avoid.

Is he here? Have I found him at last?

All the selfish, silly notions humans had about rewards of the afterlife came to tease me. Would death reward me by reuniting me with my beloved?

"My love, I am here . . . "

Sound was swallowed by the dark, though I knew I screamed at the agony required to push myself up. Only the whispering voice was audible, and no amount of pain would stop me from dragging myself through the darkness to find the light.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

He had been successful, if you could call this success. I knew it when I saw the pain wash over his face as his breathing became erratic. My fear grew when he could no longer sit still, clutching at his neck, growls and whimpers pushing through clenched teeth. I scrambled over to him, wrapping him tight in my arms as he struggled to breathe, but I had promised not to interfere.

When the bare skin of his wrist brushed my arm, I flinched. He was burning, his skin hot and red. Promises be damned, I had to do something to help. I did not panic this time, but I rushed to pick him up and headed for the closest source of relief, the thick blanket of snow just outside the back doors. Skidding to my knees in the garden, I scooped snow onto his scalding skin.

Just as I gathered myself to break my vow entirely and slap him awake, he screamed a name I did not know. Then that howl that haunted my nightmares ripped at my heart, growing louder and more ragged until he collapsed, going limp in my arms, his head falling back. I gasped as I saw the angry red welts spiraling around his neck. He had been physically damaged by a memory, and the nature of the wound terrified me.

"Ichigo!?" Matsumoto stood on the porch, shock written all over her face and stance.

I so do not need this right now.

"He's okay, Ran, don't panic."

How does my voice sound so calm?

"What happened? I heard . . . I heard him screaming."

She should not be here. She would never have heard if I hadn't rushed outside, beyond the barrier protecting Toshiro's privacy. She started toward us as I pulled open his yukata, bathing his chest in handfuls of snow, the flakes disappearing into water and steam as his skin finally began feeling a little less scorched. Rangiku sucked in a breath as she looked over my shoulder. So far, she hadn't accused me of hurting him, but it had to be on her mind.

"Rangiku, I need to focus on Toshiro right now, and you can help. Draw a bath upstairs, water just a little warm. Set towels and a pitcher of cold water nearby, and the bottle of pills from the top drawer in his closet, the one closest to the windows. And then leave us alone."

I felt her staring at me for too long.

"Rangiku, please. For Toshiro, please."

As she turned and went into the house I started rocking back and forth.

"My love, I am here. Come back to me. I am here."

I repeated it again and again like a prayer as his skin cooled and his breathing steadied. I don't know how long we stayed there in the snow before I saw the twitch of his eyelids. I could no longer feel my feet or the hand that kept reaching farther afield for snow. I was covered in a layer of white as a new blizzard whipped around us.

"Toshiro? I'm here, love. Please, baby, wake up now. I am here."

He drew in a shaky breath and his eyes opened just the tiniest crack.

"Toshiro, I'm here. You are safe, my love."

His breath hissed out and he blinked slowly. Then I saw it. I saw him endure remembrance and I pulled him to my chest. He cried out, the mournful howl of devastating grief muffled as he pushed his face into me, and I could no longer hold back my own tears as I rocked him slowly and stroked his hair, whispering his name repeatedly as he sobbed and cried.

When he had been quiet for a few minutes he turned his head, cheek resting on cloth wet with tears and melted snow.

"Love, can I take you inside? The bath is ready if you want it."

He started to nod and winced, voicing a shaky and frail, "Yes."

Ever so carefully I gathered him to me and stood, slowly taking him inside and upstairs, clumps of snow and wet footprints trailing my steps. Our routine was repeated, I sat him on the edge of the bath to undress him and I couldn't help another gasp. His right leg was circled by the same livid red marks as his neck, from the ankle all the way up to mid-thigh. He glanced down and growled lowly, then his eyes found a mirror and his hand went to his neck.

"Let me heal those, they're sure to sting in the water."

He just stared into the mirror and I laid my hand gently on his chest. I should have done this earlier and he wouldn't have had to see it; I just hadn't been thinking clearly. Five minutes later he pushed my hand away. His skin all over looked better, but the sinister injuries only healed a little and refused to disappear.

"Let it be, Ichigo. Apparently, there is a price to be paid."

I didn't understand, but I left off anyway and helped him into the water. I gave him the medication and a glass of cool water and kissed his forehead. He gave me a weak, false smile and went back to staring straight ahead while I went to change out of my freezing, wet uniform and make us both some hot tea.

I hated this, with every fiber of my being. Toshiro was in pain. He had told me how much having me be here helped, but I felt completely inadequate, unable to shield him or even heal him from the damage I failed to prevent. And if he was right, and let's face it Toshiro was always right, we would have to go through this several more times. I would find a way to put up with it, but I would need to find an outlet for my anger.

Shaking away thoughts that would not help either of us, I continued to do what I could. When I returned with the tea, Toshiro was completely under the water and I barely resisted the urge to reach in and pull him out. A rush of bubbles and he pushed back up onto the ledge while weakly chuckling and pushing long locks out of his eyes.

"You look like a tiger with a pulled tail, Ichigo."

"And you look like a drowning kitten, my love."

He glared at me for a moment but couldn't hold the expression. He reached for the tea and sighed after sucking down half of the nearly boiling liquid. I didn't know how he could stand it, especially sitting in water that was probably a few degrees from turning into ice by now. I took the nearly empty pitcher, refilled it and moved it in by the bed with another glass I had brought up. If it was all I could do for him, I would make damn sure he was as comfortable as possible.

Toshiro had gotten out of the bath and was toweling himself dry. I froze in the doorway, indignant.

"Hey! You are taking all of the fun parts away from me."

He stopped and blinked at me. Then he grinned as he roughly ran the towel through his hair. It was one of my favorite mannerisms, when his face went still as he thought about a statement and then his whole expression changed when he came up with his answer.

"Not all the fun parts, Ichigo."

Dropping the towel, he walked toward me, flirting with the sway of his hips and the tilt of his head. As if he ever had to flirt to gain the attention of me or anyone. It seemed I still had some comforting to do, and I pulled him into my arms carefully. His skin which had been blistering was now colder than the snow I had poured over him. Expecting it did not lessen the shock that anyone could survive such extremes. I carried him to the bed, willing myself not to shiver.

Laying him down gently, I repeated what I had done for him before, using my concentrated reiatsu to force just a little fire into him, to break the hold of the ice. It had been an instinctual move the first time, not something I had ever learned. But it had worked.

Ever so slowly I caressed every inch of his magnificent body, paying special attention to the silver scars accenting the gold of his chest, forcing him to be patient and wait when he reached for me. He finally lay quiet and only squirmed a little as I massaged and kissed my way all over his exposed flesh.

I was very careful with his right leg, and as I moved close to it, I could see that the welts had faded into red and only slightly swollen burns. There was a pattern to them, and my jaw clenched as I realized that they had been made by a chain. A delicate one by the size of the links, but the thought of a chain on him angered me beyond reason. The marks slowly spiraled in six loops from just above his ankle to halfway up his thigh. Kissing in between the burns, I still heard him groan as I moved my hands as tenderly as possible.

His unblemished left leg was a welcome distraction from my anger and worry. Here was a lovely, pale ankle. I ran my hands and then my tongue around it, not letting him pull away and not daring lower to his adorably ticklish foot, then pushed up along a thin, strong calf to a knee with such soft skin behind it for my tongue to explore. Though well-muscled, his silver thigh was so pretty any woman would be proud to show it off. It warmed under my touch and I lingered to decorate it with small red kisses.

Skin so delicate and cool was delightful to lick, and my tongue ran along the crease where leg met torso, lifting his body so that my exploration would not be interrupted. Then the real treasure was revealed. Was there any skin as sweet as this, never seen or tasted by anyone else?

My hands gripped the toned, smoothly rounded cheeks to stop him as he nearly escaped. His moans increased as I lapped at that tantalizing flesh hidden behind the testicles, and I pressed closer as his resistance faded. Willingly he pulled his legs out ever wider. Thin fingers wound into my hair.

Nuzzling, licking, purring as I moved from balls to thigh and back to perineum, I lost my awareness and the sense of what I was supposed to be doing, lost myself in the delight of timeless exploration and enjoyment of the body I loved. I moved lower, holding him firmly as my tongue pushed inside to find more ways to savor him.

"Ichigo!"

I blinked and drew back just slightly in surprise as his muscles clenched. I grinned, he had made it to orgasm without me ever touching his lovely cock. My wanton Toshiro, he was everything one could ask for in a lover.

Aware once more, I used his moment of euphoria to get rid of the clothes I was still wearing, forgotten in the passion, and retrieved the lubricant for both our pleasure. He was watching through barely open eyes, panting and flushed, so like the first time I took him that I shuddered. How far we had traveled together, how much we had faced, it was still unreal to me that we had survived.

After a moment to just admire the sight of him, spread and relaxed in his pleasure, I returned to my work, licking his chest and stomach clean as my fingers sought the warmest part of his still cool body. He grunted when I pushed in, and that warmth swallowed my fingers as he wrapped his left leg around me. I moaned against his chest, overwhelmed by the perfection, the wonderful responsiveness.

My free hand teased his nipples as I resisted the urge to lick his injured neck and nibbled instead on his earlobe, whispering his name before swirling my tongue around the edge of his ear. He shivered and turned to catch my mouth with his in a fierce, hungry kiss that slowly became unbearable.

I broke free, no longer able to continue teasing, and he grinned as my fingers left him. He brought his wounded leg up with a brief hiss as I prepared myself. I moved quickly, wanting nothing more than to be joined with him as soon as possible. And it was Toshiro, he would not mind the rush.

His shaking body and high shout welcomed me, and I froze in concentration, trying not to cum immediately. I forced myself to relax as I would before a battle, not as successfully as when Toshiro did this, but it worked for the moment.

Then I moved as slowly as my body would allow. I tried to block out Toshiro's moans and the tantalizing pets of his hands along my shoulders, back and sides, fighting to make this last. But it was a losing battle as Toshiro flexed, heels digging into the backs of my thighs to drive me faster almost immediately.

I wasn't going to last long, but as always Toshiro was right there with me. I stroked his erection and felt his caresses turn to grasps, and the sting of his nails on my back had me slamming erratically into him a few more times before we were both shouting in ecstasy.

We rode out our climax and clung to one another as our minds cleared, shivering all over with lingering excitement and bliss. Ever so gently I pulled out and then turned, making sure it was his left leg that would be pushed against the bed as I pulled him on top of me. He relaxed and nuzzled my chest lightly as he caught his breath.

Drawing on another memory, I reached for my discarded robe and he snickered as I cleaned us up a little so he could stay and relax as long as he wished. It was so much better than the last time, when he had seemed almost absent and in so much agony that I could barely stand to look at him. But it was still difficult. He was still hurting, still only a heartbeat from that horrid grief.

I stroked his back and waited, knowing that he would tell me everything.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"A dragon?"

"Yes. How did I know that would be the one thing you fixated on?"

"Like, an actual dragon? Big teeth, a tail, wings and everything?"

"Yes, Ichigo, an actual dragon."

"Did you breathe fire?"

"Of course not."

"Do you think you can do it again?"

"No. How should I know? This is the first time I have seen it."

"You so have to try. That would be . . . I don't even have words."

"I'm shocked."

"Don't be mean. But seriously, do you think that's possible, for you to . . . you know, turn into a real dragon?"

"I highly doubt it. I do not know enough yet about what happened. But I hope that the worst is over."

"I don't know about that."

I lifted my head and folded my hands under my chin on his chest.

"What do you mean?"

He looked at me for a moment, hands rubbing my back again.

"What caused you to do it? What could have been terrible enough to push you that far? That memory may be even worse, when you remember what happened to Raiden."

Before I could even think, a sharp pain of sorrow had me clenching my teeth to keep from sobbing. Ichigo moved one hand up to pet my hair until I could steady myself. Only from hearing that name said aloud.

"How do you know that name?"

"You screamed it, just before you passed out. It's his name, isn't it? The one you loved and lost."

I blinked back tears. Not for Raiden, I did not know him. For Ichigo, who was putting up with this lunacy and now probably feeling jealous over a man centuries dead, a man dearly loved by a man who was not me. I was too fragile right now, any little thought like that could have me bawling like a kid.

"Not I, beloved. I have loved only one and he is not lost."

"Stop worrying, my love. I'm not that shallow."

"Close, though."

"What did you look like, anyway? When you weren't a big lizard, anyway."

"Dragon. You are the one who turns into a lizard."

"See, we're meant to be together."

I chuckled. "I don't know. The perspective is always from his eyes, so I do not know what he looked like."

"Well, hopefully you wander in front of a mirror one of these times."

"I'll try to do that. But really, Ichigo, can you handle this again?"

"Of course, I can. You scare the shit out me, but as long as you promise to come back then I can take it. And if someday you figure out how to turn into a dragon, I get to fight you first."

"I can agree to that since it will never happen. And it was easier this time . . . coming back, I mean. I think tackling it head on was too difficult before, but it is what I need to do. And I can thanks to you."

"Well, we have a day off together coming in a few days. I think you should rest before doing that again, though."

"Probably. Let's see how I feel. I do want something from you, though." He raised a brow. "I want to hear you sing."

"What? You been eavesdropping?"

"Just once. You have a lovely voice. Why would you hide it?"

"Not hiding, exactly. I'm just out of practice. I thought I'd get a little better at the guitar, too, before I embarrass myself."

"Too late, so sing for me."

"Alright. If you let me take you out in the living world for a proper date."

I stretched up to seal the deal with a kiss, and he pulled me closer. Before I knew it, he had rolled to the side and had me pinned under him once more. Sneaky bastard.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Loosening the fabric yet again, I huffed in annoyance. Lucky that it was the depths of winter in Seireitei, and the scarf would not be out of place. But despite the lightness of the cloth I was used to neither the clinging around my neck nor the heat it was intended to provide.

Momo, at least, would be quite pleased; it had cost her dearly. She had taken odd jobs around Rukongai for months to save up enough for the gift for my birthday. Three years since my death and the start of a new life, and she was feeling very guilty. She had allowed her friends to pressure her into teasing me for the first time, telling me in front of all the neighborhood children that I was too small and too weird to go with them to a festival. She stopped short of calling me a freak, but it was the first time she had treated me like one.

She had gained nothing from it. Not one of those children were friends with her now. Not one had become a Shinigami. Most likely she did not even remember their names, though I never forgot them. The fact that I remembered every detail of that day more than 40 years later was testament to how deeply it had hurt at the time.

For the next several months she had scrimped together enough for a present that was more fine and valuable than anything I had ever had. A rich blend of silk and cotton in exactly my favorite shade of forest green, the scarf was very long, and I was so small that I had to fold it in half before wrapping it to keep the ends from dragging the ground. I wore it that winter many times to please her, and then it was carefully stored away. Momo probably thought it lost or thrown away, but I treasured it even if a barrier between me and the winter weather was not as welcome as she had hoped.

Now, however, it would serve a purpose. The fading welts on my neck would raise too many questions that I did not want to answer. It had taken hours just to calm Matsumoto down this morning, and I couldn't do that every time someone noticed wounds that would not heal.

Matsumoto had been waiting at the office very early. Fury and worry warred on her face and in her words. She stopped just a word short of accusing Ichigo of abuse. She could always tell when my cold mask was no longer fake. Besides, she did not really believe that he would hurt me, though the circumstances would lead anyone else to that conclusion.

Thus, I accomplished not one thing on my morning agenda as I told her everything. Now two people were aware, two people held this secret and possibly my life in their hands. I was torn between feeling panic at this vulnerability and feeling unreasonably happy that there were two people I could trust with this, two people I could rely on for help and support. And Matsumoto had been supportive, once she got over the shock. She had always remembered what happened to me long ago, when I had a 'breakdown' after facing the deaths of my squad. She and Shiba had known it was no mere panic and grief induced collapse. Now she knew the truth, and the iron will she hid from most would help her deal with this new burden.

Once we had finished a long talk, I sent her out to at least make an appearance on our behalf at the training grounds before the morning ended. She was too worked up and would be useless for office work. I settled in to skip lunch and catch up.

To my dismay a notice was waiting at the top of the stack of papers. Before the traitors had destroyed the long period of relative peace, a meeting of all captains was rare. At least every few months there would be a standard meeting of captains and lieutenants, and perhaps one or two more in a year for important news. Each division was its own army, with its own commander. Few things really required more cross-communication than was possible through messages between captains.

But in the tension leading up to the crisis, and in the time after Aizen's traitors and Ichigo's misfits had brought chaos and war it seemed we were meeting constantly. It took too much time. The meeting itself would be at least an hour, likely several hours. I did not have as far to travel as many, but that too added time and inconvenience. Still, the fate of Ichimaru Gin was significant enough to call a meeting. The selfish part of me wanted to skip this foolishness, bury that problem in a very deep hole and piss on its grave. But duty and fairness demanded more of me.

My concern for Matsumoto aside, the question of Ichimaru's guilt came down to a few simple issues. He had been working against Aizen. Enough to earn a pardon or not, that was not as clear. It was very likely that he had not harmed Ichigo, and that Aizen was responsible for the horrors my beloved had been subjected to. Was that doubt enough to earn my pardon, or Ichigo's?

In the eyes of the Gotei, a Shinigami even suspected of treachery had to be put down without question, without trial, and without pity. The mitigating factor was that the Shinigami in question was a captain. A particularly clever and powerful captain, at that. Before I had come along, Ichimaru was the great child prodigy of the times. His personality won no allies, but his prowess would likely earn him mercy.

One thing kept bothering me. To get someone like Aizen to trust you even a little, to be able to stay at his side, there was simply no way Ichimaru was not guilty of some truly horrendous crimes. These had not been discovered and so could not be a factor in determining his punishment. But I knew, and the other captains knew. Whatever he had done to earn his way into Aizen's favor may never come to light. But trust him? Never in this life.

Central 46 had only just begun reforming, the nobles quarreling over who would have a seat on the influential council. It might be months before they were ready to interfere with the Gotei again. The king hadn't taken an interest in centuries. And so, for once, the fate of a traitorous captain would be left in the hands of his fellows. We who had our faith shaken, our trust trampled on, and our peace shattered by three of our own would now pass judgment on the last living target of our outrage.

I leaned back in my chair, the weight of my thoughts temporarily interrupting my work. Ichigo and I would need to talk about this tonight. Before then I needed to reach a decision on where I stood. Reason told me to condemn the man. Ichimaru had never been trustworthy, and someone with that kind of power could not be allowed to exist without that trust.

But emotion said otherwise, and for once I was inclined to favor emotion over reason. And as I reviewed my previous thought I understood why. The memory of the hurt and confusion on Kusaka's face, my own rage and sorrow that he had been condemned not for a crime, but for ideals that others believed might someday lead to a crime. Judgment had been passed on Kusaka, he had been deemed unworthy of power for the frailty of his convictions. It was not wrong, but neither was it a right action in any way. And what weaknesses Kusaka had shown, they were greater and more dangerous than the faults I had been able to prove in Ichimaru.

Punishment of some kind would be acceptable, a demotion at the very least. Even stripping his power, I could support. But death without proof, I did not want to see that happen again. The Gotei was learning after the near execution of Kuchiki Rukia, and Momo would not be alive today of we still jumped to the worst option.

It seems my decision has already been made. Now I just hope Ichigo can live with it.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"Fine."

"What?"

"I said, fine. If that's your decision, I support it."

He stared at me, eyes slightly distant and I could almost hear the gears spinning in that remarkable brain.

"Why do you seem so surprised, love? I told you my feelings on this."

"Yes, you did. But forgive me for assuming this would be much harder for you."

"It is, in a way. But I've had access to classified material for a while now. I've learned enough to allow a faint shadow of doubt, just as you said. And I can't trust my memory thanks to that bastard and his sneaky zanpakuto. I'd already decided that when I can't trust myself, I'll just trust you. You have never steered me wrong and you never will."

Wide eyes blinked and he ducked his head into the new scarf that set those eyes afire like emeralds. I held back a smile at the adorable way he evaded showing how flustered praise made him feel.

It had been a long day in the 5th. Fewer transfer requests had come in than expected, but that still meant paperwork and research to find out why they wanted to leave. I didn't hesitate to approve them, but I wanted to be sure I was aware of any particularly spiteful or untrustworthy motives. Only in a few cases did I feel the need to inform the captain of the requested division of my findings. Most of them were just uncomfortable with me personally, or with serving under the man who killed their captain. The bastard had apparently been a pretty nice guy when he was hiding his true nature.

Training had been ongoing under Komamura, and I let that continue with few changes for now. Patrols had stepped up, and shortly the 5th would pull its weight in the living world once again. And we had finally started the final round of try-outs, pitting officers against the best of the unseated.

Feeling positive about the day and the future helped when I came home to find Toshiro still in the office with a carefully neutral attitude. He was quiet as we walked to our home and he sat down with me on the couch. With his usual directness, he told me what had been worrying him all day. No doubt afraid that I would be angry with him, he explained his thoughts each step of the way. Though my mind was already made up, I let him tell me his reasoning. It would help keep me from wavering when Ichimaru inevitably crossed me in the future.

Was I conflicted about Ichimaru? Of course, I was. Those memories, true, false or somewhere in between, they would never leave me. I hoped that it was Aizen all along, since the bastard was dead. I also knew myself well enough to know that there was nothing Ichimaru could do or say that would erase my hatred entirely. Zangetsu was of two minds, as well, both literally and figuratively. The old man was more pragmatic, and at least considered the possibility of Ichimaru's innocence in both the matter of Soul Society and my torture. The Hollow was still screaming for blood and always would be.

With all of this in my head and my heart, I could not be sure of any decision I might make. It came easily, trusting Toshiro.

I scooted forward as he gazed down, face still half tucked into the scarf and deep in thought. Sinking to my knees beside the couch, I took his hands in mine and met his startled eyes.

"I'm sorry, my love. It's not fair that you have to carry the weight for both of us."

"Ichigo, I did not think nor intend to imply anything like that."

"I know. But it is still true. You once warned me to treat you as an equal, but that's not something I can do just yet. You are my better in too many ways. Until I can be sure that my decisions are my own, unaffected by my past, then I have to ask this of you. Someday, if you can continue to guide me, I will be a worthy partner, an equal. I can swear it, with not one other promise to hold me back."

His amazed expression had softened, and he smiled at me before pressing soft lips to mine briefly.

"Nothing you ask of me could ever be a burden. There is no one more worthy, there never will be, but you can take all the time you need to realize that."

The next kiss he gave me was a good deal less chaste, and I moaned my approval as he took the lead. He tugged at my hands when he broke the kiss and stood to lead me to the bedroom. Given what happened the last time he fucked me in the living room, I couldn't blame him.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

As expected, the arguments for and against execution were complicated and well thought out. Soi-fon and Komamura made the strongest cases for a death sentence, and they were all arguments I myself had considered. Ukitake and I countered every point. That left Kyoraku, Unohana, Kurotsuchi, Kuchiki, Zaraki, Ichigo and of course the sotaicho, all being less vocal or clear in their opinions.

The only question before us was execution or not. If he lived, then more time would be needed for everyone to consider what to do with him. Or perhaps the sotaicho would make that decision on his own. This could go either way, and I, one of Ichimaru's only defenders, really could not care less about the outcome. I would argue for clemency, but I would not risk a damned thing to fight an execution order for that snake, not for my sense of fairness, not for a stand against summary judgment, and not even for Matsumoto.

Ichigo, on the other hand, I could see taking on the entire Gotei again. It would not be for Ichimaru, but for his own ideals. If it came to that, I would be right beside him. I may not have unshakable convictions on the matter of execution, but my support for Ichigo was unconditional. I shook away those thoughts, no need to create conflict when there was still a way to avoid it.

Ichigo remained silent, apparently listening calmly to each viewpoint. His casual stance, slightly slouched with head high, was one I had seen before. It was his own mask, even better than mine for it hid a level of battle-readiness that was truly astounding. I was willing to bet that Zaraki recognized that stance, possibly Kuchiki though their battle had been long ago in Ichigo's mind and perhaps he had not yet developed this habit.

It wasn't until the vote was called that he glanced at me, and the mask lifted for an instant with the corners of his mouth.

As always, the vote went in order, though Division 1 was skipped. The sotaicho would only vote in case of a tie, or if he had strong enough opinions on the matter. I slightly envied Ukitake his position at the end of the line. Often the matter was already decided before he needed to weigh in.

Soi-fon, of course, was a yes favoring execution. Unohana a no. Eyes turned expectantly to Ichigo and there were several surprised fluctuations of tightly controlled reiatsu when he spoke one, firm word.

"No."

Kuchiki, to my amazement, favored execution. The man had always been a stickler for the law, to the point where he fought to make sure his own sister was executed. But I had thought he had started to see beyond black and white after that incident. Perhaps he had, but this particular issue was sensitive enough that even I had trouble reaching a decision.

Komamura stuck to his arguments and voted yes to execution. Kyoraku, always a hard one to read, was a no. My no and Zaraki's no followed. Kurotsuchi, another difficult one to predict, was a yes. With Ukitake's no, all eyes turned to the old man to see if he would accept the simple majority vote or drag this out until a unanimous decision was reached.

"Very well. The life of Ichimaru Gin has been spared. Proposals for punishment or lack thereof will be accepted for one week. Then I will announce my decision."

What a relief. If he had left that broad subject open for debate, it would be days before we gave up trying to find common ground or started killing each other.

Some captains make quick exits after meetings. Others tend to linger and discuss. I had always fallen in between, depending on the issues at hand and just how tedious the meeting was. Ichigo was in apparently deep discussion with Unohana, and I briefly debated waiting for him or leaving when it happened. I must have been too focused earlier, concentrating on the meeting and Ichimaru. As I stood thinking of more trivial things the sotaicho stood to leave. His eyes, usually hidden beneath heavy brows, were wide open as they swept the room, casually contacting mine before moving on.

In that instant, my mind clicked together the observations it had made and the memories it had recalled. Rage hit me like a physical blow, followed quickly by grief, confusion, and even a hint of fear. I looked away quickly, eyes automatically seeking out my beloved as I struggled not to react.

Ichigo may have decided on his own that he was not a strong partner, but he proved the lie as his eyes widened and his body tensed. He said a few more things to Unohana before slowly turning and walking to me with that deceptively casual, hyper-alert posture, his eyes scanning the room for danger. My mind registered all of this distantly as it labored to make sense of what I had just learned.

Unohana was looking toward me with concern and the sight of her doubled the torrent of raw emotion. I held back a growl and tried to block out the sight of her. I reined in my reiatsu ever tighter, trying to hide the feelings I could not yet sort out and control. Others must sense it, but I dared not look.

Stopping in front of me so that his body was between me and most of the lingering captains, he whispered low.

"Toshiro, what is it?"

I sucked in a breath and held it, resisting the urge to grab him, to find an anchor. The raw flesh around my leg and neck began to sting and burn. I was starting to feel dizzy. It would not be good if I passed out right here, showing weakness in front of Yamamoto was not an option. My eyes must have shown my growing panic.

Ignoring the others and any thoughts of propriety, Ichigo took my hand with a fake smile and with just a bit of pressure pulled me close by his side as he walked calmly out of the meeting hall. Gripping his hand so tightly that my own hand started to hurt, I let out my breath and composed my face and posture. No sooner had we crossed the threshold of the large double doors than he pulled us into a series of quick flash steps, stopping in a deserted, narrow alleyway and grabbing my shoulder with his free hand.

"Toshiro? What's wrong?"

I shook my head, "Home. It's not safe here."

Now he truly looked worried, but quickly the alarm faded into fierce determination and his eyes flashed gold. My darling Ichigo was just waiting for me to tell him who to kill to make it all better. I had no doubt that if I said Yamamoto's name, Ichigo would attack without hesitation, and I found myself sorely tempted. Which one of us was the dragon? I would have laughed if I wasn't afraid of sounding hysterical.

He set a blistering pace straight to our bedroom, casting the familiar barrier around us for good measure as he encouraged me with a gentle nudge. I sat on the edge of the bed as he asked, though the dizziness had passed, and my mind was starting to clear. He worked the clasp on my sash loose, so that Hyorinmaru dropped from the awkward angle to land softly on the bed.

Ichigo removed his swords and knelt in front of me. The love and support in those warm, clear eyes steadied me. I had been so sure that I was going to fall into another unwilling confrontation with my past. The death-grip I had on his hand loosened, my fingers throbbing at the renewed flow of blood. I watched in fascination as whitened flesh flushed red and then gradually regained normal color. What an odd feeling.

"Toshiro?"

I blinked and looked up, not sure for a second where or even who I was.

"It was him, Ichigo."

"Who, my love?"

"Yamamoto. He is the one who killed me."

Having said it aloud, my confusion faded into cold certainty and fury surged through me again. It was not my anger, yet I could not suppress it. The wrath was an avalanche, burying me instantly. I felt trapped, pushed under a heavy weight and unable to move. Yet my body did move, to my horror, as I fought and screamed at whatever it was that was in control.

I was on my feet, pacing back and forth in short, quick strides, my entire body shaking. My clenched teeth parted in a rough shout of rage.

"Faithless coward! Fucking puny, mewling little human soul. How dare he!"

Something grabbed at me, attempted to move me, and I swatted it away.

"Insignificant worm. Slave of traitors. He dares lift a hand to me! I will rip him to shreds! Swallow him whole and spit out his bones!"

I lunged for my sword, intent on continuing my revenge on the world, starting with that arrogant murderer and his ragged band of mercenaries that gave themselves the glorified title of Shinigami.

I was grabbed again, this time in an iron grip on both arms. I focused on my attacker, snarling, and froze in shock. A small, plaintive whimper rose involuntarily from my throat. My eyes devoured the bronze skin, the features seemingly hand selected for pleasing perfection, the gleaming gold eyes that made me weak in the knees with just a look. The anger did not die, in fact it was sharpened by the grief. How cruel, whatever malevolent power showed me the image that haunted my shattered heart.

"What have you done to your hair, beloved?"

I smiled, indulging the fantasy for just a moment longer. What I would not give to believe this bittersweet lie. It was not him. There was no fire and lightening where his hands touched me. There was no pale scar on his lovely, long neck to prove our bond, only some ugly black brand.

"My love? Toshiro, please snap out of it. Come back to me."

My smile twisted into a sneer. "Illusion or ghost, angel or demon, you do not deserve to wear that face. Leave me before I destroy you."

It let go, and I was glad. I did not want to attack whatever it was while those eyes gazed at me. In my overconfidence and my haste to quench my bloodlust I made a fatal mistake. I turned for my sword and the thing moved with blazing speed. I whirled, a blade of ice forming in each hand, but its closed fists wrapped one around the other slammed full force into my temple.

One instant of surprise that it was capable of harming me was all I had. What had happened to me? Why was I so weak? And all faded into familiar pain and darkness.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Fuck!

I gathered up the crumpled form of the man I loved, wondering who he would be when he awoke. Laying him gently on the bed and sitting next to him, I immediately started healing the new damage I had done. The swelling retreated and already his eyelids gave a little flutter. Should I use a binding kido in case he was still violent? No, I couldn't bring myself to do it. But I did take a moment to move Hyorinmaru off the bed and out of easy reach. And I was out of time.

"What the hell?" His hand went up to his forehead as he propped himself up on an elbow.

"That's my question, love. I'm the one with the split personality, remember?"

"I completely lost it, didn't I?" He sounded absolutely composed. "That has never happened before and can never happen again."

"Agreed, your past self is even scarier than you are."

He looked up at me, almost reluctantly, and studied my features carefully. I had already figured out where this was going. For once I was a step ahead of the tensai, my broken heart giving me something of a head start. I gave him a light smile as his eyes widened.

"It cannot be."

"And why not?"

"It would explain so much, including why I am remembering now when all of my past selves could only find more unanswerable questions."

"And how you could fall in love with me in the first place."

He bared his teeth and suddenly had my head held firmly in his hands.

"No, Ichigo. Don't you ever cheapen us that way. I fell in love with you, and I fall again every day for the man you are. If our souls were together before, that takes nothing away from what we have now."

He responded instantly when I pulled him flush against me and pressed our lips together. His hands slipped back into my hair as I hurried to taste him, and I was soon lost in the sweetness of his mouth and the thrill of his tongue curling around mine.

Toshiro was right. My heart had cracked when he looked at me as if he was seeing a ghost, with a deep love in his eyes that was not meant for me. And I knew then, absolutely knew that Toshiro had not fallen in love with me. His soul was bound to mine, and to the memory of a man neither of us knew. It made sense, how could I have ever hoped to capture such perfection?

But I was the one touching that perfection now. And Toshiro was pushing against me with little noises of greed and enjoyment for me, for this body and this life.

Toshiro was right. Raiden was fucking dead, and Toshiro was mine. The man I had fallen in love with the moment his fierce eyes had found and pulled apart every secret in my heart was mine. The man who endured torture and abuse at my hands for just the slightest chance to painfully heal my broken mind was mine.

A moment of work and I was pushing away all the layers of cloth, then leaning into him as my mouth left his, skimmed down his neck and went straight to teasing his chest as he fell back with a soft moan. My hands worked on removing my own clothes, Shinigami really wore way too much.

I had to break away from him for a moment to strip away my pants and underwear; Toshiro really did not approve of the lost contact. Before I could lean back over him, he had risen and pushed me back, his mouth latching onto my chest as his hands skimmed along my ribs.

Flat on my back, I yanked down the rest of his clothes while he pulled himself up my body for another long, fierce kiss, my stoic ice prince every bit as desperate as I was. My hand fumbled blindly to the side and Toshiro suddenly chuckled against my lips. He leaned over and brought me what I sought, returning to nipping my lips as I popped the cap off the tube and rushed to reach that delicious softness.

He was grinding against me, his erection against my stomach as my fingers entered him.

"Mmmmm." He broke away from my lips and started creating a ring of bruises around the tattoo on my throat. Lips and teeth moving in time with my hand.

"Mine, only mine." His voice was almost angry and so frankly possessive that it made me shudder.

"As you are mine, my love," and I made him gasp with an expert push of my fingers. I knew his body better than my own.

His hands once again held my face as he pulled up to look into my eyes.

"My Ichigo." In total contrast to his attitude seconds ago he smiled playfully and kissed just the tip of my nose as I smiled back.

Then he was scooting down, and my hand pulled away as his intentions became crystal clear. I had not stretched him much, but I knew Toshiro would do what he wanted anyway so I hastened to run slick fingers over myself. When that lascivious little demon sat up and reached for my cock, I couldn't stop my hips from jolting up and he smirked down at me, pushing my length against his ass with a long, slow stroke of his palm.

"Toshiro!" I reached for his hips and he resisted for a moment before letting me force him upward. All this teasing was about to drive me mad. But finally, he was lowering himself onto me, and I groaned at how uncharacteristically slowly he was moving, how unbearably, how perfectly tight he was.

His eyes were closed and his head back, mouth open as he took slow breaths and let his weight fall gradually. My body shook with the effort to remain still until I was fully and almost painfully sheathed in heat. He looked down at me, eyes dilated but sharp as he captured my gaze.

"This is my promise, Ichigo." I clenched his hips and groaned as he rocked forward, then back. "I have never been inside anyone but you, and I never will be."

He flexed again, the movement pulling right at the base of my cock, causing a flash of pain and then unbelievable pleasure.

"No one has ever been inside me except for you, beloved. And no one, no one but you ever will be."

Fuck! He can't possibly expect me to take this torture.

He smirked again and tried to push me back halfheartedly when I sat up and wrapped my arms around him to pull his body close. He moaned at the shift in position as my tightening arms pulled him up a few inches and his cock was pinned between us. I captured his lips and flexed up into him, feeling his arms slide around my sides and his hands caressing my back.

We moved together gently, slowly, allowing kisses and nibbling at ears and necks in this close, intimate pose. When he started rolling his hips against me to tell me he wanted more, I was more than ready to comply. I leaned into him a bit to encourage him to fall back, his weight rested in my arms at what I knew would be the ideal angle.

Within minutes I had turned my sensitive, delightfully vocal lover into a shrieking, writhing mess. Of course, I was not much better off, and I could feel the building wave of bliss ready to crash down. I pulled him back to my chest, hoping to slow the end just one more minute. But as he clutched at me and bit into my shoulder, I felt the warmth spread between us. His body tightened around me, muscles pulsing and dragging me right along with him as I came with a shout.

We were locked together, pushing still against one another and holding tight. In that delirium, it seemed we could actually become one being and never be separated again. What Heaven dreamed of by man offered such a reward?

 

Chapter Text

"Do you get the feeling you are forgetting something important, or is just me?"

I leaned back against his muscular chest, completely relaxed, wrapped in hot water, bronze legs, and strong arms.

"Maybe our jobs?"

"Meh."

"What does that mean?"

"Really? I thought you were getting the hang of my lingo."

"See previous query."

"Meh. Short way to say 'who gives a fuck,' maybe."

"So you don't give a fuck about your job? I've corrupted you."

His head came down and he nuzzled my shoulder.

"Mmmm, completely."

I sighed and tilted my head a little.

"And you still are corrupting me. I actually should go back. We both should. I don't know if the old man suspects anything, but best not poke the bear."

I sighed again. "At least I get that one. And it's even appropriate."

He raised his head, much to my disappointment.

"Toshiro, what do you plan to do about him?"

"About Yamamoto? Absolutely nothing."

"Even though he's the one who killed you?"

"After I slaughtered hundreds, maybe thousands. And I have very good reason to believe he's had a hand in my execution more than once over the centuries. I am not poking that bear any time soon. I know what will happen if I do."

"Don't you think it will happen sooner or later?"

"Yes, I do. But let it be later. If I can learn more, figure out some way to survive without going to war against my own allies, I will hide the truth as long as it takes."

"Some allies. This is all starting to feel too familiar. Only the wolves wear better disguises here than they did in Las Noches."

"Bears or wolves? Stop trying to confuse me."

His chuckle made the water ripple.

"Ichigo," I rubbed his legs in a soothing gesture, "Don't rush to judgment. There may be very good reasons for this state of affairs. And ask yourself, why am I still alive? Yamamoto knows who I am. I have long since achieved Bankai, which seems to be a common tipping point in many past lives. The longer he lets me live, the greater the potential threat I become. So there is, there must be more to this than a war between the two of us."

"So damn sexy." He was nuzzling my shoulder again, but only for a moment.

"You know, love, you have a distinct advantage over all of your previous incarnations."

'Not one of them had you by their side. I know. And I suspect that is exactly why I have been able to remember so much."

"I really do have to get out of this bath now, or I'm going to have some difficulties."

"Like I haven't noticed." I deliberately wriggled against him and felt him harden even more. "You know, your division probably doesn't know the meeting is over. And my division operates too smoothly to be thrown off by my absence."

"Hitsugaya-taicho, you are a terrible influence."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"Stupid cat!"

"Dammit, Matsumoto! Perhaps the reason you have trouble with Heineko is that you fail to understand the basic purpose of meditation. Can you please keep it down?"

"It's not my fault, taicho! She's just so . . . so mean, and stuck up, and vain, and lazy, and mean!"

"Shut up or leave, Matsumoto." I drew a deep breath. "Why don't you just try approaching this like talking with a new recruit. Be the adult for once."

"Humph. I'll try, taicho."

"Good. And if it doesn't work, get the hell out."

Nothing stood in Matsumoto's way except Matsumoto. She was perfectly capable of manifesting Heineko, but half of the time she tossed around excuses and blamed it on the zanpakuto spirit instead. I knew it wasn't just embarrassment or fear of failure in front of me, because I had observed her throwing her temper tantrums in what she thought was complete privacy.

I had yet to discover how to shake her out of this. The relationship between zanpakuto and Shinigami was too personal for someone like me to be able to look beyond logic to whatever sensitive issues were holding this pair back. Then again, she only recently had to stop worrying about the Gotei executing Ichimaru Gin. And now she waited to hear of his punishment. Not everyone was capable of calming the soul in such emotionally fraught circumstances. With a mental shrug I focused on my own problems. I put Matsumoto out of my thoughts and let my awareness shift to the cold plains.

Hyorinmaru was not avoiding me, much to my grateful surprise. He was nearly perfectly camouflaged, resting on an icy expanse of frozen lake. This was the ice dragon's version of sunbathing, and he sparkled in the white winter light brighter than diamonds. With a fearsome, toothy yawn he stretched his wings and turned his long neck to look in my direction. I walked calmly onto the lake, feeling as relaxed as I appeared for once. I had plenty to be worried about, plenty to make me nervous and angry. But it didn't seem to matter at the moment. The sky was clear and sunny, my mind at rest.

Huge red eyes blinked lazily and wings settled outspread to catch the sun as the great head came to rest on the ice. On impulse I focused a bit of my reiatsu and pushed moisture to create a sloped bit of ice. I sat and leaned back against my little slope, with a curve like a hammock, and tucked my hands in my sleeves.

So, it has been an eventful few days, Hyorinmaru.

Almost a week, master.

Has it been that long? It all might have been a bit easier if I made more time to talk to you.

Perhaps. You have learned more?

You know I have, oh keeper of secrets.

The dragon stayed silent and so did I, watching the sparkling of the snow and ice. I was content if this was all I accomplished today. Knowing that he was defeated, Hyorinmaru broke the quiet after several minutes.

What have you learned, master?

I have learned that dragons can die, and that the desert is no place to face enemies. I have learned that the line between enemy and ally is ever changing and far too easy to cross. I have learned that the dead do not always remain silent, which should be no great shock for a Shinigami to realize. I have learned that past lovers can complicate present love, unjustly.

I turned my head to meet his eye.

Did you know, Hyorinmaru? Did you know all along that Ichigo is the reincarnation of Raiden?

I did not know, young one. I admit I suspected, but only after our return to Soul Society. When you remembered the name, I suspected. His zanpakuto spirit has changed too much for me to recognize him easily.

The one I used to be loved his soul unconditionally and beyond all reason. Does that mean we really had no choice but to end up together?

I wiped frost off of my face following the dragon's derisive snort.

We are not that weak. Think back, my stubborn master, on how vehemently you resisted the very idea of loving him.

Good. That is what my heart told me, but I needed to hear it. Will you now tell me the rest? What was he that I would end the world for ending his life, and what was I to be capable of such a resolve?

I cannot. But it is time I told you that you are the one who ordered secrecy.

Figures.

You, Hitsugaya Toshiro, are the first to learn this. The first to not lash out and bring on your own destruction. The first to survive.

Because of Ichigo?

Finding him seems to have accelerated things and stabilized your own reactions, but you were already beginning to recover your past and your power.

I shuddered. The memory of wrath and ruin delivered on white wings flashed through my mind.

The power I have is surely enough. At times it already seems more than I can handle, that I can barely use a portion of what I already have before I simply cannot continue.

This is unlike you, young one, to not reach for knowledge and control.

I am not speaking of knowledge and control, Hyorinmaru. I am speaking of power.

Knowledge, control, power, they are one. When you have overcome your fear, we will speak of this again.

I bit back an angry retort. If I stopped to think about it, I knew I would find truth in his accusation. I forced myself to relax once more, contemplating nothing more serious than the refraction of light through ice crystals until my mind returned to calm. Then I unfolded my arms and held them out. When here in my inner world, little effort was required to create two perfect versions of my katana out of ice. I knew that each sword was as strong as steel, stronger if called in Bankai, and stronger still when infused with my reiatsu. These were true weapons, not some simple trick of ice. I heard the dragon's hum of approval.

I have not seen that in a very long time.

I grinned at him.

Not entirely afraid, Hyorinmaru. And never for long.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"Are you ready?"

"Hell, no. But you won the bet fair and square."

This time I had two pairs of socks under my boots, and my long underwear I only used for skiing. It would end up being inconvenient. I knew we'd end up fucking after fighting, it was inevitable. But I wasn't going to freeze my dick off before that reward.

Blowing off some steam was a good idea anyway. An entire day of officer try-outs had been grueling, if entertaining. Those who had made it far enough to challenge the officers soon learned that there was a significant gap between seated and unseated. But the ones who survived the first cut were very good, and watching the fights made my palms itch for some action. Unfortunately, I was playing target thanks to losing the bet on the ski slopes, so I wouldn't get to really cut loose. Nope, I was going to get beat to a bloody pulp again.

"Alright, I actually have a planned objective, and you are the perfect opponent. I want to test this out in Shikai, and then Bankai. It's the first time, so I want to see how strong it is in both forms, and you can fight back as much as you want. I need to see the breaking point."

Better! He'd been very secretive and I was dying to see what he'd come up with. To my surprise he stayed on the ground as he called on Hyorinmaru's power without drawing the zanpakuto and faced me. Usually he used commands to call each technique, but this time he just moved his hands slightly out at his sides and two long swords of ice started to form. I grinned as I drew both of Zangetsu's blades. He'd picked this up from his past self, I was sure. Just before I'd knocked him out, ice had started to sharpen in each hand.

"Time for payback! This time you're the one who isn't used to two swords."

"Oh, Ichigo. Will you never learn?"

I brought my swords up without an instant to spare as the fragile looking copies of Hyorinmaru threatened to meet at the center of my neck. He jumped back with a chuckle, giving me a second to adjust my attitude. Of course he had at least learned the basics of dual wielding, he learned every type of weapon he could find. Then he was attacking again, faster than thought and reminding me that he had, in fact, thousands of years of experience to draw on.

Toshiro had always had the advantage in basic sword fighting, and in combining sword with hakuda. But the point here was to see how these swords held up. So I concentrated on force, my specialty, hitting him hard and making even my blocks aggressive. He smiled encouragement and kept up the assault, both of us passing up openings. We fought for the sake of the fight, not for victory.

We kept up a blinding pace and full force for probably 5 minutes before the katana in his right hand shattered after two successive hard hits. He grunted in pain and I immediately backed off.

"Downside, that shockwave when the sword breaks could break my arm. I will have to reinforce, which means another constant reiatsu drain." He flexed his arm a few times while examining the remaining sword. I could see the fine cracks along its length.

"Can I see that?" I sheathed my shorter blade. Toshiro hesitated, but then held the hilt out.

The second my fingers touched the hilt I yanked my hand back with a yelp. The three fingertips that had touched it were already frozen, and frost was crawling up toward my wrist quickly. Toshiro dropped the sword, which broke into fine shards before it hit the snow. He wrapped his hands around my wrist. The encroaching ice stopped and started to melt away.

"Ow, ow, ow! That stings worse when it thaws."

"Big baby." He examined my fingertips closely, then sighed and looked up at me. "I'm sorry. Hyorinmaru was trying to warn me, I should not have let you touch."

He ran his hands lightly over mine and then backed off.

"Neat trick, though. If you'd actually hit me with one of those . . .."

"Only one way to find out." I groaned as he backed up farther. "You might want your mask this time."

If he thought I was going to make it easy, he had another thing coming. I was faster than him when in Bankai, though he still managed to use experience to even things out a bit, especially after the duel became aerial. He had told me to fight back, and I did. I still tried to hit the swords as much as possible, but some damage was inevitable.

He finally hit me, an inch deep cut to my left thigh. I staggered, an involuntary reaction that could easily have cost my life in a real battle. Toshiro stopped immediately, dropping both blades and rushing to stop the ice encasing my leg. I instantly swung my hand to break the ice away, and watched in alarm as the ice, far from breaking, now blossomed on my hand again. It would take less than a minute if I stood still, and I would be completely covered.

Toshiro hissed at me as he put one hand on my left hip and the other on my right arm. Only then did I notice the slight difference, that no sleeve of ice covered his right arm, no icy fangs closed around his hand. I assumed it was because he never drew his zanpakuto.

"That was stupid."

"Yeah, well now we know. That is one dangerous technique, Toshiro."

"And the swords weren't even cracked. It took a lot of reiatsu, though."

The ice was gone, and the cut on my leg began to heal. Sometimes having a Hollow as a zanpakuto was pretty handy.

He looked up. The petals of ice were nearly gone, after only 15, maybe 20 minutes with only one technique. It would improve with practice, more than likely, but he was right about the drain. He would have to finish his opponent quickly if he used this trick in a real fight. Toshiro was still looking up and over his shoulder, his eyes fixed on the last petal as it started to fray.

"Hyorinmaru?"

His eyes widened and a look that might have been fear crossed his face too quickly to read. Then the ice surrounding him was crumbling away. He turned to me, a strange, nervous excitement lighting up his face.

"Is everything okay, love?"

He started to smile at me, then seemed to get distracted and scowled. Just as quickly he looked back up at me with a new smile.

"I honestly don't know. How's that for an answer? Shit, I need to sit down."

We were a good 200 feet in the air. I snatched him up in my arms, bridal style, shocked when he didn't lash out or yell at me for it. I had scratched him a few times during the fight, no serious wounds. I started healing the cuts before we reached the ground.

"Ichigo. Let me down."

I set his feet down gently, keeping one arm around him.

"You want to tell me what that was all about?"

"I will as soon as I know. There is nothing wrong, exactly. Try not to worry."

"Really? With all that's been going on with you, you want me not to worry about this?"

He reached up and stroked my cheek with a smile.

"You have been so patient, beloved. I was supposed to be the steady one, the strong one for you to rely on while you healed. But I have to ask you for a little more. I am going to sort this out. An end is coming, and it is coming fast. Can you just hold on to me through this?"

I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in soft hair.

"You are scaring me, Toshiro. And yes, I'll do anything for you."

"Good. That's very good." His hands rubbed my back as he pushed his cheek closer. "Start by taking me home. I want you to fuck me until I can't think, and you will whine about the cold if I make you do it here."

Just like that we were both laughing in the face of the unknown.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"Noooooo . . . "

"You mean . . . Yes . . . my love."

"Ichi . . . go . . . please!"

"Please?"

I grabbed at the headboard and tried to pull myself out from under him, far away from him, but he dragged my hips back down and did it again, that slow flexing while buried deep inside of me. It was far too much, his cock rubbing back and forth against my prostate, never backing off, never letting me breath. And he'd been torturing me like that for at least 10 minutes, or 10 years, somewhere in between the two?

"Oh, god . . . stop! I can't!"

Fuck! He moved again. Fiend from hell!

"Nnnnoooo . . . NnnAHH! . . ."

"You can . . . cum for me . . . one more."

That pathetic whining noise, I couldn't stop it. There was something diabolical about what he was doing. The pressure kept building but it wouldn't break, wouldn't let me release. It was far too much and yet not nearly enough.

"Nooo . . . I need . . OH, fuck!"

"What? What . . . do you need?"

Unable to escape as he pulled me down again and pushed against me, I tried to force some real friction, tried to push against him.

"AHH!" That backfired, it was worse than ever. Nothing had ever felt so rapturous and so infuriatingly . . . incomplete.

"Dammit . . . Ichigo!"

Out of options, I sank my claws into the skin of his shoulders and tried to pull myself up to bite him. He jerked his upper body out of my reach, pushing my chest down. Unfortunately, that made him move again, and I screamed my frustration. The demon had the nerve to chuckle at my plight and I gathered my breath and my will. The temperature dropped a good 20 degrees as I drew a breath and concentrated all of my effort into one demand.

"Finish it, bastard! Or I'll never fuck you again!"

With a smile as delighted as if I had just professed undying love, he pulled all the way out and slammed back into me, knocking out my air and my anger. Too exhausted to respond, I barely held on to his arms and barely held onto consciousness.

Finally, blessed relief as my body took over, leaving my mind in numb euphoria. Absently, I felt weary muscles make one last drive, clenching and thrusting and shaking and my drifting awareness stopped wondering how my body had enough energy to do that.

Just relax, body mine, come along with me into this bliss of satisfaction and fatigue . . .

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

My eyelids were as heavy as lead. I blinked slowly, the picture focusing. Outside of the wall of windows, the beauteous light of the full moon on days old snow, the top layers thawed and frozen into a crust of ice crystals that broke the light and enhanced it's glamour.

Oh, and it gets better. I know why cats sleep on their human slaves.

The rise and fall of the chest, the steady rhythm of a powerful heart, and the blessed warmth, all smoothly blended to create the ultimate comfort. Such soft, silky skin. He smelled of soap and the light spice that was purely his own.

We were clean. Wait, how had I gotten here? The last thing I remembered . . .

Ha! I can still feel a bit of shame after all of this time with Ichigo.

Well, he had done exactly as I commanded, fucked me completely senseless. Determined to not let the gift go to waste, I gazed at the diamond-encrusted snow and let his heartbeat grow louder in my mind, my soul as calm as the snow.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

How could I not start the day in a fantastic mood? Even if I was still worried about Toshiro, it wasn't like I really feared for him once I stopped to think. He could conquer anything. And today should finally end this tournament, allowing me to reform the rankings 5th and move on to more important tasks before the New Year.

Emiko eyed me as I chuckled at my clipboard, ignoring the gathering Shinigami in favor of remembering the dawn. It was the first time I ever had trouble getting Toshiro out of bed. I was sure he'd regret being late, so I had gone so far as to shake him, expecting a scolding or a foot to my face. He had woken enough to press his lips against my hand, then rolled into a ball and disappeared far under the covers for all the world like a hiding cat. Even my startled laughter didn't budge him.

So I had left word for Matsumoto that he would be taking at least part of the morning off, and left him a large breakfast on the counter. It had been magnificent, and I still couldn't believe that I'd actually managed to make him pass out completely. I was pretty proud of myself. Being tired and a little distracted today was an easy price to pay.

Hinamori had started instructing the group of hopefuls, and shortly we'd be ready to get the first round of the day going. At this point, every remaining combatant would be seated. How well they did today would determine just what rank they earned. It was no longer just an issue of winning the match. Intelligence, strategy, daring, and the blending of varied techniques were just a few determining factors. Brute strength alone would not earn their rank.

A thick piece of toast with dark jam appeared above my clipboard, and I grinned at Hamada as I took it. He was munching away on a slice, and almost always had food on him somewhere. And he had quickly figured out that I never turned down food, so random sandwiches, fruit, cookies, and more appeared under my nose at least a few times a day when he was around.

"You're in a fine mood, taicho."

"Of course, Mayeda. Aren't you looking forward to your turn fighting to keep your rank this afternoon?" She snorted, completely confident that she wasn't dropping from third seat. "Anyone I should keep an eye on?"

She gestured discreetly to the left. "See the two tall boys? The Date brothers. They're both pretty young, the blonde's only 20 years out of the academy, the brunette close to 35 years. I've been working on assertiveness. They have talent, not much confidence yet."

"The rather annoyed woman near Hinamori-fukutaicho will do well," Hamada added. "Otake Hana, unseated only because she was injured when she joined and didn't show well. She's been my right hand, very gifted and only 8 years out of the Academy."

I was getting used to the way everyone referred to time and experience as number of years out of the Academy. I'd never even been inside the Academy, which they probably forgot often. Toshiro had spent one year there and been recruited straight to a seated position. I had to remind myself that earning an officer's recognition in only 8 years was a serious achievement, and the two men were doing nearly as well if Mayeda recommended them at 20 years plus.

Hinamori was both serious and excited as she rejoined me. It was amusing how expressive she was compared to Toshiro's stoicism. They must have been the oddest pair of kids in Rukongai. Mayeda and Hamada stepped down to direct the tournament. I waved my clipboard to get rid of the crumbs and hummed a little as I leaned back on a pillar and let my eyes drift over the group, waiting and watching. Hinamori was scratching away as her head swiveled up and down, watching and writing. It was good one of us was a note taker, I supposed.

The morning flew by, with the three I'd been told to watch doing very well, along with one other older man. I had kept my cheerful mood, and found myself wandering the arena, giving pointers, compliments, and criticisms as needed. Even if a soldier didn't have the skills to make the top ranks, these were all the cream of the crop. I tried to learn as many names and faces as possible. It would be a long time before I could rattle off the history of every soldier like Toshiro could, but I would get there.

I made a quick run to the mess hall, bringing lunch back to the office for both me and Hinamori. She had already started a summary of the morning session, and the afternoon's schedule of matches was ready to have the few blanks filled in. As I moved food from tray to table, bits of color caught my eye mixed in with the bland papers. Hinamori noticed my tension as I sat up stiffly. Her small hand slid the two envelopes out from the mess. One was a buttercup yellow, covered in small, glittering stickers of Christmas trees, reindeer and holly. The other a more dignified sky blue envelope with a hand-drawn, intricate wreath as a seal.

"It is always nice to hear from loved ones around the holidays, right, taicho? It must be hard with your family so far away. It can be too easy to loose touch if you aren't careful."

Hinamori's voice was quiet and it wasn't difficult to hear her sorrow. My own sorrow faded and I reached for the letters with a growing smile.

"Oh my," she chirped, sounding like Matsumoto for a moment. "I forgot to tell you to get me my favorite juice. I'll be back in a bit, taicho."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"I really hope you learned something for your pains."

He looked like he'd fallen down a mountain or three. I knew the wounds would already be healed but his clothes were filthy with dirt and blood, and cut into shreds. At least he'd removed his haori first, and it was relatively clean, folded and draped over his arm.

"Go on, I will be right behind you. Did you get dinner?"

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. Man, I'm beat."

"I know the feeling. Do go clean up and get into a hot bath."

Training with Kyoraku, what complete insanity.

I turned back to what I was working on, my recommendations for Ichimaru. I could not wait until this was behind us. We had enough with Ichigo's new role, my new crisis of identity, and the probably associated power surge I was struggling to control. Up against these things, Ichimaru was an irritating thorn you couldn't seem to work out of your skin, always there to add just that little extra bit of misery when you were not expecting it.

Reaching a stopping point, though not nearly finished, I tucked the report in a sealed envelope, then a sealed box in a sealed drawer, double checking all of them. Matsumoto I trusted not to snoop, even on this subject. But she and Ichigo were two of thousands, and the others were all suspect.

Hurrying across the courtyard to take care of my man, I lamented the vanishing snow. There was more on the way, but the ground would be bare and ugly for a couple of days. Unless I did something about it. Tempting, but the old man would get grumpy and another meeting was on the horizon. Ichigo was just climbing into the tub as I came in. He was tired, he had left his clothes in a trail that I picked up as I walked. Normally he was as neat as I was.

"Sorry for the mess, love."

"Nonsense, just rest. I'll take care of you for a change."

"Sounds good," his voice was already slurring as he sagged into the water. I went to get some of Urahara's tea, just one cup should be perfect for him to relax, and a pot of herbal tea as a back up. While it brewed I changed into a light robe and turned down the bed, put water glasses on the nightstands, getting everything ready like he had done for me.

I thought he might be asleep as I brought in tea, but his eyes slid open and he reached to the cup. I grabbed the water pitcher by the sink and crawled up on the edge of the tub, hitching my robe up to let my legs dangle into the water by his left shoulder. I dipped the pitcher and slowly spilled hot water over his shoulders and the back of his neck. Another pitcher and I worked my free hand through orange locks as water soaked into his hair. With a deep sigh he let his head fall back against my thigh. We sat like that for several minutes as I steadily streamed water over him and pet his head and neck. I knew he would reach for me, and pull me right into the water if I let him. So I was ready when he put down the empty mug and made his move. I had scooted off of the tub and out of reach before his hands were even close.

He pouted at me as I set a towel cautiously on the edge of the tub with a smirk and left. Not that I planned on denying him, I just had other ways of taking care of him in mind first. Ichigo stepped out of the bathroom, toweling his hair but otherwise completely bare for my happy eyes to consume. He paused and took in the scene. Candles shed soothing light and a hint of lavender scent. I had spread an extra sheet over one side of the bed to keep it clean, and I was waiting in the center of the bed, sitting on my knees. I patted the sheet and he came forward eagerly.

Before he could get carried away, I made my intentions more clear.

"Face down, darling. Arms relaxed at your sides. No back talk."

He raised an eyebrow and did as told. The scent of sage mixed in with the lavender.

"Matsumoto swears by this massage oil. My only request was that it be sage, which I believe will smell just delightful on you." I whispered this against the back of his neck, then kissed his nape gently before pressing my fingers into his shoulders. He shivered and closed his eyes while I threw my leg over him and held my weight over his back, knees hugging his ribs.

Spreading the oil out over his shoulders and upper back with firm circling motions, I reveled in the feel of his skin becoming even more silken and warm beneath my lucky hands. He groaned when I found and started teasing loose a painful knot behind his right shoulder, and I worked until all of my weight was leaning into my hands to force the muscles to soften.

"He didn't take it easy on you then?"

"That's the sick thing," he mumbled without opening his eyes. "I'm pretty sure he did."

"Is he that much stronger?"

"It's not that. He's beyond cunning. If it was just strength, that would be easy. And he cheated."

"Cheated?" I moved to his left shoulder and he winced.

"The first hour my right hand was tied behind my back."

I chuckled. It made sense. Ichigo had been a single sword fighter, and his right hand was dominant. He would need to spend a lot of time breaking his reliance on that arm.

"No Bankai?" I was curious. I had heard stories, but never seen Kyoraku's Bankai. Based on the rumors, I was not sure I ever wanted to.

"No Bankai, no mask, not even Shikai for him. Just kicking my ass. But he did show me how he did it each time. You know, he reminds me of you."

That was a surprise. I got another groan out of him as I put my weight on an elbow to fight a particularly tough knot of muscles.

"What do you mean?"

"He's fast like you, though he spends more time still. But it's the way he seems to have everything mapped out two or three hits ahead. And he never misses a mistake, never fails to see an opening. Just like you. You two should never duel. That would be a nightmare."

"Don't worry. I cannot think of any reason I would want to face him."

I pressed my thumbs and palms out from the his spine, working lower and hearing his spine crack a few times as I went.

"How are you so good at this?"

"Mosby's Fundamentals of Therapeutic Massage. I will be sure to thank the bookseller since you seem to approve."

"I'll confess, I planned to let you do my shoulders and then tackle you, but this is too good."

I leaned into long, diagonal strokes up his lats.

"Found something you like better than sex. I can do your legs and arms, then?"

"Not even close, and yes, please."

It wasn't the best angle, but I liked where I was and decided to make do. I got more oil and took his right hand to start. Hand massages are underrated, at least according to the book and what I had tried on myself. Ichigo certainly seemed to agree as I worked with tendons and joints that never got any attention. The delight of working his skin and muscles was difficult enough to deal with, but the quiet sighs and moans . . . it was taking every ounce of willpower to stay calm.

"Momo sent me a note today. She hasn't done that in ages. She said the officer testing has really shaken things up."

"That's an understatement. Still, could have been worse. We're posting results tomorrow. Going to have some more transfers, I'm guessing. Quite a few of the lower seats got eliminated almost immediately."

"That happens with open try-outs. You will have fewer abandon the 5th than you think. Loosing rank can reignite ambition."

"I hope so. I'm looking forward to some stability. And Hinamori has been incredibly helpful. She keeps surprising me. You should have seen her, a soon-to-be former 19th seat wanted to whine about losing. She tore his head off without ever blinking. It was beautiful. Oooo, right there. I didn't even know that hurt."

I smiled as I spent more time on his forearm and elbow.

"I'm very glad that she is doing well. Just wait until you have the ranks done and let her show you what she can do with kido."

"I've heard. Did she tell you that I received letters from home today?"

"Hmm. She might have mentioned it."

His amused snort made me smile. It was getting more difficult to manipulate him without getting caught, and I didn't mind that at all. My beloved was sharp, that downplayed intelligence was figuring me out, learning my tells. It was splendid. He was splendid. He was starting to think ahead, and one day soon my precious idiot would be competing to stay two steps ahead just like Kyoraku, just like me.

"I should visit the girls soon. I've already put it off too long."

"Perhaps for the New Year?"

"Yeah, maybe. Toshiro, how many spies do you have in the 5th?"

My pause to stifle a pleased chuckle was likely taken as hesitation to answer, or surprise at his insight.

"I never trusted Aizen. And my sister was obsessed with him. Do you really want me to answer that question?"

He was quiet for a moment, except for a little sigh as I flexed his shoulder and started warming up his upper arm muscles.

"No. I guess not."

"I will tell you that your 3rd and 5th are completely clean, I know you like them. They don't belong to me or anyone else as far as I can tell. Do you want me to cut ties? I will. I do not need to worry about the 5th anymore."

He was quiet longer this time.

"No. You do what you think is right. Do other captains spy like that?"

"Hmm, what I do is not quite spying. Well, literally I guess you can call it that. I do not encourage betrayal or even active information gathering, since I would not trust anyone who would sell out their division that way. I just listen and ask the right questions, or have Matsumoto do it for me. She is quite effective. Everyone knows Division 2 has active spies everywhere, ones that actually seek out secrets. I know at the very least Kyoraku, Ukitake, Kuchiki, and the old man have eyes and ears like I do, because I know who they have in the 10th. Of course, Aizen and Ichimaru had a network, too."

"All of that and still no one was on to them."

"Aizen had them fooled as much as us. The 5th was completely under his mental control without even knowing it, informants included. And good luck ever getting dirt on Ichimaru. He never told anyone the truth about what he had for breakfast, let alone anything of value. Tosen was the surprise. His secrets were right out in the open, but no one was even looking."

"Speaking of bastards, did you get permission for us to go to Hueco Mundo?"

"Surprisingly, yes. I was going to ask you tomorrow about your schedule."

I set his right arm down gently, oiled up my hands, and shifted my weight to work on his left.

"If he doesn't show, maybe he really doesn't want to come back."

"Ask me if I care."

"Alright, forget I said anything."

"It's not just that I want him in the 10th. I cannot stand the thought of Kano alone there. He may have gotten used to it, but he should not die alone in a place like that. No one should."

"Right there again. Who knew elbows were such a problem? I hope we find him, Toshiro, and that you can convince him. He seemed pretty resistant to the idea of returning."

"I have time anyway. Matsumoto hasn't made any significant progress toward Bankai in the month since we came back. By the time she gets out of her own way there won't be any open divisions."

"Are you still working with her on studies?"

"Yes, we've just managed to fit it into the schedule. Perhaps once the Ichimaru situation is settled she'll be able to focus."

"Nope, not talking about that. I'm too relaxed."

I leaned down to kiss his cheek as I finished the left arm. That was a mistake. I had been holding myself off his back, but the movement made it very clear how aroused I was as my hardened length brushed against him.

"You know, my legs feel pretty good. There are a couple of other areas that could use a massage, though."

"Is that right?" I scooted down, letting my hands trail down his back and then over the curves of his ass. "Well, seeing as how I'm here anyway, with all of this oil on my hands . . . "

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"Everything is ready, my love."

I looked around in curiosity and started laughing. Ichigo had decided we would try sitting on the bed this time, so he could easily hold me. A cold shower and a warm bath were close by. Pitchers of cold water were by the bed and the tub. Even a covered tea pot was all set to go on the bathroom counter.

"I even warned Rangiku, so she won't freak out again. But I'm telling you now, I may not be able to keep my promise to stay out of it if you get physically hurt again."

"Fair enough." I pulled at his collar and kissed him, wanting to take the taste of him with me as well as thank him for facing this again. I broke away, more than a little tempted to forget the night's plans with my Ichigo and our bed so close. But for the first time I was looking forward to this trial. I knew the answers I wanted to seek, and I had an instinctual belief that I would be able to drag some truth from my subconscious this time.

"I may as well make your job even easier." I went to the closet and changed into a light robe. After a moment's thought I even decided to skip the underwear. It was just the two of us here, after all, and he could just dump me in the tub this way if he needed to.

Ichigo had settled on the bed, and he gave me that encouraging smile with just a hint of panic in his eyes. I knew how much he hated this. I loved him even more for both his protectiveness of me, and his respect for me that allowed him to set aside his fears to offer support without hindrance. What an incredible man. I climbed onto the bed. Settling facing him, close with my knees touching his legs. I gazed into his eyes for another moment.

"I adore you, beloved."

I closed my eyes on his widening smile, taking his taste and that bit of sunlight with me and I sank into the dark. My success had come when I focused on a firm memory, the flames that destroyed me. I had few other memories that strong, I didn't even know my own name or what I looked like. But I did have enough to call on one memory.

One recent night after a day spent relaxing with Ichigo, having what he insisted was a date in the living world, I tucked myself around a cup of thick, dark chocolate and listened to my lover sing. I let that song play through my head now, just his voice and the feeling behind the lines. The love behind those words. The warm, sensual taste of him now on my tongue. The glorious smile that reflected in joyful earth-toned eyes.

Ichigo. I thought of how my world revolved around my feelings for him, feelings I had discovered and resisted not even two months ago but now guided my thoughts every waking moment. It was easy to let everything else fall away. It was harder to take those feelings and deliberately turn them, use them to seek out another.

Raiden. You sang to me almost every night. Your silky, flawless skin was life and warmth to my cold body. Your smile brought sunlight into my darkness, and I worshiped you as the sun did. My beautiful Raiden, the most unexpected gift that somehow saved my soul from an eternity of isolation. Beloved. My golden soul.

Perhaps today I will die.

 

Chapter Text

Perhaps today I will die.

This was my ritual, my daily greeting of the sunrise. It was the only pleasant moment, the only pleasant thought I would have today and every day for eternity. Hope that death might come would fade until the sun set. And then I would watch the procession of the stars until the sun returned and I could greet the new day with my cheerful wish.

Perhaps today I will die.

Threats were beyond rare, an exception now rather than a rule. I was no longer the ultimate weapon. Nor was I the ultimate defense. No, I had become the ultimate status symbol. He who possessed me required my presence from sunrise to sunset. Nothing else, merely my physical body and enough of my mind to respond to stimuli. It was all the same to me whatever was required, though in the beginning it caused me great pain to kill respectable warriors and innocents at the behest of an enemy. I had stopped caring long ago, settling into a heartless apathy as I waited. But it was dull, so dull just waiting for death.

As the decades passed, even the need for my presence became more habit than necessity. My kind had faded into other dimensions, already becoming myth to the vermin who stole our home. The other forces that had once warred for control in the gloomy chaos had similarly surrendered or been destroyed. The age of humanity had come, with overwhelming cruelty that caused demons to flee in terror.

And with all of the stifling ennui of creatures meant to be mortal, the leaders of humanity stagnated in immortality. Only their ridiculous rituals and petty squabbles for influence kept them from calcifying into lifeless statues. Perhaps that is why they embraced their hierarchy that had no value apart from what they gave it by surrendering their small will to anyone who could exert control over them.

It was disgusting. The skin of my human form crawled with my need to rip it off, it was too filthy to live in. Bad enough to be coated by the repulsive greed of my 'master,' but to have to endure the insignificant, tiny pride that slithered over me with his every glance, his pathetic shade of true arrogance. The pride of my kind was as a mountain to his grain of sand, and yet that grain irritated and scratched me raw as he once again pointed out his most precious possession to yet another repugnant human soul come to sell its freedom.

It was only mid-morning, still plenty of time in the day, plenty of chances for some grand, ancient Akuma or even an army of humans to come to kill the king and perhaps grant my wish. So dull, this interminable wait. It never snowed here. What rain came was not allowed to fall on or anywhere near this open aired platform that served as a throne room. It was never hot, nor windy, nor anything but the stale perfection of a late spring day.

Suddenly my awareness shifted, a line had been crossed. The king of worms and his guest were closing in. I could not recall the last time a human had come so close. It may have been a hundred years ago, or yesterday.

"Father, how could you?"

"It is magnificent, is it not?"

"Magnificent? It's a sin."

I blinked. What I had sensed as grief was turning to fury. Alarms went off and I tensed without visibly moving. No choice in this, I had no choice but to defend the loathsome creature if this new soul intended him harm.

"You forget yourself, my son. I define sin and righteousness."

"With respect, father. The throne of Heaven does not grant you power over a Tatsu. Enslaving one such as he is the definition of sin."

My mind stumbled over those words. What did they mean? Was this soul a threat or was it not? To gather more information, I turned my head and saw the human who held the invisible chains fettering my soul. He did not appear harmed or under threat. His black gaze was on the man beside him.

The guest looked young, though when dealing with souls this was not a reliable judgment. His soul felt young. He was dressed richly, as all were who stood in this room. He was armed, which I had already noted as an anomaly. Hair matched the gold embroidery around his neck, and his skin was the color of fine bronze. All of this took an instant to be filed away in my mind. I did not see a threat, despite the tense anger of his pose. Whatever had earned his wrath, it had no direction, no purpose, like so much about these creatures.

When my eyes met his I blinked again. There was life lingering in the depths of those eyes, a light which made their unusual gold color gleam. He was not yet trapped and slowly crystallizing like the other souls who had halted their journey to create a kingdom with no function. My head cocked to the side in genuine curiosity as I contemplated the first spark of life I had seen in a human soul for . . . oh, ages.

So focused on the novelty of an emotion that was not entirely negative after all this time, I missed whatever the self-titled Soul King said that made the young man blanch and look away. They retreated, and my awareness faded, taking with it the image of golden eyes.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Time was never a concern for me before. I had become slightly more aware of it through prolonged exposure to mortal souls. I could not be sure if it was the night after I first saw the young man, or several nights later when he came to gaze at the stars beside me. The sky, once an unpredictable ocean filled with streams of color and currents of textured black, that sky where Tatsu would soar, leaving trails of power through the charged air, dancing and swirling with infinite variation, where had it gone? Now flat and motionless, hosting distant orbs of light that moved in regular patterns, order where once chaos reigned. The sun I could live without. The moon was more acceptable. But the stars! These varied jewels could stay on their ageless journey, could be my companions in the more comfortable dim light and coolness.

My entire world was the large, open throne room, the wide stairway, the narrowing hall, and one small room where I would rest for a few hours every night or two while my master was safely locked away to bathe in the power he had stolen and corrupted. The last time I had left this prison was to unwillingly kill an enemy of my enemy. I did not expect to leave this horrid place again in my lifetime.

But at least there was no roof, and I was allowed to spend nights where I spent my endless days. I stood at the very edge of my world, so that I could not see the pillars and the throne, only the quiet sky above and below. How long since I had flown? No, best not to allow that question. The skies were no longer my home.

I was aware of him before he set foot in the throne room. I had only to ask and my senses would tell me the location, intent, and power of any creature within miles. Normally, I blocked all of them out unless I sensed hostility, but without willing it I was aware of his approach. Such was the interest I had taken.

His power was significant, enough to register as a potential threat before. In my current suppressed state, he may be able to grant me my wish. But of course, the overriding orders of my master were to preserve his life and my own, so death at the hands of the golden youth was nothing more than a dream. Should he attack, my power would be released and I would never see that spark of life again.

Without a word he sat, dangling his legs into empty air at the edge of the platform two sword-lengths away from me. It did not irritate me to have another being present, but I would prefer greater distance.

"My name is Raiden. May I ask your name?"

It was not an unpleasant sound. But I could not fathom his purpose in speaking to me.

I heard him sigh. "I don't suppose I would speak to the son of the man who held me captive either."

I had thought of this earlier. He had called my captor 'father.' It was another foreign concept, that of parents and children. Two of my kind joined their bodies and their power. Whether intended or no, in the process they had given me form and called life from chaos, that was true. I did not know who they were. I had procreated several times. My offspring had perhaps fled. Given my own power which they may have inherited, it was more likely many of them fought. Undoubtedly more than one had fallen to me in combat. I felt no grief or longing for them, only a vague curiosity that was too weak to hold my attention.

But I gathered that there was an emotional connection of some kind between this young man and the tyrant, as there often was between humans identified as family. Did that make this boy an enemy? Weren't all human souls enemies? I no longer knew the answer, if ever I had.

"I could not sleep either. Forgive the intrusion, but this seemed like a good place to think. At least it has a good view."

Yes, it did have a good view, there at the edge.

"My father believes it is safe for me to be here now. If no one kills me in the next hundred years or so, he'll bring the rest of the family. The man is a stranger to me now, I haven't seen him since I was a kid. It will be worse for my little sister and brother. They never knew him at all."

The words were meaningless, like another language. He could talk, it did no harm. His tone was different from any human soul I had heard, open, unafraid, and seemingly honest. I was accustomed to fear, awe, hatred, pity, and lust. None of those rang in his words. He spoke casually, with an air of familiarity that was unearned.

"I am expected to be grateful and dutiful. I can manage one of those at most, sometimes. What is the point of an heir apparent if you plan to live forever? Silly, isn't it?"

A new sound made me become more aware of him. I would call it a chuckle, a sound of amusement. But when I had heard it from other humans it was always bitter, or sly, or cruel. That spark of life was in the noise he made, a feeling like happiness even though there was sadness mixed in.

"Forgive me. How rude to complain about my lot to you of all people."

What made me turn and look at him again? There was no purpose to acknowledging his presence, no gain to be sought. But turn I did, gazing down at startled eyes, reflective in the dim light, a predator like myself. Then he smiled at me, a wide, toothsome smile that transformed his somewhat stern face into one of easy geniality. It was a captivating sight, and I memorized it quickly. Golden eyes and an innocent smile. Two new things of beauty after an eternity of famine. Perhaps it was gratitude for these unsought gifts bestowed so freely that moved me to converse.

"Why do you speak to me, human?"

How long since I had uttered a single sound? I did not even speak to him, that vile despot, not even the 'Yes, master' which he used to be able to tear from me through the brutal application of pain. I was vaguely surprised that I did not recognize my own voice, so ragged and broken from disuse. Once my voice had been powerful and melodic, capable of wringing magic from the very air. Now it was weak and corroded, a scratching shadow of its former glory.

"Because since I have come here you are the only soul I've met that didn't immediately make me nauseous. You're the only thing that seems . . . real."

I turned my eyes back to the stars. His answer was no answer at all. He did not tell me why, what he hoped to gain from approaching me.

"Does it bother you, my presence?"

"No."

"That's something, anyway. I'm a selfish, spoiled child of privilege, and I wanted someone to talk to."

Mentally I sighed. He did not want someone to talk to, but apparently someone to talk at. Well, what else did I have to do tonight, or for the rest of my life? Perhaps I would try to make this a conversation. I had never had a true conversation with a human. But they were all that was left to speak to.

"Is that intended to amuse? I am capable of sensing power, and you are no simple, spoiled child."

"I confess, I have been lamely attempting to earn a smile. And yes, I'm a trained warrior, one with enough power and ability to earn my place here, unwelcome as the recognition may be."

"Indeed, there is more to you than meets the eye. Why would you hide your true self?"

"You make an error that many have before you. The strong princeling is the facade. But most never look past it."

Meeting his eyes, I did not see a lie. I had to admit to myself that I was interested. Perhaps there was something to be learned by exploring this curiosity. In my age of freedom, knowledge was something I had never turned away.

"Layers on layers, a most unusual soul. I do not object to conversing with you."

My eyes saw clearly in dark as well as light. Had he known this he might have at least attempted to hide the deep blush darkening tan skin.

"I thank you for the honor. It will make the time here bearable."

"You do not find pleasure in your position of favor?"

"Hardly. I am superfluous, something for my father to point at and say that he has accomplished something by producing a powerful heir. And we do not see eye to eye, to say the least. I have yet to truly cross him, but it will happen and the fallout may be more than I can handle."

"Yet you do not evade the confrontation. You could change your opinions to please him, or present a more respectful mien."

"I would rather die."

"As a service, I inform you that there are fates immeasurably worse than death."

The coloring of his cheeks reversed, paling as he took in the implications of my statement. Had he somehow forgotten who and what he was speaking to? How could such a vibrant, young soul hope to understand an ancient soul so drenched in darkness that it begged for its own ending with every breath?

"Please, can I at least know your name?"

"I do not know it."

"What? Why?"

"It was taken in order to end my freedom."

"Good God!"

"No, human. Neither your gods nor mine have any good in them."

He fell silent. I mapped the route of a small, yellow star to the east and let my mind retreat completely into the memory of snowy fields that was my sanctuary. If he spoke again, I did not hear. When dawn approached I noticed he was gone.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Perhaps today I will die.

I stood in my customary place to the west, to the right hand of the throne, far to the side near the pillars where I was not noticeable until pointed out by a gloating king. For most of the empty days I simply stood, and he simply sat. His mind worked as mine avoided doing anything at all. The tyrant did actually accomplish something with his time. He was using his power to tamper with the souls and destinies of his fellows.

Once again, I felt the need to shred my own flesh just to rid myself of the horrid aura of what he was and the atrocities he committed daily.

What of the golden youth? Did this thing expect its offspring to do the same, to play god and create a new order where none was called for? Something in me that had been dormant since my enslavement stirred. I did not wish to witness the downfall of the young man. I did not wish to see that golden youth corrupted by the black soul he called father.

Deliberately, I quieted my thoughts and retreated. Really, what had shaken me so? It was only midday. There was still a chance that something bloody and epic would happen today, and perhaps I would finally be fortunate enough to die.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the young man approaching once more. Noting again the presence of power and a sword but no intent to use them, I turned my attention away.

"Good evening," he said pointlessly as he sat on the edge and leaned out over the sky to take in the view.

The star I was watching tonight had moved enough to make me tilt my head when he spoke again. No, he did not speak. He sang. The tune had begun so softly that I did not notice. He may have been singing for some time and only part of me was aware.

At first, I registered only his voice. Three things of beauty now he had given me unasked, for his voice was as golden as his hair, as his eyes. It was a long song of farewell, but not one of mourning. A song wishing good fortune to departing loved ones; a ballad of the rewards offered by the journey. His voice conjured deep forests in this place with no trees, and called forth winding rivers here where the rain never fell.

My eyes stayed trained on the frosted heavens as my mind was pulled by his voice to memories of flight.

Had I tears, I would weep.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Time. I was starting to feel the passage of time, and that was not a welcome change. If it continued, I would realize just how long eternity is, and that would lead to despair. Yet I knew that this was the sixth night the young man had sought me out with his short, barely meaningful conversations and his long, poignant songs. He could no longer pretend it was only to seek the peace of the night, for he continuously disturbed that peace.

"Good evening." He decided to sit with his back against a pillar instead of on the edge.

I was having trouble thinking in my usual manner. I watched this night's chosen star, and set my heartbeat by the pulsing of its silver light. But a portion of my mind was scattered, having no solid anchor. I thought of sensations I had not for lifetimes, things like color and sound, the shadows in moonlight, and the feeling of breath. This boy was causing it, I was certain. I could not decide if I objected.

"I wish to ask you something."

When he failed to then ask, I began to wonder if a response was required. I resisted an urge to look in his direction.

"Nothing would please me more than the honor of saying your name. That being unjustly stolen, would it offend you if I chose a name to call you?"

I blinked and my brow furrowed as I tried to understand and failed. I turned my head toward him, but received no further enlightenment from his hopeful countenance.

"Why would you wish to do this?"

"A good question, and I don't have a good answer. My father simply calls you Tatsu or The Tatsu. That is the name we call your people. I don't care for it, it is too impersonal. It would please me to have something to call you besides 'you' or 'Tatsu.' But I will not if it bothers you."

"I do not understand, but it does me no harm."

"Huh. Guess that's as close to a yes as I'm going to get."

I turned away, again not seeing a need for a reply. Would I ever understand more than half of what he said?

"I had first thought a grand name would be appropriate. But you are so direct and honest that I'm reconsidering. It can't be a name with a meaning and history, something new and musical."

No, I would never understand even half. The words each had a meaning as did the sentences. But the sentiment that held it all together made it a language I had never heard. Yet I found myself listening every time he spoke, and just for a few moments I did not feel alone.

"Is it right, by the way, to call your people Tatsu? Or is that a human label?"

How strange, a sensible question. I had been starting to think he did not know how to ask questions at all.

"It is correct, though family names are slightly different than with humans. All the surviving beings except for humans are one kind, which your people call Akuma. We do not have a word for our kind as a whole, so we have adopted your word.

"The Tatsu are Akuma who, like me, take on a certain form as a matter of upbringing and preference. It largely has to do with what forms work well in a given territory, to survive and defend. A Hou-ou Akuma would have great difficulty thriving in the territory of the Tatsu. And most Tatsu would be similarly crippled in the territory of the Hou-ou. But we are both of the same kind."

"I'm sure it will not surprise you to know that we, humans that is, are not taught this. We believe the various types of Akuma are separate species."

"And you believe that there is a difference between those you call Akuma and those you call Tenshi. It is amusing."

"They are the same?"

I turned toward him again, to examine his shocked expression. It did surprise me that he seemed to believe me. I was telling the absolute truth, but why did he not assume that at least some of it was falsehood? I was an enemy of his people, a slave of his father. Yet he gave me his trust, which I had not earned and did not care to.

"Of course. I just told you that the only surviving children of the void are one kin, which you call Akuma. There are only two species with consciousness of self in this dimension, Akuma and Human."

He paused to consider this, but I could see more questions waiting to spill from his tongue.

"You said your form is a matter of upbringing and preference. Does that mean you could look like anything?"

"Yes and no. Two, possibly three forms are familiar for each individual. They 'fit' for lack of a better word. Forms that are comfortable and familiar confer more power. Using unfamiliar forms requires a great deal of power, time, and often pain, but it can be done.

"This form, which your father believes he forced on me, is as natural to me as any. All Akuma have what you would call a humanoid form, and when various families meet the common form is used. The chosen form of the Tatsu is strong, and stronger still in certain conditions. But in other circumstances a different form may serve even if power is lost."

"Does my father know any of this?"

"Some, from his great power and long dealings with my kind. But not all. He would value my perspective on this, if you seek a way to please him. But I will not tell him directly, as well he knows."

"Not one word. Not even that I have ever heard one word. What you say to me is sacred."

His voice was firm and full of conviction. I would not have spoken if I was not willing to have every word betrayed to the tyrant. I was the last of my kind within his reach. These secrets no longer had the ability to cause harm. I simply assumed that this young man was either sent to me for the purpose of getting me to talk, or that his loyalty to his family and kind would eventually overrule any thoughts of secrecy. I was gratified by his genuine profession of confidentiality, even if I did not trust it.

"What do you think of Ryu?"

"I do not understand." And I was getting tired of saying that.

"As a name for me to call you. Ryu. It has a beautiful sound, lyrical. It's strong and direct, yet lovely enough to suit you. And I simply created it, it has no meaning or place and belongs to no one that I know of."

He was looking at me in hopeful expectation. I suspected he wanted me to respond with some kind of enthusiasm. I had no such feeling, but I paused to consider the curious way I stared back at him. I cared how he felt. That was new. I could not decide if it was something threatening, but I suspected that it was very dangerous indeed.

I could not manage enthusiasm, but perhaps I could communicate something other than apathy. It would please him and cost me nothing.

"It is a fine name."

That seemed to be enough, and I basked in the warmth of his smile.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Perhaps today . . . yes, perhaps today I will die.

Yet my thoughts as I gazed at the sunrise were not as they had been. The swords of light cresting the horizon were a color I wished to see. The color of eyes that met mine without flinching. My first instinct was to bury that thought to avoid any unnecessary emotion that might accompany this shift in my perceptions. I had frozen as much of my soul as possible out of self-preservation. There was no need to seek out cracks in my defense as long as I refused to feel.

In the end, fleeing from self-knowledge was too monumental a fault to accept. As the day dragged on, I dragged up every word we had exchanged, even the ones I did not understand. I polished the three lovely treasures I had collected, his smile, his voice, and of course his eyes. Setting these treasures in the center of my inner world of snow, I meditated upon their meaning, and slowly, painfully examined the emotions they evoked.

Physically I stood impassive. My power kept watch for me, and would provide the appropriate response if the tyrant required my attention, or if this was the one day I was mercifully called to meet my end. Mentally I explored anguish. The return of life to a heart long dead was a painful process, and all my senses screamed at me to stop.

Among my own kind I had been considered clever, though I found humans difficult to comprehend. The workings of my mind had been compared to the patterns that appeared in chaos itself, seemingly random and disparate forces clicking into place to bring about one common goal. Given enough time, chaos produces all things, even order.

Just so did recent events and their aftershocks begin to snap into place. Why had I listened to him, or looked at him the first time? What made me decide to speak, and then to respond with complete honesty when questioned by the son of my greatest enemy? And what did these three treasures bring to me that I must hoard them like they were more precious than my own heart?

I had experienced enough misery for now. I retreated, shying away from answers that I was certain would harm me more than the chains around my soul.

It was nearly sunset. Only the smallest chance remained that Heaven would fall and take my life today.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Several nights must have passed sleepless, for I was tired enough to lean against one of the pillars as I gazed out at the night sky. I was tired enough that I remained leaning when he made his appearance. How many times now? How many nights had he come to share with me? I was relieved that I could not answer. Time did not yet have its claws in my mind.

"Good evening, Ryu."

I spared one glance as he settled on the floor, leaning casually against the next pillar.

"Do you ever sleep?"

"No." I lied. But sleep was a vulnerability I did not care to reveal.

"Then you never dream. That's unfortunate."

That was true, I never dreamed. I had nightmares. The harshest made me wake with a scream of rage stuck in my throat. The gentlest was also the most dreaded, the dream of flight. I only slept when I had no other choice.

I clenched my teeth. How irritating that I did not wish to tell him an untruth.

"That was a lie. I sleep, but rarely."

He did not question why I had been dishonest, nor why I had corrected the deliberate error.

"Do you ever sit down?"

I blinked, considering the question. No, I never did except just before I slept and upon waking. With this weak form, the two seconds it took to stand could be fatal. I had never thought about it, it was simple instinct and distrust. With a conscious effort, I let my body slide down the pillar, always bare feet skidding out and knees bending until I sat on the platform. Slightly uncomfortable, I looked over at the man sitting at the next pillar, and copied his position. Adjusting my sword to lay flat against the floor, I stretched out my legs, one ankle tucked over the other, and laid my hands loosely in my lap with my head resting back on the marble. That was an improvement.

He laughed, and I nearly bolted before I identified the noise. The laughter I had most often heard from a human throat was the laugh of utter depravity and cruelty from the tyrant. He laughed when he broke an opponent or even an ally. He laughed when he acquired the means to enslave me. He laughed as I brought him the frozen carcasses of his enemies, or worse, the live bodies of my kin. And oh, how he laughed when he tortured me.

The boy had noticed my response and immediately went silent. His laugh was not like his father's. Like everything about him, the laugh contained life and honesty. I regretted that I had made him stop before I could fully appreciate the sound.

"Ryu, what is it?"

What did that mean? It was too broad a question, there was no answer. More accurately, thousands of answers would be reasonable responses. He shifted his frame slightly in my direction and again I held back the urge to leap to my feet. My mind raced to try to decipher his motives so that I could predict his actions. Nothing had ever unbalanced me so.

He seemed to think for a moment, then he looked in my eyes and spoke slowly.

"Asking 'what is it' or 'what is wrong' is a way of expressing concern for another person, and a desire to correct a behavior or situation that may be upsetting or threatening. When I laughed, did that offend you, or frighten you somehow?"

I blinked and looked out at the stars while I turned the words in my head. He stayed silent, but was still leaning slightly toward me in a way that I found unnerving. When I thought I could give an answer, I looked back at him.

"I do not sit in the presence of other entities, or sleep, or allow myself to fully relax because it is dangerous to do so. Though I do not wish to live, it is a requirement placed upon me. My unease was not your doing. As for the laughter, it was a nice sound. But I did not expect it to be. In my experience, human laughter is a prelude to pain or death."

He sucked in a breath and his hand clapped over his mouth, wincing as tears fell from his eyes. I was on my feet in an instant, hand on my hilt and braced. A low growl started to build in my throat. What had happened? Tears meant pain or fear of imminent suffering. I saw no wound. Had my words caused him to fear harm? The white light of my power started to surround me as I sought an enemy, but I sensed no one with harmful intent.

His hand moved away and he gasped out more words.

"It's okay, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you."

"Are you harmed? What is causing you to fear?" I did not lighten my guard. There were still new tears glistening on his cheeks. He breathed deeply and slowly exhaled.

"I am not in physical pain. I do not feel fear. I am sad, I feel emotional pain."

"I do not understand."

"I do not expect you to. Consider it a human weakness."

Banking my power and allowing myself to relax slightly, I considered accepting the deflection. He was struggling to contain emotion, and wiping his eyes clear with the backs of his hands. The tears would be hot, I knew. Would his skin be cold to touch like mine? I suspected it might burn as hot as tears.

"Your explanation is inadequate. I preferred it when you made clear what I was misunderstanding."

He looked at the sky. This reaction I understood, and I respected his need to think uninterrupted. Eventually I heard his breath steady and he turned his face back to mine.

"Pardon my ignorance, but you do know the emotion called sadness or grief?"

"Oh, human child. I define grief."

Tears formed in his eyes again, but this time I held still as he wiped them away before they could fall. He took another moment to compose himself.

"Then, do you feel grief only for yourself? Or have you ever felt grief in response to the pain in others, even if you were not harmed?"

Now he fell silent as I looked away. I grasped his implication. He intended for me to believe that the tears were the product of care not for himself but for me. I spoke my thoughts aloud, to provide him the enlightenment I myself sought.

"Long ago my own kind chained me and offered my very soul to divert a threat to their lives. I was a logical choice. With great effort, I overcame my impulse to fight my fate, and accepted my role as sacrifice to protect those who bound me. There was immeasurable physical pain, and the greater agony of knowing that my soul would be lost, never to return to the chaos and repay my debt to that which gave me life.

"I observed my fellows, who had been my companions, my comrades, my lovers for time unmeasured. There was no compassion, no understanding, nor any desire to alleviate my suffering. There was only relief that another had been marked as the victim instead of themselves.

"I tell you this to acknowledge that I do not speak only of human weakness."

I did not look at him, but I could sense the renewed tears.

"Having no ability to resist did not change my desire to do so as I was used as a weapon against the very ones who betrayed me. I believed that I grieved not only for my plight, but for theirs. I screamed as they did, until my throat bled as theirs did. I no longer know if my pain was genuine sympathy or only for my own loss and regret.

"Time and again I brought death to Akuma and human alike, warrior and civilian alike, adult and child alike. Thus, I witnessed the same scene repeat until I understood it in all of its forms. A line of the doomed would be before me. They would wail and cry as if they mourned the death I delivered to their fellows, their own offspring or mates. But never were the emotions sincere. They bemoaned their own loss, the loss of the comforts provided by the dead companion. They lamented their own fate, and the proof of what was coming for them. Not one of them would not have placed another soul in the line to die so that they could walk away."

My entire awareness shifted to him as a wave of fury triggered every alarm. As I lunged toward him, barely halting a killing strike, I froze in confusion. What was this now? He was radiating intent to harm, and directed at my captor. My hand should already have torn out his throat. Yet I stood mid-strike, sharp nails two inches from the bronze neck that produced such lovely music.

He had not even flinched. His eyes left that deadly hand and his anger vanished as he looked at me. With the absence of his wrath, the requirement to eliminate the danger to the tyrant died.

Slowly, so slowly he raised his right arm. Gently, ever so gently he rested his fingers on the back of my hand, his thumb lightly brushing my palm. His skin was not hot as I had expected. It was perfection, the very definition of warmth.

Did I will my fingers to move? They relaxed and curled around the thumb that pressed into my palm. He closed his eyes as he bent his head and pressed his lips to the knuckles of my hand, then moved slightly to kiss along each finger. His mouth opened around shaky, hot breath, damp lips gliding lightly back and forth over my skin.

I stared, fascinated by his actions and the electric sensations that I allowed to wash over me without analyzing or even wasting the attention for a thought. Never had I willingly been touched by a human. My heartbeat, set to the slow, eternal rhythm of the stars, fell painfully out of sync.

Soft lips and strong fingers still in contact with my tingling skin, he looked up. What I saw was beyond my comprehension. It was not any emotion I could identify, and it jolted me out of the reverie that held me.

With a snarl I leapt back, jerking my hand free and landing in an aggressive, tall stance. I did not approve of this state of affairs. This human had barged into my world and brought destruction and torment to my every waking moment. I could not gain control of the emotions he had set loose, sentiments long since murdered and discarded that should never rise to trouble me again.

Anger was one emotion I had never pushed away entirely, and it burned in me now as the skin on my hand burned with the memory of his touch. Anger at him for engendering this loss of self. Unmitigated fury at myself for allowing it to happen.

He who had not flinched as his death stopped a breath away from his neck watched me calmly, carefully moving to rise, hands moving out away from any weapon, showing me open palms. Gone was the curious, rueful youth who teased honesty from my lips. What stood before me was a man of great power and confidence, with eyes that could bring an immortal to his knees. A shiver ran through me as I resisted doing just that, falling to my knees and begging him to touch me again.

"Ryu . . . "

If he did not apologize for nearly destroying my sanity I would never forgive him. If he did apologize I would surely kill him.

"Ryu, you are the most beautiful sight these eyes will ever know."

I fled.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Alone in the nearly bare room, I leaned against the wall and stared at my traitorous hand. I could barely think through the waves of rage and confusion, tremors of pain wracking my body as if I was being physically torn apart.

First, I needed to get my physical reaction and the worst of the emotions under control. I rubbed my right hand repeatedly and roughly against the cloth of my robe, erasing the borders of heat where he had touched. A fine layer of ice grew over the skin, restoring cleanliness.

I focused on the ice, the feel of it, the gleaming, slick surface that was at once clear and full of color. How like the stars it was, with its own light and purpose apart from whatever observed it. I pushed aside all other thoughts, letting my mind ignore the racing heartbeat so that it slowed, ignore the ragged breathing until my lungs moved at their automatic pace once more.

Now then, the questions I needed to answer or banish. I was capable of delaying the death of a foe, as long as the danger to the tyrant or myself was not imminent. However, I had not hesitated since the very early days of enslavement. I struck with alacrity and efficiency, to end the task as soon as possible. Why did I hesitate when the threat was clear and coming from a being of great power?

It was that I had grown fond of the young man. I looked forward to our time together and would regret his death. Was it more than just avoiding my loss? No, my motives were selfish I was relieved to admit.

Only then did I realize that this was not the first problem of the encounter. I had moved to defend him. When I believed he was hurt, I had drawn my power and nearly drawn my sword to search out and eliminate the threat to a human that I was under no order to protect.

My inner world shook, the sound of deep ice cracking was deafening. Why would I do such a thing? And without even a consideration given to my choice before or after, the impossibility of it seemed absolute.

I stilled my thoughts again before I could fall too far with questions yet to consider. I had no choice but to accept this fact first, I wished the golden youth to continue to exist. I wished for him to continue speaking with me, singing in my presence, and calling me by a new name.

It was overwhelming for a moment. This new fact of my existence was likely the most dangerous and hurtful development I could imagine. He had said himself that only time separated him from a conflict with his father. I had been forced to slaughter the tyrant's allies before, and soon I would be forced to extinguish the light that had come into my life at the behest of that hated, vile soul.

This may cause enough pain to finally break me. After all I had survived, after all I had done to myself to deny the tyrant the satisfaction of making me crawl, I would be brought down by a soft word and a warm hand.

So be it. The truth and the likely consequence were accepted. Time to move on.

The fire on my skin had been quenched, but the memory lived in every cell. My owner had rarely touched me, to examine a wound he had created or to move my head when displaying me like a prize. When I thought of it, I could barely suppress the urge to remove any flesh that had been in contact with his. He preferred tools or an exertion of pressure on my soul when inflicting pain. His appetite for torturing me had nearly died, with all other passions fading from his atrophied soul.

Those I had destroyed by command had occasionally touched me, clinging to me in pleas for mercy or flailing at me in desperate attempts to escape. Once I had learned the trick of detaching my awareness before setting out to kill, these touches did not affect me.

And before this hellish reality had claimed me, I had a standard and enjoyable existence among the Tatsu. I had never taken a permanent mate, and it was rare for any of us to form friendships strong enough to support chaste physical affection. But I had engaged in pleasant pursuits including many sexual relationships. I had touched and been touched in every way that can bring pleasure and diversion.

But his touch . . . I did not need to ask myself this question. Raiden's touch was most definitely not categorized with human contact. It had instantly brought me both comfort and excitement. A human. The feel of him did not disgust me. As I recalled that moment when I had pulled back from him, all I could think of was how foolish I had been to rip my hand away from those heated lips.

Breathe. You are doomed, but you will not die tonight and you must breathe.

This, then, the second fact I must accept. I desired him, wanted contact. This time I did find the concept repulsive, but only until I allowed the memory of the fire to return. Only until I remembered the formidable man that replaced the boy when he said he found me beautiful.

With the heat came a longing to see him, to have one more chance to decipher that look in his eyes. That was the next question, what was that emotion with the power to cause all this havoc within my heart? There was always some underlying sadness in his eyes. It was subtle, not the overwhelming despair that I knew would haunt my own eyes if I allowed it. And it was countered by the almost constant presence of humor, a lightness of spirit that had somehow not been crushed. A spoiled princeling indeed.

I had seen lust more than once in human eyes. Most often it was lust to possess my power, lust to possess the right to control me. But physical lust was common, and I knew my form was appealing to humans and Tatsu alike. The young man never had lust in his eyes, not for my power or my body, until that final look where there was desire and more than desire. Longing was a better word for it. He wanted, not lusted. It was a conscious choice, not a twisted covetousness beyond his control. He longed for me, and I feared that the feeling was mutual.

There was more, and I dared to suspect. I could not recognize the final piece of this puzzle because I had never seen it before. And my world shook violently again as I considered the possibility. Was this golden soul in love with me? How would I know? I had heard such a thing professed between mates, but I had never seen proof of it. I had heard humans swear to feel it, and then betray and discard their partners.

If such a thing as love even existed, what would be required to create it? I offered no reciprocation, affection, or hope. I barely offered acknowledgment of his existence. What I saw in his eyes may be something close to love, but it could not be sincere. No, there had to be something I was missing. This one question would go unanswered.

I staggered to the nest of pillows and blankets that I preferred to the human bedding I had tossed out. I let myself fall, utterly exhausted from so long without sleep and the emotional turmoil I was not accustomed to.

I wanted to protect the life of this human soul. I wanted to be close to him in every way possible.

I would not shout and rage, nor break down in despair or fear. But I allowed one long sigh as I curled into a small, trembling ball of uncertainty. Even the nightmares were a welcome relief.

 

Chapter Text

Perhaps today I will die.

Please, let it be today and end this new misery. How could acceptance of affection be worse than numberless years of torture and subjugation? Because I could feel now, quite against my will I could feel.

Before the sunrise had ended, before the approach of the loathsome soul that owned me, I had already retreated into snow and ice. This was my normal state. No one would suspect the storm that stirred behind my glacial gaze.

Simply accepting the astounding changes in my soul had given me a good deal more control over the reawakening of my heart. But I was barely able to achieve calm before another pain would rock my serenity, another forgotten emotion would clamor for my attention. For the first time, I was glad of the wasted day. I held myself still and let my thoughts drift, dealing with each successive shock by examining the source, embracing the change, and letting each new emotion reestablish a home in my soul.

If you think it hurts now, just wait until he makes you kill again.

Resentment, would that be the best word for this? I felt that the world owed me something for all I had endured. If there was any fairness in fate, death would stop making me beg.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

My will was far stronger than diamond. With the night and day to regain equilibrium, I no longer feared the coming of nightfall. The prominent blue-white star I observed had been courting my attention for many nights, and I let myself join it on its slow journey through the frosted heavens. An hour perhaps, judging by the distance the star and I had traveled, before I became aware of his approach. Pulling my consciousness home, I wondered if the thrill than ran through me was anticipation or trepidation.

"Good evening, Ryu."

His voice and his step were cautious, as well they should be. It had occurred to me that there was no order stopping me from killing the human. It would put an end to this ordeal and perhaps anger his father enough that he would kill me. Carefully, my new tormentor maintained space between us but closed the gap when I did not react. He stopped the same distance away as the first time he spoke to me.

"I hope that you understand how highly I value your company. It would cause me great sorrow to discontinue our conversations. I did not intend to offend you, but I can only bring myself to regret my actions out of selfishness that they may cost me your companionship."

He took a deep breath and I tried not to hold mine.

"What I said was not a lie. I find you breathtakingly beautiful, both your physical form and what you have allowed me to see of your soul. I cannot and will not deny my desire for you, though I am strong enough to suppress it if it means I can stay close to you."

I turned my head to look at him and he swallowed hard but did not avoid my eyes. He was hurting, but also staunchly determined to see this through. I knew that he did not find any response in my eyes, he was ages away from being able to see through me.

"Ryu, being near a human who harbors such sentiments may be too repulsive for you to tolerate. I never wished to cause you the smallest pain. I will go, and unless you approach me, I will never again willingly invade your peace."

Determination or no, his voice shook and his teeth snapped together. Then he lowered his eyes, glistening with unshed tears, and bowed from the waist, low with the back of his neck exposed before me. Throughout it all my heart had ached, and I watched with the appearance of impassivity as he straightened and turned to walk away. Briefly I looked back to my star for guidance, to reorient my world for just a moment. Decision reaffirmed, I cast my eyes after him.

"You make a show of respect, but you do not allow me a response?"

He halted and stood still for a moment before turning. I saw no hope in him, just the commitment to face rejection and condemnation. I unfolded my arms from my sleeves and walked within two steps of him. We were nearly matched in height, myself just a couple inches the taller, and his resigned eyes easily met my unreadable gaze.

I closed my eyes and my breath stilled as I recalled the facts my mind had presented to me last night and throughout the long day. With my own resolve in place to face whatever response I would meet, I let my mask fall. When I opened my eyes he saw the change immediately, but it was too sudden for him to fully process. Gold eyes searched mine, and hope began to light them anew I as watched in growing happiness that was not hidden.

"I did not say that I wished you to leave, Raiden."

He gasped, and I realized I had never once said his name. Considering how insistent he was to find a name for me, it must have been important to him and I regretted not realizing it. It would have been amusing to save the use of his name for an even more impactful moment.

"It is tragic that you did not wish to cause me pain, for you have succeeded in doing so most expertly. Someday I may explain to you the agony I have suffered due to your presence. And yet I refuse to accept your offer to leave me in peace, when peace is all I have desired for longer than you have lived. Why is that, do you think?"

I lifted an eyebrow and he stared at it, the corners of his mouth twitching upward.

"You have a thing for punishment, maybe?"

He looked quickly back into my eyes, afraid he had made a mistake, made too light of the heavy topic at hand. It was tempting to tease him just a little.

"I assure you I do not. If that is a requirement for you, you now have my permission to leave."

His lips gave in to the urge to smile.

"My god, did you just make a joke?"

I narrowed my eyes.

"I do not understand. What is a joke?"

He hesitated a moment before bursting out in a genuine laugh. This time I soaked it in, learning from his open expressiveness. As I watched him laugh in amusement enhanced by relief, the thought of feeling his skin crept from the edge of my mind and began to force itself upon me. I closed the distance between us, my hands reaching quickly to either side of his face, stopping just before contact and hovering there.

I heard his laughter cut off when I moved, and he stared at me, holding perfectly still. My hands moved, not touching but so close, his heat pushing on my skin. My eyes followed them as they drifted down, just over the long bronze neck, then up again, fingers flexing to match the curves of his strong jawline and then his cheeks. All my attention was focused on the heat, the pressure, the unbearable anticipation which I dragged out, fully intending to savor this moment. Only when I heard a small whimper did I notice that my head was tilted and very close to his face, and I heard the low thrumming in my own throat.

He was motionless, eyes wide and lips parted. I looked into those eyes, past the reflection of my own turquoise to his gleaming gold and allowed my hands to touch. The surge of fire and lightning racing from my hands through my body was a nearly orgasmic pleasure, and I could not hold back a loud growl as my head fell back and my body stretched in pure delight.

A hand on my lower back, another between my shoulders pulled me forward as my head came down, and Raiden pushed his lips to mine. For a moment all was still, the universe paused to witness my hands lightly holding his face, his hands firmly pressed into my back, and mouths simply resting one against the other.

Then he shivered, in response to desire or the chill of my lips I did not know. My hands slid down his neck and over his shoulders as we kissed. I was shaking in reaction to the current of electricity flowing into me from each point of contact and had to force myself to cut off most of the exchange of power in order to keep control. So warm and soft, those lips that had started all this trouble. They pushed at mine, opening and closing gently and then firmly, grabbing at me until I could not resist sucking his lower lip in between mine and biting lightly.

I had never been one to hesitate once I had decided that intimacy was called for. When Raiden moved his hands in between us and stepped back I was more than a little irritated. I had clearly felt the early evidence of his arousal against my own, so what did he mean by pushing me away? But I respected his wishes and pulled my arms back, mourning for the loss of contact.

"Ryu, if you are sure about this, we should go elsewhere while we still can."

"Ah, I forgive you, then."

"What?"

"You are not denying me. It is a sensible request that caused you to move away."

"You thought I was turning you down?" He laughed with an incredulous shake of his head and looked at me with a crooked smile. "Come to my room."

"I cannot."

His smile fell. "So, you are denying me?"

"I physically cannot. I am restricted to this room, my own bedchamber, and the spaces in between the two."

I felt the flash of his anger, gone almost instantly. Then the smile was back. "Take me to your room then."

In a second my hands were on his waist, and a second later he staggered against me in my room.

"Whoa, what the hell was that? That was faster than shunpo."

My arms had wrapped around his torso to steady him, and as he regained his balance, I pulled us close together again.

"What is a shunpo?" I asked his neck before I started sucking at soft skin barely hiding his pulse, right where my nails would have entered.

"Nnngh," he replied and tilted his head.

I moved gently, suspecting human intimacy was not as aggressive as their forms were so fragile. I kissed and licked my way up to his jaw as I tasted both his form and his essence. He was lightning and fire, sudden, raging power that could strike you down before you knew that you were in danger. I was water in all its forms, capable of rapid destruction but hiding true lethality in deep currents and soothing coolness. One may think us opposites, but that very dichotomy was seductive.

Our power swirled and fought, and when one gave way to the other the moment the forces blended was euphoric, in a way far beyond mere physical pleasure. From only this brief foreplay I was a fevered mess, and Raiden was clinging to me to keep from collapsing. I considered telling him to draw in his power and restricting mine further to get ourselves back under control. But why? We had the rest of the night and no limitations.

My right hand slid down his back. I looked forward to the moment I could feel that skin, my fingers spreading wide and pushing into the yielding flesh, moving my hips into him. He moaned and moved back and forth against me, his hard length grinding against mine through layers of cloth.

My left hand had moved up to the back of his neck, and my fingers reveled in the softness of golden strands, then latched onto them and pulled back. His face was captivating, flushed skin, eyes unfocused and open mouth panting. The happy thrumming in my throat was joined by low growls as I attacked those luscious lips, sucking in his tongue, drinking his power and feeding him mine.

This first connection, this first exchange of fluids and space within one another’s bodies was incomparably erotic, a moment worth all the suffering it had cost to bring this kiss to life. As I devoured him and lost myself in the fire and spice of his mouth, his grinding against me increased, thrusting his hips in quick movements. I could feel his hands grasping the back of my robe, pulling to get himself closer.

He was gulping breath whenever he could, and I knew I should allow him a moment. But we were so close, and the desire to see his face in true ecstasy was overriding my sense. I would have the sight that I desired, and I would have it now. Tugging his head further back and leaning over him as his back bent, I pushed my hand forward as far between his legs as position and cloth would allow. I feasted on his muffled cries until I felt him shudder repeatedly in time with the flexing of his hips.

Deliberately I pressed even harder into him, flexing down instead of up, dragging my length slowly down his before quickly pushing up again. I released his mouth and loosened my grip on his head, allowing it to fall back as I whispered roughly.

"Now, my golden one. Cum for me."

His eyes snapped open and he glared at me, a divine gift before I repeated the movement, forcing his compliance. I watched in rapture as his eyes squeezed shut and with a final moan his body jolted against mine, his power flaring and swirling with mine in a terrifying storm.

Memorizing every line of his face as an almost painful bliss washed over him, I held back to watch for a few more seconds, letting the lightning torment and tease. Stretching my head back, I gave in to my own need and thrust against him one more time with a growling shout that would have been a roar in my other form.

Basking in relief and exultation, I held him more gently. Then I gasped in surprise when I felt him pull himself closer and firmly bite into the left side of my neck. He may have meant it as retaliation for my aggressive behavior, but there were few gestures more intimate, more possessive than this among my kind. The trust and surrender required to allow fangs to sink into your vulnerable throat . . . I had never even been asked to allow such a thing and had never wanted to ask it from my casual lovers.

Fighting the instinct to lash out at him, I reminded myself that humans have very different customs and did not allow myself to take the gesture at full value. He had not even asked, so it could not have as deep a meaning. Nevertheless, allowing his teeth to bruise and cut caused a cascade of raw emotion, lust and affection, protectiveness and possessiveness.

I held still under his hold as he panted against the flesh between his teeth. Then he released me and licked the marks and the trickle of blood. These gestures, too, were fraught with meaning in my mind. The deep promise to care for the wounded partner, the gratitude for the bond expressed by marking. My skin shivered in pleasure and my hand caressed the nape of his neck.

"That was completely unfair," he grumbled after a tender kiss to my torn flesh.

Ah, retaliation it was. Such an entitled little brat.

We had moved barely a step since arriving, so urgent was our need. Only now I removed my sword and leaned to place it on the stand by the door, not willing to surrender contact for another second. He propped his blade carefully against the wall.

"Hmm?" My arms moved back to hold him lightly around the waist. "I found it quite enjoyable. And if it was a little . . . rushed . . . it is not like we cannot try again."

He tried to glare but blushed at the same time, ruining the effect, or enhancing it from my point of view.

"I am not sure I care for your newfound sense of humor, Ryu."

"Unfortunate." I replied as I untied the heavy silk sash around his waist. "Perhaps we can find other qualities you do care for."

He chuckled and his hands started to work on my own clothing. "Well, I do like that humming, purring noise you make. Quite adorable, actually."

I could not help but make the exact noise he praised, and he laughed as I scattered little kisses over his nose and cheeks. So long, an eternity of loneliness so complete that all light had faded away. And now to be found, to be claimed by this being of flame and light that brought back color to my weary eyes. Is it any wonder I could not stop touching him? Already the feeling of his power was starting to drive me mad. I would be pawing at him again in minutes.

"Raiden, suppress your power."

"What?"

I paused, looking at him in momentary confusion. Surely, he understood?

"Rein yourself in, as will I. It is difficult to make pleasure last when power is in play."

"Is that what made everything so intense?"

"In part. Do not tell me you are virginal."

"Well, no. But I've never had sex with someone with any significant reiatsu."

"Any what?"

"I'm guessing that's what you mean, spiritual energy?"

Whatever. I could feel the decrease in his . . . reiatsu? It seemed to work, no longer torturing my senses to such a degree. Pushing thick cloth off his shoulders, hearing it fall to the floor, I looked down in disappointment as my hands still did not find what they sought.

"Damned human concepts of nobility. You would think rank was determined solely by the number of damned layers."

"And now you are cursing. I approve of that, as well."

He had no such obstacles. I wore a long robe of subtly patterned, silken material common among Tatsu, and most similar to a simple yukata though more form fitting at the top while long and loose below the waist. There were no annoying layers. The fine cloth fell into a rippling pool at my feet and he stepped back with a sharp intake of breath and a look of awe that I found most satisfying. I moved my hands away from the futile attempt to get through his ridiculous costume and pushed down the cloth now soiled from our recent activities.

"Ryu, god, just look at you."

I stepped forward and took his suddenly shy hands in mine, directing them to my waist. A tremor ran through me at the renewed contact, and his hands did not hesitate to begin exploring as mine went back to the fight to disrobe my new lover. Too many emotions and sensations chased each other through my mind, making me desperate to get to him, to press flesh to flesh and let lust overrule all other feelings before they brought me to my knees.

It was hard to focus on the task when his large, oh so warm hands were roaming up my cold sides, then down my back as his eyes devoured the rest of me. The sensations were bewitching. There was the simple shock of gentle touch after so little contact, and all of it cruel. The fact that I desired these hands specifically amplified the impact on every level. But add to that the fire, heat pressing against skin always cold, painfully awakening my numb nerves.

Success! The final layer fell away from his shoulders and the much simpler task of stripping him from the waist down was the matter of one quick movement. He rocked back in surprise as I flung myself at him, wrapping my arms high around his shoulders. Warmth enclosed me as I shook violently with the effort to regain control of feelings, both physical and emotional, that were so unused that they felt new, overpowering, and raw. I suddenly felt adrift in a vast sea, dizzy and sinking in these mysterious desires and fears, in desperate need of something, anything to cling to.

"Hey, easy now. What's wrong?"

What is wrong? He had explained this. A way of expressing concern, and a desire to correct an upsetting situation. I knew what he could do to correct this, to wash away the confusion.

"Just touch me, Raiden. It will resolve if you just keep touching me."

"I don't think so. As tempting as it is, I'm not going to be some kind of comfort fuck for you. So tell me."

I growled, not sure I understood his words but not appreciating what I thought he was saying. I had answered his question in the manner he instructed was correct, and he responded by insulting my honesty and my honor. What had I done to deserve such denigration? Anger helped push some of the emotion down as I pushed roughly away. Anger was definitely something familiar I could cling to.

"Why can you not simply believe me?" I snapped at him, infuriated that he did not even blink, just looked calmly back at me. "I do not want these thoughts in my head, so why would I wish to inflict them upon anyone else, especially you?"

Only then did I finally look at the body I had worked so hard to unwrap. My jaw went slack as my mouth began to water. The bronze god before me was every bit as lovely as any Tatsu in human form, and much more beautiful than expected. It was as if all the artists and sculptors through time gathered and asked each other exactly what lines to place, what medium to use, what color to paint to create the perfect image of masculine youth and power.

"Gorgeous . . ." I heard my whisper and then snarled at him.

"This! This is what is wrong, Raiden. I cannot keep one thought straight, I cannot stop these . . . feelings. They were dead and buried where they belong. I was strong. I was unbreakable. And you," I literally hissed at him, "you dragged me back into the light. Damn you for doing this!"

The boy was gone again and looking into gold eyes glowing with power and wisdom far beyond his years checked my growing rage. This was not fair, not to either of us. It was not fair that I could not communicate my distress. It was not fair that he felt so much yet could not understand the turmoil within me.

I longed to take back my harsh words, to return to where we had been only seconds in the past. Tremors wracked my body once more. He stepped forward and I stepped back. I knew I was in the wrong even though I had spoken truth. But I could not decide what to do about any of this. That very helplessness resurrected my anger.

"I'm so sorry, Ryu. You told me what you needed, and I should have supported you."

He was right to start there, since that had been his only true offense. I tried to listen without letting any new emotions surface to cause further strife.

"I hear you. Never did I suspect that you were feeling this way, struggling to feel at all. You hid it well. I cannot undo the damage. Is there anything I can do to help?"

How I wished I could see my stars. Denied that comfort, denied his comfort, I sought the only protection that I could rely on. I closed my eyes and imagined the snowy plains and frozen lakes of home, letting the cold slow my erratic heart, cool my boiling blood. Deliberately, I let the ice protect me, form a wall to keep the dampened onslaught of emotion at bay. My carefully calm lover winced when my eyes opened. I needed this distance for now, even if it hurt him to see me retreat.

"As you said, I told you what I need. Or leave. Either will do."

"Okay, Ryu. Okay."

He gave me a small, sad smile and held out his arms. I looked down and up his magnificent body, which I was quite capable of enjoying with the riot of random sentiment suppressed. I stepped forward, immediately pressing our lips together so he would not say anything else. Bare skin, finally, such a beautiful luxury. I felt his warmth without the accompanying thrill brought by memories of isolation, without the pressing need for affection. It was not as good, but it was good enough.

He suddenly mimicked my earlier action, grasping my white hair and pulling my head back. I opened my mouth hungrily, but his lips moved away and a hot tongue ran along the underside of my jaw.

The way his muscles rippled under velvet skin was my new obsession. One hand rode the flexing strength of his upper back as he bent to lick and kiss my neck. The other hand was tracing his ribs, finding the sensitive spots beside his pectoral and just below the final rib.

His head lifted and I pulled him with me as I stepped back, hands sliding down his arms to interlock our fingers and lead him along. His cock was already swelling again, time to get more comfortable. He grinned when he noticed the 'bed.' The broad pile of cushions and pillows should make an ideal love nest.

With a firm pull I fell back, showing him the only proper way to lay down on this bed and earning a laugh as he tumbled down on top of me. Surprise on my side, I rolled us closer to the center and crouched above him. Hands still clasped, I drew his arms above his head and leaned down for a slow, deep kiss. It was different without our power running rampant. It was different when I wasn't fighting my own heart and mind. It was not as good. Was it good enough?

Once I had tasted him sufficiently, I pulled away and gazed into half lidded eyes. I could feel the appropriate response against my own growing erection, but something was wrong, terribly wrong. It was in his eyes.

Oh, no. Please, no.

To protect myself from pain I needed to face, had made great progress facing thanks to him, I had hidden behind my ice. I was locking my out-of-control emotions away and shutting him out with them. In so doing I had made him raise a barrier of his own. He was protecting himself from my cruelty, my coldness. He was playing along, detaching himself from what we were doing to avoid the hurt I was causing him.

I could not allow this. If I was as strong as I told him, as I told myself, then how could I hide and let the only soul who tried to stand beside me suffer? And for myself, if I killed his light or made him turn away from me, would I survive a regression to the unfeeling ice?

I rested my forehead against his with a long sigh and forced my guard down once more.

"Now I must apologize. Do not listen to me, Raiden. With you only I can attempt to be myself. But it has been so very long that I am no longer sure who that is."

He tried to pull his hands free, but I did not allow it.

"I will be confused and quick to anger. I will lash out and be cruel. Eventually I may break down completely. If you stay with me through all this, you will gain nothing but the affection of another man's slave. A piece of property that could be taken from you at any moment. A monster who very likely will one day be forced to kill you.

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

"Are you quite finished?"

I blinked and drew my head up.

"Ryu, I never thought this was going to be easy. We aren't even the same species, for fuck's sake. You're having trouble reading emotions you haven't had for a very long time. I have trouble doing or saying anything that isn't purely based on emotion. But this," he pulled against my hands again and I released him. He brought one of my hands to his chest, resting it over his heart. His other hand pressed the skin above my heart.

"This is worth it. This is worth the world, don't you see? And if we are found out and torn apart tomorrow, I will regret losing you, but I will die with joy in my heart and your name on my lips."

What frightened me was that I understood him. What he was saying was starting to make sense to me, where before all his flowery speech about feelings had been a complete mystery. But that last sentence at least resonated. If I died tomorrow it would be not only the relief I had long sought; I would also now feel some regret. And that was terrifying.

"Now, I know that I said I love our conversations, but it is a bit difficult doing all of this talking when you are so deliciously naked."

Did he feel how my heartbeat doubled when his hand started making slow circles on my chest? I was freezing cold all over once more, and now that I allowed myself to feel it, I could not believe that I had tried to deny myself his warmth. It was past time to enjoy the buffet laid out under me, and I started with his lips. His lips that gave me music and fire.

Raiden shivered as our tongues met. I kept my pets delicate and teasing, just grazing the roof of his mouth, barely clasping his tongue between my lips, not forcing too much until I started to warm. By then he was the one pushing for more. The hand near my heart was pinching and caressing my nipple and the other hand had drifted down my back, fingers tickling my spine. The lightning in him was under his control, but still my nerves picked it up. I had to remind myself not to retreat as the torment built, I would stay here with him and it would be glorious.

Trailing quick kisses down his neck, I rushed to reach his broad chest to become acquainted with the taste of his strong collarbones, his dusky nipples, flat stomach, and all the lean muscles wrapped around his warrior's physique. There was not one scar or imperfection on him. He was either a master fighter, an untried princeling, or the favorite of a very skilled healer.

As I was bathing his left nipple in long licks and quick nibbles, I felt his legs move. I lifted my weight and he parted his long, strong thighs for me to lie between and I took the invitation. This allowed him to lift his knees and push against me.

"Ahh! Ryu, that noise . . . shit!" He pushed up against me again and I purred in satisfaction as he shuddered. The rhythmic thrumming was a natural, automatic function. It was not one humans shared. Raiden was pressing his erection against my stomach, and the subtle vibrations were wreaking havoc.

"Hmm, like that, do you?"

I lifted myself off him, and he moaned in protest, hands on my shoulders trying to pull me back down. Instead I crouched higher above him and held him down with one hand on his hip and one on his chest. Careful not to come in contact with the already weeping erection of my fiery lover, I brought my head down at an angle and lazily swirled my tongue around his navel, so close to the swollen tip but avoiding it entirely.

Exploring other places I could reach I bit at his hips, kissed from there to one knee and back down the other leg. He was squirming against me now, all efforts to force himself up having failed. As powerful as he was, he might as well be trying to lift a mountain. He even tried to force me down by wrapping his legs around me and pulling. I held still, not giving him any attention at all until he stopped.

And the noises he made! From cursing me under his breath, to panting with want, to growling in frustration. That last made me a little dizzy, I confess. I paused after leaving a large bruise from sucking on his thigh and he looked up.

"Ryu, please!" Slowly, I licked my lips as I looked into his pleading eyes and he whined.

Enough, my golden god.

He sucked in a breath sharply as my lips closed around just the head of his cock and my tongue began to taste this new treasure. So hot, this musky, salted flesh, red and damp with his need, coated in the evidence of his pleasure. My eyes closed in undiluted lust and the thrumming in my throat reached a crescendo, causing him to shout and try once more to break free as his hands came down to bury themselves in my hair. I took just a little longer to lick up the liquid he offered and then provided him just a hint of relief.

As my head moved down he groaned, and I knew he wouldn't last long after the slow, luxurious buildup to this moment. I sucked on half his length and backed off, licking instead, pressing my tongue to his base and pushing his erection down to his torso as I stroked upward. The poor thing was shaking all over, and I was loving every decadent minute of it.

"Gah! Don't . . . oh my god . . . Ryu . . . don't stop!" On and on he went, having no more luck forcing my head to go where he wanted it to. I simply ignored the yanking on my hair and did as I pleased.

He tensed when my mouth closed on him again, and moaned as I moved all the way down, easily sliding his length into my throat. When I retreated, I did not add any suction or petting with my tongue, he was too far gone and I did not want to end it any sooner than necessary. I bobbed my head down one more time, and then moved my hands to his thighs, letting him go.

Immediately he thrust harshly up, holding my head in place though I could have pulled away easily. It caused some pain when he yanked himself out of my throat and slammed back in, but it was a small price to pay for the enjoyment I had taken in teasing him so thoroughly. Just when I thought I would have to pull back, unable to get enough air to continue, he shouted his release.

I heard a grunt as my nails raked his skin before I could stop myself, the heat and taste of his cum in my throat and mouth triggering a visceral need to express dominance, to bite and claw in challenge until reaching either pleasure, winning control or yielding in submission. Exerting my will, I stilled my instincts and my body, swallowing and sucking lightly while he finished. Careful, gentle, my human lover was so tender and fragile and not built at all for the battle of Tatsu mating.

When he collapsed panting, I took a few breaths and then moved down to lick the long parallel gashes I had created from the front of his legs around each side. He didn't flinch as I cleaned and healed each wound until not a mark remained. As lovely as the scars would have been, I should have had more control.

I had enjoyed that immensely and was relieved to know it. As I had thought when I begged Raiden to simply keep touching me, I was having far less difficulty dealing with emotions once basic, uncomplicated lust took over. And perhaps a small part of me had still expected that once I had some relief from sexual tension, I would not be able to desire a human partner. On the contrary, I could not recall ever wanting a partner more than this one.

My own neglected organ was making demands. I could ignore it, take care of it myself, or ask him to. But that wasn't what I really wanted. And Raiden was relaxed with legs spread so invitingly. As I gave one last lick to a healed and flawless leg, I moved my arms back where they had been, wrapped around his thighs from underneath.

Wake up, lover.

I blew lightly on his scrotum, coating it in frost. He yelped and sat halfway up, my arms keeping him from pulling away. I was already licking in short, quick strokes as he fell back, giving in to me. This was just for enjoyment and to get him back in the mood. He had not seemed reluctant, but I wanted him far more than willing when the time came. As I gave him thorough service, suckling on his balls with enthusiasm, he did not have much to complain about. I threw in a few licks to his reawakening cock as I went.

Nuzzling in close, I moved my arms under him. The advantages of my nest made themselves known. I shoved an extra cushion under him, lifting his hips comfortably while my hands held him wide and exposed. Some of the frost had melted and trickled now along that delicate, hidden skin and I teased with just the tip of my tongue before licking away the water with a long downward stroke to my next target.

He knew what I was about to do and squirmed a little, in discomfort or eagerness I wasn't sure. Tatsu throw themselves fully into intimacy. Other than power binding and marking, both considered too threatening for casual partners by most, there was really nothing that was not acceptable between consenting individuals. But I had seen enough of humans to know that most of them did not indulge in half of what was offered by their own bodies and their partners', and some were downright hostile to bold sexual contact. Raiden had said he was not a virgin, and we left it at that. I would push his boundaries, if he had any.

I heard a couple of harsh breaths as my tongue circled and pressed. When I pushed inside there was a short gasp and then a low moan. Good, he was going to be cooperative. I took my time, finding the movements that made him whimper and moan.

When he started lifting his hips on his own, I moved away long enough to thoroughly lick the fingers of my right hand. A reminder of the talons that I relied on, my nails were far stronger and sharper than a human's. I took care to cap each nail with unmelting ice. The cold might be an odd sensation for him, but better than the alternative. My tongue moved back up along perineum and lingered, getting reacquainted with his testicles, now held much tighter under his firm erection, as I pushed one finger into him.

"Ryu, ahhh! Come here, Ryu, nnnn, Ryu . . ."

Magnificent, and at least for now he is all mine.

Kissing along his hot length, feeling it twitch in response to the mouth that had given it such pleasure, I drifted slowly up his body as he asked. He was flexing with no real force or rhythm and he shuddered when a second finger joined the first. I shuddered as well when I got a good look at him.

The sculpted muscles stood out as he writhed, and my left hand raced to feel rippling skin. A sheen of sweat was making the bronze skin glow against the dark green blankets. His hands were clenched tight around fistfuls of bedding. Every tendon in his neck stood out as he gritted his teeth, eyes shut tightly. His hair spread out around him like a radiant halo, like the moon itself framed his angelic face.

Gold eyes opened when my steady thrum broke for a loud moan of appreciation. With obvious effort, he loosened his fists and reached toward me. I dropped my head to nibble the bottom ribs one after the other as he tugged at my hair. Why was it so much fun to deny him just a little longer?

Meanwhile my fingers had been massaging and exploring, sliding out of him, parting slightly and then pushing back in. My lips had almost reached a sensitive nipple when my fingers reached an area much more sensitive. When I felt his muscles clench, I jerked my head up, losing a few strands of hair to his clutching hands, just in time to see his gold eyes roll back as his head pushed back into the cushions and his jaw went slack.

"AHHH! Fuuuuck!"

I was so happy that I had seen his reaction that I pushed my entire body down and up, dragging my skin along his erection as I flexed my fingers again, my humming clearly indicating my approval. I did not care if I pushed him into another orgasm right here and now. I was content with what I had received tonight, more than content.

Apparently, he had other ideas, and I shivered as he practically shouted at me.

"Goddammit Ryu, just fuck me already!"

I hissed in amusement and watched him wince as a third finger was added. He may want it, but just a little more stretching would serve us both well.

"Soon, oh golden one, soon enough."

Moving back down his body, I worked quickly now. He had me quite beyond myself, and my iron control was slipping. My fingers parted and pushed, aiming only to make him ready and avoiding too much stimulation. I paused to run my left hand up his cock with a firm touch, gathering what lubrication he had to offer. His panting increased, lightly thrusting against my hand, little moans sending shocks of need through me.

Settling on my knees between his legs, I eased my fingers out of him as my left hand ran over my length. A quick freeze and thaw cleaned my hands, ice breaking away. He gasped at my sudden change in my skin temperature as I guided him to lift himself higher, adding cushions for support and giving me a perfect angle without any uncomfortable acrobatics required on his part.

I heard a breathless chuckle from my lover and wondered if he was amused by my preparations. He would appreciate them in a moment. His laughter stopped but he was still smiling as I crouched over him and finally moved to join our bodies on a new level.

The pressure was almost intolerable, and I growled as I pushed into him, my eyelids and jaw clenching as I concentrated on steady, slow movement. The partial relief when the head of my cock was beyond the tightening ring of muscles allowed me to breathe and open my eyes. His expression was difficult to read. I expected pain, and he was clenching against me, both below and with his hands clutching my upper arms with bruising strength.

"Raiden," I took my weight off my right arm and reached to caress his cheek. "Is it too much? Tell me and I will stop."

He gasped and glared at me with bared teeth.

"Don't you . . . fucking . . . dare . . . you bastard!"

I blinked in surprise and decided that the expletive was not meant literally. His hand had followed mine to his cheek, and I clasped it, moving it to the side and weaving our fingers together on top of the blankets. I did not bother telling him to relax, I could feel his effort as I pushed in farther.

Trying not to feel, only to think so that I could hold back, I stopped again about half way in, pulling back and slowly pushing in again a few times. He was doing better now, purposely controlling his breathing and no longer squeezing tight enough to cause me pain. Gold eyes opened and closed frequently, watching my face as I watched his. I wanted to give him the kiss he had been begging for, and I would as soon as I had taken him beyond resistance.

To that end and in answer to the growing madness of need, I drove forward with more force and did not stop when he shouted and tightened around me again. I could not halt a cry of my own as I let myself feel.

Mating with my own kind was an intense experience, an enhancing of compatible power. Ice, wind, water, and earth merged and moved as one. This was entirely new. Fully sheathed in a being of flames and lightning, it was like nothing I had ever heard of, nothing I could even have imagined. It was torture and rapture, and growling pants fell from my lips as my head fell to his.

Dazed and completely obsessed with the sensations tearing through me, I did not even take notice of the one causing all this delicious chaos. I did not notice his hand at the back of my neck until he had me in a firm hold. I did not notice his face closing in until the circuit was completed, his tongue in my mouth, the electricity flowing up my spine meeting new currents as lips yielded to clashing teeth in a passionate mess of hunger and saliva.

Forever, I could stay right here, in this moment forever. Eternity never seemed so appealing.

My body did not agree with the wishes of my soul and insisted on moving. Was it a moan or a cry that passed between our greedy mouths as I drew back? Was it his or mine? It was his shout that broke our kiss, his head slamming back though I was not as forceful as I wished. Then I realized I must have the perfect angle, indeed, already providing him with the most stimulation possible from the very beginning.

Licking and sucking at the lovely bronze neck stretched out before me, I restrained myself to keep a gentle rhythm. Each loud breath was accompanied by a small moan or whimper that I felt under my lips. He was so alluring, even without the unexpected bliss provided by the contrast of our natures, even without the simple ecstasy of physical indulgence.

"Raiden," his name was ideally suited for a growling, panting sigh. "Stunning . . . wondrous . . . my lovely golden Raiden."

"Ryu . . . shut the hell up." He shoved against me, out for rhythm, urging me faster. It was all I could do not to sink my teeth into his exposed throat, a desire I had never fully felt. I had to let some control go, and since he was asking I made one more slow withdrawal, lifting my body and untangling our fingers so that I could hold his hips and slam into him as I had been craving to do.

Halting my growl of satisfaction, I stilled at the sound of that musical voice. I could not tell if that was a scream of pain or pleasure, and my need was cast aside in a moment of fear. The scream died down to a low moan as I started to reach for his face.

"Ryu. Nnngh . . . again!"

Thank you, whatever gods and devils may exist. And damn you all for throwing him in my path.

The hand that had been reaching up dropped on his chest, and I dragged my sharp nails lightly back down to his hip as I pulled out. Then I surrendered, stopped trying to predict what he wanted, stopped thinking about how he would react. The inferno that was the core of my lover beckoned, and I strove to reach it, to become one with it, with all the power and will tempered by unmeasured time in Hell.

At some point his legs had wrapped tightly around me. At some point, he ceased to match my thrusts and simply clung to me. His shouts had disappeared into short, breathy cries. My growls had become nothing more than hissed heat between clenched teeth. My hand went to his cock, stroking and squeezing, giving him that little extra push to end this glorious agony.

When he finally yelled the name he had given to me his muscles all spasmed, a wave of sharp pain forewarning the coming riptide of pleasure. One arm caught my weight as I collapsed over him, viciously thrusting once more, twice. I was overwhelmed by savage joy as I released into him.

As my body slowed, awareness returned. Every cell was buzzing with heat and lazy happiness. My eyes focused to find golden eyes watching me from under heavy lids above an open mouth steadily fighting for air. After a few more breaths he managed to smile up at me. My shaky arms held as I leaned down and kissed that dazed smile, kissed those shining eyes, kissed the regal cheekbones and back to the grinning lips.

The gift that I had been saving for him made his breath stop. His eyes widened and he reached a trembling hand up to trace my lips. I kissed his fingers, my tentative smile gaining confidence as I praised my small accomplishment of bringing him joy. Of course, the broad smile that lit his face made my little offering seem weak and unworthy, but as he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me down to lie on top of him, I thought maybe I had done well.

He tucked his head over my shoulder; I suspected he wanted to make it clear that I did not have to hold onto my smile for his sake. Already riding a wave of affection for him, I kissed his neck and relaxed, catching my breath. His hands rubbed my back soothingly, as if I needed consolation. Perhaps I did, I hardly knew anymore. All I did know was that I felt content, even while I was a complete wreck inside. My new strategy was to hold and focus on one or two emotions and let the rest just go fuck themselves. It seemed to be working so far.

When I had recovered enough, I lifted myself and gently pulled out of his warmth, my slight moan of regret matching his. He looked very tired, and very pleased, watching me with an idle smile. I lay down on my side close to him as he stretched out his legs, kicking a few cushions out of his way to get comfortable. He looked around and I made a guess. There was very little here, just my nest, some clothing in a small closet with no door, and a stand for my sword. One door opened to the hallway, the other to a small bathroom.

I twisted around and reached to the edge of the nest for a stray pillow. Pulling off the decorative covering, I turned back and tenderly started to wipe his chest and stomach. He blushed, which was charming if ridiculous, and snatched the coverlet-turned-rag from me.

"Seriously, Ryu, you are the most selfish, demanding, and frustrating lover, and then you simply smile and I find myself forgiving all of it. I'm a goddamn idiot."

I blinked and tried to process those words. He was not happy, I had been too rough, he did not care for intimacy with me. My happiness drained away as my mind raced. There had to be a way to fix it. But really, should I even try? If he was done with me, all the better. He should go back to his life and be safe.

Yes, that would be best. It still hurt, and if I thought too much about that fact I would panic. I had a night of wonder to take with me back into the dark. By the time it faded from my memory I would be safely locked behind walls of ice once more. And never again would I allow myself to be tempted by fire.

"Hey! No, no, no, Ryu, don't! I'm a rude shit, you just don't know it yet. My words don't mean what you think they do. Ryu, please! I loved everything you did, everything you said. Ryu, stay with me."

He was kissing all over my face, little light kisses like the ones I gave when I was particularly happy. I started to catch up, only now hearing the words he had been saying. I drew my face back, one hand on his chest to push him away as I searched his eyes for truth.

"I forgot, Ryu, I stupidly allowed myself to forget. I told you I just react on gut feeling. It gets me in trouble all the time with humans. I forgot how you believe what I say, and sometimes I say things I don't really mean."

"Like calling me a bastard?" I asked thoughtfully.

"Just so. I forgot that I've never heard you say something you don't mean. Even when you were teasing me it was just a clever way of telling truth, and it wasn't sarcastic or cruel like what I just said. But it's not meant that way. Shit, it's impossible to explain."

"You did not dislike being intimate with me?"

"I fucking loved it . . . literally that time. And I have every intention of doing it again whenever you want."

I could not say that I fully understood it. So much about him was still a mystery. What I had learned so far about human behavior did not always apply to him, so there was an entirely new set of expressions, nuances, quirks and expectations to learn.

"It will take me time to understand this. You must tell me the truth if I ever hurt you and make me know my faults so that I can correct them."

"I can do that. I'm sorry I hurt you again. It probably won't be the last time I mess up."

"Nor the last time I misunderstand. And we must learn to read each other in very poor circumstances. We are not the wisest of men."

He chuckled, finally relaxing. I stood and moved off the cushions to clean myself. When the thin layer of ice covered me, I heard a snort and another chuckle. I shook off the ice in a fine rain of glittering shards and moved to rearrange cushions so that I could sit and recline comfortably. When I tugged at the blanket and looked at him expectantly, he scrambled off, still amused. Once everything was fluffed and clean to my satisfaction, I relaxed, propped up in soft luxury, and patted the cushion next to me.

Raiden had been fighting laughter the entire time, settling next to me with a rather silly grin on his face. He found the strangest things amusing. I pulled the blanket over our laps and worked my arm between him and the cushions to rest around his waist. He leaned close against my side with a shiver.

"Shit, I need to work on my cold tolerance. We're going to talk again, aren't we?"

"Not if you do not wish to. Only I must be sure you are aware that the tyrant, your father, would not approve of you even looking in my direction. Nor me looking in yours. You are aware of this?"

"Mm-hmm. As much as I'd like to say that I don't give a fuck what he thinks, I know better. He has only taken me to the throne room once, the first time I saw you. But sooner or later I will have to be near you and not know you. And if I can't be convincing, you are the one most likely to pay for it."

"I am not as valuable as I once was, but I am still of significant worth. Do not believe that man will not harm his own kin."

"Ryu, I have been here 6 months, I'm already well aware that he has no problem hurting his own son. My father knows that I disapprove of almost everything he is and does. At first, he tried to win me over, but he lost patience. I stopped fighting him early on, when he made it clear that others would pay for my attitude. He believes he can at least make me a trophy, and he enjoys forcing the role on me. I will play the obedient son until I lose my will to resist, or until I lose my temper and probably my life. That's where I stand."

"Well, we are quite a pair."

"So, I'm curious, and just tell me if you don't want to talk about it, but I've heard stories about the King's Tatsu and I don't know what's true."

I waited. He had not asked anything. Was this another of his statements that I was supposed to respond to even though there was no direction given?

"How long have you been here?"

"Here? Since this palace was created. With the tyrant? I do not know. If you know how long since the Tatsu surrendered and fled, I was enslaved less than one year earlier. I was what broke them."

"I don't know exactly how long ago that was, it's practically a myth for my generation. 300 years, or close to it. The legends say you joined my father against the Akuma, and helped build Heaven, and are its guardian to this day. Every child knows about you, the hero that helped save humanity from mortality. The story excuses the lack of a name, too, saying that Tatsu only give their names to the worthy."

It did not even make me angry. It was too absurd and too far removed from me to cause any reaction except scorn.

"This is why you felt safe approaching me? Because you thought I was an ally of humans?"

"No. It's why I was hoping to meet you. But the second I saw you I saw part of the truth. And when I tried to argue with my father, told him he was wrong to chain you like that, he offered to set you free by destroying you."

"Ah, how I would have thanked you for taking that offer."

He turned to study my face. "Would you still?"

"I cannot say. Not at this moment. But dawn will come."

"The answer must be no, but I have to ask. Is there a way to free you?"

"The ones who bound me could have released me. They were the first I was ordered to kill. Your father has the power but not the knowledge or the will. Death is my only release."

"I don't understand why it was done. If you were strong enough to defeat them all, why would your people give that power to an enemy?"

"That is a long story. Simply put, I was one of the leaders of the forces fighting the humans. We were losing because too few Akuma would stand and fight when other dimensions could be reached and taken as their own. To buy peace and the right to stay in their own lands, the Tatsu sold me to the enemy. I was the only price he would accept, the one he considered the greatest threat. My people agreed with every belief I would be drained of my power like all others that had fallen captive. They were mistaken.

"You do know that is the power that holds up Heaven? The souls of my people and many of yours are food and fuel for the tyrant. As we speak, he bathes in stolen power, and uses it to reform reality. He has broken the order of the universe to allow his own eternal life and extend the life and power of those that support him. And he steals power from every soul that passes through this dimension to do so."

I felt him shudder and saw his face pale and knew that this was a new truth for him. I tightened my hold on his waist and kissed his temple. He needed to calm down or this wondrous night would end in tragedy.

"You must control anger directed at your father. I have no choice, if you present a clear threat I will attack. And I cannot guarantee restraint like the last time."

"300 years and someone as smart and strong as you has found no way to stop this."

"It is too late for any simple solution, Raiden, and I stopped looking for a way to defy him long ago. Even if the Soul King is killed, the changes he has made will continue and another will take his place. As for me, my greatest accomplishment in all of my time as a slave was finally becoming too dead inside to be worth torturing."

"And that is no longer the case, thanks to me. If he ever finds out, you will suffer."

"Yes. And I confess I am conflicted about this as about so many other things. Part of me still wishes for death, more strongly now that I know I am once more vulnerable. But a growing part of me is thankful that I have regained the ability to feel, even if it is to suffer. What life did I have to lose? I was gone, Raiden. Everything that made me who I once was, gone. Do not regret showing me the light in the darkness, no matter what becomes of me."

With one smooth movement, I tossed the blanket aside, turned and threw one leg over him, settling snug in his lap. It startled him partly out of the melancholy mood our talk had created, and I tried to erase the rest of his sadness by licking away the tears he let fall so easily. My arms draped over his shoulders and by the time I moved to his lips he was ready to kiss me back.

We shared our pain and worry in slow, tender caresses of lip and tongue. Just this, the mingling of breath and saliva, the soft heat, was as precious to me as the sight of his face in bliss, the sound of his voice singing of snow, all the unsought and unexpected treasures that would hold back the dark for just a little while when the inevitable came for us.

As our kisses grew more heated, I yielded all control to him. When his hands pulled me closer, I wiggled in his lap and hummed in growing excitement. A warm hand slid down my spine, fingers gliding between cheeks and I broke from his lips with a low moan of encouragement.

"Ryu, can I . . . are you okay with me taking you?"

I wiggled again, pushing against his growing erection. "Am I not making that perfectly clear? Unless that is not something you want, which I admit would be disappointing."

He smirked. "Oh, I want it, I just assumed . . . I mean, you were so dominating before. I didn't think you'd allow it."

"Humans."

He bit at my collarbone and pushed his hand further down. "Not fair, I'm quite willing to play both side of this and I'm a human."

"Mmm, but you still have reservations and silly notions about sex, even if you are more open than most. We will have to work on that."

The brat princeling was provoked, and I did not resist when he practically picked me up just to throw me into the cushions under him. Good, he was going to be cooperative. I smiled as his mouth descended, anticipating another very pleasant memory.

Chapter Text

Standing stoically in my customary place, I watched the first rays of dawn. I had nothing to say to the sun today. I had not whispered the traditional wish in weeks now, and the dawn no longer brought hope of death. Instead it brought resentment for the wasted hours coming. The sunset no longer brought despair that I had not met my end, but hope that I may soon see another sun, another source of light and heat.

That golden soul had become the center of my universe so quickly. We spent long hours conversing, sharing knowledge of each other, our people, and anything we happened to think of. We spent long hours exploring pleasure, holding one another, and sharing silent warmth. I had learned to feel again, to smile and even to laugh. It brought me great sorrow, but also so much joy. He was right, it was worth the world, what we had.

My days were spent as usual, an immobile statue that would not come to life unless forced. Only instead of letting the majority of my mind shut down, I spent days reliving my nights. Not today, however. It was mid-morning when my reverie ended as Raiden approached. I did not turn to look, of course, but I saw him as he came up the stairs. I cursed inside as he bowed before his father and then stood several steps below the throne as more humans came into my field of awareness.

The tyrant was forming a military, or more accurately giving status to the group of powerful mercenaries that had only just started to come together in the last few years of my freedom. They had been the king's thugs for the past few centuries. Now they would be the core of an army to police souls and defend them from threats created by the tyrant's own actions. The revulsion I felt did not show. Nothing showed. Usually, I was only slightly more awake during the day than I had always been, only a sliver of my awareness present to respond to threats or commands. With Raiden and the 13 killers present, I was much more alert.

My master had pointed me out to them, of course. One had the temerity to request to fight me, a female with a lot of power but not enough to challenge me. The piece of filth told her as much and laughed at them all. He told them I would be the one to clean up any messes they created, and I would be the one to eliminate them all if they displeased him. A few of them radiated animosity toward me, but most were surprisingly impassive as they were insulted.

I recalled that some of them had seen me fight both before and after my enslavement. They had been part of the forces sent to wipe out the Tatsu. Those who had witnessed the devastation and death my power created were likely the ones who did not react, as they knew I was more than capable of carrying out the tyrant's threat.

They were going to call themselves Shinigami. I would laugh about that pretentiousness later with my golden lover. The tyrant was granting them quite a lot of power in his growing kingdom. The realm of chaos was unrecognizable now, as I could tell from my high vantage during the nights standing at the edge of my world and occasionally looking down. Swarms of human souls crawled like maggots over every surface below, creating dwellings and lingering in a place they were not meant to stay. The mercenaries would be overlords and 'protectors' of this cesspool, with power and authority to do whatever they pleased provided it did not interfere with the flow of power to the throne. Vile.

Suddenly highly alert, I sensed a direct and strong threat to the tyrant, a sickeningly familiar anger and sharp power. It took less than an instant for the enemy to be identified and the strike to begin, all the time in the world for my heart to start breaking. White light streamed from the edge of my blade as it sliced the air toward the golden neck I found so sweet to kiss. My eyes memorized his face one last time.

"STOP!"

I had to crash one knee to the floor in order to stop the strike in time, my sword sparking as it tore through marble and helped drag me to a halt. My eyes went to the floor as I yanked the blade free, then up to my victim as I stood and moved the two steps required to position myself between him and the man I had to defend.

Raiden was marvelous. He had taken one step back to avoid the skidding sword, but he had once again not flinched. He did not draw his sword, only shifted his stance to face me as I moved, watching without expression, head high and body relaxed. In that moment, I wanted so badly to fight him, a warrior's desire that had died long before the rest of me.

My master placed a hand on my shoulder, and my skin crawled.

"Well done, my Tatsu. Sheathe your weapon and do not strike at my son again this day. He and I will discuss this incident."

I did as commanded, walking calmly back to my position without another glance at any of the humans. Vaguely, I heard the impressed comments from the mercenaries, admiring my speed and obedience. They were vermin, and though I never wished to kill for the tyrant, I hoped these so-called Shinigami would hang themselves with the rope they were being given.

Only once I was safely back in the unsettled blizzard raging across the normally still fields of ice did I allow myself to scream.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Perhaps today I will die.

Rage and terror were everything to me now. Three nights alone. Third sun breaking the horizon and no sign of Raiden. I sensed him that first evening, still enraged, and in great pain, and out of my reach. Even his aura disappeared at nightfall, which meant a great distance, death, or a barrier, an incredibly strong barrier to be able to block me. And a barrier meant a torture chamber.

Each night I waited, watching the stars, or seeming to while I fell apart inside, pulled myself together, and fell apart again. Each day I waited, hoping for swift death for both of us. Standing watch immobile and immutable.

But perhaps I would not die today, for at midday I felt his presence. He was not in pain. His anger was tempered. And he was coming closer. I did not look. But all my senses were on him as he walked across the marble expanse and bowed before the throne.

"Tatsu, approach."

The tyrant did not need to raise his voice for me to hear, and I complied. My heart clenched with the fear that I would now be ordered to kill the one I adored. I stopped at the base of the six stairs leading to the tyrant's seat. I did not bow. He could force it, but he would not, for ordering a slave to kneel would show weakness.

"Tatsu, my son will likely be angry with me. Do not attack him today unless I specifically order it. Stay where you are unless ordered or until nightfall."

I did not acknowledge the orders. I did not need to, he knew he would be obeyed.

"My son, you have been a disappointment. Yet you have power and may yet be taught when I have more time to spend on the task. You will return to Rukongai until I have some use for you. Your mother and siblings will come to me. Perhaps one of the children will prove more acceptable. If not, there are various bastards of mine. Perhaps one of them will be worthy if your siblings are as soft as you have become."

I did feel his anger swell, yet I had no need to kill. I rejoiced that he would escape, at least for a time and perhaps forever. My mourning I would save for privacy.

"Yet you are still the most viable option for an heir, and I would have you safe. The Tatsu will be your guard, but you must know how to use it."

Hundreds of years of practice, no visible reaction as my heart nearly stopped. It could not happen. He could not give me away, and to Raiden of all souls. It had to be a lie, because there was no good in this world. There were no gods answering prayers. Miracles simply did not exist.

"Father, you cannot be serious. You know how I feel about such a soul being held captive. I will not have him as a slave."

"Touching. But I did not ask. Now then, you observed the specific nature of my orders. Leave out details at your peril. Do not order 'stand over there,' specify exactly where, for how long, and what if anything it is to do while standing. I will demonstrate."

Raiden looked to the stairwell in growing alarm as a small family of humans approached. I assumed they were some form of nobility in the caste system the 'king' had created, and the tyrant greeted them cordially as they knelt. He never told them to rise, so they stayed kneeling as he introduced Raiden and told them what I was. The three children looked excited to see me, and after Raiden's explanation of my legends I knew why. The elders were more worldly, and trembled.

"Now then, my son. This minor lord supports a number of smiths, as is his family's tradition. Some of them do quite fine work. Imagine my dismay when a horde of distinctive weapons made by these smiths were found in the hands of traitors following the Sabitsura Rebellion."

"My king, I swear to you I did not . . .." The old man was pushed to the floor by a casual wave of power for an instant, bruising one side of his face.

"My son and I were speaking, my lord. Kindly hold your tongue."

The rest of the family were starting to catch on, and the fear in the air was thick and choking. There was anger, as well, but none of them had enough power to register as a threat.

"Of course, weapons are sold and traded widely. It is possible that my good lord did not, in fact, support treason against his king. So, mercy is called for, and a warning to take more care of the family reputation."

The naïve of the family started to feel hope. The tyrant did love to play with his victims.

"This is a low task for such a fine weapon, but there are so few proper enemies these days. Observe and learn."

Distance yourself. Do it now and try to forget that Raiden is watching.

"Tatsu, kill whichever of these souls you choose."

I did not even blink, let alone move as the humans wailed and fell all over themselves.

"You see the problem with the order? Without specifics, don't expect any action. Leave it any ambiguity and it will defy you at every opportunity. Tatsu, kill the youngest of these souls now."

He did not specify how. The girl was perhaps 5 years old, completely defenseless. Freezing her heart required nothing but a thought, and it was as painless a death as I was capable of delivering. Her body fell before her mother could even gasp at the tyrant's words. Raiden was furious. His hatred was directed at his father, not me, but I let it stab at my heart in self-loathing. Wisely, he remained silent. Begging for these souls would only increase the bloodshed.

"And you can be more specific should you require or simply wish it. Tatsu, the blonde boy, kill him by cutting his throat now."

The two remaining children were huddled in their mother's arms. The sword may result in additional injury. With one swift movement that the mother barely saw, my nails did the required work with precision and she was holding her child as he convulsed and bled out. I returned instantly to my position, only a trickle of blood dripping from my hand.

"You can, of course, order it to take prisoners, to harm or maim without killing, or to kill very, very slowly. It excels at dealing out death."

No. No, please do not make me do worse in front of him.

"I encourage you to try various options, so that you do not make a fatal mistake when delivering a needed order."

The tyrant looked at the sobbing family as if just noticing an unpleasant stench.

"Leave my sight."

The survivors fled, true human cowards counting themselves lucky to have survived and making no move to avenge or die with the ones they professed to love. The souls I had killed had dissipated, leaving one large bloodstain. The tyrant sneered at it and it vanished with a flick of his power.

"Control of the Tatsu is possible through orders and enforced through the chains around and through its soul. Should it fail to obey, the pain is instant and quite excruciating as the chains automatically tighten to force compliance. The one controlling the chains can also accomplish this effect through will, useful should it be disobedient or disrespectful, as it was in choosing not to kill though my intent was obvious. Like so."

Knowing it was coming did not help. How could I even describe what it feels like to have foreign power in and around your soul at all, and then to have it burn and tear at your very essence? That was the only torture he had that could still make me scream, and oh, how I screamed. I was not aware of collapsing to the floor, wrapping myself into a small ball though it alleviated not one ounce of agony.

When he stopped, the pain lessened only slightly but it would be minutes before I could move again. Raiden was now murderous, though I could not see him I could feel the rage searing the air even through my pain. The tyrant was not only causing me pain, he was torturing his son and punishing Raiden for expressing any compassion for me.

"You must be careful, as it will be useless for some time after. If I ordered it to kill you now, it would try but it would be sluggish and weak. It would fail against a strong opponent.

"But it is the standing requirements that truly protect you. These are carved on the chains themselves, and therefore carved into its very soul. There are three placed on it now, with the first always taking priority over the second and the second over the third. The first, to ensure no harm comes to myself. The second, to instantly and completely obey every order given by he who holds control of the chains. The third, to ensure it stays alive and in working condition. In other words, once I give you the chains it will follow every order you give unless the order would cause harm to me, even if the order leads to its own demise.

"I will add a new second requirement, to ensure no harm comes to you."

When I could no longer scream, still I tried until my soul's torment was too great even for my will. Blessed darkness took me, though I continued to wail silently as I lost consciousness.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Everything hurt; the world was nothing but one raw, open wound. I lay still for a very long time, I think, before forcing my eyes open. My vision was unsteady and blurred. Eventually I realized I had simply been left where I fell, at the foot of the stairs. That meant open sky . . .. I would have groaned with the effort to move, but I was not capable of making sound other than the hiss of air. It took every bit of energy I had to straighten my legs and move my arms slightly. I rested until I could make another attempt. Three tries just to roll onto my back, and gods did it hurt.

My reward was elusive. Consciousness and vision faded in and out. Perhaps another hour passed before my eyes worked well enough to make out the larger stars. I chose one with a strong pulse of white light. I had traveled with this one many times before, and it gave me a familiar focal point.

When I had enough space between mind and body, I assessed the damage. Nothing to be done about the bruising of my soul. Dried blood on my face from screaming until my throat was torn. Dried blood on my hands from clawing at the skin of my chest. Oh, and do not forget the blood of a little boy that got to meet his hero; that is there, too.

My robe was ruined. A shame, it was one of only three left made at home, cared for like treasures through the years. Deep claw marks stung on my chest and stomach. Some part of me must have tried to get to the source of the pain. I was surprised that I had not torn out my own heart. Broken ribs, no, just fractured, four of them. I had squeezed myself into as small a form as possible, cracking my own bones in the process.

Then I remembered. Raiden's property . . . could that have really happened? Was it just a game of the filthy tyrant?

Tell me, star. Tell me it is true.

If it was a lie, then I would still be expected to stand guard today. A few hours until dawn. I could take another hour or so to gain energy, then decide how to use it. Pull moisture from the air here or try to get to my room and use the tub to heal myself? I drifted off with the star, away from the pain.

"Ryu!"

Oh, he is alive. He is coming for me.

"Ryu, oh shit, Ryu! Can you hear me?"

A warm hand gently touched my face. I could not answer. I dragged my consciousness fully back and looked at him. Just the sight of his golden eyes was a balm to my wounds. He knew healing, and I winced as he poured energy into me. I looked back to my star, the pain in my soul great enough that I did not want to face the minor discomfort of ribs stitching back together on top of everything else.

The next thing I was aware of was being lifted by strong arms. I was able to groan this time. My body felt better, but every movement pulled at the unseen scars within, the raw connection between my soul and the damned chains of power that twisted through it. I closed my eyes and let tears fall for the first time in at least 200 years.

I only wanted cold. I wanted to be numb. It never snowed here.

"Just a little farther, Ryu. You don't have to stay awake. You're safe now."

Safe? What could he be thinking? We would never be safe until the tyrant was dead.

"Raiden," my voice was there, not even raw thanks to healing, but it was faint and wavering. "I need water, a lot of water. A bath if you can."

"I can do that. We're here. I'm going to put you on the bed while I run a bath."

He lowered me onto a soft surface, and I opened my eyes to an unfamiliar place. I was in a nest type of bed like mine, but it was not mine. It was covered in deep red, for one thing, and the room was much larger with fine furniture and thick rugs. I blinked. I was somewhere new. Raiden had taken me somewhere outside of the areas I was ordered to stay within. It was true. He had control of me, it was the only explanation. Relief flooded me and I started silently weeping again, much to my dismay.

He came back, looking worried but trying to appear cheerful for my sake. He knelt to pick me up. I could walk, but I reached for him and let him carry me instead. He took me into an opulent bathroom with a large soaking tub, steam roiling on the surface as water poured in. I was set down on my feet and I let him take my sword and strip my tattered clothing.

The water was too hot for my liking, but it would cool quickly from contact with me anyway. A long sigh accompanied me into the water, and I immediately started to feel the pain retreat. My thoughtful lover brought me a cup of cold water, which took me no time at all to drain and hand back for more. After another drink, I let my head fall back against the edge of the tub. Raiden got down on his knees and reached to massage my neck and shoulders lightly, pushing a little harder when I moaned in appreciation.

"I'm so sorry I took so long, Ryu. I had a little punishment session myself, nothing at all compared to what he did to you."

"Why? What did you do?"

"Tried, quite unsuccessfully, to punch the evil bastard. I wanted to draw my sword, but I knew what would happen then. Couldn't stop myself from taking a swing at him, though."

"Is it true? Did he give you control of me?"

He made a choking noise and his hands faltered.

"I'm so sorry. I didn't have any way to stop it."

I nearly fainted as relief, joy, and stark terror for the future I never thought I would have overwhelmed me. A miracle in the truest definition of the word.

While I regained my composure, he did not. "Why are you upset by this?"

"It's so wrong. No one should be anyone's owner. You should belong to no one, answer to no one."

"You need to accept the fact, Raiden. I am a slave until the day I die. This is the best possible outcome for me. I can go with you, out of this place. Already you have given me more freedom than I have had in centuries. And if for just one day I do not have to see that abomination, do not have to do whatever reprehensible act he wills, what more could you ever give me?"

He half stood to lean in and kiss me, carefully and briefly.

"I won't believe it all until we're actually out of here. Then we'll see just how much more I can give you."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

The life I had as one of the most powerful beings in a primal world of unlimited freedom would never return. That world itself was no more. It had been a good life. Flights and battles, challenges and ages of peace, and truly anything I wished was obtainable. But the very nature of who I was then was gone. It was a different existence with purposes and morals that no longer applied.

Better to think that I had died and was born into a new world than to try to compare the two. You can ask yourself which has a better life, a tiger or a sparrow. Even if you live the lives yourself, there are not enough common points of reference, especially if you try to get the tiger and the sparrow to agree on the answer.

My life now was something that the free Tatsu I had been could not have imagined, may not even have recognized as life at all. But to Ryu, this was a golden age. Though I could never forget that I was a slave and always would be, I had more joy in my life than ever before. Who I was now looked back at the independent, free existence I had once had and did not understand it. What was the worth in it? I had existed. Until war came, I achieved nothing, but nothing was expected in a society without artifacts. When war came, I failed. And I never shared any but the most fleeting of attachments.

The tyrant had sent his son home with pomp and ridiculous fanfare. It had nothing to do with the comfort or respect of his son, and everything to do with his own image. A slow procession of servants, musicians, and guards accompanied Raiden home, a horrid display he seemed accustomed to and embarrassed by. We had arrived late in the day, and spent time touring the manor in the foothills of snow-capped mountains. Snow! Raiden assured me it would cover the grounds many months of the year and promised I could visit the mountains the following day.

I was introduced to the staff as his lover, and a lord. He showed me all that his home had to offer, from a fine library to military training grounds, and of course I was not restricted in any way. We spent the long evening and most of the night celebrating in bed, free of fear and sadness. We would never be completely safe, but for at least one night neither of us dreaded dawn.

Then came the second miracle. Honestly, I was ashamed that I had not seen it coming. I had shut it out so ruthlessly that I had not even thought of the possibility. When Raiden, who held the chains tying me down to the earth, stood by me the next morning in the courtyard and told me to fly, I did not even understand at first. I stared at him, eyes widening and heart racing as he repeated.

"Go, Ryu. Take your true form and go where you will, do what you will. Come back to me when you wish."

One more time I shut out the dream, just long enough to crash into him and suck out all his air until we were both struggling to stand. Then I turned and fled. My power stretched out within and around me as I ran, preparing the shift. In the space between one fast heartbeat and another, soft feet left the ground and great white wings snapped down alongside razor talons.

Clearing the wall, I pushed every muscle, filled every downstroke with wind, climbing and climbing to the thin air where the clouds filled with ice crystals welcomed me home, frosting my skin. My triumphant roar split the skies as I folded my wings and tumbled through the void. Eyes sharper than those of any raptor picked out the tiny, orderly shapes of the manor as I plummeted with lazy twists.

Details were added quickly with the speed I was gaining. There! There he was, face turned up to the heavens. Ice spread over my wings to protect them from the force of braking, and I cut the speed a series of sharp turns. When I was slow enough the ice cracked away and I put on a show, an aerial dance for my entertainment and his. Too long since this ecstasy, too long since the sheer fun of flight. I looked down from a long upside-down spiral and I was close enough to hear his laughter. I spun on a wingtip and headed for him.

He was shaking his head and pointing with a huge smile on his perfect face. I followed his arm. So intent I had been on my tiny human lover, I had forgotten the snow. With a happy roar, I pumped my wings and soared within a few feet of him, picking up speed as I climbed toward the mountains.

This was how my body was supposed to feel. Not constricted and fragile but overflowing with power that seeped out of every pore to mingle with the wind, the magic that allowed speed and control. That enhanced wind caressing and cradling, throwing me aloft and parting before me to allow my being to become one with the sky. This was how the world was supposed to look, a precisely detailed landscape of forests, rocky heights, and shining waters laced in pristine silver-white.

The first touch of snow as I dragged my feet along a high outcrop thick with drifts of powder sent shivers of delight through me. Spotting a valley with several bare meadows, I dove. Recklessly I plowed into the deep layer of white nose first, holding wings high my only concession to the danger of a hidden boulder. Momentum halted with me half buried, and I rolled and writhed, stretched and kicked, thrumming and shivering until I was sure every inch of me had been thoroughly coated and recoated in freezing softness. Huge puffs of steam hung in the air from my happy explosions of breath.

Finding a particularly large drift on the lee of a ridge of rock and trees, I snaked along the ground with wings held tightly in. I burrowed deep into the snowbank and curled back on myself. The flick of my tail collapsed the entrance of my den. An outside observer would wonder what force caused the unusual markings in the snow but would never guess that a huge creature was still present. I purred perfect content as I fell into a short rejuvenating nap.

When I woke, I stretched, letting my fragile den fall in around me so that I was completely buried. I had been given as long as I wished to fly and play, and I was happily surprised to find that what I wished was to return to Raiden. He would let me fly again, I did not need to hold on to this in desperation. I shook free of the snow and with a mighty push of legs, wings, and power I launched myself into the sky.

I explored and roamed the reaches for a few hours. I was tempted a hundred times by springing mountain sheep, majestic elk, and lithe deer. Tatsu did not require food, with plenty of nourishment gained simply through drawing in the energy of the world, and giving it back infused with our own aura. But eating was a pleasure, and a boost when exerting oneself. Human food was repulsive to a being evolved to hunt and kill. Here for the first time in ages I could indulge, but it was not hot blood I craved.

Finally, I spotted my goal. A deep crystalline lake formed where a river choked before spilling hundreds of feet over the cliff in a violent and ephemeral plume of mist. The waters were frozen at the shores, and shaded darker and darker blue to the center. With little effort, I spotted the rich life hidden underneath the surface. I had my pick of several, and I deliberately chose one that would not be an easy snatch from the surface. I dove, hitting the water nose first and reaching for my prey.

It required more effort to use wings to break from water to air, and I reveled in my strength as I lifted myself and the thrashing monster fish which looked small now in my claws. I landed quickly on the shore and ended the creature's struggle with a quick talon a second before closing my fangs and taking my time to savor the succulent flesh.

So many simple pleasures I had been denied. In the face of the horror of captivity I had mourned the loss of will and the loss of flight, but I had failed to realize how much color a myriad of little things brought to my life. Contact with the snow, the view as I soared lazily, the rush of wind and impact of water, and the flood of flavor and life from a simple hunt. I cleaned my fangs and claws fastidiously, enjoying the peaceful shore for a few more minutes as I watched the sparkling waters vie with the brilliance of the snow. I stood and stretched snout to tail, gathered myself and sprang into the air to return to the one source of joy that would complete this perfect day.

Wandering little on my way back, I took my time. Gliding, finding the few thermals and cutting through clouds, I simply enjoyed being aloft with no sinister goal to reach. When the tyrant allowed me to fly, it was only to reach a faraway target more efficiently, and to inspire terror. I took joy in those flights, but it was poisoned by the purpose.

Shutting those thoughts away, I trumpeted my approach as the manor came into sight. As I circled, I saw Raiden pelting full speed through the front doors into the courtyard, skidding to a stop with that same wide smile on his face that lit the reddening light of sunset. I hummed in happiness as the wind from a backstroke of my wings sent his golden hair flying; it had grown rather long and I heartily approved.

He would want to look at me, touch me in this form, I knew. It would never occur to him to order me not to change back. I hovered for a moment, showing off in my vanity, before touching down as light as a drifting snowflake. I stood, weight settled back and wings half unfurled, neck arched proudly, striking a pose for my lover to admire. There were a dozen or so other humans brave enough to gather at windows and near the doors to take a look, as well.

Raiden looked like a child, all giddy excitement and awe. He moved in circles where the unusual became commonplace, but there were no Tatsu to be found in his lifetime. Other dangers he had faced, yet to be this close to a being that would normally kill him on sight had to be a new standard. It showed in his hesitation, and I tilted my head down.

My body alone was more than twice his height ground to shoulder, and with my head raised he had been craning his neck back just to see me. I tucked my wings in and settled on my haunches, forearms crossing in front of my chest, aiming to make myself a little less intimidating.

"Ryu! You are magnificent! Just amazing, fucking glorious!"

I hissed my amusement and lowered my head further, my nose coming to rest right beside him. Finally, he reached out with both hands, one coming to rest above my wide nostril, the other just under my eye. He jumped a little and met my eye with a grin.

"And I thought your skin was cold as a human."

He jumped again when I spoke, and moved a step back, watching my mouth. "The upper reaches are pleasantly cool; your skin is too thin."

"Holy . . . can I see?"

Opening my mouth slightly, I pulled back my lips in what would normally be a threatening snarl. My longest fangs were nearly the length of his forearm, and he gulped as he reached out to touch one. That seemed the breaking point, and his hands were running up my muzzle, around my eye, over the ridge of bone to my neck. I held still, apart from little shivers running over my skin that I could not suppress.

Nor could I suppress the vibrations in my throat, which I had willfully held back until he started petting me all over. There was only so much I could take, after all. He laughed and pressed his hands into my throat, moving them around to try to find the source of the noise. That led his questing hands to my breastbone, and I raised my head for him to continue his exploration. He was leaning over my forelegs, and I sheathed my claws in ice. He looked down and was distracted. He knelt to run his hands over each toe that I raised and flexed for him. He was so intent on every detail, I was not sure if I was flattered or unnerved to be examined so thoroughly.

"Are they really that sharp?"

I tapped just one on the ground, letting the ice break away. "Be very careful."

"Shit, it's like a sword. Strong, too." His attention made another leap. "Would you stretch out your wing for me?"

The wing snapped out over his head and he gave a long, impressed whistle, reaching up to touch the translucent flesh webbed between long, fine bone.

"What 30, 35 feet, just this one? It seems too delicate. I mean, your body is thin relative to wingspan, but you're long. How can this hold up when you dive like you did earlier?"

I tilted the wing as he walked out toward the tip, hands gliding along the leading edge.

"I do not know the length. Perhaps you would like to take measurements? As for use, it is much stronger than it appears, yet it would snap if used to brake from a dive. I utilize my power over wind to aid in maneuverability and reduce resistance, and ice to enhance physical strength."

"Seems like a lot of work, not to mention the power drain." He had circled the wing, reaching up to feel how it connected, and prodding at the large flight muscles.

"It is what I am. Power flows between myself and the air without conscious effort. Flight is only partly learned, most of what is required is instinctual. I know there is more to it, but it is as involuntary as breathing so I would have to think about how to explain it."

"Your tail is functional? I mean, well . . . "

"It is an effective weapon as well as a counterbalance and turning aid."

With sharp spines folded close and smooth, I curled the length around him, circling him twice, then slowly slid the coils away as he sucked in and held his breath. It was nice to get a little payback for all the petting I had endured. It was beyond odd to find him attractive while we were completely incompatible physically.

"I thought Tatsu had scales, not skin."

"In battle, we do. Ice forms armor, in scales to allow flexibility for the skin underneath. I will show you sometime, it is easiest to do in flight. What else would you like to know?"

He grinned mischievously. "I realize your more tender parts are kept hidden in this form. Considering the audience, I'll save that request for another time."

I was not capable of blushing in this form, but still I was shocked and amused that he would say such a thing.

"I have been a terrible influence on you, tiny prince."

"Tiny . . . why, you arrogant lizard. You should keep your forked tongue to yourself. Huh, forked tongue. That has possibilities."

He was too close to notice the sudden snap of my tail tip, and he yelped at the stinging whip to his hind end. I stood at my full height, towering over him, and stretched as I prepared to shift. He backed up and watched in fascination, and I felt his power grazing mine as he used all his senses to observe the transformation. As old as I was, I still remembered how difficult and painful changing forms used to be, how it drained nearly all my power. If I tried to shift into an unfamiliar form, it would still be the same as those early days. But between two common forms, it was as smooth as changing clothing.

Stretching again as the light of my power faded, I noted the continued presence of observers. While I did not object to pinning my lover to the ground and fucking him in public, that was a line I knew he would not be comfortable crossing. Such a pity.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

We soon learned that orders had to be issued, including orders defining exactly what constituted an order. Raiden resisted, but near disaster pushed him to acknowledge his unwilling position as my master.

It started innocently and even humorously. After all, Raiden had a habit of mouthing off during and after sex. Shouting at me to stop suddenly got exactly the result he asked for, if not the result he truly wanted. When I teased him about it, telling me to shut up was surprisingly effective. And since I could not exactly protest, being under orders not to speak, the spoiled prince became quite eloquent and specific in his requests.

During this admittedly erotic experience, it did occur to me that I should be terribly offended, threatened, wounded or subject to some other emotional turmoil at such a blatant show of his ability to control my every action. The fact that I was only mildly irritated and then vastly entertained was a side lesson for myself, a lesson in trust. Somehow, I had come to trust Raiden utterly, to the point where he could do this to me and not make me feel abused by his power.

And Raiden, who realized after the fact what exactly he had done, also received a valuable lesson. He had not intended it, and I had not taken it to heart, but he had treated me like the slave I was. It nearly crushed him. My attempts to console him were not very successful. I explained what I had learned about myself and my level of trust in him, and that made things much worse as he added unnecessary blame for violating that trust. It was then I began to see the need for a clear set of standing orders, to allow for such circumstances.

A need for that . . . and bondage. After all, a balance of equals was an illusion between us. I was immensely stronger, but he was beyond question my master. The illusion of equality had been destroyed. Restoring it was simply a matter of righting the balance. And if Raiden did not entirely dislike the experience of being bound helpless, if he did not offer much resistance at all when forced to endure for my pleasure and ultimately his own, that was in keeping with the balance as well.

More alarmingly, if Raiden had not been paying close attention, I would have murdered yet another innocent child. Really, it was surprising that I had not already killed someone after a few weeks in my new situation. It was our second trip into Rukongai proper. Raiden had collared a street urchin with a poor future as a pickpocket. As my lover held the child by the scruff of the neck for a lecture, which would have been followed by a sincere offer to help, the child grew angry.

That alone would not have been enough to cause trouble, though the boy did have some glimmer of developing power. But when a dirty, scrawny little hand went into a pocket and come out with a pathetic, rusty old knife he became a threat. I had my proof that the new requirement to keep Raiden from harm was real and in effect. He shouted at me to stop just in time, dropping the child who scampered away and vanished. Raiden and I stared at each other, and he knew he had to stop putting it off.

He hated it. Even with the clear need, even with my encouragement and insistence, he hated telling me that he ordered my obedience. But the rules we set gave me the authority to judge a true threat from one that could be handled without death. I could not ignore, the overriding requirement of his safety took precedence, but I could capture, disarm, or disable instead of instantly kill. And from that day forward he had to specifically state that a command was 'an order,' so that his every uttered whim did not become my law. He did not agree, but again I had been insistent. He could not abolish his right to give orders, and he should not. It might be needed, if only to defend us both.

His father would know by now. If not the actual extent of our relationship, he would at least know that Raiden treated me with respect that was returned. He would know that I spoke to Raiden, and occasionally to others. And he would know that every two or three days I flew for what the tyrant would perceive as no purpose.

Likely, the tyrant did not have a single feeling about this one way or the other, but he would recognize the use he could get from it. It was a vulnerability we were not able to hide. Now the king had another means to control Raiden. Displaying his control over me, and even giving that control to Raiden was all a game to dominate his own son. He already knew that torturing me was an effective way to hurt Raiden. Now he would know that the unbreakable, unfeeling Tatsu was no longer invulnerable. And that was what kept me awake many nights, the horror of what might happen to Raiden if the tyrant decided to take me back.

Since we could not hide from the one enemy we both feared, there was truly no point in hiding from anyone else. It took me some time to realize the changes around me. The staff at the manor were just background figures to me, barely noticed. Until they started talking at me. It was slightly disturbing, and I was not sure what to make of it. Simple things like asking if I needed anything or offering me something unasked, addressing me as Lord Ryu, that was not too unnerving.

Then the children of the staff started staring at me, their parents no longer forcing them to keep distance. They would hide behind corners and sneak looks at me, giggle and disappear. And when I took wing they were always there, cheering and pointing. Honestly, a few adults were nearly as bad. They were just humans, and I coped by being distant and civil. Mostly I did not answer or react unless I happened to notice their words by accident. And yet they persisted, and more of them started speaking at me with bold expectation of reply.

I wanted to ask Raiden why this was happening, and what I could do to stop it from continuing. But I had caught the amused, smug expression when he saw me flustered by the attention. He knew something he was not sharing, and he was playing with me, waiting for me to ask. Stubborn pride kept my mouth shut.

Whispers followed us now when we roamed the town. 'Lord Ryu' was heard repeatedly, in hushed tones of awe and excitement. When an old crone waddled up to me in the street one day with a small crowd a few paces behind her, I froze in between annoyance and panic. She bowed with surprising grace for an ancient and handed me a large bundle wrapped in colorful cloth. I stared at it and then at Raiden as he bowed to the woman with a warm smile. The old woman tottered back to the crowd, and with scattered bows they retreated, leaving a grinning Raiden and a mystified Ryu staring at one another.

"Alright, you win. What am I missing?"

"You thought perhaps the locals wouldn't notice the rather large addition to the skies lately?"

My brow furrowed and I shut my eyes to regain patience. Then I looked at the bundle in my hands. Shifting it, I opened the cloth to reveal a finely woven basket loaded with various types of food, which of course I would not eat.

"And?"

He chuckled and I considered throwing the bundle at him.

"Humans aren't stupid, Ryu. Misinformed about you and many things, but not stupid. A giant white Tatsu gets people talking, and it's seen landing in the manor of the Soul King's family. The people put two and two together, that's all."

"The legend of Heaven's Guardian . . .."

"Mmhmm. And the king's own son is seen constantly in the company of a pale, white-haired handsome stranger with turquoise eyes, the same remarkable shade as that Tatsu. The staff are questioned, and the people learn that the stranger is a lord who came back with the prince from the king's palace. They learn that it is true, that the stranger transforms into a white Tatsu. And they even learn his name.

"And there you have it, the legend of Lord Ryu, the Heavenly Guardian."

Beyond annoyed, embarrassed, and vaguely humbled, my expression must have been priceless. Raiden was choking on laughter while I stood holding some kind of offering, with no clue what to do next. When it became clear that my idiot lover was not going to give me any direction on how to deal with this, I tucked the bundle under my arm and stalked off.

Over the coming years this sort of thing happened again and again. The nearby districts started celebrating a winter festival featuring ice sculptures, figurines of Tatsu, and various other absurdities. Every year I endured my lover's teasing as the pile of offerings by the manor gate grew larger. And each year another figurine appeared on a high shelf in our bedroom, one lovely Tatsu of glass, turquoise, quartz, jade selected and purchased by a spoiled prince.

 

Chapter Text

 

My nights were filled with passion and comfort, long hours of stargazing and talking, and every night he would sing for me. The best were when he sang me to sleep with lullabies or simple wordless tunes. I never had nightmares on those nights. Tucked in the luxury of warm arms and a soft nest of pillows, sometimes I would lay awake watching him sleep for hours. It was a pleasure and a privilege not unlike the long contemplation of the stars.

A host of new delights filled the days that had been empty for centuries. I was not surprised that Raiden had been thirsting to fight. Power had to be kept strictly in control during our playtime at first. He was the strongest human fighter I had encountered apart from his father and a few of the mercenaries who had turned into captains of an army, and his power was still growing. That did not make him close to a match for me and I physically could not attack him with any real potential to cause harm.

But that did not mean we could not enjoy a good, simple sword fight and we did so often. He taught me new tricks and I taught him ancient ones. His skills improved rapidly. Beyond a lifetime of training, he was truly gifted with a style suited to his genius and his nature. It could be a challenge, facing a warrior that naturally combined intellect with unpredictable flashes of instinct. Just like lightning and wildfire, my golden one.

Occasionally we would vanish into the wilderness for days. Exploring the nearby mountains by foot was an entirely different prospect than by air. The physical effort was pleasant, and we both appreciated the slow revelation of detail. I could spend hours watching a spider weave her web, learning the intricate secrets of her work. Or I would spend half the night dangling my hands into a bubbling creek, teasing out a few of the infinite tales of the water's journey, communing with the vast life it harbored.

Raiden would sometimes have to pull me out of an obsessive trance, and then he would listen in wonder to all that I had observed and discovered as if he didn't know anything at all. In answer to my query he said that it was not just the things I learned, he was enthralled by the insight into the way my mind worked. When he said things like that, I could not keep my hands off him. Needless to say, we had quite a lot of sex on these excursions.

When not devouring Raiden, I made a valiant attempt to devour the library. The topic did not matter. If the author was completely wrong, I still found amusement in his or her perspective. Only poor writing put me off, but there was little of it in this well-appointed collection. Raiden was a reader, too, though he was often busy with correspondence when we lingered in the library. Though nothing was required of him, he took on the role of a local lord and the nearby community thrived with his guidance. He stayed strictly out of the way when it came to the growing power of the army and the nobles.

They had built themselves a new city, pompously named Seireitei, with high walls to make it clear that they were beyond the reach of the common soul. Within the walls lived those who tried to break the natural cycle of death and rebirth for their own advantage. And they lived like kings, holding themselves above their unclean fellows.

Had the masses of souls realized that the walls they eyed with envy were built out of power stolen from them, would they have been outraged? I thought not. There was something inherently self-loathing and self-destructive in human nature, and it was my belief that they preferred to see evidence of their oppression, preferred to know that there were those 'better' than themselves even if the distinction was based in corruption and lies. Only Raiden I held apart from this. Despite repeatedly examining his nature, motives, and my own perceptions, I could find no such weaknesses in his soul.

Humans had originally lived their lives in one dimension, their souls briefly appearing in the realm of chaos to recover power before vanishing again to live new lives. My kind had always watched this with indifference, our children playing with the fragile wraiths that flitted through our realm harmlessly. The abomination that was their king had not been the first powerful soul to try to stay, feeding more than his fellows from the rich energy of our realm. And when he succeeded, he was not satisfied to simply remain, the only human with identity in a hostile dimension.

Had any of our kind realized what was occurring, it would have been halted while the tyrant was still the strongest soul of a pathetically weak race. Human existences are too fast, and in the blink of the eye he had gathered power, pulled other strong souls into a similar, unnatural existence, and found ways to amplify his soul's strength by siphoning the energy of other souls. It was already too late; his infant kingdom was too strong to be destroyed by one Akuma who grew concerned. In the time it took for one to convince others to observe, the infestation had grown out of control. And in the briefest moment of time as our kind saw it, centuries passed. What had been a nuisance was an unstoppable threat.

The unnatural bottleneck in the cycle of human rebirth resulted in a growing host of souls. Rukongai was vast, with millions of souls staying longer than necessary, their energy feeding into this world, and feeding the power of their king and his chosen few. Such a travesty has consequences. Frustrated souls did not learn or grow, did not achieve peace. They were reborn into the human dimension with lingering wounds and resentments that poisoned their lives. The souls remembered that no reward awaited them, and their world grew eviler as the years passed, a vicious cycle feeding the darkness of their collective energy.

There was always the possibility among humans and Akuma alike that a soul would fall into that darkness. Consumed by fear, greed, anger, or a host of obsessive emotions, the soul became a monster with no purpose but to try to fill the void within itself. Raiden called them Hollow, a fitting name, and they were swiftly increasing due to the growing negativity of the human dimension and the unrecognizable dumping ground of souls that used to be my home.

We two kept our area free of these dangerous pests, and the mercenaries put their army to work patrolling the rest of Rukongai. These so-called Shinigami either did not look for the root cause of the problem, or they knew quite well. It was their job, after all, to protect the source of their king's power. It grated on both of us to do nothing. We helped make some things better and tucked our tails. I knew that he also worried about his siblings. He sent letters to them and his mother, but never received a reply. And again, we were powerless to do anything about it. He sought consolation in me, as I did in him.

Before I could blink a year at his side turned to two and two years became three, never apart for an entire day, never apart a single night. I was absolutely content in his presence. In his absence, everything I saw and felt was tinted and filtered through thoughts of him. There was no more light or life without Raiden.

Thus, the third miracle crept up on me. I could not say when it happened, though I would always remember in perfect detail the moment I knew the truth. Recognizing it was both a sudden shock and an acknowledgment of a long-standing fact.

We were in the library one autumn evening, not a remarkable day, no special occasion. Raiden was writing away and I was standing several feet from where he sat, searching for fresh reading material. My mind normally worked in the background, always thinking and processing, storing away the results to be called upon when needed. At that time, it was logging all the titles and authors, remembering which would be revisited. The smell of parchment and leather old and new was appreciated, the accumulation of dust noted for later rectification. I was considering what Raiden was writing, advice asked by a local council of elders. Pleasant recollections of the day flitted by, and expectations for the evening to come.

All of this and much more I thought of when I heard a quiet groan. I turned to see Raiden stretching, all the writing tensing his shoulders. In the instant before I would start walking toward him to massage that discomfort away, my mind clicked together seemingly random pieces with no prompting on my part. I do not know where it came from, what triggered it if anything but time was responsible. But it was there in the way his eyes flicked up to mine as I moved to provide comfort, in the way I stayed so close, so very close even when we were apart.

"Raiden, I love you."

My voice was calm, simply stating the new fact of my existence. Until that second, I would have said with firm conviction that the emotion of love did not exist, not in me, not anywhere in any heart. Either I had been mistaken, or I was the first to ever truly feel it. Because I loved him. His existence was more vital than my own. I would do anything to please him, to protect him, support him, to ease his burdens. If he did not notice or reward, if he left me or loved me, that did not change the fact in the least. Still I would love him. He was the very purpose of my life.

"What did you just say?"

I blinked. Raiden had gone perfectly still at his desk when I spoke, left hand on his right shoulder, right arm stretched out over the mess of papers. His voice was barely a whisper, and his eyes were locked on mine. He looked alarmed, and I wondered what to expect from him as I repeated the revelation. I really had no way to predict how he would respond. But again, it did not matter.

"I love you."

There was a loud clatter as his chair crashed backward and the heavy desk was shoved several feet out of his way. Despite the speed and violence of his movements, he was gentle as he wrapped me in his arms, cradling my head against his shoulder and caressing my back lightly. My arms automatically went around him, and I could feel him shaking. I could not see his face, and I very much wanted to, suddenly nervous and wanting to know what was in his eyes.

"Please, Ryu, say it one more time."

"Raiden, I love you."

I was pushed back a step into the bookshelf as he sank to his knees, arms sliding down but not letting go, then lowering himself even farther until he was bowed to the floor while I stood confused. He was kissing my always bare feet, his hands on my ankles as his warm lips moved from one foot to the other.

"What are you doing?"

I felt his lips grin against my skin and was relieved.

"Worshiping."

Having no idea how to reply to that, I stayed silent and let myself relax my back against the shelves, falling into the sensations as his hands moved up my calves under my robe so that he could kiss around my ankles. His hands trembled as the caressed my legs, and my eyes drifted shut as they reached higher. It did not seem to matter that he had touched me everywhere hundreds of times. We had sought and explored every possible pleasure our two bodies could offer to one another. And yet just his fingers on my thighs was enough to awaken as much fire as the first time we touched.

I looked down when he paused, moving back up to his knees.

"You know, Ryu, a human who just confessed love would expect a reply right away. Teasing you is no fun, sometimes."

"I do not understand."

He chuckled, and I could not help but smile at the memories my statement evoked.

"I love you, Ryu. I have loved you for years."

"Ah."

"That's all I get, 'Ah.' You're kidding."

Thoroughly confused again, I ran my hands gently through his hair.

"Is there something I am supposed to say or do that I am not aware of? If there is a way to express more clearly what I am feeling, I do not know it. Perhaps I misunderstand love. I had thought by telling you that I love you, I was expressing that everything I am is dedicated to you. Did your words to me have a different intent?"

He blinked repeatedly, and I was further thrown off balance by tears on his cheeks even though he was grinning like a lunatic. My hands went to wipe them away as my confusion began to turn into panic.

"What did I do? Tell me what I have done wrong."

"Oh, my love, you've done nothing wrong. As usual, you are completely right. And I love you, in every imaginable sense of the word."

I relaxed again, humming. All was well if he allowed me to love him. I played with his hair as his hands moved again on my legs, and he kissed at my stomach through my robe. He was moving more urgently now, and I chuckled when he used his teeth to untie my robe. I kicked away the underwear he had yanked down to my ankles, letting my head fall back once more as he kissed and licked and fondled.

He stayed right there, kneeling in front of me with my cock in his mouth, as he coated his fingers with the vial of oil we had both taken to carrying around. We were two very sensual beings, once I had encouraged him to let go of a few inhibitions. We tended to be prepared for whatever mood struck us.

My legs started to shake as his fingers moved in me with gentle precision. Surely every soul in the manor heard my cries as I thrust into their master's throat while he rubbed inside of me. I did not care if they all stood in the door applauding. In fact, as I started to acknowledge their existence, I found that I had a bit of an exhibitionist streak. It was not so much the desire to be watched, but the desire to have every nearby soul made firmly aware that their prince was mine, completely mine and they never had any hope of obtaining more than a glance from him.

The very thought of it made me shout his name when I came, and he barely gave me a chance to catch my breath before he had stood and caught my panting mouth with his. My flavor was still strong on his tongue as he pushed aggressively into my mouth. I sagged against him, grateful for the bookshelves supporting me. Raiden could be quite dominating when he chose, and at the moment that was perfect. I had quite enough confusion and uncertainty for one day. He could have whatever he wanted from me as long as I was not required to think.

Within moments he had torn off his clothing and was mauling my neck and shoulders.

"Ryu, love you . . . my Ryu."

His slick hand worked to arouse me once more, not a difficult task and one he excelled at. I was nearly as eager as he was, and I lifted one leg to his waist as I moaned, "Beloved, please . . ." and felt him gasp against my neck in response.

Strong hands wrapped around both of my thighs and he lifted me, pinning me against the bookshelves as my legs wrapped around him. The discomfort of the rough surface was noted and dismissed as I braced my hands against a shelf. When he thrust into me completely and swiftly, I screamed his name louder than before, screamed to the tyrant in Heaven.

He is mine, you cannot touch him. You cannot have me, I am his.

And I surrendered to the complete euphoria of being taken by the man I loved. Nearly lost in the fast, rough pace of his passion, one thought pressed on my mind, one need grew with the lightning tearing through my veins. Raiden bit and kissed, leaving dark bruises on my pale shoulders and neck. And as I pushed back against him, I could not take my eyes away from the bronze skin so close and vulnerable.

"Rai . . . HAAA . . . can I? Can I . . . Ohh, fuck! . . .please . . . I need . . ."

"Yes, whatever . . . you want, yes!"

I pushed off the bookshelves and wrapped my left arm over his shoulder, my right hand grabbing his upper arm. He staggered and lost the rhythm for a moment and then my sharp teeth sank into the left side of his neck, just missing his pulse. His blood was fire, burning hot and scalding my tongue. I held onto him firmly, pressing the evidence of our bond into his flesh, filling the wound with my power so the scars could never be erased. He convulsed and released within me and I in turn shuddered against him in completion.

He held me close, pushing into me and groaning while I panted into the open wounds around my teeth. This, this was the ultimate expression of love, I now knew, among my own. This was primal, and every nerve of my body sang with rapture and possession.

When my mind cleared I released him, widening my jaw and gently letting my teeth slide out of his skin. I licked the wounds delicately, the surrounding flesh already darkening with bruises. I coated my tongue in ice to ease the hurt but did not heal it. I could only hope he would understand.

"Ryu?"

I drew my head back and looked at him. He started to smirk as my eyes drifted back down to the livid marks on his neck. I knew I had a self-satisfied grin of my own, and the thrumming in my throat that usually died down after orgasm was louder than ever. I did not remove my arm around his neck as he let me down, and my tongue licked at the mark again with soothing, cold strokes. To feel the one I had just torn into laugh beneath my lips sent more shivers of possession through me.

"What am I missing here, my love?"

"You are mine," I answered simply between swipes of my tongue.

"Because you bit me? I've bitten you, I'm pretty sure. Haven't you ever marked me before?"

"Not like this." I drew back again to look him in the eye. "Tatsu hide their hearts deep within. The brain is encased in stronger bone than a human skull. Our main vulnerability is our long neck. That is why, when I kill, the neck is my first target. Lovers rarely permit another to mark their neck or ask to do so. Even between mated pairs it is not always allowed. It requires immense trust, and the mark will remain forever, my power laced within to show any who see. They will know that you trust me with your life."

He looked both happy and worried. "I didn't know. Biting during sex, it's not uncommon with humans, I'm sorry."

"It is fine, I reasoned that was the case and did not take the action seriously. You marked me the very first night, after all, though you failed to make it permanent."

"I did? Shit, that was rude."

"And yet I did not kill you for it. Part of me must have known even then that you were an exception to every rule."

As we spoke, I kept looking at that mark, inordinately proud of what it told the world.

"Soooo, you've never done this to anyone else?"

"Of course not, nor even wished to until you. Now that you know what it means, do you regret allowing it?"

He smirked again. "Not at all, but I would like to ask you something now that I understand."

"Yes, of course you can." Just the thought of it was making me hard again. "Right now?"

"No, I think I'd like to go to bed early. Then we'll see if I'm in the mood."

Spoiled, arrogant idiot prince.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

In our early years together, I often told myself that I had enough. If the world's evils came to end our paradise, I would regret the end, but I had lived more happily than expected, more completely than I had any right to. Years yielded to decades and we became more and more one. It was greater than simply being happy together. We merged. There was not one minute where I was genuinely angry with him. Not a second when I wished to truly part from him. And I knew him; I knew he felt the same.

He knew everything about me, from what passes for a childhood among my kind, to the most glorious moments at the height of my power, to the darkest moments of my captivity. I had taught him the language of the Tatsu, and the common tongue of the Akuma, and we conversed in three languages for fun. His much shorter history was shared fully with me. And it was astounding how we both had changed due to our connection. There was a fuzzy but definite line between who we each were and who we had been before.

His power grew exponentially. I knew this was in large part due to me. My tutelage in the uses of power made him even more fearsome and capable. He could almost pass for an Akuma, using magics that no other human could use, in the free way of my kind without complicated rituals to draw power. We were able to duel on nearly equal footing. To do this we had to remove ourselves to the wilderness. My attacks and now his were too powerful to be used near other souls. He was fighting like one of my own.

The tyrant seemed to have forgotten us, though we knew it could not be the case. The closer power growing in Seireitei caused more trouble for us. Raiden's territory was too far from the central city to be of great concern, at least until it was the only area not completely reliant on the nobles and the mercenary forces. The latter had become an army of thousands, with more than 20 truly strong fighters. Conflicts were inevitable.

Generally, Raiden could solve things with diplomacy. He was the king's son, rumored out of favor but never disowned. And he would not abide abuses of power in the district he had taken under his wing. When pressed, he did not hesitate to eliminate criminals, and traced them back sometimes to the nobles of Seireitei or to Shinigami using their positions for personal gain. In those cases he acted, and Seireitei did not appreciate the interference.

Things came to a head when we tracked a series of disappearances to a well-connected noble house that was leading a sex trafficking ring specializing in children. I begged Raiden to turn me lose on them, and I would make their deaths very, very slow. While he fought beside me when needed, he never once ordered me to fight, capture, or kill. In fact, he never ordered me to do anything at all.

Raiden killed three of the leaders of the house out of hand and reported the rest to the commander of the Shinigami. He considered justice partly served, and the matter closed.

The next day the world ended.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

If I had known that it was to be our last night together, I would not have changed anything. We had returned to the manor for dinner. I always enjoyed watching Raiden eat, especially desserts. He had talked me into trying several foods. Meats I could keep down as long as they were very fresh, and some raw vegetables but I enjoyed neither. Prepared foods like cakes were intolerable, I couldn't even swallow them. They tasted vile, like filthy water and bitter bark, lifeless. To watch him savor these things gave me no end of amusement.

We watched the sunset together, discussing plans to prevent anything as horrible as the child abductions from happening again. Then we went to our nest early to have sex a few times and cuddle. He sang to me, and I fell asleep with him pressed close to my side.

Dawn reminded me that once she had been my greatest hope, as every day I had wished for her to witness my death. When I collapsed screaming in the courtyard, Raiden bent over me in panic. I knew instantly what was happening, and if it was not Raiden causing it then the day we had long dreaded had come to tear us apart.

Agony clouded my senses and I could not move to help as three of the mercenary captains surrounded us. Raiden could kill them all easily now, that was how powerful my beloved had become. But he knew what was happening, as well. The tyrant was making the consequences quite clear, and if Raiden moved to defend me I would be to the one who paid.

So easy. We had made it so easy for them.

As pain receded, I heard the leader of the mercenaries speak. He was a severe man, this Yamamoto, strong and ruthless. He looked down at me, curled up in the dirt like a broken child with my beloved crouched over me, sword in hand and dangerously calm.

"King's Tatsu, I have not come to fight you or the prince. I have been instructed to relay the orders of the Soul King. The presence of the prince is required in Heaven. Tatsu, in the name of the Soul King, you are ordered to deliver the prince to his majesty immediately."

"I can kill them, Ryu. You have been given no orders to defend them." He grinned, gold eyes flashing with feral enjoyment as the mercenaries braced themselves.

"We can fight, and I will if that is what you wish," I replied in my own language. "As soon as the tyrant is aware of my defiance I will be disabled or killed. You will need to carry the rest of the fight alone. If I cannot resist and turn on you, you know when and where to strike to kill me."

"I can't do that." His eyes never left Yamamoto, but his hand caressed my cheek.

"Then, beloved, your only chance now is to comply."

He gnashed his teeth. "Please, my golden love, do not give up hope. I have learned in my time that another hour may bring joy, so do not give in to despair."

He stood and sheathed his sword, then reached down to help me up. The so-called Shinigami had backed up a few steps and watched warily. I took a moment to gather my will and push away the lingering pain. My anger and fear made the shift almost instant, as my power rushed to answer my need. Raiden, hand on my foreleg, sneered at the enemies who had raced out of the way, one of them knocked 50 feet by my tail.

I had taken Raiden flying many times. Though he could race across the air using power to hold himself up, there was a different, and immense bliss to winged flight that thrilled him. Usually I carried him close to my chest in claws sheathed in ice. But with some trial and error we found that he could manage to stay straddling the base of my neck if he used his power to secure himself above the muscles I needed most, provided I did not get too playful in the air. It was still risky, but I would not let these worms see my beloved carried off like a prisoner.

I knelt, with my foreleg bent and he gracefully stepped up and swung his leg over my neck. I felt him wrapping his power around me, and his hands caressed my skin.

"Are you sure about this, my love?"

"No, but for my part I have no choice. The order was true, delivered to my soul before that maggot even spoke. We must go or I must capture you and take you unwilling."

He crouched low in preparation for the jolt of launching into flight.

"I'd like to see you try."

That was my beloved, full of lightning until the very end.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

If the tyrant was surprised by my choice of delivery methods, he did not show it. I could tell from a great distance that he had become even less human. In other circumstances, I would have found it intriguing how an inhuman, emotionless being had become full of joy and life, while the creature below had calcified from a vibrant, powerful soul into a monster so far from human that it could no longer be called such.

He had added some pomp to his court. Guards had taken my place, 20 of them spaced around the platform near the pillars. Two young souls stood below the throne, ornately dressed and with enough power to be noticed, but not enough to hold my attention. I assumed these were Raiden's siblings, long separated from him. I relayed all that I could see to him as we grew closer. He leaned in, kissing my neck, his hand reaching to caress the precious scar he had engraved on my throat.

"I love you, Ryu, more than I can ever explain. Just remember, no matter what happens, I would not give up one second we've had together. And you are not to blame for anything, ever."

I winced. He was saying goodbye. He was right to do so, and I struggled to bring myself to reply. I did not want to acknowledge it, the fact that I believed this was the end. The practical part of me was arguing that all things end, all eventually die. Not as vicious a death as I had to look forward to, true. My soul would return to chaos, and Raiden's would be reborn, if we were fortunate. If not, our power would be trapped and used to enhance the tyrant.

The refreezing of my heart had already begun if I could even think of that outcome without succumbing to rage. I had started sealing away my memories one by one the second I took flight. It was a quick process, and already I could feel the distance growing between me and my beloved. I did this to preserve some light and warmth for myself, it was a purely selfish act. But I would not send all my memories into the ice, it would be too great a betrayal. No, I would keep some feeling, and suffer. This one choice I was still able to make in honor of Raiden and all that he had given me.

"Thank you, beloved, for giving me life." It was too small, anything I could say would be far too small, but it was all I could choke out.

As I banked and slowed, visions of carnage teased my mind. Surely the two of us had enough power to end the tyrant in an instant. He had immeasurable power to draw on, stolen power stored away for his exclusive use, but he had not fought for centuries. The warning twinge of tightening chains made me falter, and Raiden clutched my neck as I lurched before banishing the violent desires. I landed with force, no delicacy or charm needed here but a pointless display of strength.

"Tatsu, welcome home. Stay in that form for now, my children have never seen one of your kind." The voice that haunted my nightmares had become even more flat and devoid of life. He said nothing to Raiden as I bent and raised a forearm. Raiden's hand slid lovingly down my shoulder, not parting from me until he had no option. He walked forward and bowed when he reached the foot of the stairs.

Standing well behind him, I could not see Raiden's face. I was sure he at least glanced to his brother and sister, who had not moved or spoken a greeting. The tyrant had either broken them or done as he planned, gotten his claws into them young enough to raise them in his image. They were both staring at me, and I saw nothing good in them, no light like I had seen when Raiden first came to me.

"Ah, my eldest, my great disappointment. You have been busy in the realm below, and I am not entirely pleased with your actions."

Raiden tensed but said nothing. I could feel his growing anger, and my eyes fixed on him, claws involuntarily gouging into the marble and frost spreading near me. No shout from the tyrant would be fast enough to stop a killing blow when I was in this form. At least it would be quick and relatively painless, and I would forever have the blood of my beloved on my hands to keep the memory and the despair.

"But fear not, I will not abandon you. I had made you a promise, and now I have the time and will to educate you properly. Though I doubt you'll ever make a decent heir, still you can serve your king."

While the tyrant said that he would not be killing Raiden today, it was nearly a hollow promise. Against my will my body had tensed, fangs bared. I was one heartbeat away from launching myself at the growing threat Raiden was presenting. He looked over his shoulder, gold eyes meeting mine and his fury abated. I blinked and my muscles relaxed as I viciously shoved aside the surge of relief. This was far from over, and the sick smile on the tyrant's face made it clear that this was all a game. He was enjoying watching his own son suppress the urge to kill him, and he was pushing to see what enjoyment he could get out of me.

"You see, my children, the potential of this creature? Go on, take a closer look. I assure you it is harmless without orders. It has been my most valuable weapon. Though useless now, should we ever face a true challenge it will serve a purpose again. I will keep it alive and well through eternity, my own Tatsu, and it will forever protect Heaven from all enemies."

The last of the barriers of ice slammed into place as the hope of death was stolen. It was astonishing how easy it was to step back into the cold, no emotion, no distraction, mind separating as it had for centuries and would for time unending. Raiden had not stopped watching me, and he gave a sad smile as he saw me shut down. As my awareness retreated the last sliver of my heart, the part I would keep alive for him, ached unbearably to see his grief.

The two horrid young humans approached, an arrogant swagger in the male's step, a more confident and sinister aura from the female. I stood still as they circled me, a very threatening gesture, and did not look at them or listen to their predictable commentary. When the female reached up to touch high on my side, my skin twitched in annoyance. The old feeling of wanting to rip off the infected flesh returned, after decades of gentle, hot touches from my beloved.

Their father was descending from his throne, brushing past Raiden dismissively and walking toward me. His offspring backed off as he came closer.

"Lower your head, beast." He said this without any malice, without any interest at all. My neck arched down, laying my jaw on the floor. He stepped forward and one black boot rested on my muzzle. Without thought I tensed and growled, eyes shifting to the source of menace behind my master.

"Ignore his petty anger, my Tatsu, now and always." Immediately I grew quiet.

"That poor boy is not worthy of your attention." He leaned closer, weight bearing down on my sensitive nose. "He doesn't even know your name. What is it he calls you? Ryu?"

The boot twisted, such a small discomfort but very distracting. "Not to worry, Tatsu, I will not take that name from you. You can scream it in the dark of night, and I will hear you. I am certain the sound will be lovely."

He removed his foot and backed a step. "Change into your human form, Tatsu, and make it quick."

A flare of power and I stood small before him as he approached again. His hand lashed out, backhanding me. It was symbolic, he could not hurt me without adding a lot of power to such a blow. With no reaction, I straightened my head. When he ran his palm gently along the same cheek, I held back a shudder. He slid his hand to the beautiful, silver scar on my neck and leaned close to whisper.

"If the boy does not break, I will make his death excruciating, my Tatsu. Will he call your false name, I wonder? For him you submitted. For him you spoke. For him you even spread your legs. And for your choice you will live forever my slave. Contemplate eternity, Hyorinmaru."

I staggered in shock as he released me and raised his voice. "I will remove the requirement to protect my eldest child. But first, your orders. As soon as you are able, you will return to my manor in Rukongai. Once returned to the manor, you will resume your human form and you will not shift forms again unless summoned or ordered to do so. You will not set foot outside of the main building unless summoned or ordered to do so. You will not speak to any soul under any circumstances unless ordered to do so, with this exception. I permit you to scream the name Raiden or the name Ryu at any time, as loudly as you please."

I did not acknowledge the orders. I did not need to, he knew he would be obeyed.

An enormous pressure came from him, not aimed toward me, and I saw Raiden hit the ground. The tyrant stepped out of the way, wanting us to see each other. He had lunged, sword drawn, and not made it a single step. Arms shook with the effort, but he slowly collapsed to the floor, reaching toward me, gold eyes filling with pain locked with my despairing turquoise as his own father chuckled.

I could not speak, could not tell my beloved my name. I would never hear my name whispered lovingly by that golden voice.

That tiny bit of living heart inside of me demanded action. The order to protect Raiden demanded action. One step, one short movement of my hand toward my hilt, and I was forced to my knees. I howled in agony and grief as the chains tightened in response to my desire for the tyrant's blood. Seconds later I no longer saw anything as the words in my soul were rewritten, and I tried desperately to claw them out as I screamed my way into the void.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

This time there would be no caring lover to help. This time there would be only agony, and I soaked it in. My long-lost name still rang in my ears, amplifying the pain as the sound of it reverberated along the chains through my soul. I deserved this, and so much worse. Raiden was doomed to torment and death, he would never submit and so his end would be the stuff of nightmares. I had done this to him. I was his weakness. I was the one who told him to have hope. I was the one who delivered him into the hands of his enemies.

Betrayer. Failure. False and faithless.

What point was there in trying to heal? I had been huddled in a tight ball most of the day, consciousness fading in and out. The repulsive boy had kicked me savagely during one of my more lucid moments, and the girl had told him not to bother with such trash. The mighty warrior feared by human and Akuma alike, mere trash to be tormented by twisted, defective humans. How fitting.

Sunset passed and habit made me turn onto my back to see the stars. They had no comfort to offer a traitor. I stared anyway, forcing myself not to think. Half the night had drifted by my numb eyes before I gathered enough strength to heal my physical wounds, at the cost of creating more pain in my soul.

Dragging myself to my feet seemed to take hours, and I staggered to the edge. Could I fall? I had been ordered home, could I simply take one step forward? In my weakened state, the fall would kill me; a being born to the skies would die with broken wings. Perhaps my corpse would ruin some villainous noble's garden. But no, the requirement for self-preservation warned me not to try, already torn soul screaming at the tightening chains.

Backing up to the nearest pillar, I slid down it and sat to wait for enough energy to shift. In the corner of my eye, Raiden stretched his long legs and started to sing, but of course he was not there. Tears fell silently as I listened to the ghost with a golden voice conjuring images of trees and rivers, here in this barren place where rain never fell.

I sighed as I let this moment of weakness stretch on. When the song ended, that memory too was locked away, the door shut tight. It was time. My body was capable, and the orders clear. My beloved had given me light, and music, laughter, and joy. He had given me a new name, clean of the haunting memories of freedom and subjugation. In return, I would leave him here to misery and death.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

The staff of the manor avoided me whenever possible. I required nothing from them, so it was easily done. Not permitted to speak, I could not answer their questions about Raiden. Some primitive instinct came alive in them in response to my state of detachment, broken by sudden, violent flashes of fury and grief. They feared me, as well they should. I took to spending more time in my bedroom, our bedroom, and in the nest which had quickly replaced the bedding when we came here together so long ago. I stared for hours at the vast collection of tiny figurines of Tatsu that Raiden had collected, recalling each year represented.

No, do not think of it. Reminiscence and sentimentality do no good and much harm.

Once immune to the passing illusion of time, now every second was measured, anticipated, feared. On the fifth day, I felt a sharp stab of anguish that was not my own, followed by receding waves of pain. So, it had begun. Only five days and Raiden had defied his father enough to earn punishment. But how could I be feeling his torment?

Immediately I sank my awareness into the snowy plains of my subconscious to meditate on this question. Examining the source of the pain, I found that the tyrant had been crueler than even I suspected. He had not removed the requirement to keep Raiden from harm, he had merely shifted it to the lowest priority. Now following the orders of the tyrant ranked above protecting my beloved, but the requirement to do so was still present. His pain called to me, gripped at my very soul in a plea for aid. But I could not set foot out of this house. I could not take wing and race to his rescue. I could only know that he was hurting and needed me, while I did nothing.

I could do nothing. Not while he lived. Not while there was even an iota of hope. But if he died . . . if that repulsive usurper killed my beloved then there was indeed something I could do. There were lines I could cross if revenge was all that was left for me. It would annihilate my soul. There would be no coming back.

Blizzards raged in my inner world as I began to explore paths into the deepest darkness of the chaos which spawned my kind. If this world destroyed the only golden soul it had ever been blessed to see, then I would end it. I would rip apart this diseased world and all souls within it, starting with the one who thought I was powerless.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

There were long periods of time when I could not pursue my objective. Instead I would lie in the nest and weep as agony tore through me, the torture of my beloved. I knew that I could distance myself from this, but I would not. I knew that Raiden would not wish me to endure this, but I embraced every sensation he felt. There was a purpose to this other than punishing myself for my betrayal. I needed this pain, I needed every ounce of it to give me the resolve to do what was necessary.

No hope was left in me that he would survive. There was no reason to wait for them to kill my beloved. He would lose me, true. He would be horrified and heartbroken by what I was about to do. But if I could hold onto enough sanity to recognize him, then he would live, and he could kill me to end my suffering. And if not, at least his life would be taken by the one he loved. And so I drank in his misery, and when it faded I ran full speed down the dark paths I had once feared to tread.

This was forbidden, beyond forbidden, a barely explored art lost and buried that required suicidal desperation to seek out. For a whole, undamaged soul this would not even be possible, only the mad had attempted it. My soul was torn and pierced through by centuries of abuse. There were abundant wounds to fill with darkness, many holes through which I could walk out of the light. For me, this corruption of soul was easy.

Never alone again, I crouched with wings folded, blending seamlessly with the unending fields of snow, staring downward and communing. Never alone again, I sat on the snow covering a vast, featureless pain. My naked sword lay across my knees, staring upward and communing.

I gave to the other my precious memories of joy and love and my nightmares filled with horror and regret. We agreed that if life returned, we would use these memories to return to our beloved. And if we could not find him, we would use these memories to continue our revenge for eternity. It was a pact between the brightest and darkest parts of our nature, our absolute dedication to both love and hate. We would be the first of our kind to continue, to not return to chaos and peace. We were eternally damned.

The tyrant had done so, broken free from the cycle of rebirth that guided human fate. We would follow his evil example in our own manner and desecrate our soul in order to achieve freedom from control and time unending. Time to destroy what the enemy had created. Time to find our beloved again. We wove it through the rips in our soul, that Raiden alone could end this curse if ever he found it right to do so.

How long, I asked the other. How long until we were stable enough to take the final step? Two more nights at most, perhaps only one. Our sword which was our talon glowed, not with the pure white light of our power but with a seething, black and deep violet red aura that sucked in light, a hole in the fabric of reality, the forces of unadulterated chaos. Into this devouring void we poured our power, our will, our lust for vengeance and love. Into this sword we bound our soul, with chains exponentially stronger that the ones that lesser beings had forced upon us.

Even if we failed, the tyrant would no longer be able to steal our soul. The essence of the most powerful Tatsu, the most powerful Akuma of the age would be forever beyond his reach. And the greatest irony is that this would not be possible if not for the tyrant's own arrogance. For this required one thing I did not have until now.

My sword, my talon, you shall anchor my soul. I give you my power, and my name. Hyorinmaru.

I laughed as I drained myself of recollection, of power, of emotion. And I roared as I sealed away the night's offering to the gods of vengeance.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

The dawn was spent gathering power to replace what had been stored away. The morning was spent huddled in misery as Raiden's torment began. The afternoon was spent ripping my soul to shreds.

It had come like a lightning strike, a flash of agony more searing than any I had ever experienced. Then nothing, a vast, bottomless abyss where that tiny piece of my heart had still lived, the part of me that belonged to him.

He was gone. My beloved, gone. The sun had gone dark, and all my stars stopped their endless journey and fell into the night.

Gone.

The floor cracked when I staggered to my feet. The manor shook as I howled, a horrid wailing of grief and a scream of outrage merging into an unearthly cry of pure despair. The skies outside were roiling with black clouds, sleet pelting the earth, numbing her mercifully for the death that was coming to claim her and all the parasites she fostered.

Vaguely, I felt the pull at the core of my being. The murderer required my presence.

Yes, Master. Only a moment and I will be with you. And I will give you what you have always desired, my undivided attention.

Through a blur of tears, I looked up at the powerful white Tatsu towering above me, and I raised my sword to strike. Through a red mist of rage, I looked down at the pitiful, weeping human beneath me, and raised my talons to attack. With vicious precision, I cut around each chain, ignoring the screaming of the other as I sliced the soul into a gossamer web too fine for any chain to hold.

Free of control, free of feeling, free of morality and nearly even sanity I rose from the darkness. Only one directive remained, vengeance. The world had wronged me, had wronged itself. And I would bring justice.

Frosted splinters of wood fell from my wings, the wreckage around me a prelude to the destruction I would visit upon all. Laughter rang like an avalanche as I sprang into the falling daggers of ice, climbed through the hurricane winds and the savage storm. Heaven awaited my wrath, and I laughed again as I plotted ways to play with my prey.

With a surge of power, I vanished and reappeared over the Worm King's palace. I felt his rage, and the useless movement of chains. It was a power he did not know, had never suspected and never controlled, the ability to open a door to the primal chaos that still flowed behind and through the island of order, to travel those glorious, savage currents to wherever I wished. Control me? The strongest of the incomparable Tatsu, the cleverest of the Akuma, what insanity to think there would be no consequences. For this special kill, I would take my time. These things must be done properly. Some ceremony was required to start the Apocalypse, some grand announcement to the world so that it could prepare for the end.

With grace, I hovered for a moment and landed lightly, frost spreading out around my talons. My grin could be mistaken for a snarl as I paced forward toward the three souls. One was to be the sacrifice to begin the slaughter. The other two and the surrounding 20 would consecrate the offering. The two less powerful souls stepped back in trepidation. The sacrifice stood, bathed in his small arrogance, indignation radiating from him.

"Tatsu, halt! Kneel before your master."

I hissed and my grin widened as I stopped. The fool smiled in triumph as I crouched and bent my head low. He was cloaked in power, but I was Akuma. Our kind were the source of all that humans called magic. Already part of my fractured mind was unraveling the link between this pretender and the power sink where he stored the stolen souls of my kin.

Convinced of his control and his victory, the sacrifice approached me and I hissed my amusement again, barely restraining outright laughter.

Closer, closer, you make this so easy.

"My Tatsu, you seem upset. Surely not for the loss of a human soul?"

My tail started to sway back and forth, all my muscles tensing in the pleasure of anticipation. Again, the human mistook the warning signs. He was well within my reach now and still coming closer.

"I did warn you, Tatsu. You brought this fate on yourself, and on the boy. He was so close to breaking, but really, what was the point of keeping him? Did it cause you pain when he gave up, or was it a relief? He did call for you in the end, you know. What was it again? Ryu?"

My eyes narrowed and his widened as I lifted a foreleg, gently placing the tip of one razor sharp claw on the center of his chest. Prideful little master, he did not jump away. His power swirled around him. In his alarm, did he even notice that it did not answer him as swiftly and fully as before?

"Tatsu, remove your filthy claws from me immediately! Revert to your human form."

In an instant, the sacrifice was flat on his back under my foot, hands bleeding as they attempted to shove the talon away. My nostrils flared, and saliva dripped from my jaws. I felt another mild tug inside, and knew he was attempting to twist the chains. They slid harmlessly through the silken strands that used to be my soul. The scent of my enemy's blood brought a rush of intense pleasure and I hissed again, terribly amused by the confusion and horror that made the putrid worm appear more human than he had in centuries.

A thick, high dome of clearest ice surrounded us, the guards and the sacrifice's offspring throwing power at it as they watched in shock. Blood bubbled up and pooled as I pressed slowly, tenderly, just far enough to crack his breastbone. His power raced to repair the damage, and his skin closed around my talon, oddly and grotesquely making us one. I twisted lightly and repeatedly, forcing the wound to stay open as I bent my fanged head close.

"Do you think that will save you, my Master? Do you think the human form that was bound to the golden soul you destroyed will be more merciful?"

I pushed just a little farther in. He grunted, and finally started to realize that I had cut off his access to easy power. His own power was significant, but he was no match for me without that reservoir and he knew it. The reality had started to sink in and the palace shook with my rumbling laughter as I drank his desperation to continue, his ideal of immortality suddenly slipping from his grasp.

"Shh, little worm. It will be over soon, and your twisted soul can rest."

He threw every spell and every scrap of raw power at me, but I had come prepared with skills too ancient for him to fathom. All that he offered, I took, absorbing the power as he had done. Cell by cell the talon lowered, the growing aroma of blood and death raising a thrum of satisfaction in my throat. Finally, he began to beg, calling the name he had stolen, the name I had discarded, pleading and promising, cursing and screaming.

Beloved, farewell. With this offering, I end my soul.

The last of my sanity witnessed the sacrifice being torn limb from limb, the bleeding torso pinned to the marble. Ice shattered, talons reached for the next victim, the purging of the world began.

Chapter Text

 

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?"

"What?"

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.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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 . . ."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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."

"Karin!"

"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.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

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."

 

Chapter Text

Ice cracked and shattered at my command. It wouldn't do to leave this mess for the residents to clean up, the ice might not melt for months. I made quick mental notes of the damages, to be sure no one suffered unduly for this stupidity. Turning to check on the wounded, I noted the healing talent of one unseated soldier for follow up. All this to compose myself, to give me time to distance my emotions just a little. Otherwise I might just hurt this so-called officer. Finally, I went to face him and the rest of the squad, waiting where I had commanded them to stay.

"How could you be so reckless? If this was an attempt to be noticed, congratulations, you now have my undivided attention."

The nearby squad members did not need to be told that my calm, even tone was much worse than shouting. They all felt my anger, and a few had backed up before steeling their nerves. I knew that the 9th seat was ambitious and disappointed that he didn't get put in charge of a bigger or more experienced squad during the recent restructuring. Evidently, he was too stupid to recognize that having responsibility for training was a compliment, an undeserved one it seemed. Likely, his head was swelled with his perceived importance, the man was a 'secret' informant for Kuchiki. But to go so far as take a small patrol of mostly unseated, unseasoned fighters against a Hollow of unknown strength was unforgivable.

"What were your orders?" His head was high, neck stiff and he looked more angry than contrite.

"To track down the Hollow responsible for the disappearances in the 32nd district, Hitsugaya-taicho." He did have the sense to flinch when my eyes narrowed in annoyance.

"12th seat Sadow, what were your orders?"

"Hitsugaya-taicho," the young woman stepped forward confidently, "to patrol and gather information on the recent deaths in the 32nd district and to report any findings or unusual occurrences."

The overly proud 9th seat glared at her, but she did not back off, meeting his stare levelly. What a contrast.

"We were not ordered not to engage the enemy, taicho. It was just one Hollow."

One step forward and the man lost his nerve, backing up awkwardly. I practically hissed at the fool. "You will not make me quote standing orders. One Hollow? Two of your squad are seriously injured. What exactly do you think would have occurred if I didn't happen to be checking patrols today?

"9th seat Amari, you are suspended until further notice and confined to Division grounds. I strongly suggest you hold your tongue until summoned to explain your actions. Sadow, your squad is relieved. Report to Matsumoto-fukutaicho on your return."

Seriously, being a captain is like being a babysitter. And almost every one of these men and women is older than me.

No matter, Academy graduation was in a few months, and this year I planned to put everything into recruiting the cream of the crop. Perhaps I'd have open try-outs for seated positions like Ichigo had done, the hope of quickly earning a seat would draw top graduates. And it seemed to be working for the 5th. That division was getting back on its feet quickly. It would be years before the shadow of their former captain stopped looming over them, but with Ichigo in charge they could face down anything.

Just thoughts of how proud I was of my beloved turned my mood back around. My hand went to the gift he had given me. The gorgeous Imperial Jade dragon pendant was now hung on a silver chain around my neck. I caressed the smooth stone as I had caressed his supple skin. It was a good thing the squad had left and the locals were still hiding. The fearsome ice captain was standing in the middle of the street with a silly grin on his face petting a necklace.

"Toshiro?"

The expression 'jump out of one's skin' sounds ridiculous but describes the feeling quite accurately. My heart was in my throat and my hand on my hilt before I registered his identity.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

I forced myself to relax. It was easy sometimes to forget just how experienced Ukitake was. His disarming mien hid skills one should expect in one of the oldest and longest serving captains. I had distracted myself for mere seconds and hadn't sensed him coming. Here, where I had just fought an admittedly simple skirmish, I had let my guard down. I deserved a scolding worse than the one I had delivered to the foolish officer.

"Ah, not at all. I was just . . . lost in thought. Were you looking for me?"

"No, I suspect I was doing the same as you, checking on the reported issues. I have patrols in the 30th district. But I sensed reiatsu, a fight I thought."

Really. The sickly captain of the 13th who hardly ever went into the field just happened to check up on a routine Hollow hunt on the same day I did. Without any back-up. Okay, I was here without any back-up, but I had ulterior motives, and so must he.

"One of my patrols cornered an Adjuchas, I just finished it off. Hopefully that's the end of this particular problem."

"Well, that is good news. I'll let my men know."

"Very good. I'll be on my way then."

"Toshiro, while I've got you, how have you been?"

"Pardon?" Uh-huh, just happened to be 30 districts out, and now asking about my health.

"I don't mean to pry, but, well, I have noticed some major fluctuations in your reiatsu lately. And it seems different, stronger."

And your informant in the 10th perhaps noticed the periodic use of strong barriers? Maybe witnessed a discussion or two between me and Ichigo?

Hang on, this was Ukitake. If reading him was this easy, there was only one reason for it. He was showing his hand deliberately. What then? Was this a show of support, honest concern for a friend, sounding out another captain's power? Or was this a warning? He was telling me what he noticed, which means he was telling me what others noticed. My thoughts only took an instant, but I deliberately hesitated before answering. It was an acknowledgment, letting him know the message was received even if I wasn't entirely sure the exact purpose.

"I have been training extensively. A strong opponent like Ichigo does allow for more advanced training than was possible before."

"It would, at that! I'm glad nothing is wrong."

Hmm, might as well further my own agenda rather than let him have every advantage.

"And while I have you, Ukitake, Matsumoto and I have been training, as well. I will soon be seeking a new second. Is there any particular reason Kuchiki Rukia is an unseated?"

Ukitake was probably doing me a great favor, and I felt a little guilty at his look of discomfort and surprise. But the issue needed addressed, and dammit, he had seriously pissed me off.

"Well, if you must know, I am aware that she could achieve a decent rank. However, there is the matter of her brother."

"I would have thought the Kuchiki clan would expect rank."

"As would I. Yet I was asked to give the younger Kuchiki some time, perhaps just in light of the dangers she recently faced. Oh, I almost forgot. Happy New Year, Shiro-chan! We really must catch up over tea soon."

And just as suddenly as he'd appeared he was gone, leaving me holding a thin package wrapped in gold foil with far too many delicate ribbons. How did he do that? His hands had been empty. Did he have a hidden dimension in a pocket where he stashed gifts and candy just in case he ran into me?

I had intended to continue through Rukongai to the farthest edges of the city. 2000 years is a long time, there would be no trace of the manor house. But based on the surrounding landscape I had some ideas of its location and a nagging desire to see if I could find it. I also planned on having it out with Hyorinmaru somewhere far from Seireitei. But those plans were discarded, and I headed back at a fast pace.

Ukitake had traveled far out to deliver that message, so it had to be a warning. I had been noticed. He was right, huge power gains were hard to hide. And even if I could explain that and reiatsu surges with training, there were other signs. Hell, a couple of unexpected blizzards were enough to raise an eyebrow or two.

Yamamoto had watched the wielders of Hyorinmaru gain power, then turn on the Gotei or on Heaven itself. He had put them down one after the other. Unohana had been one of his original captains, the very same who had thirsted to fight the King's Tatsu, the very same who had wielded the chain that strangled a long, white neck. Kyoraku and Ukitake were the old man's first students and longest standing captains after Unohana. All of them must be watching, getting more nervous as my power grew.

Fuck! I know what I would conclude if I were on the other side of this. When I first gained my haori I might have been the weakest captain along with being the youngest. Ten years in, I doubt anyone but Zaraki would have easily dismissed me as weak. Twenty years in and I could hold my own against all but the strongest. But now everything was changing quickly. Not only was it obvious that I was gaining power, I had Ichigo. There was no one in Seireitei more potentially dangerous than my beloved. If I were the one watching, I would be very nervous indeed. I would assume that the enemy was getting ready to make a move, stockpiling power while acting normal.

Why they waited to imprison or kill me is the only thing I couldn't quite get a grasp on. Could they just be hoping that this time would be different, after so many of my past selves turned traitor? Why would Ukitake tip me off? Sentimentality?

Suddenly it was not at all surprising that the child prodigy had quickly become close to the senior captains. I felt a flash of hurt, which I quickly suppressed. Then I chided myself for falling for it in the first place. I thought I was so clever, working to gain the favor of Kyoraku and Ukitake. They probably laughed that the job of keeping an eye on the new Heavenly Guardian was so easy. Just some naïve kid, sitting down to dine with the cannibals.

Skidding to a halt on a shoddy, high-peaked roof I calmed myself, letting the cold catch up with me. My mind worked more quickly when I was upset, but conclusions reached in anger could not be trusted. I focused on the snow, the way it made even this slum clean and beautiful, lining the rundown shacks and untended weed patches with pristine white and colored crystal. At least until it was trampled and dirtied underfoot by the self-important, filthy masses of humanity, as all things of beauty must eventually be.

How bleak. This is why you don't trust enraged thoughts.

First, see Ichigo. Just see him and you will regain your control.

Second, find the one move that none of them will predict. Turn the board in your favor. I will not lose this time, tyrant.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

The morning had dragged a bit. I knew that this was necessary work, and productive. But squad training was already tedious; I far preferred the one-on-one sessions. I was sincerely thankful that I was an exception to the norm. Training through the Academy and years of this to climb through the ranks, I would have ended up crazier than Hat-and-Clogs. But the afternoon held promise. I had laughed when Hinamori pointed out Renji's name, scrawled across two of schedule slots for a personal training session with yours truly.

I would skip out on kido. That would give me an hour before lunch to myself. Catch up on paperwork, or sprawl on the couch and think about Toshiro and all that we had learned, time would tell. Hinamori was far better at teaching kido, anyway. She had been shocked and flattered when I signed myself up for individual training sessions with her. Then I had been shocked by how much I still had to learn. Toshiro was right, she was the best I had worked with since Yoruichi.

Yanking my attention back to my job, I sent Hinamori to help the older Date. His younger brother had a knack for leadership, but the elder wasn't as quick to catch the small errors that could quickly build up in a squad. That was the point of this. The officers trained the squad, and I trained the officers. The fact that I had never been trained this way didn't seem to stop me from seeing and understanding the strengths and weaknesses. Toshiro had said it was a gift, a natural talent, whatever you preferred to call it. I wondered if perhaps my soul remembered a little more than it should, like Toshiro.

It was delightful to think for a moment that I'd conjured him out of thin air just by thinking about him. There he was, standing on top of the dojo near the training grounds, staring at me. And good god was he pissed off. I panicked for a second, mind scrambling to figure out what I'd done wrong. But I didn't sense that he was mad at me, he was just mad. Steaming mad. I cocked my head to the side in inquiry, and my eyes went wide when he reached for the hilt over his shoulder. He tossed his head in a quick upward gesture and I grinned, an electric thrill waking every bored-to-death nerve.

"Clear the training grounds!" I bellowed in a clear, joyful shout. "Hinamori-fukutaicho, gather any officers with kido skills. We're going to need some very strong barriers. Division 5, feel free to witness, at your own risk."

Some paused to follow my gaze to the roof and saw the tightly controlled but menacing nimbus of reiatsu glowing white around the formidable angel drawing his sword. Shinigami scattered in all directions as Toshiro vanished and reappeared at one end of the long rectangle of the arena, sword drawn and crouched with a feral grin widening. I took a moment just to soak in the vision of my glorious love, then started moving to square off, drawing my blades as I walked.

No words were spoken as we waited, sensing layers of power building between us and the rest of the world. Toshiro was like a cat tensing and shifting weight one leg to the other in anticipation. I knew my eyes must be glowing, Zangetsu was tensed and drooling, his unearthly laughter stretching my nerves even tighter.

At last a singularly powerful barrier snapped into place within layers of supporting strength. With no particular art, no flash steps or kido or any trickery, we sprang at each other like two predators intent on tearing apart their rival with no regard for what damage they might take. The fact that we could truly kill each other was pushed aside.

Toshiro could take me if we obeyed the rules in a polite, skilled swordfight. Add hakuda and I had slightly better odds. Add kido and he would annihilate me. Add Bankai and I would annihilate him. But this . . . Toshiro had stepped onto my playground and kicked dirt in my face.

Never had I fought quite like this. Grimmjow with his obsessive destruction and lack of restraint came close. But Toshiro was far beyond the big cat in skill and cunning. My duel with Toshiro had been a measured contest, a battle of techniques and strategy. Compared to that beautiful ballad, this was a discordant mess of noise and fury.

He was pouring reiatsu into his blows, and I matched it. Sparks and blinding flashes of energy followed every clash of blades. Lightning fast flurries until one of us managed to get through an opening, the other countered, a moment locked together and growling face to face, a sudden push and back to trying to hack each other to death.

I landed the first purely physical hit. As I broke away from him, spinning to the left, my elbow slammed into the side of his face. He staggered a step with a pained gasp and I faltered. My longer blade that had been coming around to cut at his back stopped as he lifted his hand to his reddening cheek and looked at me, eyes wide and shocked. Automatically I prepared to apologize and console.

His wounded expression didn't change as he swept my legs out from underneath me. Sneaky fucking bastard smiled as the bright edge of Hyorinmaru's blade stabbed toward my exposed stomach. I took the cut on my thigh instead as I kicked him ten feet back and leapt to my feet.

"That's only going to work once, you fucking brat."

He spat blood and glared at me. "Greater men than you have fallen for it." His tone changed, high and pleading, "Oh, please don't hurt me! I'm just a kid and you're so big and strong . . ."

Zangetsu howled with laughter as I snarled and launched myself at the whiny little punk. From there things really got dirty.

Absently I noticed the growing crowd, heard the shouts, gasps and cheers. I felt the strong innermost barrier waver but hold when it knocked the breath out of me after a particularly brutal kick sent me crashing into it. I thought I had him for one second as I caught Hyorinmaru in the slot of my blade, but glee turned to dismay when he turned and stepped into me instead of yanking back like expected, sending me over his shoulder and hard into the ground. His foot came down on my left wrist, breaking it at least once, probably several times. I tried to keep my grip, but he kicked the short, thick blade out of my reach. The time and balance that move took cost him, and he probably did not expect me to use my shattered hand to grab the offending foot and fling him a good 30 feet, sending another shock-wave through the barrier.

I didn't go after the second sword, and the flash of reiatsu as my blade crashed into his a few inches from his chest was enough to make us both break apart to circle one another and catch our breath.

"How's the hand, Kurosaki?" He asked sweetly.

"Don't worry, I'll still be able to jerk you off, lover."

His deep growl sent shivers of lust down my spine as the violence was renewed. Unfortunately for Toshiro, I was still more comfortable with one sword in two hands and he started to lose. He tried again to spin closer to me, which I had learned meant a body blow that might be followed by a sword to the stomach or the legs. So, I spun with him and wrapped my free arm around him, already healed hand pulling him off the ground by the neck, his back to my front. He choked and when his sword arm swung back into my ribs, I trapped it with my right arm, ignoring the harsh kicks at my shins, knowing my legs would heal quickly though I could feel the agony of massive damage.

Turquoise eyes squeezed shut as he gasped for air, and his empty hand stopped clawing at mine and in fact gave my hand a little caress. My brain told me not to let up, but I heard a faint, strangled whimper and my hand opened involuntarily. When his feet touched the ground, he threw himself back into me, turning to add a savage blow to the ribs before leaping back to avoid my sword.

"Twice? You fell for the same trick twice? You must feel like such an ass."

His voice was slightly raw from the choke-hold. My voice was slightly distorted as Zangetsu and I both fought not to completely lose our temper.

"Toooshirooo, resorting to such methods is beneath you. Now come here, sweetness. A good spanking will teach you some manners."

I could see the tremor run through him and both hands tightened around Hyorinmaru's hilt. "We'll see who's getting spanked tonight, Hollow."

Insane. We were both completely out of our minds as we slashed and kicked and flung one another into the barrier. At some point, he bit a chunk out of my arm before breaking away when I had him pinned in the dirt. At some point, he paused to wrench his dislocated shoulder back into place after he had punched me hard enough to break my jaw. And still we fought in a horrid, wonderful, filthy brawl until even my reiatsu was wearing thin.

Gasping at the sky, I lay on my back in the dirt with no idea how I had gotten there. Drained to the point where regeneration couldn't quite keep up, I was sore and bleeding from a dozen or more places inside and out. Even Zangetsu was panting between curses and bouts of hysterical laughter. My blade was still clutched tightly in my right hand, I saw, though I could not feel it.

Struggling onto one elbow, I looked for my enemy, only 10 feet away. The pristine haori was tattered and an ugly mix of brown and red. His beautiful hair was even worse, matted with blood and dirt. Head bowed, he was trying to climb up his sword but couldn't seem to get his feet under him and sagged on one knee, the other leg stretched awkwardly behind him.

"Babe . . . truce . . . kay?"

"Nnnn . . . no."

Seriously?

An explosion of breath as his leg gave up and he collapsed, rolling onto his back.

"Fine . . . dammit."

Hinamori wisely waited another minute before letting the barriers come down and rushing to us, Kotetsu and several members of the fourth with her. I closed my eyes and chuckled as she scolded her Shiro-chan for being a suicidal moron. Rangiku's voice joined in the scolding. When had she gotten here? And was that Rukia providing a similar lecture for yours truly?

I wished I had the energy to wave the healers away and let myself drift in the dark waters of complete exhaustion. I could just see Toshiro's face turned toward me in short glimpses between the milling feet. He didn't smile, he rarely did in public, but his eyes told me how completely satisfied he was, and I could not stop grinning until one of the healers knocked me out.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Totally worth it.

I put up with the fussing from Momo and Matsumoto because I had no energy to protest. I endured the gentle scolding from Unohana because, well, she was Unohana. And I gritted my teeth through the irate lecture from the old man because I wanted to keep my job and not spend any time in a cell. Fortunately, I had the foresight to use kido to hide the scars on my leg and neck before the fight, or a cell would have been the least of my worries.

We had not technically done anything wrong. Ichigo couldn't help using Shikai, but I did not and neither of us used Bankai. His mask never made an appearance, and no dangerous kido was used. Proper barriers were in place, only slight damage to the training grounds. But for some reason no one liked to see two captains do their best to murder each other in the most undignified, dirty way possible. They liked the show well enough, they just couldn't bring themselves to admit it.

More importantly, I had accomplished several things. My mind was clear, I knew the next step forward even if I didn't like it. The public display would assuage some of the fears that Ichigo and I were plotting a coup of some kind. Leaving ourselves open to scrutiny and disciplinary action, both being vulnerable and injured, no one could possibly believe we were about to attack the Gotei after that.

And I had proven to myself that I could hold against Ichigo, at least at the most basic level. I was still shocked that I had lasted until his reiatsu was nearly drained. It helped that he still used far more than necessary, pouring a torrent of energy into attack and healing when only a trickle would accomplish the task. His control was world's better than it had been, but world's away from mine. If he learned to economize, to regulate more finely how much power he used, he might be able to fight like that for days.

Finally, let's face it, I had fun. There was something cathartic about a true, no-holds-barred brawl. It had been a very long time since I had even loosened up in a fight, let alone discarded all rules. I had never liked the feeling before, hating the lack of control and the intimacy of showing my true self to another even in battle. Ichigo might be the only one I could fight like that unless I took on Zaraki or his thugs. Ichigo was certainly the only one I wanted to share that experience with.

My injuries were mostly healed, just a lingering soreness from the worst cuts, dislocated shoulder and a couple of fractures I hadn't even noticed at the time. Recovering my reiatsu beyond what Unohana had been able to achieve would take a little longer. I would only spend one night in the 4th, and that only out of courtesy.

"It's about time. I thought you were going to make me come to you."

Ichigo shut the door behind him and walked up with a smile. He looked perfectly fine, the damned cheater. I scooted as far to the side as I could on the narrow bed and soon we lay on our sides, faces close and arms twined together between our chests.

"How are you feeling, love?"

"Fantastic. That was exactly what I needed. Thank you."

"I'd say any time, but I don't know if I could keep my word. You nearly killed me; that was the best fight I think I've ever had."

"Masochist."

"Hey, I'm not the one who showed up at your training session with a hard-on for pain."

We had both been leaning in, and his lips were soft only for a moment before becoming insistent. Against my better judgment I let him in and so quickly yielded to the heat of his slick tongue. I wanted him so very badly, still turned on from the events that landed us in the infirmary to begin with. I knew that I had seconds only to stop this before I was too far gone. Regretfully, I pushed against his chest.

"Let me take you home," he almost moaned the words and it was so very tempting. I almost heard myself agreeing, what harm really could it do?

"Calm down, beloved. I need to follow at least some of the rules right now, it's important."

Brown eyes narrowed and studied my face. Not once had I denied him. My desire and regret had to be obvious; did it make it easier for him to accept my rejection? Or did he have to try even harder to overcome his own need when faced with my lust? His expression was a combination of physical discomfort and resignation as he sighed acceptance.

Oh, for crying out loud. It's like kicking a puppy.

"Good lord. Fine, but we're not leaving so try to keep quiet."

His eyes lit up, and immediately he was raining kisses on my face. As they went from playful to needy, lips and tongue moving from my ear down my neck, I put a light barrier on the door, hopefully weak enough to avoid notice but give us a warning and a few seconds if anyone was going to barge in. Then I surrendered, reaching for him and shifting to pull that delectable, warm body on top of mine.

Truly I wanted this as desperately as he did, both of us already hard and straining to finish what we had begun in the arena. Just the thought of that fight, so alive and aware of his every move, every intent, it was almost enough to reach orgasm simply from the memory. Add to that his teeth grazing against my nipple as he pushed the light robe out of his way, and I wiggled under him to eagerly part my legs around him.

I arched my back, pressing closer to him as his tongue teased and his hands ran down my sides. My hands went from his hair to his waist, to untie the robe and grant me access. I reached under the fabric to his back, the best place to feel his skin slide over muscles as he bent over me, tasting and biting like he was preparing to devour me entirely.

Absently I noticed him push down my underwear and then I blinked when his hand caressed my cheek and stopped at my lips. How lewd. I knew what he wanted and groaned as I took his fingers into my mouth.

How had I become this insatiable creature? Mere weeks ago, I would have been disgusted by the thought of doing this, lying in a public space sucking on fingers that would soon be in my ass. Now the thought made me dizzy with excitement, and I groaned again as I shoved my hips up to get just a little relief for the delicious tension building in my groin.

Goddamn demon, turning me into a wanton beast.

Ichigo glanced up from sucking and nibbling my red, raw nipples as I bit down none too gently. He smirked at my glare of hatred and deliberately held eye contact as he moved his wet fingers down between my legs.

"Something bothering you, my love?" His fingers circled and teased and I growled in frustration as my traitorous body moved to spread my legs wider.

"God, I hate you."

"Hmm? What was that?" I yelped as his free hand trailed nails down my side, and he pushed two fingers inside of me at the same time.

"Shhh," he chuckled and made me moan again with rapid strokes of his fingers. "Thought you said we needed to be quiet, Toshiro."

"Fuck off and die!" I knew the second I said it that it was a mistake and expected a terrible quip about fucking me instead.

"Love you, too." Teeth nipping my chest. "Love how strong you are, how you can be so elegant and so brutal." Soft lips and warm tongue soothing the bite. "Love that you can be soft and warm, then hard as ice." Hot breath moving up to my shoulder. "Love that you're scary brilliant, and so very sexy." A trail of kisses up my neck. "Love that you can't keep quiet, that you pant and moan for me, my lovely Toshiro." That marvelous tongue twining with my own.

I fell for it every time, that sappy tone of voice purring mushy words in between hot kisses. It helped that his fingers had been hard at work the entire time, and I was indeed moaning into his mouth to keep from crying out. The need had been urgent to begin with, and I thrust my erection against him, not caring if he got on with fucking me or not as long as I got what I wanted out of this as soon as possible.

Sensing how close I was, or perhaps in just as desperate a situation, Ichigo moved up quickly. His fingers left me empty and wanting, but not for long. My arms and legs tied me to him. Despite all the rush and want, despite how quickly he pushed into me, his mouth was gentle and warm as he smothered my shout of satisfaction.

He did not, could not wait as he usually did, but immediately moved. Still shaking in reaction to that first thrust, adjusting to the discomfort of so little lubrication, I could only cling to him, could only press closer and deliver more cries into his mouth. We were perfect together, Ichigo unerringly reading what I wanted, where to touch, how hard and how fast to move. So good, so right, such a necessary completion to the give and take of our battle.

My head fell back, needing air and an escape from his heat. My ragged panting competed with the creaking protests of the small infirmary bed, completely failing at discretion. The idea of a passing attendant hearing us and rushing in to check on their patient was both mortifying and shamefully erotic, and Ichigo pressed a hand to my lips as I moaned loudly in tribute to the vulgarity of my thoughts.

Shaking my head free angrily, I pulled him even closer, thrusting against him in rhythm. That did it, the next push of his cock hit my prostate hard and a few strokes later I muffled my scream of rapture by biting into the side of his neck. He groaned and slammed into me, stiffening and then rocking more gently. Through the haze of bliss, I felt the world turn as he lifted me to roll us over.

Only once I had pulled my legs out from underneath him and started to relax did I finally let go of his neck. Not contrite in the least, I licked away the blood and saliva and saw that his extraordinary ability already worked on healing the wound. Dismayed at how quickly the mark would vanish, I drew back and glared at his neck. Even worse, there was that damned tattoo, always present, the brand of ownership that was not mine. Fortunately, Ichigo did not know just how depraved and possessive were the notions running through my head, though he saw my angry glare at his neck. I heard a breathless chuckle.

"Sorry to disappoint, love."

"As if you could ever disappoint me," I snorted at the absurdity of that statement.

While he grinned and even blushed a bit, I made a tired and unsuccessful grab for the tissues on the bedside table. Ichigo's long arm reached for them and he took over the task of cleaning us up a bit and adjusting robes so that we wouldn't be too incredibly offensive. But as for anyone seeing me sprawled asleep on top of another captain, there was a time, quite recently, when I would have been appalled at the possibility. Now, I really couldn't care less.

 

Chapter Text

Some people are forgettable. Most people, really. How many hundreds of souls had I met in Inuzuri? All but a handful were simply obstacles, challenges to be overcome or avoided until I was strong enough to defeat them. How many hundreds of Shinigami had I met in the Academy and after? Most were just background, the extras on the stage, the bland, featureless figures on the canvas, unnoticeable and unremarkable.

Other people are vibrant, colorful, the focus of all attention. At least that's the way it is for me. Those few are unforgettable, they are the center, the purpose for the existence of all those others in the background. Arrogant, egocentric world view? Probably. But it was my life, my story, and I could see the world however I liked.

Dramatic events seem to be required, an impression that imprinted the identity of a stranger on my admittedly stubborn brain. Drunk and morose, irritable and drowning my sorrows with my usual bad influences masquerading as friends, even I had to take notice of the loud, dynamic whirlwind that blew in with a gust of sultry summer air. A long glance and I would have turned my attention back to the dingy tabletop and the dwindling supply of sake.

"Oh, damn! There she is, the goddess herself."

"You're wasted, Shuhei. No, don't wave her over here. Shit, can't we just drink in peace?"

Luckily, the object of my friend's unrequited lust was too busy fending off other admirers to notice his pathetic flailing. The fool just kept staring, not even trying to hide it.

"Is there any woman half as beautiful?"

I looked again, critically. "She's too tall."

"Yep, too tall." Izuru was far gone. I was mildly surprised that he had lifted his head from the small puddle of drool to participate in the conversation.

"Too blonde, dark hair is much more attractive."

"Mmhmm, dark hair, big brown eyes."

"Too curvy. I mean, that's nice and all, but a petite, delicate woman is prettier."

"Yeah, small, cute."

"You guys are blind morons. Any other man in Soul Society would tell you she's Venus, the most perfect woman ever seen, the greatest beauty of this or any age."

"Oh, I don't know," a lilting, teasing voice interrupted our profound drunken debate. "Venus was a myth. Why not pick a real woman to fantasize about, Shuhei? Too much for you to handle?"

My wicked snickering at his blush gave way to outright laughter as Rangiku's generous hip pushed Shuhei over so she could slide into the booth. Izuru just blinked, missing out on the humiliation and arousal warring on the tough looking lieutenant's face. Served him right, making a fool of himself. She snatched his sakazuki and his blush deepened to brick-red as she drank from his cup.

"Are you okay, Shuhei? You don't look well. I must be far behind already. What brings you boys out so early?"

She reached for a refill as he sputtered. She looked at Izuru who looked blankly back and swayed. She sighed.

"Lively company. What's wrong with you guys, Renji?"

"Renji's lonely."

"Aww, you need a girlfriend, too? Rukia turn you down?"

"What? No! I'm not lonely. Shut the fuck up, Kira! And this has nothing to do with Rukia."

"What then?" Was that her fourth cup? Where did she put it all? I looked down in suspicion.

Her perfectly manicured hand waved in front of her breasts. "Answer's not down there, spikey."

"You are, too," Izuru tried to look seriously at me, but only managed to look like he was about to throw up. "Ikkaku won't fight him anymore."

"So that's it. You need a new sparing partner with Bankai."

Seriously, what made Ikkaku think he had any secrets?

"Won't your captain train with you?"

"You've met him, right?"

"Hmm, well, what about my captain?"

Shuhei finally looked at her, eyes wide and his mouth opened. Then he swallowed a yelp, or vomit or something and bent over the table looking like he was in pain. Rangiku didn't even glance at Shuhei as she filled Izuru's sakazuki.

"But isn't Hits . . . Hitsu . . ."

"You okay, Izuru? Have another drink. It'll help that stuttering problem." The trashed blond looked down happily at the cup of sake.

Worthless, both of them. At least Rangiku was suggesting something. It wouldn’t solve all my problems, but if her captain would take me on, I might learn a few tricks pretty-boy Kuchiki wouldn’t see coming.

"Who's your captain again?"

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"I beg your pardon?"

I bowed respectfully once more. The pipsqueak didn't inspire a need to show respect, but his haori did. If I hadn't seen him at the first and only meeting I'd attended since becoming a lieutenant, I would have thought the little boy behind the big desk was part of a prank by Rangiku.

"Hitsugaya-taicho, I would like to train with you."

The hand that looked too small to handle a sword set down the brush carefully and he leaned back in his chair, raising one eyebrow and looking me up and down. I tried not to bristle at the rude appraisal.

He looked a little interested. I was not at all sure fighting him would be any help. Second thoughts crept up, and I almost took back the request. Who wanted to beat up on a little kid? Might as well go fight Yachiru. I shuddered, that tiny, pink-haired menace was a demon on the field. Maybe I should think this over a bit more. And then there was that haori. He had to be better than he looked, a lot better.

"And why would you not train with your own captain?"

"Ah, Kuchiki-taicho does spar with me, just not often. He says he's too busy."

"But I, obviously, have plenty of time to spare training someone else's lieutenant."

Suddenly his tone of curiosity changed to one of irritation.

"Would there be some reason you came to me in particular?"

There was an abrupt rise in pressure, and a chill went through me despite the sticky summer heat. Rangiku had specifically said not to mention her, that her captain would be happy to train with me but was mad at her for slacking off. I stuttered a bit, my rehearsed responses flying right out of my head as the kid narrowed his eyes and scowled.

"Well, I, uh, I was wanting to train facing Bankai, but, well, there's only so many available, and, and . . ."

"And what?" That wasn't a smile, that was a snarl. The pressure in the air was getting heavy. "You thought perhaps I would be the easiest one to face? Someone mistakenly led you to believe that I wouldn't kill you?"

"I didn't . . . I mean, no one said . . . Why is it so cold in here?"

Just as suddenly as the kid had snapped, he relaxed back into his chair again and it was much easier to breathe. Now, I'm not always the brightest, but I was starting to think I'd been set up.

"Abarai, was it?"

"Ye- yes, taicho."

"I'd be more than happy to train with you."

"You would? Oh, that's great! Thank you, Hitsugaya-taicho!"

That not-grin again that made me think he was about to lunge at me and bite.

"If you can last 5 minutes against my Shikai, I'll spare you two hours a week. My training ground in 10 minutes. Dismissed."

What a fucking brat! I thought Kuchiki was high-handed, but this kid seriously needed to be taken down a few notches. He ignored me the second he dismissed me like an errant puppy, picking up his brush and returning to work like I wasn't there. I gritted my teeth as I bowed and left to find the 10th training grounds. Hopefully, his entire division would show up to watch me beat the upstart squirt into the dirt.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


"That was a bit cruel, Ran-chan, even for you."

"I don't know what you mean, Izuru. Renji wanted to train against Bankai; I made a suggestion. Not my fault he got hurt."

I hummed a little tune as I refilled my sakazuki. The training grounds had stayed pleasantly cool for the rest of the afternoon sessions, if a little muddy from the melting ice. The cloud cover lasted a few hours. The iceboxes all over the 10th were well stocked. And the office was a good 20 degrees cooler than outdoors, a perfect temperature for lazing around drinking into the long, summer evening. Better still, my captain was so pissed that he left me behind and ran off to check patrols. It really couldn't have gone any smoother.

"That poor sucker. Isane said it will take two or three days for them to be sure there isn't any lasting nerve damage."

"I sent him flowers, Shuhei. What more do you want guys want from me? It's just a little frostbite, he'll thaw out and be just fine."

"Did you see his face? I've never seen him look so surprised and scared in my life. Hitsugaya barely gave him time to blink."

"Not true! Taicho let Renji have first shot, he always does when training."

"Yeah, and then he unleashed. And then to taunt him while he was frozen solid, that was just brutal. What was that?"

"I think he said 'No wonder Kuchiki won't waste time training you. Come back when you can defeat a 10-year-old and try again.' Not that harsh, I thought."

“No, that’s not what happened at all.” Izuru stared at his sake with a haunted look.

“What did happen? I was too far away, unlike you suicidal morons.”

“Nothing, nothing! Captain just froze Renji a bit, like not even up to his neck. Y’all are making too big a deal out of this.”

“And then . . .” Izuru shuddered, “Captain Hitsugaya held out his hand. And in that hand was . . . was . . .”

“What!”

Shunsui was leaning forward, and I gave up on stopping the story. Wouldn’t hurt the reputation of the ice prince any. Might ruin my chances of using this trick on any new lieutenants again, though.

“. . . balls.”

“Balls? The fuck?”

“Testicles. I’m telling you, he was holding a pair of balls made of ice, and he sneered right in Renji’s face, and he said . . .”

“What! What did he say!”

“He said . . . he said . . . Recognize these, Abarai? Did you know your body is more than half water? And certain parts are even more . . . soft. And he squeezed . . . oh my god . . . and they cracked and Renji’s face, and he howled . . . and Hitsu . . . Hitsu . . . he said if you ever show your face in the tenth again . . . and then he . . . and there was nothing . . . just bits of ice falling from his hand . . .”

Izuro was shaking, and Shuhei looked ready to throw up. I groaned, rolling my eyes for good measure. Men. Men and their oh-so-precious bits.

"Did he say all that? Here, Izuru, have some more. And anyway, he took it easy on Renji. He's usually a lot meaner. That 12th seat from the 8th is still crying every day. It's been like a week."

"What did she do to him?"

"Asked him if he wanted to go get some tea with her."

"Seriously, your captain is scary. And my captain's a nightmare, so that's saying something."

"Gin's not a nightmare! How dare you say such a thing while drinking my sake?"

"Ran-chan! It's empty."

"Lightweight, you're drunk already. Hang on, I've got some more stashed under the floorboards."

Chapter Text

"No. I will not stand for it."

At least half of the gathered captains turned to stare. Ichigo's tone was flat and implacable, not angry, not emotional at all. He was planting a stake in the ground, a challenge to anyone that cared to take it. The man was going to be the death of me, handing out ultimatums like that in a room full of captains.

"Sotaicho, I must add my objection." I spoke firmly as well, if more politely. "What has been proposed is inhumane at best. Everyone here has some concept of what Kurosaki-taicho and I both endured at the hands of the traitors. Those things," I hissed, knowing that even a hint of emotion from me would have a great impact since I rarely let it color my words, "were by far the worst torture that I faced. I will not support their use on our greatest enemy, let alone one of our own."

"Yet you were the one who provided the devices."

"For study, Kurotsuchi, in hopes that you would be able to counter them. Had I suspected the Gotei would stoop so low as to consider their use, I would have destroyed them."

"The two of you are very eager to ensure the traitor still has power."

Ichigo gave her a haughty stare to go with my flippant response, "That sounds accusatory, would you care to clarify?"

Unohana thankfully interrupted before a red faced Soi-fon could reply. "I do agree with Hitsugaya-taicho. These devices go beyond anything we have seen, directly blocking the flow of reiatsu within the body itself. This would be immensely painful physically and psychologically, particularly for one accustomed to high level use of reiatsu. I cannot condone what would amount to severe torture."

"This would also directly counter the objective. We cannot accurately judge his loyalty if he has no option but to obey."

An excellent point; leave it to Kyoraku to cut right to the darkest heart of the matter. The balance in the room shifted. Those not moved by simple human decency would see the stark truth, keep Ichimaru muzzled and we would never know if he would bite, and never be able to take the muzzle off. The old man saw it, too, and sighed heavily.

"Very well, are there objections to any other proposed measures?"

Silence and the tension of 10 extremely proud and independent individuals being bent to one will, one purpose.

With that Ichimaru Gin was brought in. I looked to my beloved, who was giving nothing away. That battle-ready, casual pose, face relaxed and almost bored, he hid the seething hatred and urge for violence almost as well as I did. The gleam of gold that had taken over his eyes was the only tell for those who didn't know him well. When he met my eyes, just a little of his anger and mine drained away, subdued by finding understanding in one another.

A choice was given, likely more respect than Ichimaru deserved. He could be stripped of title, zanpakuto, and the majority of his power, and live out his life in Rukongai until fate granted him rebirth. Or he could remain a Shinigami, as an unseated member of Division 8 for a minimum of 50 years. He would then face judgment again, with no promise given that he would be allowed to seek advancement. It would be harsh road to walk either way for a man who had worn the haori. Had I faced this decision, there would be no hesitation. Pride would demand temporary humbling to rise again, and the 50 years would not be wasted. I would return, and if not trusted then I would ensure I was too powerful to be mocked or discarded.

Likely every man and woman in this room would make that same choice, with similar reasoning. Ichimaru was no exception, and he made his choice instantly. I glanced at Kyoraku, who did not hide a grimace though taking on Ichimaru was his own proposal. I certainly wouldn't want that snake within a mile of the 10th. Unfortunately, I would have to deal with him. I could not very well deny his connection to Matsumoto when it had strongly influenced my decisions about his pardon and his punishment.

Ichimaru looked only at the old man, other than one speculative look and a nod to Kyoraku. He had the decency to put away his perpetual grin until the decision was made. Then it slithered back onto his face as he came far too close to me to stand behind Kyoraku for the last several minutes of habitual reminders. My skin crawled as I imagined those sneaky, squinty eyes turned in my direction.

The second the old man stopped speaking I turned for the exit, then froze as a bony hand fell on my shoulder. I glared at the long, pale fingers, and they were snatched back with a hiss. I turned to face the snake as he rubbed ice crystals off his palm. Kyoraku was watching out of the corner of his eye a few steps behind the reprieved traitor, and I could feel a dozen other eyes judging the scene. What I did not see and did not spare the time to sense was Ichigo.

"Ah chi . . ."

Just say it, you viper. Give me an excuse.

"Hitsugaya-taicho, sorry to bother you. My options are kinda limited. Could you do me a favor and let Rangiku know I'd like to see her?"

My lip curled in distaste. "I do no favors for you, now or ever, Ichimaru. And I do not keep secrets from my own lieutenant. Matsumoto will know your status, and what she chooses to do about it is her own business."

"I never wanted to . . ."

Whatever he wanted or didn't want would remain unknown for now. His voice cut off abruptly and a quick glance to my left told me why. I was astonished that the snake hadn't at least backed up, if not run to ground in a hole somewhere. Ichigo looked beyond dangerous as he stepped quietly to my side, black and gold eyes sizing up the man he yearned to kill. But Ichimaru was once a captain, once a prodigy, once brave enough to walk in the shadow of a deranged sadist with a god-complex. After a few tense seconds, he looked back to me, and with an almost respectful nod he turned away.

Dropping the matter immediately, I spun on my heel and stalked out of the meeting hall. For the first time since we returned to Soul Society, I was honestly angry with Ichigo. I needed to keep my mouth shut until I had calmed down, or I would say something I would regret. He didn't do anything wrong offering me his aid, but it had made me look like I needed his help, made me look weak in front of a challenger, in front of the captains, and in front of Yamamoto.

Once again, the advantages of Hyorinmaru's proposal made themselves clear. And with that thought my anger dissipated, though it did not entirely vanish. I would be asking for yet more support from my beloved. It was not fair to then criticize his actions today. On top of that, I had only been reacting to my own wounded pride. Ichigo had just faced down the man that brutally tortured him, raped him, and crushed his already damaged sanity. The likely truth that it was not actually Ichimaru who had done these things would not be enough to erase the need for vengeance, the unquenchable thirst for that snake's blood.

Stopping dead in my tracks, I let my shame drown the last of my anger. What was my nicked pride next to the lacerated dignity of my beloved?

Ichigo had followed me out, of course, and had been walking with his brown eyes focused in the distance, lost in his own thoughts. He continued a few steps past me before he slowed and half-turned to look back, curiosity and then concern entering his eyes. I wasn't sure what to say. Apologize for being upset with him even though he did not know it? Ask how he was handling the confrontation with Ichimaru?

"Any chance you can clear this afternoon?"

Or just evade the entire issue. Real brave, Toshiro.

He thought for a second. "Tomorrow would be better, but I'll figure it out if you need me."

Well, shit. I'll have to hold onto my resolve. And at least I'll have one more night.

I ducked my head and walked forward, Ichigo walking along beside me.

"Thank you. I'll come to your office after lunch tomorrow."

"I'll come to yours. No offense, but if you pop up at the 5th again any time soon, you'll scare the crap out of my entire division."

We parted ways at the 1st Division gates, where Matsumoto was waiting anxiously for me. It would be a long afternoon. I would give her as much time or as little as she needed to talk with me, and if she wanted to go to him I would let her. I needed her out of the office anyway. There was much to do, old preparations that needed refreshed, new safeguards put in place. If things did not go well tomorrow or in the days following, Ichigo and I would need to move quickly.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


"This is going to become a problem, isn't it?"

Hinamori looked at the schedule posted outside of the office and gave a little laugh. It was good to hear, and she was standing quite close. It hadn't taken as long as I had feared for her to get more comfortable, though I still had a feeling she might run and hide if I moved too quickly.

"Well, taicho, everyone does enjoy watching. But yes, your schedule is already pretty full."

Renji, in a pique because I was in the infirmary the last time he signed up for training, which he said he only had to do because I no longer had time for my friends since becoming obsessed with sex, had put himself down for three slots this week. Shades from the 7th more respectfully signed up for only one. That wasn't bad enough, not until Ikkaku and Yumichika caught on and signed up, too. Then that murdering maniac Kenpachi heard about it, and my schedule was now full of his sloppy handwriting. At least Rukia hadn't . . . no, there she was, her fine writing lost under Kenpachi's scrawl.

"Why do I have to be the mature one? Fine, put up a sign, Division 5 members only. I'll think of something to get the others off my back."

"About that, taicho, I was thinking we could probably increase our budget quite a bit if you had regular events, training or duels. That draws a crowd, you know."

"What? Sell tickets, you mean? Is that even legal?"

"That might be a bit excessive. But the kitchen could do food stands or something, with a bit of a markup to make it worth the time."

"Hmm. Feels a bit sleazy. I like the way you think, Hinamori. And Kenpachi can't complain too much as long as I give him a chance to kill me once a month or so. Now what?"

We had strolled into the office and there was a small, plain package on my desk. After a brief look at the attached card, I grinned at my second who was heading to her desk unaware.

"Now why didn't you mention that you have a boyfriend?"

"What?" She turned with a startled look, ready to bolt for a different reason than fear of me.

"Izuru Kira. That depressed looking blonde? From the 3rd right . . . oh. Yeah, the depressed one."

I'd be depressed, too, if that fox had been my captain. How strange, or maybe it wasn't strange at all. They both had been betrayed by the men whose backs they guarded, the men who were supposed to protect and teach them. I handed her the package, which happened to be the perfect size and shape for, say, a piece of jewelry. She fidgeted with it for a moment and looked a little sad.

Not my business, not my business.

"Well, on with the afternoon. I'll be kicking Renji's ass at the training grounds if you need me. Seriously, why hasn't he taken the exam yet? Once he's a captain, he'll be too busy to pester me all the time. And don't get me started on those morons from the 11th. I guess the world needs followers, but they're taking it a little too far. Maybe I can out them, force them to call Bankai in front of a crowd. Not a nice thing to do, but it won't hurt my reputation as a dick, anyway."

I walked as I talked, exiting the office around the second sentence and leaving her with her private thoughts. It wasn't like anyone in the 5th would bat an eye anymore at their captain strolling around talking to thin air.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


The great dragon stared down at me, a threat portrayed in the way his fanged head was braced as if ready to strike. I glared up at him, fists clenched but too wise to reach for my sword even if the thought of humbling the dragon was even more appealing than anticipated. The scene was all too familiar, and a pang in my chest reminded me of what we two had been through, what horror we had inflicted upon each other, upon our soul.

This was the very definition of self-destructive. Yes, I was furious at Hyorinmaru for a lifetime of secrets, for many lifetimes of secrets. Had he been more open, could any of them have been saved? Could my own pain and suffering have been alleviated? But anger at Hyorinmaru was anger at myself, which was clearer to me now than ever before. And my anger fed his. The closer I had grown to the truth, the more we two reflected one another.

I closed my eyes and did something I had never done before. This was the place I came to for serenity. This was the core of my being. But I focused my attention elsewhere, meditating on peace and calm to move beyond anger and resentment. My mind partially left the frozen plains, and sought out warmth, the memory of being cradled in loving arms. I let myself feel just the comfort, the affection, let myself sink into it as if into a deep pool. My breath slowed, my fingers relaxed, and I hummed with happiness.

My eyes slowly opened at the answering hum of tranquility, the red eyes above me half lidded and the tension in his pose vanished. Gently the dragon lowered his head.

Wise Master, it is good to see you again.

I think you can drop the 'Master' now, Hyorinmaru.

If you like, you are the dominant part of our soul. I am merely the receptacle that kept safe your power.

Whatever you were intended to be is irrelevant. We are two halves, equals, partners. And it is time you started acting like it, beginning with telling me the truth.

Hyorinmaru's head drew back with a rumbling growl of offense. But I wasn't about to let him off the hook.

I have only and ever told you the truth.

Sins of omission, Hyorinmaru, and time to atone. I do not care that it was my order to keep secrecy. I do not care that you did not have a choice. That is over, and your sins are my own.

The dragon blinked in surprise at my words and calmed once more.

I am the first to realize the truth of our past, correct?

You are the first.

Why? From what I have learned, several of my past selves have come close. They were intelligent and powerful. Why was the truth not revealed to one of them?

What we did to our soul had never been successfully done before. There was no way to know the outcome after death. The damage was catastrophic. It was many short, tragic lifetimes before I was able to heal enough to recall our name. Many more lifetimes before the damage to our soul was repaired enough for the dominant part of our soul, the one that governs our personality, choices, and emotions to begin to remember. Only now are we whole, for the first time in millennia.

Hmm. Then our full power can return?

It has already begun, though you will be limited by the nature of what has now become our principle form. That is to say, I do not believe we two can ever again become one, and so our power will always be split and must be used accordingly.

That is why you proposed what you did. To allow an increase in the amount of power that can be housed in this form. There is no other way?

Certainly none that I know of, other than to wait and gain power slowly.

Then I must decide how patient I can allow myself to be. And I fear the answer is 'not at all.'

Why do you fear this change, young one?

I do not. I sighed. Lying to Hyorinmaru was lying to myself, and I saw that very reminder in his eyes. What if . . . what if it is too much to ask?

The ground shook with the dragon's laughter, and I glared at him in irritation.

This change will come, be it tomorrow or in fifty years or a hundred. Do not be sure that it will be unwelcome by your chosen.

He was right, of course. My fear wasn't about what Ichigo wanted or did not want. It was about what I stood to lose versus what I might gain. And a bold move was needed, that I already knew. A move that would explain all the anomalies and potential threats presented by me and Ichigo, a move that would allay suspicion and buy time. I had no better plan than this.

What do I need to do?

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


Unsettled was a good word for it. Toshiro wasn't angry, or calm, or happy, or anything in particular except unsettled. And for the life of me I could not figure out why. As always, we had things to cause concern. The secrets from the past had revealed great enemies and made it clear that we were daily walking hand in hand with the very ones who had dealt us death. Risks and dangers were always met head on by my amazing Toshiro. He may have moments of doubt or even fear, but they were dispelled quickly, and he forged ahead with the same determination he had praised in me. What challenge could be so great as to make it obvious that he was wavering and unsure?

It had started after the meeting. I could easily blame it on Ichimaru, but that alone would not be enough to cause this level of anxiety in him. Me, perhaps, but not Toshiro. What was more confusing was how his emotions seemed to come and go, one minute high strung, the next totally relaxed and confident. I didn't ask, he had told me to free up the afternoon and answers would be coming.

Toshiro's unusual mood had made for a long night. At the time, I simply enjoyed the fact that he wanted me again and again. With the clarity of hindsight, I wondered why. It was almost as if he was going down a checklist, directing me to take him in several positions of his choice, and then again in the shower when I could barely hold myself up, let alone hold him. Of course, I had managed, pushing us both beyond exhaustion.

What was going on in his head? The only time I'd seen him act like that way was after Bankai training, when he had suddenly seemed frightened, excited, confused, and then elated. He had asked me then to fuck him senseless, and I had answered that request. The more I thought of it, the more his current attitude matched that day. He had spoken of an end coming, an end of what? Why did it feel like last night was his way of saying goodbye?

"Taicho?"

Blinking away the moisture that threatened to turn into tears, I refocused immediately. It wasn't like I was going to find the answers, so why torment myself imagining the worst?

"Yes, Hinamori?"

"Is something wrong with that requisition form? You've been staring at it for 10 minutes."

"Yes, there is something wrong with it. It shouldn't be anywhere near this office."

"Taicho?"

"Doesn't it ever bother you that you and I spend hours on unclassified forms like this? I think it's time we reconsidered what paperwork the senior officers can handle. If we schedule with that in mind, the 3rd through 5th can take on more as long as one is grounded at any given time. The basic work they are doing can be shuffled down, and office shifts added for the 6th-8th, it's not like they aren't capable. And we wouldn't even need to train them, Mayeda and Hamada can handle that."

"I suppose so, taicho. If we handed over requisitions, they could send a summary for daily approval. We would only need to sign off once if they get it right."

"Alright, now we're getting somewhere. We can do the same with damage reports, alterations in training regimens, some other things I'm sure. When you do the next schedule, bring Mayeda in for training, her squad is off patrol next week."

My thoughts diverted in a more useful direction, Hinamori and I started exchanging ideas. A more streamlined, efficient system was long overdue. If this worked, it should free several hours every week for the captain and lieutenant to be doing more valuable tasks such as training and supervising the division.

There were now more Shinigami signing up for personal training sessions than I could handle, even after turning away my friends, and entire squads had started to sign up as a unit which I thought was sheer genius. With the malcontents safely transferred out, and the remaining members fired up from the officer try outs and their captain's reputation, the 5th was ripe for change. Before lunch, we had come up with a gratifyingly long list of paperwork that could be handled by subordinates. Better yet, it had kept my mind from what was coming next, and I headed for the 10th with an almost clear head.

Toshiro was at his desk, working away at his own stack of papers instead of eating, again. If my experiment in the 5th worked, I hoped he would try it here. The man was always working, especially since Rangiku didn't carry her weight on office work. I needed to come up with an idea on how to change that. Not change Matsumoto's behavior, I was no miracle worker. But someone had to push her out of her rut and push her out of the nest. It would have to wait until Toshiro told me what the fuck was going on, however.

"Ah, is it noon already?"

Like he didn't know to the minute the exact time. Unsettled.

"It is, and I'm going to go grab us both something to eat."

"Not hungry."

"Then I'm not sticking around."

He glared at me and I shrugged and started to walk out. It was a bluff, we both knew that I wouldn't just leave. But it worked anyway.

"Something simple, then, fruit, a sandwich, nothing heavy."

When I returned with food, he was right where I had left him. I laid out everything on the table and sat on the couch, staring at him until he finally acknowledged my presence. With a sigh, he put his things away, took some papers to Rangiku's desk, and came to sit on the other side of the table.

What I really wanted to do was shake him, slap him, or just yell at him. Anything to get him to tell me what was going on. What I did was smile as he sat down and proceed to enjoy my large lunch while he pecked at a few pieces of fruit. I watched him as I ate, and he wouldn't make eye contact. He alternated between that faraway pensive stare at nothing and eyeing his plate nervously.

He wasn't dumping me. This wasn't 'the talk.' Last night was not goodbye. I kept telling myself these things and reinforcing them with the belief that Toshiro simply wouldn't do it that way. He would look me square in the eye and tell me to get lost, not pussyfoot around the truth.

"You do know I'm sitting here imagining the worst possible reasons for your behavior, right?" I kept right on munching, trying to look calm and open when I felt anything but.

His brow furrowed but he still didn't look me in the eye.

"My behavior?"

"Asking me to be here, mood swings, lack of appetite, not looking at me, did I mention mood swings?"

"And what terrible conclusions have you reached?"

"Mostly variations on you leaving me."

His eyes snapped up to mine and he started to say something, then paused with his mouth hanging open. He sat back with another sigh. He didn't deny it and I found myself starting to believe the impossible. Suddenly I had no wish to finish my lunch as my stomach clenched in nausea.

"My love?" I barely managed a whisper.

"Ichigo, I have no intention of ever leaving you. I'm sorry that I am hurting you."

"Oh, thank god. Then it doesn't matter what it is, just tell me."

"That is what I'm trying to do. I have been trying for some time and I cannot find the words to make it clear."

"Then just spill it out, all in a big mess of words if you have to. I'll be with you no matter what."

He smiled at me, though the smile didn't reach his worried eyes.

"All right, I'll try it your way. You know that I have been gaining new skills, and greater reiatsu in the past few weeks. And you know I've attributed it to learning more about my past, and my identity. Well, Hyorinmaru has told me that there is a great deal more power I can gain if I can handle it. The problem is, I cannot even handle the power I have now, I cannot hold on to advanced techniques long enough to make them useful."

This was not going as expected. I listened intently, trying to figure out where he was headed.

"I am not leaving you, but in a way, I am. And you might not want to stay. I just don't know, and that frightens me."

He looked down again and took a deep breath before continuing.

"If I want to be able to handle more power, I have to change."

"Change what?"

"My . . . physical form."

"Holy shit, did you figure out how to turn into a dragon?"

He looked back up, the familiar look of amused exasperation a great comfort to me.

"Of course not! But I cannot stay like this, a child. A small, young, and fragile form cannot hope to wield any more power than I already have."

I blinked owlishly at him, running his words back through my mind to make sure I was understanding.

"Do you mean you're just going to decide and poof! your body becomes older? Is that what you are talking about?"

"Essentially, yes. Hyorinmaru says that it's possible, that it always was. And now I think it's also necessary."

"One, why now? And two, why did you think I would have a problem with it?"

"Now because Ukitake gave me a warning. The senior captains and the old man are nervous about the fluctuations in my reiatsu, the unpredictable and growing threat that I present. Especially now, with you at my side. My time is running out. But if I do this, then I am hoping they can convince themselves that there is an easy explanation for the changes they have been observing. That it has nothing to do with my past. And if they aren't convinced, if they move against me, then I am going to need that additional power.

"And why would I not think you would have a problem with it? I don't want this, to completely change in an instant. I can never go back."

"Oh, my love, that will be the case someday for you as for all of us. I love your body, and I'm in no hurry. But it will change today or gradually over time. And I will love your body when you are as wrinkled as the old man. Whatever you look like, however much power you have, I will love you."

I expected a smile, or a chuckle, or even just a sigh of relief. Instead he sagged in his chair, head falling and eyes clenching shut as if in pain.

"There goes my last excuse. Is it not strange how I have wished for so long to look like I deserved my rank, and now that I can have that wish I hesitate? What is it that I don't want to let go?"

"Perhaps it's just the familiar versus the unknown. Or that the choice is being forced on you and you rebel against that lack of control whether the change is in your best interest or not. Maybe a bit of both."

He chuckled, but it was with bitterness instead of mirth. "You sound just like Hyorinmaru."

"I'll take that as a compliment. Toshiro, if you don't want to do this, or if you need more time to think about it, I'll still be here to support you."

"No, it has to be now before I lose my nerve. We will go to Urahara's training ground. Hyorinmaru has told me how to go about it, starting with pushing Bankai to the very limits. Fortunately, that shouldn't take long considering how much reiatsu is taken by a few of my techniques."

"Well," I stood and started collecting plates and cups to return to the mess hall, "someday, Toshiro, we are going to have a boring week. Just seven days without a major change, no turmoil or drama, just time to sit and look at each other wondering what to do next."

"Do you really think so?" Now I got a smile that reached his eyes, and a chuckle with good humor behind it. "I'm not sure either of us would survive."

 

Chapter Text

Reminding myself for the hundredth time to stop staring, I drew my blades and waited. And stared. I couldn't help it; I had been watching and memorizing his every move as we made our way to the cavern, as we walked to the center of the wide-open area, and as we squared off. I memorized his face, the way those astounding eyes so quickly captured the observer and made everything else in the world fade away. His other features looked small in comparison, the dainty nose that turned up slightly at the tip, the soft lips just a shade too thin to be called feminine. But back to those eyes I went, the black lashes like settings for jewels of startling brilliance.

Toshiro probably knew exactly what I was doing. And now I knew exactly what he was doing last night. It was indeed a goodbye of sorts, a final union of these two bodies. It was sad, in a way. Sure, when I had first laid eyes on him I immediately wished he looked more like an adult. But I stopped thinking of that soon after, when I realized his size and appearance had nothing to do with what I really loved about him. Okay, that wasn't entirely true. I did love to just look at him, and that first time I saw him there was an element of completely superficial attraction. Anyway, now I could truthfully say that his beauty was a bonus, not a necessity.

It wasn't long before the perks of his small stature made themselves known. As he once pointed out, he fit perfectly in my lap, and he rested so easily stretched out on top of my body. When I held him, his legs locked around my waist and I could so easily press my lips to his. On the other hand, comfortable positions were limited when he was the one on top. I gave myself one moment to fantasize being fucked by a much taller Toshiro, being the one pinned against the shower wall, being able to kiss him while he was inside me.

Yes, I had to confess, I was eager to see what today would bring on many levels, including the most base, physical level. I would walk out of this place with the same lover, and the same love, but with a body I had only imagined. That's if this all went according to Hyorinmaru's plan. If it did not, I would lose nothing. But I hoped for Toshiro's sake that he would achieve what he had come here for.

The time for fantasy was over. Toshiro had already called Bankai and blades of ice were forming. I readied myself, knowing his entire intent was to use as much reiatsu as possible. His attacks would be strong, and my Hollow powers would be required to match him. Last time it had taken about 20 minutes with this technique for him to use enough reiatsu to wear down the ice petals. 20 minutes . . . so short a time and we would have our end and our new beginning.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

"You're wrong if you think I can't hurt you, Kurosaki," I growled in his face.

He was blazing fast, and yet he was slow, so very slow compared to what I knew he could accomplish. He did not hit back, he barely blocked. Hesitation in every line of him, dragging this out and forcing me to soften my blows. It was breaking my concentration, just when I needed it most. And it was pissing me off more than I could possibly explain.

"I know that, love. And yet, not a bruise on me."

The blades that crossed in front of him screeched as I leaned in, pouring more power into the ice. One of his weaknesses was his tendency to forget that fighting midair was a three dimensional war. I reminded him by falling forward and twisting, my foot making solid contact with the back of his knee as I slid under and behind him. I could have used the blades of ice and done some serious damage. It probably wouldn't have worked if he were just paying attention.

"Now take me seriously, bastard!"

He stepped out of sonido with his weight braced on one leg, but he would be healed in seconds. And yet he hesitated again. With a scream of anger and frustration I launched myself at him, determined to wake him up or kill him. The focus I needed to keep was now lost thanks to him, thanks to his lack of commitment or his disregard. Was I that far beneath him, that he thought he could fall asleep facing me?

A series of fast blows as I took him head on finally started chipping away at my reiatsu. One shining edge of ice was inches away from his neck, held back by the shorter blade. Our second swords were tangled together, the ice grating against metal as he twisted, halfheartedly trying to snap my blade caught in the slot of his own. I growled again, he hadn't even called on his Hollow.

"Fight me, damn you! How dare you treat me this way!"

My fury nearly blinded me to the hurt that flashed across his face, and I had just a moment to begin to understand when he forced the ice away from his neck and stepped closer. I watched his eyes, read the sorrow and realized why he was distracted, realized what he had been doing. As he ducked his head, I saw how he studied my own eyes, gaze darting around my face and settling on my lips.

With an exasperated sigh I pushed myself up. It was no tender kiss, my interrupted rage made sure of that. Lips and teeth crashed together hungrily, I tasted blood and didn't care. Tongues wrestled and he moaned as he moved closer. I let the blades go, the ice shattering, my hands free. Shoving him away from me abruptly, I put some distance between us.

"Honestly, beloved, you are still such an idiot. If you object to this, just tell me."

"I don't object, Toshiro, I just . . . "

"Shut up. I know, and I understand. But if you are only going to be a distraction, leave. I don't need you. I can do this alone."

Two seconds of hurt, two seconds of anger, then an arrogant smirk. There, all better. I called the ice back to my hands.

"Not a chance, my love."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


The surge of strong reiatsu made me move one leg back to brace myself. A white cloud of power and mist hid him from my sight as I waited anxious and eager. All the times I had tried to imagine Toshiro as he might appear far in the future barely prepared me for the reality as the white veil came apart. Surely, he could hear my heart pounding though we were separated by more than 50 feet of empty air. He rose from one knee, looking briefly down at himself and then turning his eyes to me.

Fucking gorgeous. I knew it.

His eyes still drew my attention first. No longer seeming so wide and round, they were now in perfect proportion with his more mature features. The turquoise irises were still large, still as bright and magnetic, lashes as dark and thick. If such a thing was possible, they were even more captivating than before, the color and intensity unexpected when accompanied by a stern, adult face.

Cheek bones and jawline were both more pronounced, the soft roundness of the cheeks gone. Nose larger but retaining that slight upturn at the end, still adorable above thinner and wider lips. His hair had even changed, as before short at the neck and longer above, the high spikes partially tamed into a softer, messy, and delightfully sexy style.

My eyes traveled down to straight shoulders, sharp and beautiful collarbones partly exposed. A white jacket hung open, black lining highlighting sculpted chest and abs. My mouth watered as I took in the lithe frame, strong but with a subtle and deceptive hint of fragility granted by a light and thin build. His legs seemed a mile long, and the form-fitting white pants showed them off to great effect, nothing at all like the standard uniform. In fact, it reminded me vividly of the clothing I had given him in Las Noches.

Toshiro closed his eyes and the icy armor covering his shoulders, forearms and legs started to break away. Once again, a bright mist swirled around him, obscuring my view as he released his Bankai. I felt a moment of regret, his Bankai form was much hotter than the shihakusho and haori. Not that he wasn't hot, Toshiro would make any outfit look good. And, god, the anticipation! I couldn't wait to see him in nothing at all.

He was hiding behind his impassive mask as he watched and waited for my reactions. It took me a few more seconds to regain composure but I'm sure it seemed like eternity to him. I was standing like a fool with my mouth hanging open and arms drooping at my sides. I carefully sheathed my blades as I met his eyes once more, and his face softened as he read my admiration and desire. With one flash step, I was standing before him, right hand reaching to cup his cheek. His skin was cold and soft as he pushed into my palm. He was my equal in height, perhaps even an inch taller.

"Handsome is probably more appropriate, but I have to say it. You are so very beautiful, my love."

Toshiro avoided showing his response to compliments, usually by hiding his face or turning away. But when the tribute was paid by me, another reaction was likely. His large, fine hands felt odd, but the confident way his fingers pushed into my hair was very familiar. It was strange that I did not need to bend, and he did not have to stretch to bring his lips to mine.

For an instant I felt awkward, it was almost a feeling of guilt like I was kissing a stranger. The shape of his mouth had changed enough to confuse me. But his taste was the same, the way he moved against me as perfect as ever as his tongue tickled the gums behind my upper teeth. My free arm wrapped around his waist, hand forcing him closer. Always, always the two of us tried to erase any distance separating us, pressed together and striving to become one.

Yes, this was my love, my fierce and gentle dragon. He shivered as he did every time I slid my tongue along the roof of his mouth. When our lips parted, he looked intently into my eyes. His voice a little deeper, just as smooth and enchanting.

"I do not tell you often enough that I love you. Thank you for being with me, Ichigo."

His lips met mine once more and all else faded as we explored well-known territory that had suddenly become new, all that was familiar ever so slightly altered. His hands were still playing with my hair, flexing intermittently as if he was still trying to adjust to the sensations from larger hands, longer fingers.

Now that the anxiety and shock had worn off, relief and happiness rushed in to fill the void. I found myself grinning against his lips, and he broke away with a quiet chuckle. My hands went to his face, tracing the new angles and planes, and soon my fingers were buried in his thick hair, my lips taking over the task of mapping out his features with light kisses.

"Let's go home. I want just this one evening, just this one night. Tomorrow the rest of them can know, but tonight I am only for you."

"My thoughts exactly, my love." I laid one more gentle kiss on his lips and stepped back. "Shall we see just how fast the new and more powerful Toshiro can be?"

One white eyebrow rose. "Is that a challenge? Stakes?"

"Winner gets to choose who's on top first?"

"Too easy, winner gets to call all the shots for an hour. Two conditions, no Hollow, no Bankai."

"Dammit."


ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Staggering, I would have fallen if not for the bedpost within easy reach. I blinked and stared around me as if I had never seen my own bedroom before.

How the hell did I get here?

Then I remembered the way Ryu had moved, faster than shunpo, an instant transfer to another place with barely a thought. The two couldn't even be compared. Shunpo was a use of reiatsu to increase speed and distance while one moved. Whatever this was called, it didn't work the same way. I wasn't sure how it worked at all, but instinct must have taken over as I had focused on getting to this very spot as quickly as possible. I started to laugh, what an enormous advantage this ability would give me! I needed to learn how it worked, what its risks and limits were, but once I had a grasp on it the enemy would never be able to predict my movements or keep up with them.

I could sense Ichigo moving quickly toward me, but I had several minutes before he would arrive. It seemed the transfer was not instantaneous, it had taken at least 5 seconds judging by Ichigo's speed and the distance he had traveled. I would need to account for that lost time. Where had 'I' been in the interim, and why did I not recall the passage of time?

There would be plenty of days to explore this phenomenon. For now, I had more pleasant pursuits in mind. Still off balance and a bit uncomfortable in this body, I made my way carefully to my closet full of now useless garments and gazed into the full-length mirror. There I saw the reflection, the familiar reflection I had once seen in Raiden's golden eyes.

Somehow, I knew it would be thus, that this life when my soul was finally healed would bring all things full circle. And suddenly I knew why Yamamoto had stayed his hand, for he saw the progression of my lives, how each was more complete and closer to the past. He saw the man he had executed in the child captain. The clever old man must have suspected that this life had the potential to heal the rifts in my soul. The question remained, what did he intend to do with this, the final product?

Shaking off my amazement at this revelation, I took deep breaths and forced my mind to slow down. The list of issues unresolved and not fully understood was becoming very long indeed. I wanted to take the coming hours with Ichigo, free of worry and distraction. Banishing thoughts of mysteries and miracles, I only now noticed that Hyorinmaru was sheathed at my waist. I was fairly sure I did not approve. Another item to add to the list titled 'Deal With This Later.'

I quickly undressed, running out of time as Ichigo's reiatsu drew nearer. I could feel fading panic and growing irritation from him, and I chuckled knowing I would be able throw all his emotions right off track in one second. It was trite, as most of my simple desires were. I went back into the bedroom and made my naked and brand-new self comfortable on the bed, lying on my side and propped on one elbow. Cliché, yes, but the oldest tricks in the book were time tested and true.

On cue, my Ichigo arrived, mouth already open to chastise me.

"Toshiro . . . you . . . cheated."

Each word was lower and slower than the last. His eyes widened.

"That I did. And I honor our wager, beloved. How may I serve you?"

A faint tremor as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath told me all I needed to know. Despite what we had been through, our relationship was still young, no time at all in the grand scheme of things. So perhaps I could forgive myself for doubting him, doubting that he would not resent the loss of the delicate, small body we had both so enjoyed. Chocolate eyes opened and a wicked grin blossomed as he looked me over slowly. He hadn't even moved but I felt my skin tingle in the wake of that heated gaze.

"You know, love," his voice was low and thoughtful as he started to remove the long blade on his back, "it occurred to me recently that you have seen a certain side of me without reciprocating." He set the long blade on the floor, not moving away and still letting his eyes roam as he knelt and then straightened.

I was torn. I knew where he was going with this. Though it was my obligation to do as told for the next hour, I wanted his hands, his lips to be the first to give this new body pleasure.

"Show me, Toshiro." His eyes met mine as he removed the shorter blade from his waist. "Show me how you survived."

Blinking in astonishment at the way he phrased it, the way he thought of it, I almost asked what he meant. A moment's consideration and I realized that in his request was the answer to my dilemma, and I hesitated no longer. For it was Ichigo that would bring me ecstasy. In truth, it always had been.

As he leaned down to rest the second blade on the floor, I scooted myself up on the bed until my shoulders rested on the headboard. I closed my eyes and remembered. Most people, as I understood it, would fantasize about someone they knew, someone they saw and found attractive. I was not like most people. Giving in to nothing more than physical attraction was not for me, and not once had I ever put a specific face or name to my imagined lovers.

I had not indulged often, especially when compared to what was said of other growing boys and young men. But at times the longing for a companion, a lover, an equal became too great. Then I would find myself thinking of what she or he would be like. Not superficial concerns, not a specific face or body, age or height, not even a specific sex. No, I fantasized about what it would feel like to have someone I respected in my arms and in my bed. How it would be to wake up knowing that I was adored by someone worthy, that I would not face the day alone.

A long sigh escaped my lips as my hands drifted across my chest and down my abdomen. A jolt of surprise turned the sigh into a gasp as my hands encountered unfamiliar territory, my body changed enough to fool my senses in my intentional reverie. Deliberately, I allowed my fingers to explore more than I normally would, allowed my mind to be tricked just a little into believing my hands were touching another.

My lover would be powerful, that was a given. I cared for those who needed protection but could not see binding myself to someone who could not stand on their own, like a child. My lover would be loyal, and honest, the two traits inextricably connected. They would not just share their life with me, but their very being. And I would do the same, until it was impossible for anyone to think of one of us without thinking of the other.

I reveled in the sensation of smooth skin, warm to my cool fingertips. A lean build and flat stomach, muscles well defined but not bulky, twitching in reaction as my fingers skimmed along ridges. Delightful, simply delightful the way skin heated as my hands teased and tickled to earn more ripples of contracting and relaxing power.

My lover would be sexy and confident. They would need to be to draw me out of the isolation I had grown used to. At times, I had feared that no one could accomplish this task, that I had buried any desire for intimacy too deep to be recovered. I did not know then that my inhibitions were so easily discarded, nor how much excitement I would feel every time I pushed a boundary.

Fantasy reversed, and it was my body under a stranger's hands, hands too large and long to be my own. They drifted down, caressing hips and following the V of the obliques, only to slide away and down my thighs. Curving in, those hands switched direction and I moaned in anticipation, my head pressing back against the headboard. Strong hands slid up my inner thighs, but once again teasingly avoided the one place I most wanted to feel their touch.

My lover would be supportive and respectful. They would not seek to change me or to stop change in me but provide an anchor as I made my way in the world. And I would do the same for them, letting them seek their own path even if it led where I could not follow. We could rely on each other's understanding no matter what came our way. No matter where our paths led, we could always come back to the safe harbor of one another's arms.

No longer mirroring, one hand continued to pet near my now aching erection without making contact, the other slid up to roughly pinch, then gently fondle hardened nipples. My breathing was becoming erratic as small moans and sighs broke the rhythm of my lungs, my heart-rate climbing with the growing tension of want.

"Open your eyes, my love."

I sucked in a breath, startled by the unexpected, husky voice. I had been sunk so far in the daydream that I had managed to forget. Meeting his lustful gaze, suddenly I could no longer wait. Air hissed between my teeth as my hand closed around the base of my cock and stroked upward, slow and light, even this most intimate flesh slightly foreign, larger, longer, painfully in need.

Memories of lonely nights with nothing but a fanciful wish were banished. All I saw was my Ichigo, the brave, bold, strong and dedicated man who had fulfilled every requirement and met the impossible standards I had set. Every time I had imagined my ideal partner, every time I had lost myself in physical pleasure, it was Ichigo I was dreaming of long before he was even born. Every single time I had reached sexual gratification it was either with him or with the idea of him surrounding me.

Slow and easy the rhythm, giving myself all the time in the world to share my adoration, respect, desire as I stared into darkening eyes. Moaning words in time with the strokes of my hand, I tried to tell him.

"Ichigo, beloved, always you, only you, my Ichigo."

I whispered his name again as my thumb ran roughly across the tip of my erection, and my hips pushed up on the next stroke down. My head went back, and I said his name again, this time in a groan as my hand tightened and moved more quickly, my eyes half closing and vision blurring.

I felt more than saw him move, the bed shifting with his weight. My hand was grabbed and locked tight in his and glorious heat encased part of my length, a strong, talented tongue flicking the tip and swirling to catch the leaking droplets. Rational thought had long ago fled, and I cried out as his head moved down, taking me all the way into his tight throat. I had no control over this, my body moving as it wished, thrusting toward his willing mouth again and again, his hand only barely restraining me.

How long did it last? The delirium that had taken over my mind made it impossible to tell. My one hand locked tightly with his, the other buried in soft hair as he sucked and bobbed and licked for ages and ages until at last I screamed his name, releasing deep inside the wet warmth that tightened and swallowed and stayed with me through the intensity until it started to fade into delicious euphoria. My vision cleared just enough to bless me with the sight of swollen, wet lips withdrawing, leaving me damp and cooling as my long-sought lover fought to catch his breath.

His hand clasped in mine untangled itself and he stripped off his uniform. Both hands then began to copy my movements from earlier, exploring every inch of my torso as I drifted, these new touches like bright ripples on the sea of bliss that supported me.

I pushed myself down the bed a bit so that my head and shoulders weren't pressed on the headboard. When he reached for the nightstand I hummed in approval, unable to form words though I so wanted to tell him just how incredibly happy I was to be here, under the man I loved. Perhaps he understood the feeling I was trying to convey, as he paused to kiss me, ever so gently, on one cheek and then the other before claiming my lips. Languidly, I brought my hands up to caress his face and hair, surprised that one hand could wrap all the way around the back of his neck.

As he moved down, trailing kisses down my neck, I slid my hands down his back, able to feel so much more of his satin skin with every touch. When his hand moved between my legs, my knees came up automatically, and I chuckled at how well trained I had become to respond so quickly. Ichigo grinned against the clavicle he had been nipping and looked up at me quizzically. Still not trusting myself to speak without babbling mushy nonsense, I only smiled and lifted my hips slightly. He watched my face as his fingers teased and I sighed, eyes barely open, focused on sensation and the subtle differences as he pushed one long finger into me.

I felt no urgency this time, so content and relaxed as I bathed in satisfaction and immense relief after such stress and worry. Ichigo's persistent grin said that he felt the same, and I dragged my hands up his sides, letting the fingers brush lightly, tickling the sensitive skin to feel him shiver. Hot breath and then a hotter tongue caressed my right nipple, still tender from earlier abuse by my own hands.

Not even trying to stop the whimpers of delight that accompanied each breath, I arched closer and lifted a leg to hook around him as a second finger began to move and stretch. His free hand slid around my ribs to the small of my back, lifting and supporting me as he moved more firmly, more insistently. I clutched at his shoulders as I shouted, the sudden jolt of intense pleasure followed quickly by another and another as he ran his fingertips against my prostate repeatedly. It was a torment and a reward, and I surrendered to it completely, letting my body shove up against his to press my reawakened erection to soft skin, letting my cries of ecstasy and need ring out in full voice.

It took a minute after his fingers stopped torturing me for my sense to return. Ichigo was gritting his teeth and breathing harshly, my frankly obscene behavior had been too much for him to take. I was supposed to be the one submissive, he was the one calling the shots. Those were the terms. But he was quite enslaved by me, so committed to serving me and reveling in his ability to make me lose control that he forgot to enjoy his prize. What a pair we were.

His eyes shot up to meet mine as he heard me chuckling again, too amused by the circle of devotion we found ourselves locked into. If he read my thought or just decided to match my mood, I did not know. He grinned and straightened, coating his length with lubricant and letting out a gasp of air when he saw me lick my lips, my eyes fixed greedily on that glistening cock.

"Good god, Toshiro!"

"Hmm? What is wrong, beloved? You still have 23 minutes to do whatever you wish."

With a low growl, he pulled both of my knees up to rest on his shoulders. Groaning as he entered slowly, I did not need to remind myself not to beg him to move faster. This time I was more than content to relax and simply feel every hard inch forcing my flesh to yield. There was no pain, only a dull burning ache as he pushed further than his fingers had been able to stretch. An advantage to a fully-grown body?

Stop thinking, Toshiro! You will miss the best part.

My short panting breaths made way for a hum of sheer joy as I took in the sight of him. His splendid body shining with sweat, muscles straining from his efforts to please me. In his eyes and in every line of his face were rapture and veneration. It was astonishing how much this meant to me, how deeply his reverence moved my heart. I wrapped myself in the warmth of this love, this mutual worship that was so much more intense than I had ever imagined it could be.

It seemed to take hours his way, so slow and deliberate. But finally, we were fully joined and gazing into one another's eyes, feeding on one another's passion. He broke the trance and I gasped as he pulled back, that sensual, sinful sensation pulling my mind back to the purely physical pleasure of our union, and what an immense and consuming pleasure it was.

What he had denied me he then delivered, thrusting quickly and fully into me and tearing a high shout from my throat as that sudden, wonderful pressure pushed every thought out of my head. He managed to hold on for a moment, letting my trembling body enjoy the perfection as long as he could.

Then he had no choice, his body demanding recompense for so much time spent pleasing mine. The sudden change to a fast, harsh pace had me panting through clenched teeth, not in discomfort but in concentrated effort to keep from trying to take over, to fight until he was the one submitting. I had never felt such a primal need, at least not so strongly, and at least not in this life. But I recognized it from my past, and the last clear thought I had was that I needed to pay greater attention to certain changes in me that had been encroaching ever since the night I won the battle for my memory.

Between the arousing urgency of his need and the ever-increasing tension within me, I was quickly losing the shred of control I had been hanging on to. Then all was lost as he leaned forward, part of his weight on one arm pressing the bed, bending me and pushing my knees toward my chest. The strangled scream I heard must have been mine as he slammed in even deeper, unbearable pressure hitting that sensitive gland, then dragging across it again as he pulled out.

"Ichi . . . AHHH . . . oh, GOD! Oh, please . . . More, more . . . ICHIGO!"

Distantly, I heard my voice shouting all kinds of nonsense as somehow I endured an eternity of rapturous torture. Even more distantly, I thought I heard Ichigo calling my name. I so wanted to see what expression might be on his face at this moment. My eyes were open, weren't they? Yet nothing was visible as exquisite waves of bliss threatened to drown me.

Ichigo wrapped a hand around my cock and my mind screamed at my hands to push him away, ordered my vocal cords to yell at him to stop, I could make this last a little longer. But no part of my anatomy was listening to my brain and with just a few slides of his hand in time with those vicious and deep thrusts he brought my torment to a magnificent end.

Sated, shattered, awareness was both out of reach and overwhelmingly close. Though I could not seem to see anything else, suddenly I could see my beloved's face in clear detail, not far above me. Ecstasy bordering on agony, what a glorious sight as relief and joy took hold, accompanied by a fierce shout as I felt his release deep within. He groaned my name as he rocked into me, and carefully I pried my nails out of his skin where I had unknowingly clutched his forearm in a savage hold.

Slowly he moved back, allowing my body to relax before pulling out with another low groan that I matched. There was always so much regret when we separated, even in the midst of the afterglow that made us feel as close to one another as two separate beings could be.

As my legs were released and I stretched the aching muscles, his head came down to lick me clean. How that used to shock me, until I learned what a pleasure it was to return that favor. Now, I almost expected this decadent service, and the deep kiss that followed with my own flavor suffused on his tongue. It took some effort to lift my arms and wrap them around my beloved, pulling him down to rest on me as I had so often rested on him.

Oh, how greatly I had wished for this. The weight and heat of his body was oddly soothing, and I closed my eyes, drifting while my heart and lungs eased their frantic tempo. His head rested above my right shoulder, turned toward me, his own rapid breaths slowing against my neck and ear. With a tired smile, I stroked his back, felt and heard a pleased hum. I knew just how he was feeling.

We had relaxed only a few minutes, my hands drifting lazily up and down his back the entire time, when I felt him kissing just below my ear. Warm breath tickled damp skin, and I shivered. I had thought myself content to sleep, we had plenty of time tonight, and could rest for a bit, surely. But if Ichigo had other ideas, my body would certainly try to comply. Just a little tease on my neck had drawn my full attention back from the edges of slumber.

"Toshiro."

I shivered again. My precious, idiotic, genius lover could bring me to my knees with such sensual whispering.

"Yes, beloved?"

His hand came up to rest on the cheek opposite his lips.

"That was incredible. You are incredible. How is it possible?"

"Hmm?"

"You are even sexier now, it's just not right."

"Is that a complaint?"

His low laugh against my neck, where his tongue had been tasting in between his silly words, made my hands rub a little harder at his back with the need to pull him closer. My eyes opened, desire for him banishing desire for rest.

"Never, my love."

Never. Would I never have enough? With a firm push and a twist of my torso I had him under me.

"Time's up, my darling."

Chapter Text

There were times I wondered if I should not be more upset. I hardly recognized myself, not from either direction. The boy who helped ghosts, formed strong bonds with odd people, laughed his way through dangerous situations, and worried so much about things completely out of his control – where was he? And would he have even the slightest interest in someday becoming the man who led a supernatural military division, faced down demons internal and external with so little care for his own safety, and spent every waking and sleeping moment acutely aware that he belonged to another more completely than he belonged to himself?

Should I not be angry still that a normal human life was made impossible before my birth? Should I not be furious that the choices of others led to such great tragedies that I was left unrecognizable and wishing for death? When I thought about it, yes, I could work myself into a cold rage. But I thought about it less often. Nightmares were less common. Fewer things triggered memories of what I'd survived. More and more the only thing that reminded me of the hell I'd been through was Toshiro. And that reminder could not bring me anger.

Bizarre twists of fate were the rule rather than the exception in my life. If one such twist would give me a choice between a normal life where I knew nothing of Shinigami and war, and this life fraught with danger and challenge, I knew which I would choose. If the young substitute Shinigami was shown the torture and breaking that he would have to endure and told the reward would be the greatest love he could imagine, I knew which one he would choose. And so, I could not truly be angry with fate.

Lying on my back in a disheveled bed, my treasured love sleeping so close, how could I be angry about anything at all? He was on his stomach, one arm draped heavily across my ribs. His face turned toward me, half buried in the pillow, peaceful and so very beautiful. I lost myself in contemplation of his perfection. The small, deceptively delicate-looking lover I had lost was so precious to me that I had mourned even as I yearned to embrace the magnificence of the new, physically matured Toshiro. I grieved no longer.

It was more than just sex, making love, fucking, whatever you chose to call it. This new appearance was the trophy, the testament to what he had achieved. It was a visible symbol of his power and his will to become stronger without evil motivations that had driven others to seek dominion. I could not look at him without astonishment and admiration. The resolve and strength that Toshiro had displayed was beyond compare.

No, my acceptance of this change was certainly not about sex. But I couldn't deny appreciating the side benefits. Sex with Toshiro had been extraordinary from the very beginning and had only gotten better over time as we each learned what the other wanted. But this evening and night were superior to any before, and only exhaustion had stopped us from continuing through the dawn.

Smiling, I brought back the mental picture of teal eyes staring intently into mine as he stroked and teased himself on my command. It was somewhere in between fantasy and torture, watching him as he moaned my name. I had not been able to resist tasting him, could not let him finish alone as I had planned. It had been too overwhelming, the beauty and allure, the quick reactions of his sensitive body. And then those eyes, the rarest of jewels alive with lust and love, how could anyone keep their hands off him after seeing such a bold, decadent display?

Toshiro had ever been an eager partner, but he set a new standard as we each took our pleasure from the other again and again until we were simply unable to continue. And I had been right about his new body, the times he fucked me were unbelievable. He could dominate me physically now in a way that made me whine and scream just like he did; he could and did pin me down and make me beg to be bruised and sore. And oh, gods, that cock! I had never had reason to complain, but who knew what a difference and inch or two could make? I closed my eyes and stifled a groan, honestly astounded that I could feel aroused after hours of increasingly intense copulation. I knew that if I woke Toshiro he would let me take him, would actively participate and enjoy, but for fuck's sake we both needed some rest tonight.

After all, in the morning Toshiro would face the world and all its questions. This change was timed to avert suspicion, but that did not mean the day would be without challenges of its own. The whole of Seireitei would be crazed for news once the rumors started. I was curious as to how he would play it. This was his game, and he had earned his reputation as a master strategist. I knew he would have a plan and execute it flawlessly. But that didn't stop my concern, and I would be on high alert throughout the day, just in case he needed me.

Trying to force myself to stop thinking, a trick I usually excelled at, I watched the faint movements of his back and ribs, counting his breaths. Eventually this worked, and sweet, dreamless sleep came to claim me.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


Ichigo woke early and made breakfast, buying me a little more time before I would have to face Matsumoto, not to mention the old man and the entirety of Seireitei once the word got out. I had been anxious thinking about it before today, dreading the attention, the judgment from everyone but particularly worried about Ichigo’s reaction. Now that it was done, I found the whole resulting situation vastly amusing. I had a list in my mind of possible reactions for each person, and I intended to keep a kind of score card to see how well I could predict my colleagues.

My beloved had certainly defied prediction. Though he had hesitated, he had done so out of love. And once his resolve had been set, he surprised me with his acceptance and support. Even though I expected, insisted on these qualities, I was still shocked that I had found them. And in a brash, young, cocky, and infuriatingly unflappable human. Human no longer, my darling had sacrificed so much for his pride and mine. I looked out the back windows, blinking away melancholy before it could take hold.

"Everything all right, love?"

Damned perceptive, add that to the list of annoying traits.

"Hmm. Just let myself drift for a second. Today might be the most entertaining day since I brought your sorry carcass to Seireitei."

His orange head tilted a bit as I took a bite of yet another ugly, messy looking dish he called huevos rancheros. Like all the horribly unappetizing food he had served, it was mouth-watering, and I was working on my second serving.

"You're looking forward to it."

"You sound surprised."

"Well, yeah, a bit. You were so nervous about the whole thing."

"I was. But my fears turned out to be unfounded. Now that it's done, I feel quite comfortable. I daresay I feel more myself than ever before."

That earned me a radiant smile, and I basked in the warmth. If it weren't for him, I would probably hate this new body, hate that it was practically forced on me. How could I resent it when he had shown me how he loved every single inch of me?

"You know, you'll need to find new ways to fight dirty. Can't play the injured kid anymore."

"I realize that." I let out a dramatic sigh. "If I find myself at a disadvantage, I suppose I will just have to strip and hope my enemy is into pretty men."

He snorted. "Even if they aren't, that should be a very effective distraction. Are you sure you don't want me to stay with you today?"

"It's not necessary. But if you want to walk me to the office, I sent a hell butterfly to Matsumoto. She may be under the impression that I found her stash of sake in the office and that I'll be pouring it all out if she doesn't explain herself. She will be at the office early, I guarantee it. Should be amusing."

Ichigo chuckled. "You can be surprisingly cruel, my love. And I wouldn't miss it for the world."

"Can you send Hinamori to see me first thing? I would like to talk to her before going to the old man."

"Sure thing, love."

Rising to my feet, I gathered my dishes and rinsed them off. No need to make Chizuru's work any more difficult. I made a mental note to seek her out, as well. I didn’t want to frighten the poor woman when she walked in to find a stranger in my house. I tidied the kitchen a bit and then leaned against the counter near the sink, watching Ichigo put away enough food for three men. He certainly deserved the extra calories after last night, and for some reason I always found enjoyment in watching him eat. It was the enthusiasm, the gusto with which he attacked life.

When he had finished, he brought in his dishes and deliberately leaned into me to set them in the sink instead of stepping around me. With no hesitation or forethought, I bit the bronze neck so exposed before me, not too hard, and followed it with a long lick as he nearly fell in surprise, catching his weight on the counter. Why he should be so shocked when he initiated it with such a clear advance was beyond me. I gave him the opportunity to move away, but thankfully he grabbed my waist instead, and I chuckled as I returned my attention to the already fading bite mark.

Poor Matsumoto would just have to wait. Yes, she would have to wait, in the office just across the courtyard, where she would be growing increasingly unnerved as I failed to arrive. I grinned against my beloved's long neck.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


Well, we did get an early start. I didn't really have to be at the office for almost an hour. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised that Toshiro was up for another round when I so obviously was. I gave in to the magic of his teeth and lips working their way slowly up my neck, my hands sliding down to his ass.

Surprise turned into awed shock when he breathed in my ear, "I want you to fuck me so hard that I feel you in me all day."

"Fuck!"

"Mmmm."

He bit my ear as his hands shoved in between skin and cloth, forcing his way down until long fingers found the prize they sought. I gasped as his touch drew all the blood flow away from my brain to more interesting places.

Recovering from my astonishment, I brought my hands back up and spun us around, grunting as his hands jerked sensitive flesh. I now had him backed up against the kitchen island, the first place in this house we had ever had sex. He had been particularly demanding that time, as well, it seemed appropriate. He noticed, too, with a little snicker before I caught his lips with mine and practically shoved my tongue down his throat.

Rather than stroking, Toshiro's fingers were moving in an arrhythmic dance, pushing and massaging and driving me absolutely wild in an instant. I let him keep up the tension; if he wanted a hard, fast fuck he was doing a great job ensuring it. My hands ran up and down his sides, then set to work untying and ridding us of clothing from the waist down. Not his haori, though, I wanted to take this powerful, stunning man with that symbol of authority wrapped around his writhing body.

One hand was tangled in soft white hair, the other kneading pale, rounded flesh, pushing him close so that his hands were working his own erection as well as mine. I backed off a bit, turning the kisses tender and gentle, a contrast to the almost violent movements continuing below. I wanted to remind both of us that even our most forceful play was done in love, and his sweet tongue curling lightly with mine gave me additional permission to do as he had demanded.

The teasing hands had done their work and moved behind him to the edge of the table, preparing to lift his body up onto the surface. I grinned as I stopped him, turning him quickly to face the table and pressing his hands palms down as I leaned in close over his bent back. Nuzzling hair and cloth away from the back of his neck, I kissed the nape of his neck and then bit down as my hips started grinding roughly against him, cock nestled tightly in the space between my skin and the silky, hot crevice of his ass.

Toshiro growled but did not resist when I kicked his feet farther apart. He leaned into the table and dropped his head as I let go of his neck. One hand carefully moved his haori aside, the other found his entrance still rather relaxed from last night. He pushed back against my hand and moaned my name long and low and oh, so sensual.

With no further hesitation, I licked my hand and spread what precum I could gather. Thrusting fast with so little preparation, so little lubrication, I groaned as Toshiro cried out and tightened like a vice around my length. God, it was Heaven, being connected to him like this, being what he wanted and feeling him shake with need of me. His weight fell onto the table as he trembled and panted until he could snap a single word.

"Move!"

I drew back slowly once, hearing him hiss in pleasure or annoyance. Gripping his hips, I pulled him toward me as I set a fast, punishing pace just as he asked. This would be over soon, both of us letting go of control, neither of us caring for the other's pleasure anymore. His right hand reached down, and I wondered for a brief moment if that wonderful, beautiful cock had been bruised against the underside of the table. The thought made me pull his hips back a little more as I slammed into him. His left hand was grasping the other side of the table, knuckles white.

Sound drove me on, the steamy moans and grunts from beneath me, the obscene slapping of skin. And oh, fuck, the incomparable feeling of burying myself so deep in him that my own balls were going to bruise. Looking down at that miraculous body under me, draped in the cloak only the most powerful and cunning were allowed to don, my pride and the darkest parts of my soul howled in ecstasy.

If possible, I was even rougher as I slowed a bit to deliberate, harsh thrusts, leaning close, pausing each time I was fully sheathed, pushing to make sure that he felt me.

"Ichigo! Dammit . . . don't you fucking dare!"

I laughed, and heard the slight rasp to my voice, the tearing at the edges hinting at a Hollow's cry. That brought my senses back a little. He didn't want me to torment him, and I couldn't continue much longer without losing control. So, I let my reiatsu loose, let it stream all over his body, caressing and pushing. His scream at the next thrust was music to my ears, a lovely counterpoint to the rhythm of my own panting. He pushed back hard against me and I let go, let myself leave bruises on his hips as I held him tight and chased my own release with no further thought or care, his beautiful voice calling to me louder and louder with each impact.

My own cry was nearly a scream when his muscles locked even tighter around me, making the final moments of my orgasm pure, delicious agony. Leaning down as I slowed, I nuzzled the back of his neck again, kissing between ragged breaths as my hands caressed the hipbones they had been clutching so tight.

Toshiro's equally strained panting paused as he sighed, "Perfect . . . "

I smiled against his neck, gave the bruised bite mark I had left under his hair one last kiss and stepped back, pulling out gently. He got an elbow under his chest and propped himself up a little as I admired the view. With a quiet groan he straightened, reached for a clean dishtowel nearby and still I just leaned back and watched as he cleaned himself, then dropped the soiled rag, pushing it with his foot to wipe up the patches of cum on the floor. He smirked over his shoulder and bent down in front of me to grab the cloth fallen around his ankles, then stood and fixed his uniform. Good idea, I made myself decent.

Then he had me wrapped in his arms.

"Good boy," he whispered in my ear and I chuckled, too delighted to respond.

He pulled me close for just a minute and let go, turning to head for the door with slightly slower and more careful than usual steps. Just like that my love was all business once more, though the wicked glint in his eyes gave away the feeling behind the mask. Checking to make sure I was presentable, I rushed after him, pulling on boots and grabbing my swords on the way out the door.

The 10th Division office was just across the courtyard. Toshiro walked in as if nothing was the least bit out of the ordinary. I stopped in the doorway and took in Rangiku's reaction. Then it hit me. Clever tensai, he hadn't put up any barriers. He knew for a fact that Rangiku could feel our reiatsu, hear the louder moments of our recent activity in Toshiro's kitchen, and there had been plenty of louder moments. And though we had straightened ourselves up, we were both still flushed. She was already far off balance between his curt summons and overhearing our dalliance, and far more flushed than either of us.

Then he was striding in without so much as an acknowledging glance in her direction, no sheepish explanation as to why he suddenly looked 10 years older. He had masterfully taken full control of the situation, and I shook my head in amazement as he settled at the desk and scanned the pile of documents, grabbing a few marked urgent from the top.

Sneaky fucking bastard.

He had used me. Deliberately. Like I was some fuck-toy at his beck and call. Damn, that was hot.

Her face was an even darker red, mouth open as she took him in, falling back in her office chair with a thud.

"Tai . . . taicho?" Poor Rangiku, the first of many my love would play like a fiddle today.

"Matsumoto," he said quietly, not looking up from the sheet in front of him, "I feel I've been very tolerant of some of your more . . . colorful habits. Drinking sake in the office is not one of them."

"B-but, taicho, wh-what . . . "

His voice was colder than the winter air I was allowing to swirl in as I stood transfixed, watching my dragon casually and deftly manipulate his second.

"Your stash has been removed, Matsumoto. If I ever again find one drop of liquor anywhere near this office, you had best be prepared to turn in your lieutenant's badge. Clear?"

She gaped like a fish out of water. Damn, he wasn't just stopping her harassment before it started, he might actually end a 20-year battle to get her to follow the one simple order she always defied.

Turquoise eyes flashed up in irritation. "Are. We. Clear. Lieutenant."

Even I cringed, and Rangiku was cowed into complete submission, eyes lowering to her desk.

"Yes, taicho."

I bit my lower lip to keep from laughing outright. She wasn't even going to ask now, though there he sat, completely changed. Not a peep out of her . . . unbelievable. He glanced sideways at me and the corner of his lip twitched. I shook my head again and stepped back, closing the door and setting a fast pace for the 5th before I could ruin his game with my hysterical laughter.

Hinamori was already at the office, she was always early with no threats needed to keep her diligent. She looked at me with a mix of confusion and anxiety as I walked in cackling like a madman. Being my second couldn't be easy, but she was getting used to odd behavior. She might even appreciate the honesty of open emotion after falling for the bastard's act, so calm and even tempered. He would never rage one minute and laugh the next. He would never have shown her one sincere moment of hurt, pride, irritation, or appreciation. Thoughts of that sick fuck brought my laughter swiftly under control.

"Good morning, taicho. There is tea on the table for you, and today's schedule is on your desk."

"Morning, and good work, Hinamori." She flushed a little, still not accustomed to my informal praise.

"Actually, Toshiro asked me to send you over to his office first thing." She startled, a worried look on her face. "Don't worry, no bad news or anything."

So jumpy, or was it just that she showed every little emotion where her adopted brother showed so little?

"Oh, okay, um . . . then, Mayeda, Hamada, and Otake are coming at 9. If I'm not back my then."

"To discuss the changes in paperwork, got it. Go on, then, and take all the time you need, the entire day if you like. Trust me, you're in for a surprise but it's all good."

I hoped so, anyway. That girl had once had steel in her. But I still wasn't sure Aizen hadn't destroyed it. I knew Toshiro would handle her much more softly than Rangiku, who would get her explanation second hand as Toshiro explained things to his sister. It was a gesture of love, making sure she was the first besides me to know. Sighing as I helped myself to tea, I wished again that I could be with him today. I had the easier job, and the sooner I got through my 'to do' list, the sooner I could return to support him. I summoned pretty butterflies to see if Renji and Rukia could spare any time. One thing I could do was make sure there was some truth in the rumor mill.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


"Only noon and I'm already exhausted."

"You could have taken it a little easier on yourself." He looked around pointedly.

Yes, I suppose I could have stayed quiet in the office, sneaked in to see the old man, and kept today simple. But best get it all out in the open, especially considering the point of this whole affair. So, I showed myself in public and hid from no one. If there was a single soul in Seireitei who hadn't heard the news by now, it wasn't my fault. After years as the little prodigy, years as the kid captain, I was inured to the feeling of eyes following me everywhere I went. Still, I noted them, and today there had been at least one senior officer from every single division who found some reason to stop by the 10th.

My scorecard was heavily in my favor, almost everyone reacting exactly as I had predicted. Except the old man, he had startled me just a little. He seemed completely indifferent, and only asked if there was anything else to report. My reply was an instant 'No' with no forethought, my surprise suppressed. What had he intended with such an uncharacteristic question? He had seemed as if he already knew the answer I would give if I were to honestly address his question. I suspected it was a bluff, but he played it so well that I could not be certain. I had hoped to erase all doubts today. Leave it to Yamamoto to stay one step ahead, I still could not say whether he did or did not know the full truth about me.

My attention snapped back when Hayashi approached. Ichigo was watching me quietly, his insightful gaze calm and thoughtful. Hayashi gave me a rueful smile as his large frame blocked some of the prying eyes, missing the irony of trying to protect two captains from a room full of mostly unseated Shinigami and civilians. He took our order and I gave him a nod, which was enough reassurance for him to step away. Ichigo eyed me, amused now.

"Did your appetite triple with your size?"

"Funny. I'm expecting guests."

His eyes swept the room, narrowing.

"Not them, just wait and see."

The Banyan Tree was busy, with many unfamiliar faces scattered in with the usual crowd from the 10th. The newcomers were all here to see the wonder of the day, and I let them all get a good, long look. My own subordinates couldn't help but shoot curious glances, but at least they didn't stare.

"Fucking annoying."

"Can you blame them?"

"Yeah, I can. You're worth staring at, but even I'm not as rude as some of these bastards."

Ichigo spoke loudly, and I snorted as at least a few of the gawkers flushed and started minding their manners. Word raced around mouth to mouth to the other side of the restaurant, and more eyes were averted. Even if they weren't shamed into being polite, no one in their right mind wanted to piss off my beloved.

"What?"

"Nothing. Just admiring you."

Ichigo looked so incredibly cute when he blushed, indulging in that silly habit of rubbing his neck when he was nervous or embarrassed. How wrong I had been about so many things. I had always sworn I would never allow a lover to become possessive, and I had once hated the very thought of public affection and teasing. Watching him growl at the crowd like my personal guard dog, seeing him flush when praised for his protectiveness, it all brought home the fact that I had known nothing of love.

"So, Rangiku still in shock? Did you have to take her to the 4th?"

I snorted. "It was peace and quiet, absolutely wonderful, for all of 25 minutes. Then Momo came in and ruined everything."

"What, they ganged up on you?"

"The squealing, Ichigo, it was torture. But at least my hearing was too damaged by the time they started yelling at me, like they have any right to be angry or even have an opinion. Now I do believe they are spending all of my money on new clothes."

"You bought them clothes to shut them up?"

"No." I looked at him with a shudder. "They took my measurements, Ichigo. I was violated for the sake of fashion."

He laughed at my pain. Running off to report to Yamamoto had been the only escape, the only place I was sure they wouldn't follow. But now they were safely off somewhere restoring my wardrobe and leaving me destitute. On the plus side, Matsumoto had excellent taste and Momo would keep her from buying anything indecent, I hoped. And I should be free until dinner.

"Ah, right on time."

He followed my gaze to the front door and grunted when a flowery pink kimono came into view, followed by a white haori and long, white hair. I stood to catch their eyes and show a little respect, allowing them to see the truth. Of course, my irreverent love stayed seated and gave a casual wave.

"Too fucking sexy."

I heard the whisper and shot him an arrogant smirk. Correctly predicting these two was difficult under the best of circumstances, so perhaps I could be forgiven the rush of pride and self-satisfaction. The ripple of reaction through the crowd was equally amusing. I just could not seem to get irritated today, no matter how rude the world became. Four captains gathering in one public place, truly a rare event worthy of a few exclamations. Hayashi was about to have a stroke. He would be bragging about this day for decades.

"My, my. For once the rumors are true. Hitsugaya-taicho, you never cease to impress."

"Toshiro! What on earth happened?"

Resisting a wince at Ukitake's bluntness, I ignored the snicker from my beloved.

"Kyoraku, Ukitake, would you care to join us?"

As they took a minute to remove the small arsenal they carried, hanging swords and one large straw hat on hooks conveniently placed near every table, I settled into the booth next to Ichigo. I didn't even smack away the large, warm hand that instantly settled rather high on my thigh. Surely, I had endured enough today to earn a little treat. Ichigo's grin widened.

"So, what's the word in the rumor mill?" Irreverent, and I loved it. I watched the pair carefully.

"Oh, all sorts of silliness." Ukitake answered, while Kyoraku looked around, no doubt hoping to catch a waitress to get drinks.

"If it weren't for Kuchiki, I might believe Toshiro had been replaced with an imposter, or that he was dead and his long-lost, older brother took over the 10th."

"Time travel, that was my personal favorite," Kyoraku threw in with a chuckle, his face brightening as Hayashi came toward the table with a loaded tray.

It truly was unhealthy, the level of smugness I was feeling as Hayashi watched my cues. He sat lightly chilled sake in front of Kyoraku, and sakura tea in front of Ukitake as I enjoyed the startled expressions of thanks my two 'unpredictable' colleagues gave the restaurateur. Just wait until an assortment of their favorite dishes arrived. Ichigo's snort of amusement could have been for the ridiculous rumors, but the brush of his thumb on my leg told me I had earned the greater portion of his appreciation.

I did not need to ask what Ukitake meant by mentioning Kuchiki. Ichigo must have taken the time to talk to his friends, to set the record at least a little straight as time went on. It was a smart move, and I could not help but compare our teamwork to the duo across the booth. Ukitake's disarming friendliness to Ichigo's unbalancing blunt charm, Kyoraku's devious darkness to my ruthless logic. They had more time and practice playing off one another's strengths and weaknesses, but Ichigo and I were increasingly in sync.

"As usual, the truth is far less entertaining."

"I don't know about that," Kyoraku eyed me critically. "Ichigo surprised us all with the rather unusual changes as his Bankai progressed. Such a physically evident evolution is extremely uncommon. And that is nothing compared to this, in my well-informed opinion."

"Now, Shunsui, it isn't like Toshiro chose how this would all work. You make it sound like he did this deliberately to surprise you."

Ichigo's hand tensed. Ukitake was nearly correct, and my ego was taken down a notch. Ukitake was not fooling me with that playful, even flippant tone.

"Isn't that right, Shiro-chan?"

Before I could reply, Kyoraku's head lowered a bit. His tone was low and serious as he looked straight into my eyes. "I do believe you must stop treating Hitsugaya-taicho like a child, my friend."

Part of my mind focused on keeping my breath and heartbeat steady despite the rush of adrenaline. His words had nothing at all to do with my size, and everything to do with my power. Hyorinmaru rose from my subconscious to stand ready. My eyes did not drop from the dangerous gaze of the predator before me, and I allowed my lips to curve into a rare smile. It was a thrill to earn his wariness, more so to have him voice it openly. Kyoraku was one of the few that could intimidate me, but not today. Today was mine.

In my peripheral, Ichigo and Ukitake exchanged alarmed glances. Ukitake's easy laughter broke the tension of the moment, and with a sudden change to his more usual demeanor, Kyoraku was the first to drop his eyes. It was a minor concession, considering the increasing evidence that I had lost the battle entirely. Kyoraku was not fooled; he did not write off all that he suspected due to this one change, no matter how impressive. The old man, too, was still cautious, still watching for any sign of the war he expected.

"I suppose you are right, Shunsui, it's something I'll have to work on."

"Speaking of things to work on, any chance of getting either of you to kick my ass again and call it a training session?"

Tension died quickly as Ichigo talked shop with them, all the while lightly stroking his thumb on my thigh. I was amused that he thought I needed calming down. Hell, maybe I did, the thought of having made this irreversible leap and failing to accomplish the purpose of it was finally breaking the perfect mood I had been in. I shook off that thought. There was more than one thing gained, not the least of which was the significant power increase. If they did come after me, I would be thankful for my decision.

Food arrived, and I watched their reactions, a sop for my bruised ego. Kyoraku shot me another critical look, knowing that I had placed the order before their arrival. I wondered if he would continue to be so honest with his emotions after this day. Perhaps, finally, I had earned his respect along with his suspicion. No more tense moments or veiled threats interrupted our meal, and they were gracious enough not to argue when I insisted on paying. Ichigo and I walked toward the 10th together.

"Well, that was fun."

I rolled my eyes. "I wish I could argue with you. Normally I would not list provoking Kyoraku as fun. But today sets its own rules."

"What's next, then? Want to go cut the old man's beard off while he's napping at his desk?"

"Or we could have a nice candle-lit dinner with Soi-fon, try to reconcile our differences."

"I hear there's a price on each bell you can get out of Kenpachi's hair."

"If it's money you are after, Kurotsuchi pays handsomely for any test subject seat six and higher."

We were both chuckling as we said our goodbyes. I made note of the nearly undetectable reiatsu signatures that split up, one following each of us. Again, I was more amused than irritated at this, and shelved the issue for later. It wasn't like anyone under Soi-fon's command was capable of doing Ichigo any damage, and likely he had noticed our new friends already. I walked on, a tiny portion of my awareness walking alongside my personal spy, laughing at how clumsy he seemed. Well, he would not have much to report. A quiet afternoon of paperwork and meditation would be a calming reward for the busy morning.

 

Chapter Text

"What do you think?"

"I think it's cruel, dishonest, risky . . . I could go on."

"Yes, but do you think it might work?"

I truly did not want to answer that question, and I did not look down where his head rested on my leg, pretending to re-read a portion of the letter instead.

"You would know much better than I, my love. I'm already prejudiced against anything that fucking fox has to say."

One day. We had one day, not even a full day really, of relative peace and quiet. Seireitei was still buzzing like a kicked hornet's nest with the news about Toshiro, but at least around the two of us the fuss had died down. The 10th adjusted, puffed up a bit in smug pride which was becoming quite common for them. The 5th minded their manners for the most part, what with both of their commanding officers having very close ties to the little kid prodigy who was little no more. And so, our day had gone fairly smoothly.

When I made it home, I knew something was off before I opened the door. Toshiro didn't even bother trying to prepare me, just handed me the letter from the damned fox. Then he crashed on the couch, and as usual I wriggled myself in to sit with his head on my lap, amused and distracted by the way his legs now had to dangle over the end of the couch. Long, long legs. Strong, muscular, oh so flexible long legs.

The second I saw who the letter was from, those agile, cool, pale, long legs were at least partly forgotten. Ichimaru had a plan to push Rangiku, one that might earn her Bankai within days. I read with increasing irritation. The fox was devious, but he knew Rangiku and it probably would work. And it would be an absolute disaster. I wondered if his plan was for Rangiku's benefit at all, or if driving a solid wedge between her and her captain was the true goal.

Everything was in flux right now, had been ever since Toshiro carried my bloodied body back from Hueco Mundo, really. Ichimaru wanted to take advantage of that chaos to force Rangiku into a no-win situation, make her believe Toshiro was a traitor and put her in the position of taking down her own captain. It could work. Just like it could have worked when Aizen and Ichimaru did the same thing to Hinamori. Had that been the fox's plan, as well? If he had any balls or any decency, he'd play the traitor himself. It was far more believable than Toshiro turning, anyway.

I wasn't surprised, exactly, that Toshiro would consider it. He would take in all ideas, suggestions, and strategies, no matter what the source, and judge them on their merits. It bothered him that Rangiku had been so close for so long, just one step away from the massive gain in power and influence that comes with achieving Bankai. As her captain and her friend, he felt responsible for helping her, and responsible for her failure. So, no, I was not shocked that he was taking this seriously.

But it wasn't kind, the plan Ichimaru had proposed. It had the potential to completely ruin the relationship between Toshiro and Rangiku. If it went well, Rangiku might forgive him. Maybe. If it went poorly . . .

"The timing is critical. If we do not move very soon, the odds of success will start to plummet."

"It sounds like you've decided."

He looked up at me, and I stopped petting his hair for a moment. Even though it was a serious subject, and one that could have long-lasting consequences, still I was completely distracted once again. I was not used to the change in him yet, not that I hadn't found myself captivated in an instant by the sight of him before, but I was hyper-aware of him now. Willfully, I pulled my attention away from the new shape of his eyes, and the way the bright color seemed to fill every bit of space between the dark lashes.

"You feel it, too, beloved. I failed, and the net is closing around me. Whatever else comes, I owe it my division and to Matsumoto to make them strong enough to survive my fall."

I had only seen half of his point of view. It wasn't just about his friendship with Rangiku and his sense of obligation to her. He was preparing for the worst, for his arrest, execution order, for us to fight or flee. And there was no chance that it would look good. The 10th would face the shame of a traitor captain, and the 5th would relive the same.

"Even if they end up on the other side of this? You are committing yourself to making your own enemies stronger."

"Not my enemies. My family."

"I doubt they will see it that way. What makes you think you owe the Gotei more than you've already given?"

I felt him stiffen, and his eyes narrowed. I was treading on thin ice. While he did not move from his place looking up at me, his tone grew cold.

"What did you just say to me? I've taken an oath, Ichigo, as you have. I may have no choice but to break it, but until that day comes I will do my duty." He paused and blinked, lips twitching into a small smile. "And you are playing Devil's Advocate, aren't you?"

"You know me too well." My hand caressed his cheek and he pushed lightly against my palm.

"I understand. I've only had the 5th a couple of months. The thought of them thinking another captain betrayed them makes me ill. But if it all goes down the way you fear it will, I want them to be strong enough to try their damnedest to kill me. I won't have time, I think, to meet that goal. But if I can help the 10th, maybe that will pay part of the debt I owe my own division. So, if you want to do this, I will be right beside you."

"Not without your approval of the plan itself. You stand to lose from this, as well. And I trust you to keep me in check. I know this could hurt her, but you called it cruel. Elaborate."

I stroked his hair again as I thought. Toshiro knew himself; he knew that he didn't always 'get' how emotionally fragile others could be even though his own feeling ran deeper than most. This wasn't easy, I needed to make him understand something that didn't come naturally to him. At the same time, I didn't want to hurt him by pointing out his faults, or pointing out the similarities to what was done to Hinamori. It didn't help that concentrating was a little difficult with his head in my lap.

"Deliberate deception is one thing, and I don't mean I would condone that, either. But this is Rangiku we're talking about. She trusts you with her life. You are probably the only one she trusts like that now. She believes you trust her, and she values that more than anything. Even if everything went smoothly and she was grateful in the end, do you really want to make her question that, even for a minute?"

"She trusted Ichimaru."

Good, he was starting to figure it out.

"And now she still loves him, tries to look past it, but every time she sees him that crack in her faith will be there. Forever."

An elegant, long-fingered hand covered his eyes for a moment, the soft skin hugging fine bone and tendon. I loved seeing his hands from the back, the perfectly groomed, blunt nails, the flawless smoothness, calluses hidden. Skilled fingertips drew together, pinching his nose and rubbing away the confusion. I watched him come to terms as his heart won out over his mind, and I smiled just a little.

"I am too easily tempted. It could work, and that easy, quick solution to a long-standing problem would cost too much. That same distrust, I see it every time I look at Momo. You are right."

Oh, my poor love.

I hadn't even thought of that; somehow, I had considered Hinamori's perspective but not his. He was always so strong that I overlooked the wounds he carried. Toshiro had always had trouble trusting his own sister, but once had been closer to having faith in her than in anyone. And he had relied on her total trust in him. And then that bastard Aizen had not only damaged that trust, he had utterly shattered it. Rangiku and the fox had their issues and maybe they would find a way through them, but Toshiro and Hinamori were finished. They still loved each other, and perhaps she would someday overcome what had happened between them. But my dragon was not like me, not like anyone. There was no going back for him. He would always care deeply for her, but trust her?

"You know, love, there may be a way to salvage this."

His hand moved away from his face, elbow still bent, forearm falling against my side, fingers curling around to brush high on my ribs through the cloth.

"What do you mean?"

"A few changes, and I think this could work without creating a strain between you and Rangiku. I need to think it over a bit more and then I'll tell you."

"I do not appreciate being a step behind."

"Well, it doesn't happen often," I grinned down at him, "so just let me enjoy the moment."

A deep frown twisted his handsome mouth and gave me a moment's pause. He usually appreciated me being clever, when I was lucky enough to impress him. I had expected at least a smile, or another brush of his fingers. Instead I received a cold glare, not a hint of amusement or affection in frigid eyes.

"You are becoming arrogant, Kurosaki."

Hearing my last name used in that flat tone, I suddenly felt like a scolded child. Had I finally teased too much, about too sensitive a subject? I was trying to think of something to say. Not an apology, but an explanation? Just tell him what I was thinking of instead of taunting him? I felt his hair move through my fingers as he raised his head, and had to force my hand not to clutch at him, to make him stay.

Panicked thoughts slammed to a halt as I felt him nuzzling into my crotch. I thought I had done fairly well maintaining my composure with his head in my lap, but the warmth of his breath through the cloth, the ridges of his lips and nose brushing back and forth instantly had me hardening, the apologetic words poised on my tongue turning into a breathless moan of relief and arousal.

"You say you want to enjoy the moment, Kurosaki? Enjoy being the one with the upper hand, do you?"

Gracefully, he had pushed himself up to sit beside me, leaning and twisting to bring his face close to mine. His right palm pressed where his lips had recently teased, and he smirked as my legs parted to allow his long fingers to slide down. I tried to pull him, one arm wrapping around his back as I moved toward those soft, teasing lips, but his left hand pushed at my chest.

"Outwit me one time, and you believe you have the right to gloat?"

I tried again to pull him closer, but he would not let me kiss him. So, my free right hand returned the favor, grasping at far too much cloth separating his flesh from mine. His act was good, but the firmness under my hand gave away just how turned on he was. I leaned my face as close to his as possible, eyeing the lip he had bitten down on to hold back a reaction, letting my own sigh heat his skin as his hand rubbed.

"You know you love it when I'm clever, tensai. You aren't fooling anyone."

"Such conceit. Whatever shall I do with you, Kurosaki?"

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


Reversing the tension in my hand, I stopped pushing him away and pulled us together. He was right, of course. It was shallow of me; just as some were fools for a pretty face without caring about other qualities, I was exhilarated by intelligence. Be it the thrill of a challenge from a devious opponent, the satisfaction of witnessing a well-turned strategy of an astute commander, or best of all, the sheer lust brought on by my Ichigo flaunting his wit. It was my own personal aphrodisiac, and I had been cultivating it, encouraging it, pushing him into just this scenario where he waited in expectation of reward for keeping up with the genius.

And reward you, I shall, my beloved.

Pausing for a moment, giving myself a small treat first by letting him close his lips around my tongue, sucking and grazing the muscle with his teeth . . . I did so love that, and he knew it. My left hand dropped and in seconds I had his sash undone. My right hand continued massaging, light and firm flexing, as I moved myself away from his own teasing fingers. He tightened his hold around my back and reached for my hips, but a sudden squeeze of my hand distracted him, his gasp releasing my tongue so that I could pull back.

Pushing myself in between his legs, I settled on my knees before my clever, bold, loyal lover and proceeded to give him his reward, customized just to his tastes. My hands pushed open his kosode and began to explore the satin lined steel while I deliberately groaned his name, my cheek rubbing against the length now straining against restricting clothing. My wandering hands were treated to the rippling of muscle as he stretched his head and back against the couch, his fingers working through my hair as he pushed his lower half closer to me.

The drawn out moan that caressed my ears was the most beautiful sound in the world to me. I started lightly nibbling, pushing my tongue against him, soaking the cloth and tasting just how far I had brought him as his own moisture seeped through. The fingers that had been winding through and gripping at my hair pulled away, going to his waist. It was what I had been waiting for, and I slid my hands away from where they had been teasing his chest, nails grazing his skin.

He was not even looking, his head fallen back, but he knew enough to lift his hips for me to pull clothing away, careful of his sensitized skin. I could not get that all of that cloth out of my way quickly enough, but I moved with considered slowness, my hands spreading wide along the soft, flawless skin of his thighs. I adored his skin, and found myself distracted, eyes following my hands, leaning in, my pleased sighs becoming soft moans until his hands settled on mine, stopping me at his hips.

"Toshiro, you fucking tease."

I looked up and we both gasped. The heat in his gaze, the bold lust and right beneath it, the awe as he met my eyes. What my own face held, I can only imagine. I grinned up at him.

"Me, a tease? I'm hurt, beloved." I licked my lips, and his hands tightened on mine, likely in an effort to keep from grabbing my hair and forcing me to follow thorough. That luscious moan only made the moment more delicious as my lips finally made contact with hot, wet skin.

The scorching heat of him, the scent, the taste, I had to press closer, nuzzling low into red hair at the base, brushing my cheek along his shaft once again as I moved to lightly trail the tip of my tongue along his testicles and up his length. His hands finally released mine; I'm sure my nails digging into his hips had nothing to do with it. Instantly I reached back up, seeking the flexing muscles, the supple skin of his chest and abdomen.

As my flattened tongue pressed firmly across the beautiful, leaking head I looked up and caught his eye. I could pull myself back, but my own lust had only amplified exponentially by the minute. Keeping eye contact, I kept my kisses and licks light as I dragged my right hand down his magnificent body, along the strong thigh, and down the inside of his knee and calf to the bunched up cloth at his feet. His eyes widened as I untied and shoved away the cloth at my waist, and then he leaned forward to watch. I knew this would be one of his fantasies, and a fine fantasy it was. My lips closed around his length as my hand closed around my own.

I groaned as I took him further into my mouth, feeling him restrain the need to thrust. Without conscious direction, my hand mirrored the movement of my lips, my fingers mimicked my tongue teasing and curling. The tension was building too quickly, but I did not want to stop. My left hand came down to squeeze and stroke him, my mouth releasing him with one final flick of my tongue. Panting against his hip, I picked up the pace, my own need driving me. The effort to keep some control, it was definitely a loosing battle.

When his hands gripped my upper arms, making my movements falter, I raised my head. The sight was amazing, his body exposed as he slouched low on the couch, proud erection so close to completion. He pulled on my arms but I didn't budge, intending to stay and finish what I had started.

"Come here." Such a low and husky tone would have made me shiver, had I not already been trembling with interrupted passion.

A moment's debate was all it took before I yielded, and in one rush of movement our lips were connected and I was pushing him to the side. I wasted no time, stretching on top of him and taking a new hold of both of our lengths. Our kiss broke quickly, both of us too desperate for air to keep contact, so instead I sucked and bit at his neck between pants and moans.

We writhed and thrust against one another, an unrestrained, uneven rhythm that we did not need to hold for long. The sound of him calling my name, the slightly painful grip of his hand in my hair, and then the hard bucking of his hips, the hot pulse of his cock, the hotter wetness trapped between us, all of it so intolerably beautiful. He pulled my head back and my cry of his name was lost in the warmth of his mouth.

Our shuddering breaths passed each other's lips as we moved together, and I watched the pleasure in his eyes, the euphoria in his face as I rode the waves of bliss with him. I pulled my hand out from between us, languidly and so disrespectfully wiping off some most of the mess on my uniform. Gratefully, I rested my head beside his as he stroked my back. I smiled at the familiar comfort, and let my weight relax on top of him.

"That was not how your reward was supposed to end," I whispered when I had caught my breath.

"My reward? First, I'm really not some kind of lap dog. Don't think I'm not on to you. Second, watching you lose every shred of control is just about the best reward I could ask for."

"So arrogant, beloved. Now I'm rather glad I failed to give you everything I'd planned."

"Well, if you're feeling guilty about that, you could make it up to me."

I chuckled and spoke with my lips against that sensitive spot just below and behind his ear. "Have something in mind, do you?"

"I always love it when we get more dirty than clean in the shower. The way you look with the water running all over you as I hold you up against the wall, it's so beautiful, Toshiro, you have no idea."

"Hmm, so you want to do that again. Any time, beloved."

"Not exactly getting it, are you? Once again you are a step behind, tensai."

I growled at him. "You want me to fuck you up against the shower wall, I'll be happy to oblige. But I think I will have you a time or two first. Not being able to walk straight should be a good reminder not to be so insolent, Kurosaki."

He laughed as I stood and pulled of the cloth still tangled around his ankles, kicking out of the similar trap around my feet. Then I grabbed him and pulled up, one arm behind his back and the other under his knees as I hoisted him into my arms. He was only a bit shorter than me, and heavier, not at all the pretty, graceful picture it must have been when he carried my small body around. But that didn't matter in the least, and I let him pull my head down for laughing kisses as I carried him toward the bedroom.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


Most of the work was already done, or underway. Ichimaru had not waited for our consent, had started working the very first time he spoke to Matsumoto again. He lied to her easily, as easily as he had before turning his back on her. When would it be enough? When would she see the truth and stop letting him hurt her? No, she had always known him for what he was, and accepted his nature. I could hardly complain when I would be party to this monstrous lie.

Ichigo was saving me from the near disastrous error. I had known Matsumoto came close to blaming Ichigo for abusing me, having heard me scream and rushing to find him crouched over my injured and unconscious form. I had explained the situation and considered it a closed issue. Never had I asked myself to look closer, to realize that ever since that night there had been a tension, a distance between my two redheads that had seemed on the path to becoming the closest of friends. So, my beloved altered the snake's plan to make himself the central villain of the story. Matsumoto already had lost her faith in Ichigo, and he would become the target of her wrath instead of me.

It was a sacrifice still, and a risk. I would still be lying to her, just not pushing her faith in me as far as Ichimaru had planned. But Matsumoto was to be a captain. Absolute trust in me was not required. Ichigo and I trusted one another. Kyoraku and Ukitake likely trusted completely. Choose any two other captains and you would find only enough trust given to accomplish common goals, nothing further. Under normal circumstances, this was not an issue. Captains rarely needed to work together, and could easily go months without exchanging more than a few notes. Perhaps in an ideal world, we would all get along just great, and perhaps never again be fooled by traitors in our midst because of that. But the world was far from ideal.

A clever American once said that three could keep a secret, if two were dead. Time was of the essence, not only for secrecy, but to maximize on the instability around Matsumoto. The secret had to be endangered further by bringing Kyoraku into the loop, and letting him brief the old man so that war would not automatically be declared on Ichigo if things went badly. I did not know and did not ask if the onmitsukido were investigation me and Ichigo under Soi-fon's directive alone, or whether it was an official action. But it was certain to lead to trouble if they reported what they witnessed between Matsumoto and Ichigo.

Subtle and drastic signs were quickly put into place. The snake continued to hiss poison into her ear. He told her stories, with just enough truth in them to make the massive lies go down smoothly, just enough details that matched reports and her own fears. Tales of the Cero Espada, his ruthless and bloodthirsty dominion over the army of Hollows, his sinister loyalty to Aizen, the brutality of his kills. He told her what he saw during my time as Cero's pet, the injuries, the way I cringed in fear when Ichigo so much as looked at me, the way he had thrown me into the arena with the command to die if I could not make him proud of his pet.

The death of the traitor was staged, of course, the better to plant Ichigo here in a position of growing power. Ichimaru was to have been killed along with Tosen. Any day now, Cero would come after him now that he was not safely in prison. Aizen's plan would advance, with his ultimate weapon poised right at the Gotei's throat. And how much more convenient it was that Cero had kept his hold on the prodigy captain. The tensai would never figure out what was coming, he was too busy being bullied and dominated into believing he was in love. No doubt Cero would kill his lover first, now that the little captain's usefulness as a screen was ended, that or keep him as the broken slave he was always intending on creating.

My own part was simple, a haggard appearance, my usual temper. Neglecting my duties and snapping at her when she showed concern was a little harder. Making sure she noticed the onmitsukido that had been tailing Ichigo since my change was just a matter of a few well-placed words. If the stealth force was after Ichigo, that was reason enough for her suspicion to double. She did not notice that I, too, had a shadow.

Faking being caught in near tears as she arrived at the office one morning was very difficult, and I hated causing her such concern. And when loyal, trusting Matsumoto tried to bring up the fears that had been sowed in her mind, I shut her down angrily before she told me enough that I could not ignore her without calling her a liar. It hurt her, but it also reinforced the belief that I was in danger of having no will left but Ichigo's.

Matsumoto had always had a cordial relationship with Kyoraku. That relationship often involved drinking and shirking duties, yet she had a great deal of respect for the man. He was also Ichimaru's captain and judge, so it made sense she went to him when I refused to listen. When he figuratively patted her on the head and told her to stop worrying about such silly things, it had to frustrate her and made her that much more paranoid.

Three days of this act had her on edge. Ichigo dominated all my free time, roughly dismissing any attempt Matsumoto made to interrupt, to include herself in our plans, anything to keep a closer eye on him and his relationship with me. She nearly panicked when we took off together on the fourth day for Hueco Mundo. The fruitless attempt to contact Kano Ashido was the true purpose. I wanted to resolve that open issue while I still could. And he would be a strong lieutenant for me, or for Matsumoto if I was no longer there.

What conclusions she drew, especially when I returned weak and bruised, I could only imagine. But finding a concentrated patch of Hollows in Hueco Mundo, fighting once more with Ichigo at my back until exhausted and battered was the highlight of this whole dirty affair. I had never forgotten what it had felt like when our reiatsu merged in battle once, what seemed like so long ago, when he was a human brat I was forced to babysit. I had changed my opinion of him in those exquisite moments, and it was even greater perfection now. Truly, we needed to find more opportunities to fight back to back instead of face to face.

When Ichimaru's fear for his life played out, she almost broke and I half expected her to storm across Seireitei and go after Ichigo right in the middle of his own division. The snake was 'found' with nearly fatal wounds by Kyoraku, who reported a fleeing figure with no reiatsu. Well, who else could that possibly be? And Ichimaru confirmed her suspicions in frightened, whispered confessions in the infirmary, claiming no one would take his word. One last, desperate effort to be heard was met with another closed door, as the old man played his easy part by having his staff refuse to admit her.

Furious, frightened, and met with disbelief at every turn, Matsumoto did the only thing an officer like Matsumoto could possibly do. She was no coward, never one to run from what she saw as the right action no matter the consequences. And she would not drag anyone like Hinamori or Hisagi into this and risk them being wounded or killed. Her superiors had failed, so it was up to her to stop what she knew was coming.

My brave, honorable, rash Matsumoto. Knowing she could not hope to defeat Ichigo, she followed us. Knowing that I would likely side with my lover over her, and how much that would hurt, she followed into what she had to know was a trap. We set a fast enough pace to have time before her arrival, a slow enough pace not to lose her. When she arrived in the high valley I loved to train in, she found only her enemy, my own presence at some distance quite expertly hidden with kido she would never detect, the patch of my blood near Ichigo's feet black against the snow in the night. And I watched in trepidation as the final act unfolded.

Chapter Text

Eternal winter. That was the only way to describe it. I was always cold, ever since I died. Every time I thought I'd gotten used to it, I would be forcefully reminded that no, 5 degrees above freezing was not in fact a comfortable temperature for any activity, including breathing. Here I was, shivering and waiting at the dark edge of a clearing filled with snow, the sluggish bubbling of the frozen brook nearby reminding me that my blood was probably turning to sludge by now, too. I bounced a bit on my feet, rubbing my hands as I blew on them with breath only a few degrees warmer than the frigid air.

It was Toshiro's fault, clearly. The way he dashed off into the winter night without a care made me feel like a wuss if I didn't do the same. He was probably laughing at me right now from his hiding place, amused to see me slowly turning into an icicle. Any other lover would have been content to hibernate with me under warm blankets until April, but no, I had to pick the ice prince. Could have fallen for Byakuya. He was good-looking and all about spring and flower petals. I bet he wasn't standing in a frozen wasteland under the frozen stars with frozen feet. My shivering doubled.

If I hadn't been afraid my tears would freeze the skin right off my cheeks, I might have cried with relief when she finally arrived. I forcefully stopped my teeth from chattering with cold and waited with my back to her, a still, dark figure at the edge of a still, dark forest, menacing in my very lack of aggression. The anger and fearful excitement in her reiatsu grew as she slowly closed the distance, the creaking crunch of the snow barely advertising her presence in a more conventional manner.

"Ichigo," her voice was loud enough to carry across the 80 or so feet of empty space. Did she think that was far enough to give her even a heartbeat if I attacked? I let myself chuckle quietly at the thought. "Where is my captain?"

I barely turned my head, made no other move, and answered casually.

"Not here, obviously. Do you need something, Rangiku?"

Turning to face her, I raised a brow in mild surprise as she drew her sword. That was fast. She trusted me even less than I had thought. Or more likely, Toshiro's repeated insistence that she would not drop her resolve once made was correct and she was not interested in any excuses at this point. But she was still interested in her missing captain, and that concern would be my greatest weapon in this fight.

"Kurosaki Ichigo, what have you done with my captain?"

"What an odd thing to ask, Rangiku. What makes you think I have done anything with Toshiro? Are you implying that I have harmed the man I love in some way?"

It made me sick, the hints of Aizen's condescending tone I allowed to creep into my voice.

"Don't, you lying bastard."

Well, well, I had certainly convinced her. Even though it was what I had been working to achieve, it still caused me pain. I liked Rangiku, dammit, and I hated the damage done to our relationship. But better this than watch Toshiro's rip his own heart to pieces in my place.

"He was here, now I can't feel his reiatsu anywhere. What have you done?"

She flinched as I moved, slowly, carefully, maintaining the distance she had set and starting to circle to her left. I had never felt her raise her reiatsu so high, and she turned with me, Haineko across her chest. My eyes flashed gold, catching and reflecting the scant light, a predator prowling in the shadows. And she, my prey, was standing in the open, exposed, defensive, and barely aware the extent of the danger.

"Come now, Rangiku. What do you think you are doing here? You know who I am, what I can do. Drop this now and run along home before you do something I can't let pass."

It would have seemed like a near miss to her. To me it took her ages to bring her blade across where my chest would have been. I was already behind her when she whirled to face me again, still calm and empty handed.

"So be it. One less problem to deal with later, I suppose. And since you so conveniently came to me alone it will be easy to explain that you and your sweet captain vanished together."

I drew only my long blade as I felt her push her reiatsu even higher. There were tears in her eyes, and I steeled my resolve. How many times did she have to face such loss? How horrible the thoughts running through her head must be, that her captain may be dead and the last sight his beautiful eyes had seen was his trusted lover as he was betrayed.

Easily I evaded another strike, letting the flat of my blade push against her back and send her sprawling in the snow. She was still holding back, and it angered me. If she believed the lie, then that meant she was fighting the man who killed her captain and friend, the man that was going to destroy Soul Society. She owed it to herself and to Toshiro to throw everything at me. My anger grew as she fumbled about, twice more lunging at me with no hope of doing any damage. Zangetsu was growling in my head, as offended as I was, and I took a moment to calm myself before I did her real harm.

"Enough! You are boring me, Rangiku. Apparently, your pathetic death will be the only entertainment I get out of this."

I watched with contempt as she brushed strands of red gold away from her face. She opened her mouth for some silly, useless retort and I reminded myself not to kill her. The plan was a failure, she wasn't up to the challenge. But what left her lips was not an insult, it was an incantation. I laughed as the four points she had established with her sloppy attacks lit up, kido set to restrain and damage reaching for me. It was a solid combination of two high-level spells, and maybe she had truly believed it would have a greater effect. It did cause me some pain before I could break it. I did not move, just pushed against it with reiatsu and shattered the spell around me.

A whirlwind of snow rose in response to the swirling energy, and I turned my attention back to her to find she had backed away, turned with her left side facing me. My eyes narrowed, she was hiding her right hand and the flurry of snow had not settled to the ground but thickened and pushed toward me on all sides.

That's more like it.

Before I broke through the swirling cloud and went after her, I allowed the ash to cut me in several places. She needed to see me bleed, needed to believe there was some hope of success, just not at this level. With the cautious restraint of my power that I had grown used to in training my subordinates, I allowed the battle to begin.

Rangiku was more capable than she let on. While she would not have a hope of touching me if I didn't hold back, she was faster than expected, drawing her scattered sword to her defense, moving it in and out of substantiality smoothly. I would put her well above Mayeda or Hinamori, not counting my second's unusual skill in kido, of course. Not as strong as Renji but at least as flexible in utilizing the abilities of her zanpakuto. Analyzing her skills kept part of my mind occupied to slow me down.

Still, I made it clear that I was toying with her. I parried her casually, almost insultingly slow. The few attacks I slipped in were done with a smirk and a flourish I never would have bothered with if I were aiming to kill. In response, she pushed herself harder, faster, and again I let her touch me just a time or two to make her think she was making progress.

Letting her break away for a moment, I yawned widely. "Thanks for the warm-up, Ran, kept my feet from freezing, anyway. I have to admit I'll be glad to stop pretending to like the cold. It never snows in Hueco Mundo, you know. Doesn't rain, either. He'll miss it so very much, if he's capable of feeling anything at all by the time I'm through with him."

"He's alive?" There was that little bit of hope for her to latch onto, his life on the line and no one but her able to do anything about it. God, I was a bastard.

"Waste not, want not," I said with a low laugh. "Even you could have stayed alive if Gin had played his part instead of betraying Aizen-sama. Still, I will enjoy telling Gin about killing you when I finish him off. And who knows, sweet Toshiro might actually cry for you. Have you ever seen it? How pretty his eyes are when he weeps?"

With a shout of rage she came at me, a foolish move. Her skills were better suited to ranged attacks, and my greatest strength was close combat. I let her push me back, grinning in her face. Her one honest hit made my smile wider; I had not realized she could simply thin Haineko and use the extra as a second blade or knife. The small amount of ash coalesced, and I didn't feel it until she made a small hole through my upper back, trying for the heart. It didn't even have to be in her hand, a good trick and it worked, though the damage healed before she could capitalize on the wound.

I paused with her in my grasp, right arm across the base of her throat with her sword hand trapped tight on her collarbone, left arm around her waist, holding her back flush against me. She was bleeding from several wounds, none too serious but enough to keep up this twisted farce.

"Let me go, you sick, murdering fuck!"

"Why would I do that, Rangiku? You know, I'm not blind to your charms, and you've shown a bit more spirit than I thought you capable of. Would you like to join your captain?" My lips brushed her ear and my grip tightened as she struggled. "I can't guarantee that being my pet will always be pleasant, but there will be moments worth living for. You know I'm not lying. Did you like hearing when I made sweet Toshiro scream my name?"

She screamed and I let her go as ash flew at my face. I stepped out of sonido a good distance away from her, letting the wave of ash break on a shield of nothing but reiatsu. Her panting breaths stilled and her reiatsu drew in, condensing into a white light that made her eyes glow pale. My head cocked to the side as black crept across my eyes and the grin that frightened Espada crept across my face. Zangetsu's ragged voice shredded the moment of false peace.

"What do you say, Red? Wanna have some fun before you die?"

Finally.

Steel eyes narrowed and red lips parted. Ready for the unknown, my mask covered my face as I braced.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

Impressive.

The exceedingly rare privilege of witnessing a new Bankai distracted me from the agony of watching my lieutenant and my beloved tear at each other. Someday soon, I would see this wonder from Ichigo's current perspective, the hellstorm of ash and embers completely engulfing him, hiding him from view in a roaring torrent of destruction. I was not concerned for him. Though Matsumoto's strength was untried, the chances of her being able to harm Ichigo were infinitesimal.

A silvery gray cloud gathered around her, the hinted outline of a great cat with fiery eyes fixed on her opponent towering to the top of the tree line. Ichigo stayed crouched, not dropping the mask or the barrier he had raised. The snow was melted all around the clearing, the once frozen grass underneath smoldering in a trail of devastation between the two antagonists.

Part of the accord with Ichimaru was that he would be the one to explain things, with Kyoraku on hand to keep him honest. They had been observing as I had, carefully concealed. I wanted to reveal my presence, but I waited as the two arrived. The barely controlled fury on her face gave way to confusion as she looked to Ichimaru and back at Ichigo. The snake walked forward, onto the scorched and torn earth between them. His smile was more genuine than I had seen, not that repulsive grin I loathed.

"Gin, move out of the way!"

There was a flash of pale blue as he looked up at the menacing cloud roiling above her, then back down as he continued to walk forward.

"Congratulations, Ran-chan. Let it go now, it's over."

"What are you doing, Gin? He's right behind you!"

I let the barrier drop, and she gasped as she sensed my presence, whole and unharmed. Ashes and fragments of fire fell around her as she started to shake, and that manipulative snake gathered her in his arms. Ichigo's snarl matched mine as I flash-stepped beside him, his mask gone as he straightened. The serpent hissed whispers into her ear as he stroked her hair, but Kyoraku was close enough to hear so I stayed back. Let Ichimaru be the one to tell her he had arranged this. Let him be the one to face her wrath when she found that four men she counted as friends had put her through hell.

"What have I done?"

Ichigo's hand took mine. "Don't start underestimating her now, my love."

Minutes passed as the snake talked. Her head lifted, and she looked over Ichimaru's shoulder. Only her eyes were visible to me, rimmed in red, dry now and giving nothing away. My own pain and the fear that I had hurt her too greatly to be forgiven were not hidden, just one hint of honesty in a night full of lies. I was so proud of her, so in awe of what she had achieved, and despite my worry I smiled in joy. She stared a few seconds more, then closed her eyes and backed away from the snake's grasp. Solemnly she eyed Ichimaru, then Kyoraku, then Ichigo. Her eyes settled back on me, expressionless. Just as I took a step toward her, she vanished. I turned to look at Ichigo as he let go of my hand.

"Go."

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


He was gone before my lips had even closed, and I looked in the direction of home while my blood and my thoughts stopped racing. The exhilaration of facing that final attack almost made the rest of the night worth it. Rangiku would be okay. She would pretend at first, and then she would heal a little warier, a little harder, as she did when my father abandoned her, as she did when the fox betrayed her. But if she did not forgive Toshiro his part in this, I might never be able to forgive her.

Honestly, I did not think it would come to that. Rangiku was constantly misjudged. Many saw her as lazy or frivolous, others said she was weak for being an officer so long and not gaining more power. Yet perhaps the most exacting captain in the Gotei was pleased to have her at his side. More than that, her bubbly, gossiping, drinking, and cheerful persona distracted the casual observer from the fierce loyalty, the iron will which had allowed her to survive heartbreak and hardship. No, I did not think she would be so shallow or weak as to blame and hold on to resentment. Not because we did not deserve condemnation, but because Rangiku was far more than met the eye.

"Ichigo. I would say good work, but I don't think I would mean it."

"We do strange things for love, Shunsui. Exhausting, heart-rending things. You'll take care of telling the old man?"

As he nodded, Ichimaru approached. He had the nerve to look sad and wounded. It would have made a fine ending to the night if I had simply chopped his head off.

"Kurosaki, thank you for your help."

I did not point out that nothing I did was in any way for him. I did not say anything, just stared and started to smile as I listened to the litany of mutilations and humiliations Zangetsu was insisting on within my head. The fox backed up a step and I felt his reiatsu spike. Shunsui stepped between us, gave him a look and they both departed. I stayed in the silent clearing until the cold crept back into my bones, trying to think of nothing at all, then took my time heading home.

Stopping well before entering the territory of the 10th, I reached out and felt Toshiro and Rangiku, their reiatsu close together in our house. I was glad of that, that they were together. Turning away, I headed for the 5th. The division was quiet, guards acknowledging me with mild surprise. My rooms were dark and cold, and I started a fire before heading for the shower. It was eerie to think of Aizen standing here every night for decades, playing his little games with the Gotei and the fine corps of soldiers surrounding him. Thoughts of Toshiro, Rangiku, the bastard, and the fox, I tried to wash them all away and stood under the hot water until all traces of cold were gone.

Pulling on boxers and a favorite pair of soft flannel pants from the stash of ‘just in case’ clothing I’d stored here, I sprawled under the blankets on a brand-new bed. Living in his quarters was bad enough, I had replaced every scrap of furniture and thrown out anything that could be removed without tearing down the building. I had slept alone only one night, on patrol, since Toshiro took me in. I did not care for it.

What now? Toshiro had been making preparations. We had plans, fallbacks, and alternatives lined up for a wide variety of possible scenarios. He was thorough, from having a number of rendezvous locations lined up in case we were separated, to stashing journals and valuables where they could be retrieved later, counterfeits in place to hide the absences from any prying eyes. The onmitsukido were not hard for him to avoid, though he tried not to completely lose them often or they would know we were aware of them. They were some of Soi-fon's most skilled, according to Toshiro. But we two were among the handful that even the stealth force could not fool.

If things went well, and we were not hunted down by our allies, then soon Renji and Rangiku would take the leaderless divisions. Four captains with deep ties, for I knew Toshiro and Rangiku would come through this. Hinamori was with us. Rukia would likely be climbing the ranks. Ashido, if we could find him, my instincts told me would be loyal. If push came to shove, Urahara and Yoruichi were likely to throw their support my way. Not counting weaker, untried connections like my friendships in the 11th, or the more complicated bonds with Ukitake and Shunsui, the power that would surround Toshiro was significant. Which brought me to the question my love was always asking. What was the old man waiting for?

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


In the end, she did not accuse me or question me. The greater wound dealt by the snake needed tending first. Matsumoto and I had always been closer than most captains and their seconds. She had backed off since Ichigo came into my life, but prior to that she had been my constant shadow for decades. We talked about many things, shared opinions and time. She knew somewhat of my childhood, since she was the one that found me in Junrinan, and Momo couldn't keep her mouth shut around her. I had known only the outline of her own youth, never having asked and only taking in what details she let slip. What she told me as I let her cry on my shoulder explained a good deal about the mystery of Matsumoto Rangiku and Ichimaru Gin, which had always baffled me.

He would be forgiven, yet again. She was furious with him now, but it was clear that she was already rationalizing his actions. It was not a denial of reality; she knew very well that something within Ichimaru was twisted. He did not see lies and deceit the way others usually did. I believed that the snake was aware exactly how much damage he caused, but he weighed it against the gains and made his judgment regardless of the harm to their relationship, or the suffering he caused her.

The only reason I hesitated to define Ichimaru as a true psychopath was that I shared many of the same qualities and opinions about morality versus practicality. Perhaps that was the true root of my hatred for the man, looking at him was like looking into a slightly darkened mirror. And perhaps the corollary also applied, that the years of cruel taunting stemmed from his hatred of seeing himself in me.

Poor Rangiku. What horrid luck that she had somehow drawn two men into her heart, and both of them ruthless bastards.

Perhaps it was to assuage my own guilt that I started to talk. I was never an impulsive person and I had already decided not to drag Rangiku further into my own problems. It took strong emotion to make me act without thinking of all possible consequences. I might have been more shocked than she was as confessions started to fall from my lips. But I had already trusted her with the secrets of my past, had put my life in her hands. Just like my darling Ichigo, Rangiku was worthy of true, deep, uncompromising faith. I had been a fool to think of keeping her in the dark.

And so, I gave her all my suspicions, all my fears. I told her the truth, why I would dare to tread so heavily on her trust in me for something as small as power. I prepared her for the challenge she may face if my fears of conflict with the Gotei were realized. And I told her what Ichigo had done for the both of us, though I could not pretend it was not primarily for my benefit. Dear Rangiku, my beloved's dedication to me made her that much more likely to forgive him than if I had told her it was only to help her reach Bankai.

As we sat together revealing our darkest truths, her head leaning on my shoulder, I wondered why it had taken me so long to acknowledge the depth of my affection for her. She had earned my respect and friendship a hundred times over, yet part of me had still insisted that she was only my lieutenant. Was it reluctance to allow a true friendship between captain and subordinate? Or was it my usual inability to let anyone close enough to hurt me or be hurt by me until Ichigo forced me to open my heart? Regardless, that was over now.

She didn't argue when I insisted she take a guest bedroom for the scant hours remaining of the night. While she showered and then soaked in a hot bath, I freshened the bedding and went to get her another soothing cup of Urahara's tea to help her sleep. I left the tea and a robe by the bed and took my own cup out on the balcony to settle my thoughts. It was good that she agreed to stay. She probably realized that if she went to her quarters, I would just end up sitting on her roof until dawn. There was no chance in Hell I was letting that snake anywhere near her until she had some rest.

I finished the cup before the tea could cool too much and took a moment to reach out my awareness to Ichigo. Asleep and quiet in the 5th, that was a comfort. I counted the observers as I pulled back my reiatsu. Four for each of us, Soi-fon was growing more paranoid. Only one apiece had been sufficient up until now. But with the show we had been putting on for days leading up to the dramatic finale, I supposed quadrupling the spies was a smart move. I would not be sleeping, not with my beloved and my dearest friend asleep and exhausted, not with that many hostile knives hiding in the night. Ichigo and I would need to set up some additional protection.

Quietly, I made my way to the library. She would need some time to explore her Bankai, but not too much time to dwell on what we had done to force her. So, I outlined my arguments in her favor, and encouraged letters of recommendation. Persuading the other captains on this one would be difficult to impossible. Matsumoto was well-known, having been an officer for many decades. Most criticized what they saw as sloth and unbecoming behavior. Any captain who had worked with her knew better, but unfortunately that was a very small number. But at least I had already prepared her, she would pass the proficiency test with ease.

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo


"It's true, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it's true. What are you looking worried about? There are two open divisions; Rangiku can only take one of them. And why the hell haven't you taken the test yet?"

"That's what I would like to know. Kuchiki-taicho said he told the sotaicho I was ready over a month ago. They're supposed to be desperate to fill the gaps, so the only reason they haven't called on me must be because they don't want me. Now Rangiku has Bankai, they'll probably just wait for someone they want."

I looked down at him, "Pathetic."

"Excuse me?"

"Look at you, Renji. Slumped on the ground whining about how daddy likes the other kids better. Boo-fucking-hoo."

I might have forgotten just how easy it was to push Renji's buttons. He was up off the ground and snarling in my face in an instant. Of course, I simply bared my teeth right back at him. Renji was big, and tough, and mean looking. He was also a delicate little flower with a bruised ego, and a swift kick in the backside tended to fix it when he wallowed in self-pity. Kinda like me.

"I'll give you two seconds to apologize, you fucking arrogant prick!"

"Oh, I apologize all right. I'm sorry, poor little lieutenant, for wasting my time and yours."

Never mind that we had just spent nearly an hour training. Well, training might be a stretch when it really amounted to me repeatedly dodging and dismantling his Bankai, forcing him to find and try to fix the gaping holes in his defense. He may not have the energy left to call Bankai again, but that wouldn't stop him from fighting until he could no longer hold up his zanpakuto.

The thinning crowd outside of the barriers started to return as the insults and the clash of metal regained their attention. The 5th had become a rather popular place to spend your off time. Everyone knew that they just had to be here at the right moment, and they'd end up with front row seats to an amazing fight. Shinigami from all over Seireitei had copies of our training schedules. They had all been fortunate enough to witness Renji's Bankai today, but they were cheated out of a second, likely much dirtier fight.

"Abarai! Kurosaki! Get your asses down here!"

I reacted first, and that second's hesitation gained me a harsh cut across the ribs.

"Goddammit, Renji!"

I felt at the tear through yet another uniform, the tear through my skin much less bothersome as it was already closing. The offender didn't even hear me, already racing to answer the summons of his diminutive owner. With a sigh, I followed, and brought the barriers around the training grounds down. Hinamori had done a magnificent job reinforcing the barriers and setting the kido to respond quickly and repeatedly; basically, we had our barriers set on a mental light switch, just a flick of reiatsu and I could fight at almost full strength without taking apart Seireitei. Keeping the kido charged was a good training exercise, as well.

At first, I grinned at the look on Renji's face, intimidated, embarrassed, insulted, and through all that rather hopeful and pleased. Then the midget turned her wrath on me, and I wondered what exactly my subordinates read in my own expression as I rubbed my bruised arm.

What was it with tiny people around here? They were so violent. Come to think of it, ever since Toshiro became taller than me, he seemed a lot less inclined to smack the back of my head or punch me in the gut when I annoyed him.

"What the hell, Rukia? I didn't do anything!"

"You let him keep signing up to get his ass kicked. You ruined his uniform. You kept him here past the scheduled hour . . ."

"By five minutes!"

". . . and therefore, you are at fault for us being late for lunch with nii-sama."

"Whatever, midget," I was prepared for it this time and dodged so fast she blinked before starting for me with a growl. Renji grabbed her arm and the tiny fury whirled to face him.

"Rukia, we'd better get going." The false air of authority was cute. All three of us knew that rank meant nothing when Rukia was involved. Instantly, she was smiling and seemingly calm, but the faint twitching of an eyebrow had Renji sweating. I was sincerely happy that she was in a rush and I would escape the shitstorm that her boyfriend was going to face later.

"Ichigo, this is for you. One piece of advice, do not be late."

I took the small envelope and smirked as Renji gave me one last, pleading glance for help before Rukia dragged him off. Curiosity getting the better of me, I opened the letter while I walked back to the office. Lunch at Kuchiki Manor? Tomorrow! I groaned and called a Hell Butterfly to send a message to Toshiro. He'd find a way out of this for me. And if he didn't, at least I wouldn't be trapped alone with the stuck-up captain; to my amazement, the invitation was for two.

 

Chapter Text

"Yeah, that's not suspicious at all."

He raised an eyebrow as he looked over the invitation. "Actually, it isn't. It might take a few months, but it is customary for a new captain to receive invitations. Not from everyone, but I'd say at least half. It is an opportunity to get to know a new colleague. Not to mention to sound them out on their politics, abilities, and allegiances."

"Pretty sure Byakuya has a good grasp on all of those things."

"Nevertheless, we'll accept the invitation immediately. It is rather insulting that you haven't already sent a reply."

"Bossy. And like I care if Byakuya is insulted. Bastard should have given more warning."

"At least he's making it a lunch. Dinners at Kuchiki Manor are formal."

"Poor Rukia."

We were back at what was becoming our usual lunch spot, much to Hayashi's delight. I had avoided the 10th, trying to give Rangiku space and time with Toshiro without me complicating the situation. Okay, without me fucking the situation right to Hell and back. I guess a nice couple's dinner between Toshiro and his best friend would never happen. We both hated the fox, Rangiku hated me, it would definitely be more awkward than a little lunch with Byakuya. I wouldn't complain. Toshiro and Rangiku were fine, better than fine. He didn't go into detail here in public, and I didn't want to intrude, but it was obvious.

"You are right, though, what is odd is the rush. I would expect notice a week out at least. Between that and including myself in the invitation, I would say there will be something interesting learned tomorrow."

"Told ya. Suspicious."

"Speaking of which, I assume you noticed how bright the moon was last night?"

"Mmhmm. Kept you awake, didn't it?"

"What can I say? I get distracted by light and shadows."

Eight shadows. Eight onmitsukido. Toshiro assured me that these were top-notch stealth agents. He claimed that anyone below captain level would have no hope of detecting them, and even many captains would not notice them unless they had some reason to look. Toshiro was exceedingly cautious and exceedingly clever. Add to that his power, the skills and knowledge from an even more powerful past life, and the onmitsukido had no idea that their target knew their every move. As for me, a year of fighting off hungry Hollows hiding in every shadow and dodging sneak attacks from angry Espada had made me a bit paranoid. Zangetsu had a particularly sharp sense of self-preservation, and I listened closely to his instincts. I had noticed the first spies not long after Toshiro had, and once I knew about them it wasn't difficult to keep an eye on them.

"Are we still on for our field trip tomorrow?"

"Our what?"

I grinned; it was still entertaining to find little phrases that confused him. "Field trip. It's a school thing, when you go as a group to someplace educational, or fun."

"I don't know if you could call Hueco Mundo fun, but yes. I don't want to waste any time."

"Is too fun. Standing back and watching you take on 300 Hollows last time was quality entertainment. Morning or afternoon?"

"Afternoon. That way we can stay as long as possible. Will that work for your schedule?"

"I've already cleared the entire day. Wanna play hooky?"

He let his chopsticks clatter on the plate as he looked up with narrowed eyes, and that was all the warning I needed to stop teasing. I rushed to explain without him asking and getting more annoyed. His temper was running rather thin, even for Toshiro.

"Skip out, go do something non-productive. I'm guessing no?"

"Sorry, Ichigo. I really am. A morning off with you would be very welcome right now, but I just don't have the time."

"Neither do I," I sighed. "That's what makes it so appealing."

 

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

 

There was still a fair chance that all of this would blow over without disrupting our lives, twenty five percent at least though there were too many unknowns to rely on the odds. I looked over the gathered Shinigami, taking in the justifiable expressions of awe as the flakes of metal fine as dust condensed once more and Rangiku dismissed her Bankai. This was vital, the division seeing the truth of her accomplishment. If I were declared an enemy before she was committed to another division, the sotaicho would have little choice but to allow the 10th to follow Rangiku now that they knew her power.

Already she was making strides, discovering the most readily apparent techniques. It was an unparalleled rush, a grand door suddenly opening to reveal countless possibilities, new power rising at every turn. If that were not enough, the bond with one's zanpakuto, which seemed deeper than the sky, was brought to a level never even imagined. I was fortunate enough to be experiencing that incomparable high a second time, the revelation of my past bringing new abilities and strengths, ripe for discovery. The overpowering sense of wonder and invincibility shone in Rangiku's eyes, and was the envy of every soldier blessed to witness her glory.

She was well loved within the division. But she was also wise; her strongest friendships were never with subordinates. There were words of congratulations called, but no one was so rash to assume that their personal relationship with Rangiku justified a show of disrespect in front of the entire division and their captain. She was not interrupted as she walked to join me and we made our way back to the office along a corridor that opened before us.

Rangiku maintained her dignity with apparent ease all the way to the office. I had never been glad before to hear her lose her composure, the usually annoying squeals of happiness and excitement finally escaping as she bounced in place and grabbed me in a fierce hug. It was instinct by now to push her off, though I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I could breathe easily thanks to my new height.

"Did you see the looks on their faces? Is it wrong to gloat? I feel like it might be wrong, but I don't really care. Oh, taicho, what did you think of the hundred swords? Too much like Kuchiki-taicho?"

Disentangling her arms from around my shoulders, I went toward the kitchenette as she trailed distractedly after me.

"You never told me, taicho, I mean, I kinda knew, but it's so much different. It doesn't really make sense, how much more reiatsu I have just overnight like that. Stupid cat, holding back on me all this time."

Grabbing the kettle, I cheated and instantly had the water boiling. I hid a yawn, the lack of sleep and all the excitement starting to catch up with me.

"Do you think we could practice together? I have some ideas for using snow and ice. Do people ever do that, mix Bankai techniques? I can't see why they wouldn't, I mean, more of a good thing, right, taicho?"

Herbal and sneak in a nap? Or something with a bit of caffeine? I decided it was better to go with caffeine, too much still to be done.

"I can't wait to try it in a real fight. Maybe I can go join one of the more remote patrols. What do you think, taicho? And what is with Haineko? She's . . . well, not nicer or anything but she's a lot easier to talk to now. Is that normal?"

Someone, likely 5th seat Nakai with his long-standing and timid crush on Rangiku, had left some of her favorite chocolates on the counter. I readied a tray including the sweets.

"I can't say I'm entirely happy with the look, though. Did you like it? I was hoping for something a little sexier, but I guess it is pretty. And too sexy would probably just make it unfair for the enemy. Taicho, can you change the way your Bankai looks? Do you just talk to your zanpakuto about it or what?"

Without missing a single word of her rambling, she stepped out of the way as I took the tray back into the office. I settled on the couch and waited for the tea to steep, wishing there was a way to speed that step up, as well.

"I need to get in more practice. Who do you think would be a good sparring partner? I guess options are kinda limited. Renji, maybe? It would be fun to wipe that smirk off of his face. Are you even listening, taicho?"

"Of course, I am. Would you like some chocolate?"

Steel blue eyes sparkled for a second and I thought my evasion was a complete success. But she looked away from temptation with a slight frown.

"If you were listening, then tell me what you think, taicho."

What I think of her last question, or the first, or the 40 or so in between?

"What I think, Rangiku, is that you are the most amazing person in Soul Society, and I could not be more proud of you."

The expected squeal and renewed stream of enthusiastic and scattered thoughts did not come. With one hand on her hip, she reached and plucked a treat off the plate as she smirked down at me.

"That's what I thought."

 

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

 

Not jealous. Nope, not in the least.

I hesitated, weighing the options. It was late, three hours past dinner and the midwinter darkness made it feel much later. I had already showered, read a book for a while, and grown very bored waiting. Toshiro was working, and I wanted to help him or give him that final push to quit for the night. But to my disgruntled surprise, Rangiku was still in the office, too. Thus, the momentary lapse in courage as I debated waiting patiently at home or putting myself in her space not quite 24 hours after tormenting her to her breaking point.

It has to happen sooner or later. She's forgiven Toshiro, that's all that matters.

Toshiro looked up with a brief, tight smile as I opened the door. Rangiku sat at the end of his desk, several sheets of paper spread out in between them. She did not even glance my way.

"I was going to offer to help, but that's the budget, isn't it? You can keep it. Did you guys eat dinner? I can make something."

"We had dinner. I wouldn't object to tea. We have another twenty, perhaps thirty minutes."

"Taicho, what is this section here? Shouldn't it be under medical?"

Rangiku gave herself away with that, not groaning or whining when he said it would still be so much time, then asking a clumsy question to interrupt us. She still didn't look at me, and the two became absorbed once more in their work. I made tea, brought them each a fresh cup, knowing she would not touch the cup I sat beside her, and gave a little shrug of my shoulders when Toshiro glanced up again. At least she wasn't attacking, yelling, crying, or even given me hateful glares. Any or all of those things could be expected and accepted. I could happily live with the silent treatment, or professional indifference.

Resigned, I went back home, feeling a bit guilty that I had any free time at all even if I had worked a long day myself. Up the stairs and down the hallway I went, to the once empty bedroom I had repurposed. I did not get much time to practice, but somehow more time than I'd managed to spare when I was still a living and supposedly carefree teenager. Well, no more homework, no obligations with friends and family, perhaps it was not that surprising.

As my fingers stretched through easy warm-ups, filling the room with simple melodies slightly more in tune with each pause and twist of a key, I wondered how much more time I would have idle. Should we stay, I would become more and more efficient as a captain. Should we go, would I have anything at all to fill my days? I smiled at my own idiocy. I would have Toshiro to fill my days and nights, always. I would sing to him, and make him pancakes, and climb mountains with him, and run, run as far as we had to until we found a place of safety where we had nothing to do but stare at each other for hours.

Fingertips pushed and slid automatically, the music changing as familiar notes sounded. The first song I had ever played for him, clumsy and simple, not composed for guitar and so tortuously teased out by amateur hands. Still an amateur, but with a bit more skill, I played with the tune and relaxed. It was like meditation, or rather like meditation should be. Admittedly, meditating wasn't the frightening, 'will I come out of this alive' experience it used to be, but my head was too crowded to find much peace in being 'alone' with my thoughts. This simple exercise, part practice, part creation, had become my retreat, my clarity.

Had I not been on high alert, with a part of me constantly vigilant, watching the watchers in the night, I might have lost myself enough to not notice when Toshiro came home. I played on, feeling his enjoyment in his reiatsu, as he went through the domestic routines, removing waraji, storing Hyorinmaru, hanging his haori. Silent as a cat he climbed the stairs and came to lean casually against the door frame with a dreaming smile and eyes full of tenderness.

Jealous of what, you moron? Who else ever sees this?

Two desires. To put the instrument that was in between us down, to erase any distance and barrier as quickly as possible. Or to play on, watch his mesmerized eyes as they followed my movements, soak in the satisfaction of having his full attention and appreciation. I let the melody drift, from the theme of the song to little riffs I had been playing with that reminded me of his laugh, to what very little of his favorite 'Night After Sidewalk' I had managed to master. His smile grew in recognition and I focused my attention on my hands, trying to get just a little more. The song was beyond my skill, and after the third mistake I chuckled and gave it up, looking back up at him with an apologetic air.

He was far from disappointed, however, and his eyes were too wondrously beautiful, sparkling with happiness. It gave me such joy, such a thrill to know that I could bring such an expression to his face. So lost in my own little Heaven, I didn't even notice he had moved until he took the guitar from my hands and carefully set it on the stand. Then he had my hands in his, lifting them as I stood, bringing my right hand to his lips and slowly kissing across the back of my hand and laying his warm lips to each knuckle. The wide grin on my face faded as the delicate brush of lips and breath stole all my awareness.

Two desires. Take one step forward, take my hands from his and pull him to me, closer, ever closer. Or watch, enraptured, as my right hand was lowered slightly to make room for my left. Feel, with dizzy fascination, those butterfly touches and do nothing else, just sigh and feel. Eyes darkened with passion flashed, my breath and my heart stuttering in response. The countdown resumed, only two fingers left to be graced with those airy kisses.

How like Toshiro, to physically express his emotions with such an obsessive, seductive act. The way he had nibbled and sucked all around the tattoo on my neck as he worked to accept the implications of his growing affection for me. The time I had nearly lost to the Hollow within and he had laid his lips and his head where the void had opened in my chest. How he had mapped out with touches of fingers and tongue each vanished wound he had inflicted upon me in our duel. And now, his thanks expressed through worship of the hands that strove to refine and perfect the music into a gift worthy of offering to him.

And how like me, to stand transfixed and mute, lost in contemplation of the intricate, impossibly complex workings of my love's heart. My own heart was far simpler, and it was content to hum in pleasure as my right hand was released, freeing him to cradle the back of my neck, freeing me to wrap my arm around his waist as lips met. Soft and gentle, I followed Toshiro's lead and we simply enjoyed the contact, the warmth. But it did not take long for warmth to become heat, especially since he was staring into my eyes.

When I had first looked into his eyes, I had thought of glacial waters and deep, unyielding ice. As I dreamed of him to ease the suffering I endured, I started picturing the pure, cool waters of hot tropical islands, and the clear, sunny skies above. Now I saw the true color of those eyes, the ephemeral hues that clung to the finest and grandest details in nature, the iridescence along the wing of a dragonfly, the life-giving power of the deep oasis in the savage desert, the spectral grace of the aurora that made men believe in gods.

My attempt to deepen the kiss was answered with a slight drawing back of his head, a faint tightening of his fingers at the back of my neck.

So that's how he wants it.

More often than not, I was the 'top' in our relationship, though neither of us really defined such things and he was rarely submissive even when pinned under me. When Toshiro wanted to give in completely, he surrendered everything, all control, all inhibition, and sometimes even all his will. I had to admit I loved those moments. And when Toshiro wanted me to submit, he told me directly with either playful aggression or a quiet demand, imperious commands.

Someday, I would push him, see just how far he would go to make his dominance clear. I obeyed my love, backing down, returning to sweet, easy kisses. He let go of my right hand, and my reward was his hand gliding up the back of my thigh to caress my ass and pull me a little closer. I chuckled against his lips, a sharp look and then a smile from my love as he drew back.

"Something on your mind, beloved?"

I debated lying or trying to brush it off. Lucky for me, I blurted out what I was actually thinking.

"Just admiring your training methods."

For one second, as his smile froze and his eyes narrowed, I feared my big mouth had gotten me into trouble yet again. His fuse had been very short the past few days, after all. He stepped into me, pushing me back. It was a delight to know that I still hadn't figured him out entirely, and my surprise gave way to lust when my back hit the wall and his tongue pressed insistently against mine.

He moved closer, an almost uncomfortable pressure as his entire body pushed mine against the wall. Moaning my approval, I brought my hands to his hips, sliding up his sides lightly. His tongue spread the flavor of green tea and Toshiro throughout my mouth, massaging my tongue, dancing along my gums, taking all of my attention and breath until I had to gulp air as he moved to my neck. The hand at the back of my neck moved up, the familiar way he pet and played with my hair adding to the instant and dizzying arousal.

An unexpected murmur against my neck, "Damn, how do you make me completely lose control like this?"

Come to think of it, when he was the one in control he was usually so precise and careful in his movements and actions. He treated me with such respect, which I had truly needed at first. Perhaps he had been holding back more than I realized; after all, he had enjoyed and asked for some rather rough sex. If he was wanting to take off the kid gloves he'd been handling me with, maybe I could accept a little challenge. Last time he had turned into a frenzied mess rather early in our playtime. I loved watching him fall apart under me. I hadn't realized that I could manage the same when positions were reversed. It was good that he had his face buried in my neck; he didn't see the wicked grin spreading across my face.

Oh, this could be very entertaining!

"Toshirooo," I groaned his name, purposely sagging against the wall and clutching tight at his back. "Please, baby, I need you now."

My grin widened when his hips jerked forward and I heard him hiss as he bit at my shoulder, nuzzling the cloth out of his way. There was no need to fake or enhance the deep moan of desire when he leaned back enough to slide his hand from my ass, firmly over my hip, and straight to my crotch. I would have pushed into his hand, thrust to increase friction, taken what was offered. Instead I held back a chuckle and whined his name so close to his ear, weakened my grip on his shoulders as if I could not hold on.

Both of his hands rushed to remove my robe, ripping the sash in the process. Trailing kisses across my front from one collarbone to the other, I felt his breath quicken. I would have laughed, but my own little game was getting the better of me. It wasn't insincere at all when I lifted one leg to wrap around him, though calling to him like a bitch in heat was a deliberate tease.

"Oooooh, yes, baby . . . fuck me . . . Tosh please, fuck me hard!"

His hand on my chest pushed me into the wall and his head drew back, wide eyes narrowing and panting mouth starting to scowl.

"Ichigo," he growled low, "you . . ."

I let my grin show and snickered a bit, "What gave me away? Too slutty? A little too much drama queen?"

"You are such a bastard."

I didn't get a chance to retort as my mouth was suddenly full of his tongue again, one hand gripping my raised thigh, the other sliding across my chest to tease a hardened nipple. I would have to try a lot harder next time, though I was pretty satisfied with the results of my work. He was regaining a bit of control, but I had my fun watching that composure break.

When he let go of my leg and stepped back, pulling me with him, I stumbled a bit into his arms, blinked and then gasped.

"What the . . .?"

Already off balance, his light push was all it took for me to stumble again. The backs of my legs hit the bed and I fell back, still wondering how in hell I ended up there in the first place. I would have felt shunpo clearly, and I didn't think I had blacked out or anything. My mind was still piecing things together, the story Toshiro had told, the way he had vanished from my side that day in the mountains. Trusting idiot that I was, not to mention thoroughly distracted by a very naked and ready Toshiro, I had never asked how he had accomplished that little trick.

Distracted again, I came back to reality with a gasp as Toshiro pulled my underwear off, the waistband dragging sharply over my swollen cock. He leaned down, completely clothed while I had been stripped naked. Not that I was complaining. His hand on my chest once again prevented me from capturing his lips when his face came so close to mine.

"Make yourself comfortable, darling. Do not leave the bed."

I snorted in mock annoyance as he turned and left, heading toward his closet. He shrugged off clothing as he walked, and shivers of anticipation ran through me as I watched the lovely, gold skin of his nearly unblemished back. Resisting the urge to get up and grab him, run my tongue down the shallow valley of his spine between toned muscles as my hands curved around the narrow waist between hips and ribs, I shook myself as he vanished into the closet. Pushing myself up on the bed, I forced myself to be still, to not reach for my arousal.

He didn't keep me waiting long, and I soaked in the view as he walked back to me, giving him a frowning pout as I glared. He had bothered to slip off all of his clothing except his underwear. My frown left immediately. Matsumoto, it had to be. Toshiro would never in a million years have picked a pair of black briefs that barely covered more than ladies' panties. Sometimes a bit of cloth makes what you cannot see even more appealing, and the way the muscles of his thighs and hips vanished behind the black screen made me long to rip the teasing bit of fabric apart with my teeth.

Then it occurred to me that Toshiro had purposefully changed into the sleek briefs and I was grinning again. This was another side of Toshiro no one had ever seen but me, the playful, teasing lover that could go from calm seduction to panting mess in seconds. And I'd be damned if I ever let anyone else in on this secret.

Was he smirking because he noticed the way I couldn't stop staring at his crotch? Or was it because misdirection was his most effective weapon against my one-track libido? Only once he had climbed on the bed and straddled my waist, my now hard erection disturbingly and delightfully grazing the satin fabric over his luscious, toned ass, only then did I finally notice that he had something in his hand. Small tube of lube, check, but there was something else.

As he dropped part of the silken length of red cloth to slither across my chest, I froze. My mind went blank, my eyes and thoughts locked on the strip of silk. Cold. The pleasant heat had fled, icy fear settling in every corner of my mind, throat tightening as it worked to swallow tension and bile. My love's smooth voice cut through the rising terror, and amplified it.

"Hands."

Why?

Fear and rage, despair, hatred, all swirled with images of captivity. Prone and helpless, held by nothing more than Aizen's will. Bound and fighting, held by chain, rope, or cloth not unlike the one in my love's hand as Ichimaru took what was left of me. Struggling pitifully, the Hollow screaming first for the fox's blood, then for my own as I was plunged into the shame of physical pleasure in the midst of so much pain. And the only thing that cut through the swirling emotions was why, whywhywhy?

The touch of a hand on my chest made me flinch, breaking the paralysis. I sucked in a harsh breath, every muscle tensing to fight but still I did not move, conditioned that fighting made things so much worse. A firm touch traveled up to my neck, up to my chin, and I heard the weak whimper, clenching my teeth to stop it. Strong fingers turned my face, but my eyes stayed locked on red silk, waiting, dreading the moment when it would move.

"Ichigo, look at me."

My eyes shut tight. It was never a good idea to defy, but compliance often brought on even more severe punishment. There were no safe choices. No matter what I did, the result would be torment, degradation, insanity. The expectation made it feel like the pain had already arrived. My chest hurt, my heart thundering and lungs begging for more oxygen to keep up, but breathing is so difficult when you are trying to keep from screaming.

"Beloved, please look at me. You are safe, you are powerful, you are so very loved."

Forcing my eyes open as the words reached me, my heart clenched again around a single word.

Why?

Yet, thankfully, panic halted and started slowly receding as I met calm turquoise eyes. There was no glee and lust, no disdain, only love. My eyes fixed on his, a concentrated effort to not turn back to the red which had not moved. Nor did he move, still sitting on my waist, but lightly, not trying to trap or force. The hand still on my chin, but softly, not trying to hurt or hold. A gentle smile graced his lips, and my mind slowly began to turn.

Toshiro. Surely he did not intend to hurt me. But he knew what I had been through, so why would he do this? He had been so kind, so forgiving. Or had I missed lingering resentment? The way he had ordered me, 'Hands,' the same way I had ordered him. I had taken him, never given him a choice, his hands bound and his power stripped. He may have chosen to show willingness, but there really had been no choice offered. That, that beautiful atrocity had been Toshiro's first sexual experience. Such a thing could never truly be forgiven.

Revenge, then, or some righting of the balance, a payback for the humiliation I had put him through? If that was what he sought, I would do my best to pay whatever price he set. I did not see that need in his eyes, but if I had missed his anger, I could easily have been misreading him all along. And still he waited, patient and quiet, giving me time to reason it out. To answer the question.

Why?

He had to know what this would do to me. Toshiro had seen me shattered, had carefully, painstakingly pieced me back together. And he had seen me crippled when memories threatened to break my mind once more. If he only sought to torture me, he had passed up countless opportunities to do so. No, not only that, he had helped me hold on and patched me back up more than once. My love would not have done all of that just to see me fall from the heights he had granted me. Such a cruel act was not compatible with the trust he had shown, placing his life and his honor in my hands so irrevocably.

Trust, then, a test of my belief in him, a need for some proof of reciprocation? He had sacrificed everything for me, and I had taken, gained so much from his willingness to accept the darkest parts of me. Toshiro knew I trusted him. I had let him guide me, followed his lead. Even in my terror and rage when I saw the red cloth that could only be meant to bind me, when I did not recognize him and my mind had fallen into the darkness of my past, even then I showed my faith. For Zangetsu was silent. The most honest and unforgiving part of my soul never hesitated, never sought to flee or fight, and never for a second doubted Toshiro.

I had meant it when I told him I would give him my life to do with as he saw fit. I had meant it when I said that I would not lift a finger to stop him if he decided to kill me, and that was still true. He knew, he had to. But then, it had never come to that; I had never been required to prove my honesty. He had told me he loved me, placed his heart in my hands before I ever truly knelt and bared my throat.

Why?

My heart had stopped thundering, though it still seemed too fast, too painful, struggling along like the flagging heart of a dying sparrow in the hands of a stupid little boy with no power except the ability to destroy. I had not found the answer to my question, the answer to why my love would ask this of me. It did not matter. I had found my answer, the only answer I could give without betraying love itself. The answer I should have given instantly, without a second thought.

Taking a few slow breaths helped make certain my hands were steady before I lifted them to the headboard.

 

Chapter Text

 

Strong hands, bearing the evidence of power, the calluses and small scars of a master swordsman. Skilled hands that taught and protected, that guided magic to heal and harm. Loving hands that easily elicited shivers and moans, hands that had melted a heart of ice no other had reached. My heart ached as those wondrous hands trembled. My eyes stayed locked with the anxious eyes of honeyed brown, my fingers guiding my movements. The length of silk wove round and round, and I was careful to lay it flat and comfortable against the skin of his wrists.

Symbolic, not even the strongest chains could hold my beloved let alone a plain strip of silk. Symbolic, his choice to allow such a weak restraint to hold him. He did not understand. If he had, there would have been no hint of fear in his eyes, no hesitation. But that was alright; that was expected. This wound ran deep. So many of his scars I had reopened and healed, leaving him stronger and more resilient each time. But this wound ran so very deep.

Trailing my hands from his clenched fists, over the red ribbon, down tense arms, I leaned in and touched my lips to his. I did not press, he was not ready to respond, just lightly laid kisses on his lips, cheeks, and jaw. Throughout, our gazes remained on one another's eyes. When I moved to kiss his eyelids, contact was finally broken and he shuddered, drawing in an unsteady breath and holding it. My hands held his cheeks for a few more one-sided kisses, then pushed into his hair, twining the orange stands around my fingers in a comfortingly familiar gesture.

I waited for him to release that trapped breath before moving easy caresses of lips to his neck, feeling him swallow hard under my kiss. Another pang shot through me; I hated to see him find my touch anything but loving, comforting, adoring. This was right, I was certain. I did not let my momentary doubt pause my movements. I continued the gentle attention to his neck, the petting of his hair until his breathing steadied. His muscles were still in knots, heart racing as my tongue trailed up to that soft, sensitive spot below his right ear.

"I love you, Ichigo," I whispered against his skin.

He would normally have shivered and turned to catch my lips or moaned delectably in appreciation of such direct words, but instead a small sound in his throat that may have been a strangled whimper, a sob, something not born of pleasure alone. My hands left his hair, trailed over his arms and down his sides to feel the striations of muscle and bone along his ribs. It was a very familiar action; I had more than once just lied beside him exploring those contours for as long as he would allow before tackling me.

Despite my words, my gentleness, my focus on movements that were well known, his struggle was still obvious. Every few breaths he had to pause, to swallow sounds he did not wish to give voice, or had been harshly taught not to release. His body remained in place, but so tense that muscles were trembling intermittently in an effort to keep still. And his heart, his big, brave heart would not calm down.

My lips moved to his again, and I watched his closed eyes.

"I remember, Ichigo. I'll never forget the moment you told me you loved me."

Catching his eyes as they fluttered open and focused on mine, I searched through the fear and confusion.

"Do you remember, beloved? You told me that you had always been attracted to me. I didn't tell you that I had been attracted to you almost as long."

Just a gentle grab of his lower lip between mine, a light stroke of my tongue along that thin skin, nothing aggressive. The smooth skin beneath my hands settled, lighter shivers and muscles still clenching but not as panicked.

"You said that you had started to love me when we fought back to back in the living world. I didn't tell you that my view of you changed that same night, when our power blended so perfectly. I realized then that I had never really looked at you, not without preconceived notions clouding my vision. And you were magnificent."

These words were breathed across his lips, his cheek. His eyes were a little calmer, still fearful but he was listening. Skimming up his sides, across his shoulder, I brought my hands up to stroke his face and play in his hair once more.

"And then you confessed that you loved me. You loved me so strongly that you would stand against the world for me, and never let me be taken from you. I didn't tell you, I didn't admit to myself then how deeply in my heart the idea of you had already taken root."

Back to his neck I went, licking away the sheer layer of sweat and waiting, hoping for a response. But there was returning tautness when I moved my attention to his shoulder, resisting the urge to nip. It was difficult to say where my favorite places were, but his shoulders ranked high on the list. That was likely because I spent so much time clinging to them, or biting into them to muffle my screams of ecstasy.

Shaking away thoughts of my own pleasure, I really did not need any more stimulation to fight off, I renewed my concentration on tender and simple affection. When he relaxed ever so slightly, I moved across his throat to the other shoulder and he tensed again for several minutes.

It would be a challenge for every new area, it seemed, for both my lips and my hands. They came back down, lips moving back to the safer territory of his neck and jaw so hands could explore his chest. He flinched when my fingers brushed across nipples, and I closed my eyes in case he happened to look and see the fury and guilt that overtook me for an instant. Fury at Aizen for causing this damage. Guilt that I had allowed it to happen.

Only a moment to regain control of my emotions, and I laid a few more kisses on his lips before making eye contact again. He was watching me, his eyes clearer and starting to show a bit of the determination that had vanished. I smiled and kissed the tip of his nose as my hands made long strokes from the bottom of his ribs, up his chest and back again.

"I love you, Ichigo. I will forever regret the way I told you, like it was some kind of light joke. I was scared, did you know that? Terrified, really, of handing my heart over to you, of giving you the power to hurt me. I had to force myself to say it, and the only way I could get it out was to be inappropriately flippant. I should have been on my knees before you, beloved."

"Toshiro . . .."

It was all he said, his voice strained, and immediately fear returned to his eyes. Was he not allowed to speak when he was being tortured? I smiled and chanced a slightly firmer kiss, moving his lips against his clenched teeth.

"Do you remember, beloved? That day, the day I confessed my feelings for you, do you remember what happened between us?"

He winced, and I knew the thoughts that came back to him. Given his fragile state of mind, I had already forgiven him for reaching for terrible explanations for what I was doing. I had already forgiven him for thinking that I would seek revenge now for the way he had handled me then. It would not be such a stretch if he was not who he was, if I was not who I was. That day he was convinced he had raped me. He had pinned me against a wall and taken me roughly and, he thought, against my will. He was wrong, but he never had believed me when I told him so. And my acceptance of his actions had shown me the deep truth of my trust in him. That event had broken me, just not in the way he feared. It had broken down my barriers, at least the ones between the two of us. And I cherished the memory, for all of the pain and confusion, for all of the ecstasy and the revelation of love.

I sucked again on the skin of his neck, down to his shoulder, back up, giving him time to recollect, to panic, and to calm down again. Tremors ran through him, and my hands rested along his ribs, cradling and hopefully comforting.

"You have never understood, beloved, what changed everything for me. Such blame you assign yourself, such fear that the monsters had turned you into one of their own. Do you not see how remarkable you were for honoring my strength? Though I had done nothing to earn your trust, still you tried to give it knowing it could lead to your downfall."

He only looked confused, and I cursed the limitations of speech as I lifted my head slightly and stared into his eyes.

"You have my heart, Ichigo. You have my trust. You won both by proving to me that I trusted you with everything, I trusted you to do anything. And it hurts me that you still hold on to guilt for the very actions that broke the last of my useless and suffocating defenses. It hurts me that you still resist and fear to take my trust on the most basic and primal level.

"It is not your fault, my darling. You faced fear of yourself too often, too strongly. You believe you can hurt me. And you think that if you do, you become just like them. You hate the thought of that, of any chance that you could cross a line between what you define as good and evil. You fear crossing that line because you fear losing me. You do not see how impossible such a thing would be, for you define that line in my eyes."

He held his breath again, this time in astonishment as he started to see what I was trying to teach him. I would destroy his fear by these means or any means necessary. Ichigo defined what was right, and nothing he could do would ever be evil or even wrong. Not to me.

He shuddered again, this time in desire as he started to respond to the new level of intimacy I was requesting. The lesson being taught was greater than the means being used to teach it. But for this moment, I only needed him to respond. I needed him to give me his complete trust, to face down the last, greatest wound.

My teeth nibbled at his lip, testing. And he breathed my name against my lips, and he allowed me to kiss him, and the taste of his mouth was bliss. Visions of what could be flooded my mind. If only he would move past this, then the final barrier between us would vanish, the barrier of his fear of himself, of what he could become. Without that fear, my demigod would be invincible.

And then . . . oh, then he would stop his ridiculous reticence. His insistence that he did not want to hurt me, when truly it was that he could not admit that he enjoyed it without being terrified that he was becoming just like the one who tortured him. And then . . . oh, yes, then I could have him any way I wished. Sweet and tender, violent and passionate, shamefully and beautifully with gentle kisses or with harsh bites.

The moan of sheer lust that broke our kiss shook me out of my fantasy. With a deep breath and a nearly excruciating effort I called my body back to my command, shoving the desire down. My break in self-control was a fortunate accident, and I felt Ichigo tense and then relax completely in reaction to the wanton sound of my voice. A heated gaze met mine, and I did not let my triumph show as I lifted myself and adjusted my position lower, giving me easy access to more of his delectable body.

Fear can be as arousing as more traditional seductions, but not the kind of demeaning terror that Ichigo had been reliving. The pleasure and anticipation he had been feeling had fled when I put my plan into action, only now barely reawakening. I leaned all the way down, my clothed erection against his softened length, and kissed from the bottom of his throat down his breastbone. He did not tense as much, and relaxed again with a loud sigh as my tongue and lips focused on the quickly hardening nipple not being given similar attention by my fingers.

The rhythmic rise and fall of his chest sped up, but not in panic. Occasional catches of breath gave away his enjoyment as I nibbled across the bronze skin, hands moving to caress hips that shifted in renewed trepidation. My fingers moved soothingly, but relentlessly, pushing him to accept more and more quickly.

"Toshiro . . .."

"Yes, beloved," I breathed against wet skin.

"I . . . I'm okay now. You can stop holding back."

I let myself nip the firm flesh before me, gently, earning a shiver.

"I will be the judge of that, my darling," I chuckled to lighten the words. "And don't presume to tell me what to do or I'll find a gag for you."

The moan that left his lips was accompanied by a very different tension as he pushed ever so slightly up off the bed. I blinked in surprise, not expecting him to not only not shy away from the teasing, but to be aroused be the idea. Perhaps he was recovering from the shock and fear more quickly than I had thought. Again, I had to take a breath and push back my own desire as I dragged my tongue lower, savoring the warmth and the hint of salt. Good lord, it was torture.

His hands were still bound, a greater testament to his willingness than his words. His long legs were free, and just as I once had, he decided to use what he could, pushing his heels into the mattress and shifting his hips up. With all of the restraint I had to keep forcing upon myself, I could not stifle a groan of appreciation. And just as he once had, I put an end to it.

"Enough of that. Now be still. I truly wish nothing but to please you, but you must behave."

It required barely a thought to bind his legs, preventing any movement at all. Like the silk, it would be effortless for him to break free. He raised his head, a flash of nervousness gone as soon as he met my eyes. To reassure him, I bent again to his lips, but broke off before he could get too assertive. The flexing of my pelvis as I leaned down, then straightened was enough to distract him and his head fell back.

I was honest with him, of course. I did not intend anything besides pleasure. It would have been too much for him if I were to take him roughly, or cause him any pain more significant than the usual teasing of fingertips, tongue, and careful teeth. Besides, I had no desire to ever act the part of sadist or master with him. I was willing to try if he desired it, but that was not the point.

He had to face down this fear, primarily to move past his anger and shame so that it never became a liability, but also to accept what I did want. Not always, not perhaps even often, but I wanted him to freely give me that fierceness, that almost unbearable dominance I had brought out in him just a few times. He had enjoyed it, but resisted and been wracked with guilt. And I had loved every second . . . I shut my eyes and retreated quickly from that line of thought before I became overwhelmed. I would have that again, without bringing my lover any self-condemnation.

My hands roamed, my eyes watched with delight, my hips rocked gently against his. The perfect warmth of our home and our bed had grown intolerably hot, and I let a wisp of my power free to chill my fingers. The shivering of his skin, the rippling of muscles, the little gasps of his breath were my reward and my torment. When I could take it no longer I moved off him entirely.

Grasping one bronze leg, I took the time to trail my hands down all the way to his toes. Unfortunate and unfair that I had never found one ticklish spot on his entire body. But it still made him shake when I kissed from instep up and around to the back of his knee as I positioned his leg, bent and suggestively far from its mate. I did the same with the other leg, moving to the inside of his legs as I left a series of fading marks along his inner thigh. He had barely flinched a few times, each moment of weakness brought his eyes to mine and he relaxed again. I straightened for a moment.

His head came up again, nostrils flared, and I grinned down at him. Honestly, I had thought Matsumoto's little birthday gifts would stay hidden in my closet for the rest of my life, an unpleasant surprise for the next captain of the 10th to find when cleaning out the junk left by his or her predecessor. Strawberry flavored lubricant, ridiculous. Somewhere, a lab full of highly trained chemists were paid to develop this atrocity. A team of marketers spent months coming up with trite packaging with tiny strawberries all over. And millions of people made the same bemused expression as my beloved when their lovers indulged in this innocent depravity.

The snort of amusement was cut off by a groan when my still cool hands took hold, eight fingertips pressing and dragging from base up, slowly, silkily spreading the slippery oil. I kept my chuckle as quiet as possible, the overly sweet scent did not belong on my Ichigo, despite his name. He was too bold for this saccharine. His scents were the aromas carried by the hot breezes of the desert, sage and cinnamon, cardamom and saffron.

Well, it served a valuable purpose now, adding humor right when it would do the most good, when Ichigo was starting to respond without hesitation. The generous amount of liquid dripped and drizzled down as I caressed hot skin, reveling in the changing texture as the flesh beneath my hands swelled and hardened. My left hand idly played and stroked, no specific rhythm or pressure, just enjoyment. My right hand slipped down to let fingertips dance across testicles.

The soft moans and sighs were a growing symphony more pleasing even than the songs he played and sang for me. When perfectly defined abs tightened to push himself into my hand, groaning with the need for more, I had to sink my awareness one more time into the ice, a moment's meditation to calm my body and my lust. I leaned down to taste those lean muscles, snickering at his frustrated whimper when my hands stilled and my mouth did not go quite where he wanted it to.

"Toshiro, please."

"Oh, no, beloved," I spoke calmly into his navel. "Fool me once . . .."

Taking my time tasting trembling skin, I let my hands move slowly again. It would bring him no satisfaction; feather light touches and the brief tightening not enough to provide any real relief. With legs and hands immobilized, it was the helpless writhing of his torso that told me when to move. With some regret, I gave one last kiss to his taut stomach and scooted my knees lower.

My right hand slipped lower as well, pushing fingers along the trail of liquid. My left hand cradled throbbing flesh as I pressed my flattened tongue to him, dragging it up the underside of his cock despite my immediate desire to recoil. Strawberry lubricant, pure evil. The sugary, artificial flavor was barely tolerable, twice as repulsive for completely masking the flavor I had grown to crave.

Well, nothing to do but get rid of it.

A startled yelp nearly masked the sound of tearing cloth as I took half of his length in my mouth, sucking firmly and swirling my tongue over every inch with the goal of cleaning off the horrid liquid. Releasing him, I lifted my head and glared. Loose ends of red silk hung from each wrist, but he had grasped the headboard, hands close together in an attempt at obedience. His thighs were shaking with the effort to not break the light binding that held them in place.

His chuckle as he met my eyes told me that the restraints had outlived their usefulness. His fear had vanished. I had neither the need nor the desire to push him beyond this. Okay, perhaps some desire but that could wait for another time. I could not help but smile at him.

"You've always had trouble following the rules, beloved. Now, if I release your legs, do you think you can play nice?"

The only answer was a gasp as I pushed two fingers into him as far as I could, ignoring the resistance. I could see and feel the small discomfort this caused, and the tightening of his muscles against me. I ducked my head back to the task of cleaning off the lubricant, slow, firm licks around the shaft, the tip of my tongue seeking out every crevice, swiping under the rim and over the head, cleansing the slit and tracing every vein. The movements of my mouth were not at all in time with the stroking of my fingers within him. I found myself shuddering a bit with every lick, not appreciating the fake taste and the cloying smell. Never again. The stuff was everywhere, all over my left hand idly pressing down on his pelvis, all over my delicious lover, deep inside of him as I teased and stretched with three fingers now, purposefully avoiding his most sensitive areas, not bringing him any closer to climax than necessary.

Finally, that lovely erection was cleaned to my satisfaction, not a hint of the offending oil in any fold of skin, I had made damn sure of it. As I swiped my tongue up the length and over the head once more, I was pleased to taste my lover, his flavor starting to replace the unwelcome sweetness coating my mouth.

Only then did the nonstop cursing reach my ears. Intimately familiar with how painfully swollen his cock was, my eyes flashed up to see his head stretched back as he spat and growled obscenities at the wall behind him. We would need a new headboard, metal perhaps this time as the solid oak proved too fragile. His hands pressed against the wall, still trying to obey, thick splinters of wood all that was left of the railing he had been clutching. And he looked glorious, all tight muscles, sweat, and tremors.

Come to think of it, I had no idea how long I had been tormenting him with both mouth and fingers, the promise to release his legs forgotten. There had been a great deal of stimulation, I was sure, but not enough, always backing off. It hadn't been my intention, but it certainly worked in my favor. And now he was so hot and bothered that he was screaming at the 'damn fucking brat sadist bastard' that wouldn't listen to him and that he was going to fuck raw when he got the chance. My fingers kept moving and I licked casually at his cock, not wanting to disturb the entertaining rant.

When I couldn't hold back a snort at one of his more colorful expletives, his head snapped up. He growled as I grinned, and I admired his self-control, hands still pressed to the wall, legs shaking but allowing the binding to hold.

"GODDAMMIT, Toshiro! Just FUCK me already!"

He yelled as I laughed.

"Now that, I believe. But I'd rather start over so I can enjoy myself."

Releasing the weak binding on his legs before I took his erection more fully into my mouth was a questionable decision. Ichigo was always aggressive during blow jobs when given the choice, and he was already on the edge. A moment's debate, let him be as forceful as he wanted since I liked giving him release either way, or keep playing the role of complete dominate.

What the hell, he's earned it.

As expected, he was moving instantly. Not expected was his continued self-discipline; his hands remained above his head instead of grasping mine. But I did not back off or try to hold him, even when his fast thrusts into my throat caused significant pain. It was temporary, and well worth it.

Little technique and less time was required. Simply allowing him to fuck my mouth was enough. The addition of some well-timed swallows and the grazing of my teeth just brought the end quicker. Just after his orgasm hit, I pressed my fingertips against his prostate, and he practically screamed as his pleasure was renewed. The taste of him was my reward, and hearing his voice. No longer the sadistic brat, now he professed his love and called me god, and I chuckled as I released him to pant and recover.

It was the work of a moment, to take a lesson from my past and coat my hands with ice, cleaning them as the crystals broke away while I stripped off the strange but apparently effective underwear that barely contained my erection. The odd thought drifted in that Momo had to have been mortified by Rangiku's ideas of what belonged in my new wardrobe. 1 and 1, Rangiku. A win on the tight shorts, a serious loss on the strawberry lube.

Ichigo let out an adorable yelp as my freezing cold hands settled firmly on my favorite place, one along each side of his ribs. He may not be ticklish, but I could certainly use this trick on him again. His skin shivered as my hands moved up, pausing to tease his chest, sliding up shoulders to settle on either side of his neck and hold my weight while I shifted, back to straddling his hips. I bent down for a series of short but deep kisses, letting him breathe and tasting as much of his mouth as I could in between.

Adjusting my weight, I reached up with both hands to grasp his. He watched silently, then began to grin as I settled back, his hands in mine above his chest, and began kissing his right hand once more. I took my time, worshiping those powerful, talented, loving hands and doing nothing else but trail soft kisses down his fingers and gaze adoringly into his eyes. His deep-seated fear of being bound and helpless may never fully retreat; it was, after all, a reasonable fear for anyone to have let alone someone with Ichigo's history. But he had kept these remarkable hands still in submission, and I thanked him for it silently.

The grin on my beloved's face widened to his stunning smile, then softened to something so seductive and beautiful that I shivered as I completed my thanks. Almost carefully, he flexed his hips and we both groaned. He was hard again, and my neglected cock was screaming for attention as I forced myself under control once more. That trick only worked so many times.

"Am I allowed to play now, babe? I think we haven't quite finished the game."

"Oh, I certainly haven't finished."

I let go of his hands to bury my fingers in his hair as I teasingly bit at his lip and then his tongue was wrestling with mine. His hands rushed to run down my chest and then slid around to hold my hips. I should have anticipated it. He was done being submissive, and I barely resisted when he forcefully pushed and ended up on top of me. Our mouths stayed locked together as he shifted his legs and we twisted against each other, every move sending shocks of desire from my groin to my increasingly frenzied mind and back down again.

He broke away, and I chuckled when I realized he was now straddling me quite perfectly. He reached and I smacked the small tube as far across the room as I could before he could grab it. He raised an eyebrow.

"Anything but that, darling."

"What, you don't like strawberries?"

He leaned back down, snickering against my neck and biting quick and sharp. My hips bucked involuntarily, and I hissed in response to both the sharp sting and the friction as my length pushed against his firm ass. It was torture, knowing he was already prepped and so very close. But having the scenario turned so suddenly was even more erotic.

He had reached for the nightstand while I as blinded by lust. Quickly, I closed my eyes and brought myself back from the brink one last time, fearing that if he touched me I just might cum before I had the chance to experience Ichigo riding me for the first time. It was on my list of fantasies, one I never felt comfortable seeking when my body was so much smaller than his. And it was perfect, giving him the control to reward his willingness and to erase any last vestige of distrust.

Musings on how successful or not my ploy had been, plans for the immediate and distant future, and all other semi-rational thought fled, all happily discarded when his warm palm pressed hard on the head of my cock, then his hand ran down my length. The moan I let out would have made a whore blush in shame, and I was only too glad to give it voice.

"Toshiro."

My eyes had been closed, what a tragedy. I opened them when he called and drank in the sight of him above me, my beautiful bronze idol still glistening with sweat, eyes heavy and dark with lust. My hands slid up his thighs, feeling them tighten as he lifted his weight, and I shuddered in almost unbearable anticipation as his hand steadied my painful erection and he eased lower. The muscles beneath my hands trembled, and he groaned as I clenched my teeth, insisting that my body remain still and let him choose the pace.

Then he did the unthinkable. With only the head of my cock inside the warmth of him, he stopped. I growled low, my fingers digging into his legs. Frustration turned to surprise at the look he gave me, somehow calm and teasing with a wicked grin.

"I remember certain things, too, my love. Like how it felt when you did this."

"No! No, IchiGAAAH! Fuck!"

God! So tight as he dropped his weight all at once, painful and blissful and I had not stood a chance of resisting. My body had moved without my control, not releasing on that first thrust but oh, so close. I felt more than heard him shout as he fell back against my partly raised legs and I was pulling his hips into mine as I sat up. An untenable position, a mess of long legs and grasping hands, but the only thing my mind and body cared about was finding a way to push harder and deeper. He would have ended up under me if it lasted much longer.

Fortunately, my pressing closer and closer was bringing him to the edge with me, his cock hitting my stomach and then trapped between us as I pulled him to me and his arms went from supporting behind him to wrapping around my neck and clinging.

Everything was a haze of passion and rough synchronicity until he cried out my name. Nails raked my back as his muscles convulsed, the rush of ecstasy hitting me and erasing awareness of anything but heat and pleasure and my darling Ichigo. By the time I could tell where I was, we had fallen back and sideways, still a tangle of limbs and harsh, damp breath.

"Good god!"

I was too worn out to laugh, but I managed to pant.

"You are such . . . a bastard."

He managed to chuckle, and moved slightly so our foreheads were lightly touching.

"Why? So hard to please you."

"So easy, you mean."

With careful effort, I shifted my legs so that his leg wasn't trapped under mine. I would rather have stayed in him as long as possible, even just lying here, but it had to end at some point.

"Oh . . . " he snickered, always so amused, "you wanted that to last longer, me on top."

"You think? Can't complain about the alternative, though."

He kissed my nose. Neither of us had even tried to let go of the other.

"Let me rest a few minutes, and I promise I'll go as slow as you want."

"Hmm. I doubt you have the self restraint, but I'll live in hope."

He hummed a bit of a familiar sounding tune, and we both just relaxed there, sweaty, soiled, and sated. He never made good on the promise that night, as we both fell into slumber. He was probably the one that pulled a blanket over us in the night. I was likely the one that dragged a long pillow down for both of our heads to rest on. And we moved back together, wrapped up in a cocoon of blankets and each other until morning.

 

Chapter Text

It didn't surprise me, for once, to be the first to wake. Toshiro had been running himself ragged. And the effort he put into the previous night, on top of days and nights of non-stop work . . . I really hoped he would sleep in at least until sunrise. So, I stayed put. Untangling our arms and legs, unwrapping the blanket wrapped tight around us, there was no escape that wouldn't wake him.

I was too awake to drift back to sleep, and just enjoyed looking at him and thinking about the events that led to us being exhausted enough to fall asleep in such a twisted, dirty jumble of sheets and limbs. The whole thing had been terrifying, then shocking, yet in the end it was nothing but beautiful. Every time I started to believe I had Toshiro figured out, he showed me something completely new, a side to him I'd never even imagined. True, we hadn't been together all that long, and I wondered how many more surprises he could possibly have in store.

Minutes passed as I relived the night in my mind. It had dragged me through my own personal hell and back into heaven, and I still didn't fully understand the implications. But something told me to just let it sink in, let my mind work it out in its own time. The obvious point was clear enough. While I would not have believed just a day before that there was any way I could feel closer to Toshiro, I had been proved drastically wrong. And as I studied the way his long lashes rested on his golden cheek so delicately, I simply smiled and enjoyed my contentment.

Those lashes fluttered as he blinked himself slowly awake, just as the horizon started to pale.

"Good morning, my love."

Never had we slept the night through without a shower, bath, or at least a wipe down with a towel. I watched in amusement as his sleepy laziness shifted to a pleased and loving smile, then his nose wrinkled and a look of extreme annoyance crept across his lovely face. Wisely, I held back laughter and gave his cheek a quick kiss before starting to search for an exit from the blanket that was as snugly wrapped around us as . . . dammit, as that red silk that was still, still around both wrists. How had I not noticed that?

Perceptive turquoise eyes cleared of irritation and his hands grabbed my right forearm, quickly unwinding the cloth and then moving to the other hand. I let him do that, watching quietly as he kissed each wrist several times. I broke his little trance by moving my hands to caress his cheeks and I kissed him quickly, then pulled the blanket aside enough to get out of bed.

He started to stretch, and then his face scrunched up in distaste again.

"Oh, this is not pleasant."

"What's wrong, love? Something offensive about waking up covered with my cum and sweat?"

"Ugh, gross. Must you be so crude before sunrise?"

He glared as I started toward the bathroom, naked and not caring that I was a bit of a mess. It was fun to irritate the OCD side of him, though I was happy to say he'd lightened up quite a lot in the time I'd known him. Getting him riled up guaranteed that he would have to at least strip the bed before he'd let himself shower, then he would only handle the clean sheets once he was equally clean. That meant a shower to myself, no temptation, and I'd be in the kitchen making breakfast before he was dressed.

It would probably drive him crazy if he knew I predicted his actions, even on such a small scale. But it all worked just as planned, and he arrived downstairs to omelets and smoked salmon fresh off the grill, with cold juice and hot tea. If I knew anything, it was how to take care of my man. His smile and relaxed air were all the appreciation I sought.

We made our plans to meet at home to clean up before the dreaded, at least by me, luncheon. After that would be Hueco Mundo. Another challenge for my sanity. Whatever else I could say about the afterlife, it sure as hell wasn't dull. I had scheduled an entire day off for our efforts to find Ashido, so I could get away with doing anything I wanted for the morning. I was tempted to visit the living world, except that I had already used the excuse of visiting friends and family several times recently, instead working on preparations for the possible future of exile. Heading to Hueco Mundo early on my own was a possibility but might arouse more suspicion than it was worth. So, I'd take a little time for meditation and solo training, then be the dutiful and completely boring captain and keep up with division business. Boring, just for a few hours. I was starting to see why Toshiro automatically looked more relaxed when he sat down at his desk.

 

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

 

Many interpersonal relationships in Seireitei are only possible when both parties staunchly ignore a history of opposition. For those of us 'born' in Rukongai, competition begins the moment a soul with an ounce or reiryoku finds itself in a vast, merciless pool of souls with limited resources for the few that actually have needs. Rivalries are born as power and position are sought, from the childish vying for rank in the Academy to the childish vying for rank in the Gotei. Conflicts between individuals, factions, families, and divisions constantly sow discord and dissatisfaction.

In the most extreme cases, bloodshed, betrayal and hatred must be buried for the sake of duty and a semblance of alliance. These extremes become more common the longer a Shinigami exists, and the more powerful they become. After all, it is the most prideful that push themselves to become captains, heads of houses, and authorities in government. They are the most likely to have made enemies along the way, and to hold grudges for slights great and small. But to make do, to survive day to day, they must put on masks to hide their crimes, and acknowledge the masks of those who have committed crimes against them.

Many managed to willfully or not blind themselves to this deplorable state of affairs, telling themselves that they did not hold on to past offense. Many bemoaned human nature, mourned for lost friendships, convinced themselves that the future was worth sacrificed pride, or simply adopted an attitude best summed up by the expression 'fuck it' and did what they needed to do without analysis.

There were also those who understood the situation we all found ourselves in and simply accepted it. Those managed to recognize their mortal enemies without letting it affect their lives, duties, or ambitions. The oldest captains were the prime examples of this impressive sangfroid, with centuries of conflicts accumulated at their feet which they determinedly stepped over to continue moving forward.

Obviously, I thought I had it all figured out. Everyone fit into these categories, with slight variations. Take Kuchiki Byakuya, one of the hardest men to read in all Seireitei. He and I had no particular ill will toward one another, no buried rancor over old disputes. We were as neutral as was possible. But he and Ichigo had begun their relationship in blood and death, hatred and disgust. And impossibly, it had gone downhill from there. Kuchiki had every intention of ending Ichigo on multiple occasions and with increasingly personal animosity.

And Ichigo had resolved to defeat Kuchiki, which required the intent to kill. He had detested everything Kuchiki professed to hold sacred, and he had more than enough reason to seek the captain's death. Kuchiki may have changed, or at least made concessions for compassion and loyalty to more than law and honor. But to this day he and Ichigo seemed beyond incompatible.

I was relatively silent through the greetings and the meal, waiting for the true conversation which would follow. Attentive to the drama playing out, I watched the other two captains with fascination. Kuchiki had a noble's mask, unfailingly proper until he had need to discard the façade. It was hard to see past, even for me, but I was inclined to believe he was one who recognized the necessity to let go of the past without forgetting. Ichigo irritated him, there was no doubt about that. What manner of irritation was unclear, for there was unfeigned interest and a hint of respect that implied Kuchiki accepted Ichigo as more than a past enemy and a current pest. I would go so far as to say that Kuchiki was inclined to like Ichigo, or at the least to concede that the challenge Ichigo presented to the noble's world view was a valid one.

As for Ichigo, if I didn't know him as well as I did, I would have had to draw one of two conclusions. Either he was an oblivious idiot, or he had a mask twice as deceptive as Kuchiki's. I knew Ichigo was capable of hiding truth quite well, but I also knew he did not tend to hide anything in front of those he trusted. How, then, did the history between my beloved and the 6th Division captain go from the worst possible opinion of one another to this? For I could see clearly that Ichigo was genuinely fond of Kuchiki. More than that, he respected and to some extent trusted the man.

My beloved was not playing fair. There was no room in my paradigm for a soul with great power, a massive ego, and the ability to completely forgive a clash so defining, a rivalry so absolute as that which had driven him to seek out and take down Kuchiki. It was not conceivable. Yet there it was, in the way Ichigo paid attention to Kuchiki's words, in the way he did not hold back his own ideas even if they disagreed, in the ease with which he showed his smile and his frown.

Grudgingly, I added a new category for those who moved forward with eyes open while being able to forge new relationships to replace the old without rancor. And one name alone in that category, possibly two names if I was seeing clearly through Kuchiki's defenses. Amazed once more by how casually my beloved forced me to relearn what I thought I knew, I allowed myself a moment of dazed love and admiration without letting it show.

With so much entertainment for my mind, the conversation between the duo only held enough of my attention to ensure I participated appropriately from time to time. That changed abruptly when Kuchiki made a comment that was completely in keeping with the topic at hand, that being issues related to running a division which Ichigo had yet to encounter.

"Of course, now that Central 46 is active again there is always the possibility of direct orders."

All my attention shifted to analyzing this new information, and the alarming fact that I had not been aware. Several links in my chain of informants had to have been broken for this to happen. I had been deliberately kept in the dark, by those who knew enough to knew exactly how to keep information out of my hands. Ever cautious and mindful of the lengths Kuchiki had gone to in order to enlighten me, I joined the conversation circumspectly, just to let him know I had not missed it.

"That is rare enough that I have never received such an order. Generally, even an order from Central 46 will go through the sotaicho rather than directly to you."

"Don't worry about me. Komamura drilled chain of command into my head just about daily. And protocol in case I ever have to deal with them in person."

"As he should. The new council has only been operating for six days; they will be particularly insistent on respect until they are comfortable in their authority. You would be wise to keep that in mind should you be summoned to appear before them."

Six days. The day after my transformation; the day before the onmitsukido, directly under the command of Central, began to tail us. Scattered facts and theories were clicking in to place so quickly that I had to separate part of my awareness to keep from what Ichigo called zoning out.

"Sound advice, Kuchiki, for both of us. Not having to serve as a captain and a lord, I must say I have always admired the dedication it must require balancing both responsibilities. I am certainly surprised that they did not draft you into Central 46."

A faint, formal smile acknowledged both the compliment, and my thanks for the warning hidden within my comments.

"Fortunately, I had a spare uncle to sacrifice for the purpose. There has always been a Kuchiki on the council, and there always will be."

That was perhaps more stunning than the information he had given. It was a clear promise of assistance, if only in this capacity of providing information, but he was also implying even more. I had certainly done nothing to earn this level of loyalty. Perhaps he believed more strongly in Ichigo than I had thought. I did not doubt that it was genuine, no trap or false attempt to ingratiate himself. It was unexpected, to say the least, and I was not entirely comfortable with this unsolicited alliance.

"Would you care to take tea? Rukia has created an indoor garden which is most pleasing when winter covers the grounds."

Talk turned more general again. Other details were given subtly, scattered through the conversation like gems hidden in dark earth. Some of the information I already had including a veiled warning about our onmitsukido observers. Those had kept a significant distance from Kuchiki Manor. The family was not entirely above the law, a fact made quite clear by the near execution of Kuchiki Rukia. But they were high enough that Central would be loath to antagonize the family head a second time just to keep an eye on two that had, so far, committed no crime.

Kuchiki asked very little in exchange for what he had given. Ichigo was not unguarded with his speech, but undoubtedly Kuchiki received proper payment in the form of intelligence. The noble now knew more of the truth about Ichigo's level of power than anyone other than me. More valuable was the knowledge of what we were about in Hueco Mundo, not a true secret, and the extent of Ichigo's comfort and control in that environment, which was very rare piece of intelligence.

I allowed all of this without interference, as my own payment of the debt. No doubt Kuchiki would have liked to sound out more about my own abilities considering the staggering changes I had been through. He did try to open that door, but I did not let him walk through it.

It was with a mix of sentiments that I left the Manor behind. The encounter had been productive, and surprisingly pleasant in its own right. Gratitude was blended with distrust of his motives, yet I was giving in to my instincts to take what I had been offered at face value. The noble had gained enough in return to make me feel slightly more at ease with his generosity. I had not gone into this with any expectation or hope of making an ally out of Kuchiki; I had always considered him slightly out of reach. Now I needed to reconsider, as I had so many other beliefs.

Ichigo chattered about unimportant things, mostly the manor, the guards, and Rukia until we had politely made our exit from the grounds. We traveled quickly to the security of home instead of the office, to prepare for the trip to Hueco Mundo.

"Well, that didn't turn out to be quite as big a pain in the ass as I had expected."

I snorted. "Indeed, you have summed it up perfectly."

"I confess, I picked up on maybe half of what I think I should have. I swear I did pay attention."

"No doubt you are underestimating yourself again, beloved. There was much said between the lines, but you surely did not miss the crucial point. Central 46 is active, and I was completely unaware of the fact. It was the missing piece of the puzzle. I doubt Kuchiki even knows just how critical that information is."

A momentary silence and then he was striding quickly from his closet where he had been changing. I looked over my shoulder, taking in the always welcome sight of his handsome face before turning to my own task. I pulled on the plain, dark tan cloak, adjusting the folds for quick access to Hyorinmaru. He was still silently studying me when I turned to face him.

"Tell me."

I cocked my head as I gathered my thoughts.

"Yamamoto has stayed his hand. I believe he would continue to do so indefinitely unless and until I make an aggressive move. But it is no longer his decision, as it may never have been in the past. It is not difficult to forget that the sotaicho is not the ultimate authority in Seireitei. And while he may know my history better that Central 46, it may be the council is my greater enemy once again."

"But if the old man doesn't want you dead, why would a bunch of politicians? Surely he's the only one with any real motive."

"They do not need motive; they only need law and precedent to justify ending a known threat before it becomes too powerful. The prison here is full of those who have committed no crime but were judged too dangerous to be allowed freedom based on nothing more than potential to cause destruction."

His anger was evident in look and tone of voice. "That's criminal itself. This place says it's all about balance and defending the good, but what kind of justice is that?"

"I'm afraid justice has little to do with it. When I tried to learn the truth about myself by studying the records kept in the Great Library, I learned much about Central 46 to try to solve the mystery of why my past lives were recognized but not erased from the records. Six days the council has been active. It has been a very long time since Central 46 was completely reformed, but there are of course guidelines in place for just such an occasion. There is a series of steps as the new council takes over duties, a series of instructions opened one after the other in the first several weeks.

"One of the first directives, on day two, would have identified a list of those under suspicion of crimes, treason, or of simply having too much power to go unchecked. They must have been the ones set a guard on me, to gather information and move quickly if I presented a threat. No doubt you were on the list, as well. Day nine is our deadline, Ichigo. I am not certain, but I assume they will act immediately, that same day or the next. That means we have three days, four at the most."

"Until what?"

"Until they open a directive I have never been able to access. A directive that includes all known information on the Heavenly Guardian. Then they will know who and what I am, and what they are supposed to do to stop me."

 

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

 

I fought down a wave of nausea as we stepped onto the pale sands. It didn't matter how much I had prepared, Hueco Mundo was Hell to me. The worst days of my life were spent here. My previous existence had ended here. My nightmares called me back here. My sanity had nearly been lost here. The emptiness of the rolling dunes under eternal night was the landscape of my defeat.

It was our third visit, our third attempt to find Ashido, but it had not gotten any easier. Upon each return, I had to face down the combination of rage and shame. Toshiro's hand reached out, loosening my clenched fist to twine his fingers through mine.

I nearly killed the man I love here.

He scanned the horizon, locking for a moment on the distant mirage that was Las Noches. The massive complex looked minuscule, an hour's journey away for the most powerful, many days journey for the weak.

"One grain of sand in a vast desert." Toshiro did not sound hopeful or disheartened; he simply stated a fact.

I took a deep breath, focusing on the point of this excursion. We were slowly searching in a perimeter around Las Noches. If we did not find him, or he did not find us by the time the circuit was complete, I had no idea what the next step would be. There was no point in spiraling out much farther. Hueco Mundo was infinite, or so large that the word would serve.

We had agreed on a few strategies before our first attempt, starting with avoiding detection. We were not welcome here, and we certainly wouldn't earn any points with Ashido if we led the remaining Espada to him. I had no way to know who was in charge, or if they had dispersed. Toshiro would keep his reiatsu as hidden as possible in between stops, when he would raise his power briefly in hopes of gaining Ashido's attention.

As for myself, I closed my eyes and concentrated for a moment. My reiatsu shifted, and I drew on the power of the true Zangetsu. Any Arrancar who had known the Cero Espada would recognize me. Any other Hollow would sense one of its own kind, a Vasto Lorde to be avoided at all costs. It was a calculated risk. We would be traveling the underground, an area brimming with Hollows. There were far fewer Espada to accidentally bump into, and they would have to be insane to engage me.

Toshiro stared at my black and gold eyes, flashing a quick smile before pulling up the hood of the plain, dark cloak chosen to blend in with the gloom underground. I pulled us into the first Sonido and the third search began.

 

ooooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo

 

"He hasn't been here in weeks, at least."

I peered around; the place did look abandoned. No spare clothing, ashes of a warming fire, blanket on the simple bed, nothing. Absently, I took the onigiri Ichigo was offering and thought as I ate. The faint traces of reiatsu had led us here, and it was probably as close as we had yet come. There was no better plan than to just plod on, unless I were to ask Kurotsuchi for aid. Perhaps he could still read enough of Kano's reiatsu on those cuffs to make some kind of tracking device. Even if Kano did not wish to come to me, I needed to speak to him to put this to rest, to be sure it was his decision to stay here. Else I would always wonder, always blame myself for leaving yet another ally alone in the darkness.

We had been on the hunt for hours, skipping erratically to various locations, not wanting to leave a straight line. Our first stop had been the 'graveyard' of memorials to his fallen comrades. We always checked there first, in hopes he would return. There was no trace of him, but I sent out a pulse or reiatsu and cleared random debris off the worn markers while we waited.

Though I was keeping my reiatsu suppressed and close, I had not sensed anything of Kano at any location until this little cave where he may have lived one day or many. I had not sensed any of the Espada, or any Hollow stronger than a few random Adjuchas and clusters of Menos. I foresaw a very long process, with little chance of success without Kano's cooperation. I had hoped to have the renegade Shinigami in the 10th within my three-day deadline. But there was no reason I could not continue the search once I had parted ways with the Gotei, if that was what it came to.

"Toshiro." Ichigo was drawing his blades. I drew Hyorinmaru as I flash-stepped after him, into an open area. Setting myself a few paces behind him, I raised my reiatsu enough to sense three strong Hollows coming fast, one familiar enough for me to remember.

"Here, kitty, kitty."

I snorted at my beloved's ever-present sense of humor. He did not drop his guard and neither did I. A past alliance of convenience meant nothing today. That the Espada and three of his lackeys arrived at a reasonable distance, and all facing Ichigo instead of surrounding us was more reassuring. I stepped to Ichigo's left as Jaegerjaquez approached, the others staying behind. None had weapons drawn.

"Oi, Cero, any way to greet an old friend?"

"Tell me what you want, old friend, and I'll decide just how to greet you."

"Not here to fight. You're in my territory, only right I should come see what you're up to." He glanced at me and did a double take. "No fuckin' way. That you, chibi?"

Never the brightest, the Espada ignored the warning growl of my beloved.

"Daaaamn, that's more like it! If you'd looked like that before, I might have fought harder to get you."

My left hand took Hyorinmaru as he spoke, leaving my right free to grab Ichigo's arm as he started to lunge forward, murder in his eyes.

"I told you I might hesitate to kill you one day, Jaegerjaquez. Consider that favor used."

As much as I distrusted and disliked him, the blue-haired creep did have guts. He eyed us both, and absently waved a hand to tell his followers to put away the swords they had drawn.

"Still a touchy subject, eh, Ichigo?"

"Unless you have something to say worth hearing, move along, Grimm. I'm not patient today."

His grin showed a few too many teeth to be considered friendly. "You're lookin' for the ghost. He's moved on, man. Hear me out and I'll tell you where to look."

"Fine." I followed Ichigo's lead and sheathed Hyorinmaru. He knew the Espada far better than I did. Besides, all four of them together were not a challenge for either of us anymore, with or without zanpakuto. "What is it you want me to know?"

"You haven't been close to Las Noches?"

"Didn't figure Ashido would be there. Why?"

"Place is a fuckin' graveyard. That old fart Barragan set himself back up as king. Only one day someone or something took out him and every Hollow in the place. Not a sign of 'em, no witnesses that I could find, just gone. There were hundreds, maybe a thousand.

"Halibel had been raising an army to take Barragan down, but she's too smart to go running in after something like that. The only one dumb enough to go for it was that whiny bitch Luppi. Nothing happened for like a month, and a few Arrancar drifted in. Then it all went down again. Only this time everyone was watching, and no one saw a thing. They were just there one second, gone the next, no fight, no fuss."

"Why should I care?"

"You ain't curious? Not the least bit concerned about something strong enough to swallow an Espada without anyone the wiser? Or do you seriously expect me to believe you're not thinking of the same person we're all thinking of right now?"

"That bastard is dead."

The Espada threw both hands in the air dramatically. Valid point, we would be fools not to consider the possibility. And if not Aizen, then who?

"You're right, Ichigo. Stupid me. I forgot that Aizen never once tricked anyone. The fucker was as honest as they come. We all saw him die, so it must be true."

"Alright, shut the fuck up, already. Consider me warned about whatever it might be, but I'm not running off to fix your problem and I'm sure as shit not jumping on the zombie Aizen bandwagon."

The Espada looked mystified, and I barely contained a chuckle. I had learned enough of Ichigo's 'lingo' to follow, even if I didn't fully understand the phrase. Ichigo was right to doubt. Yes, Aizen had pulled off some impressive illusions, but there were too many changes. Yet I would not rule it out as a possible answer without more information.

"If you are right, Espada, why would your fellows not be celebrating? Do you believe your master has turned on you?"

"I have no master, sex-on-legs." Ichigo growled again. "Starkk wandered off before you two even left. Ulquiorra hasn't been seen in nearly as long. The rest of us are scattered. Like I said, this is my territory."

"Fine, is that all you wanted to tell me? Where's Ashido?"

"You should take it seriously; I didn't risk my neck to tell you without reason. Whatever it is, it could some after you Shinigami down the road, after it's done with all of us. Things born here hate your kind, remember? But go on, it ain't your problem. You know that spot south of Las Noches where colonies kept settling in the cliffs? Look underground around there for your pal. Take him and run along home."

I watched Ichigo as the Espada turned away, and I saw the impulse to stop him cross my beloved's face. But his expression hardened, and he said nothing as the three vanished. No promises given; he was learning. I took his hand when he offered it, once more hiding my face and my reiatsu as much as possible.

Several minutes of travel later, we stood at the wide mouth of a slot canyon, narrowing into the distance. Along both cliff faces were the dark entrances of caves. Scattered signs told of recent habitation, but no whisper of any current residents. This could house a very large colony of Hollows, and it amazed me to think of this many being able to coexist in peace. Then again, perhaps peace was too much to ask among cannibals, and that was why the canyon was barren.

"There are several caverns nearby. We'll start with the largest, almost directly beneath us."

"Whatever you say."

He was still and quiet for a moment before looking at me.

"You think we should check out Las Noches before we leave?"

"Not without reporting. If there is anything worth finding there, and it is enough to beat the two of us, Soul Society would have no warning at all."

"That should have been my first thought. Fucking Grimm, has me seeing ghosts."

"While I cannot rule out the scenario, I do not believe whatever is happening here has anything to do with Aizen, unless it is some trap or creation he left behind. Do not create fears for yourself."

His Hollow eyes narrowed as he looked to the north, to the city of our captivity. "You're right, love. And I owe this place nothing." He squeezed my hand and took us below ground.

Perhaps a half hour later, we arrived in a more modestly sized cave. It was still big enough to host a forest, the bare, crystalline trees stretching past the limits of vision. Ichigo immediately dropped my hand, his eyes widening and searching. He looked at me with a grin. I raised my reiatsu, then waited hopefully, keeping enough power loose to watch for him. Minutes passed.

"I swear he's close, I just can't get a lock on him."

Cautiously, I extended my senses. I could see what Ichigo was talking about. Kano Ashido was out there. Possibly close enough to see. But he was hiding himself very well, and I let myself admire his skill once again. Soi-fon would be green with envy if I could convince this Shinigami to join the 10th.

"Stay here."

Untying the cloak, I pushed back the hood and dropped the bland cloth to be sure my haori was visible. I looked at Ichigo, and he did the same. My hands held out to my sides, I walked away from Ichigo some distance. Yes, we could both move as quick as thought, but lessening our advantage over him was a sign of our intentions, just as the Espada had taken care to keep his distance and leave his sword sheathed.

"Kano Ashido, I have come to speak with you. I give you my word on the debt I owe you that neither of us will harm you or attempt to force you into any action."

I waited, not attempting to find him out with reiatsu but calmly looking around the surrounding trees. More minutes dragged on, and when I turned my head back to look at Ichigo, Kano made his appearance. Ichigo's hand went to the hilt over his shoulder, but he stayed still as I gave a small and very slow shake of my head. Calmly, I turned back to the masked figure holding a sword to my throat.

"Do you not recognize me, Kano?"

He was silent for several seconds. His voice was quiet, muffled further by the mask, but the words were clear enough.

"Saito-taicho?"

Stunned for an instant, my mind then raced. Hundreds of years this man had been trapped, according to the story Ichigo had told me. Unwillingly trapped, losing his squad members and friends until alone, isolated, the only one of his kind in enemy territory. Ichigo had never managed to win much of his trust and couldn't say how sane the man was. Neither of us had given him the name of the long-dead 5th Division captain. If he was one of Saito's men, of course I would be close enough in appearance and reiatsu to fool him after all this time.

Answer yes, claim to be Saito. It would make it easy to get Kano back to Seireitei without force. Sane or not, he had shown loyalty and respect for the haori during my escape. Give him the order from his captain, and he would follow it. But I would risk forever losing his trust. I did not just want him back in Seireitei, I wanted him as my second. Lie now and our relationship would be tainted.

"No, I am Hitsugaya Toshiro. You remember helping us escape Hueco Mundo, removing the restraints the traitor placed on us. You remember my reiatsu, you remember my zanpakuto. It must have seemed familiar even then, though I looked much younger. You were a member of the 5th? Or did you know Saito in the 10th before he was made captain?"

I kept my tone respectful, kept my hands open and away from my body. It was impossible to read his reactions; I could barely make out the glint of his eyes in the eerie, empty darkness of the eye sockets of some dead Hollow. The press of metal on my skin lightened as his hand wavered. I could have taken advantage of that moment to disarm him. Instead, I stayed casually still.

"This is a trick. What do you hope to accomplish?"

"No tricks, Kano. I told you that I would return specifically for you, you remember that. It is no coincidence that I look like Saito-taicho, no coincidence that I carry the same zanpakuto. But that is a long story for another time and place. The only thing I wish to accomplish is to leave here with you, preferably as my new lieutenant."

He meant to vanish, and to reappear some 30 feet in front of me. Now that I was watching, his movements seemed slow and predictable. Again, I could have used the moment to knock him out, disarm or attack. He would note my complete lack of surprise, the way my eyes were already on him as he stepped out of shunpo. If I was right about his intelligence and abilities, it would be clear by now that if I wished to trick him, there really was nothing he could do to stop me. He was extraordinarily talented. And he was nowhere near my league. Not yet, anyway. But oh, what I could do with that talent and his centuries of experience not just surviving in Hueco Mundo but doing enough damage to have earned the fear of monsters.

Come on, Kano. Figure it out.

Zanpakuto still in a guard position, he lifted the mask with his left hand. Studying his now visible eyes, I found his answer and I smiled at my new second.

Chapter Text

I faced a bit of a moral dilemma, not for the first time. Only Toshiro was too busy. In just over two days since our visit with Byakuya, Toshiro had slept maybe an hour, pushing himself so hard to get as much accomplished as possible. He had already been exhausted before that, and I didn't want to bother him with issues I should be able to solve for myself. Only, I was not at all sure I could manage to find this answer without his help.

I caught myself tapping my pen on the desk and staring at the source of my quandary, and quickly looked back to my work as brown eyes flashed up. We had discussed what to do about Hinamori, obviously. I had thought I was content following the broad strokes of Toshiro's plan, which was for me to do nothing. It was harsh, cruel even. After Aizen's betrayal, after the way her relationship with Toshiro had been used in the most brutal of ways, she was perhaps the most vulnerable person I had ever met. To do nothing, to give her no support as Toshiro and I both abandoned her . . ..

At first, I had simply fallen into line. Toshiro didn't trust her. Hell, I didn't trust her, not deeply enough to tell her the full truth. It was hard to develop trust in someone without them showing some reciprocation or some strength to inspire confidence, and it was just too soon. The plan had been to spend years building a relationship and showing her that she could move past the damage that bastard had done to her. The plan had not been to get her to open up just enough to hurt her, and then turn traitor.

So, I faced a bit of a moral dilemma. My loyalty first and foremost was to Toshiro. But in his absence, in her presence, I wavered. I took Hinamori as my second, as the one I should trust with my life. I promised her she was safe. I gave her my back to guard and swore to guard hers. Quite apart from her being Toshiro's sister, quite apart from our connection as survivors of that bastard's machinations, I owed her better.

"Is everything alright, taicho?"

No. Everything is most certainly not alright.

"Fine, Hinamori. I think I just need a break from the office, get some fresh air."

"It's ten degrees and snowing."

And I had a feeling there would be no stopping the winter storm-front until the deadline passed and either nothing happened, or all hell broke loose. I stood and stretched, walking over to the door and pulling on the heavy cloak.

"Oddly enough, I don't seem to mind the cold anymore."

She looked on, a little suspicion, a little concern disappearing. She was learning, creating a passive mask of indifference that she should have perfected long before. Frequently, she showed a will, intelligence, and skill worthy of an officer. But there was no denying the truth; she was kitten trying to wear the crown of a lion. Aizen put her in this position too soon for her to thrive, and ensured she did not grow strong enough to get in his way. But I was the one who took that injured, deliberately stunted kitten and put that heavy crown back on her bowed head.



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



"Isn't that just like you, taicho. Not just a plan, but a back-up and another back-up for that."

"There are too many variables not to allow for flaws in every plan, Rangiku. Remember that. A contingency is only a way to increase your odds of success, not an admittance of weakness or lack of confidence."

We were at my dining table. The level of protections on my home was acceptable, and I had maintained barriers since the first day I set foot in the captain's quarters. But I could not do the same for the office, at least not for too long, without raising suspicion. With everyone aware how hard I was pushing for Rangiku's captaincy, there was at least some excuse for us spending a good deal of time together in my home as well as the office, and here we could speak freely.

"How much have you told Kano?"

"Almost nothing. I cannot until the old man gives in. Kano is being 'debriefed' as we speak, but any word is a euphemism for 'interrogation' when Soi-fon is involved."

"You said yourself that he wasn't mentally stable. Why are you so sure you can trust him?"

"We can trust him, Rangiku. You'll just have to take my word. Call it intuition, a memory I should not have, but I know Kano Ashido has my absolute faith."

I spoke with confidence, even though that sounded a little crazy even to my ears. Hyorinmaru agreed, and that was enough for me. I had never seen or dreamed a single memory from Saito's life, or any of the others, only Ryu. But there was undoubtedly something between us, a bond that I did not recall but felt, a bond he had never had a chance to mention. I expected he knew of it. Why else would he have come with me and agreed to become my lieutenant? I only hoped his commitment was strong enough to survive a serious trial so soon in our relationship.

"Alright, taicho. I do wish he wasn't so serious. I was hoping for someone a bit more fun. If he does end up being my lieutenant, it will be just like working with you all over again."

I frowned. "I should think you would be thrilled with that prospect. At least he's not likely to go out drinking when he should be working, and you will be the one with the haori, do not forget. Any questions for now? Ichigo's coming."

She stiffened before relaxing again, but without the playful air she had been exuding. I did not truly regret, but I did feel a twinge of sadness. Ichigo and Rangiku should be two peas in a pod, my exuberant, bubbly idiots. Perhaps in time she could learn to forgive him. She had forgiven me, and even Ichimaru who had done much worse and more than once. But she loved me, and that snake. She would have loved Ichigo, if they'd had more time to build on the close friendship they had begun.

Her papers gathered, she rushed to the door to get shoes, sword, and out before Ichigo arrived. I turned my back, not wanting to cause any further discomfort or make her feel like she was causing me any hurt. By the time she called her goodbyes, I had started a fresh pot of tea and was eyeing options for a light meal, having worked through breakfast and lunch. By the time Ichigo's voice called a greeting, I was finishing up a pair of sandwiches. Ichigo never turned down food.

He grinned as he spotted the plate I pushed toward him, and his eyes lit as they met mine. Yet there was something off. I debated waiting until we had both eaten. I refilled my cup and reached to get one for him. A wave of exhaustion made me dizzy, but I hid it, leaning one hand on the counter and resting for just a moment to refocus.

"Did something happen?"

Chewing paused, then resumed as I added a little honey to his tea. There was worry in his eyes when I met them again, and I took my tea and plate back to the small mess of papers on the dining table. I stayed calm, eyeing a page of plans and recommendations for officer development as my mind churned through possible causes of my beloved's agitation. It was personal, that was clear, to bring him to me in the middle of the day. My eye drifted to one of several envelopes as I decided I might as well eat if he was going to remain silent.

It was as close to awkward as time between us had ever been. Even after he finished eating, he stayed quiet, sipping his tea and watching me read. Forcing the issue a bit, I lifted my head and stared as I continued to eat. I caught his unguarded expression, and realized he was having doubts. Doubts about me, about our plans, or doubts about my reaction to something he was about to say? Whatever the cause, it was beyond troubling considering the depth of our faith in one another. My concern grew when he dropped his eyes, but he looked back seconds later, and gradually the odd look left his eyes.

Pushing aside the plate with the remainder of a meal I was no longer interested in, I clenched my eyes shut tight for a moment, trying to conquer the weariness that was increasingly dragging me down. I took a long drink as I looked back to him, raising a brow when he still did not speak.

"Ichigo."

His head cocked a bit to the side and his eyes took on a distant look, for all the world looking like a puppy trying to catch some faraway, mysterious sound.

"Seconds ago, I thought I would demand to know why you would ask me to betray my second when you've put both of our lives in the hands of your own without consulting me."

I nearly dropped the cup. As it was, I heard a crack as I sat it down. Before I even had a chance to register the sudden feeling of plummeting off a cliff, he spoke again.

"And then I remembered that it's only your life on the line. No one is after me, so there really isn't any need for me to run and hide like a coward."

It was very real, the sense of falling, and now with a knife in my gut. I groaned at the physical pain of it, and perhaps that is what snapped his attention back from wherever it had been.

"Toshiro?"

"How? What did I do?"

He blinked, looking confused, and I just stared in agonized amazement that he could say such things to me.

"What are you talking about?"

In a flash, he was beside me as I scrambled up from my chair, one hand pressed to the table for balance, one hand clutching at the pain that had moved to my chest. He was reaching for me, but hesitating. I was leaning away, a heartbeat from running, when a rush of freezing cold filled my veins, washing away the pain, ice encased my thoughts, slowing and stopping the irrational reaction.

Ichigo's voice was distant, muffled. I did not feel his touch. The world tilted, pitching forward. It seemed to take ages for me to look down to see why he had pulled back, his hands and arms covered in deadly ice. My mind screamed, pouring every shred of power and intent into a command as reality seared away into white, upon white, upon white.



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



Setting a pot of tea next to the pitcher of water and the plate of fruit and nuts. My feet carried me without my conscious direction, back to the side of the bed. Smoothing the perfectly straight and wrinkle-free blanket across his chest, I felt the comforting rise and fall. Running my fingers across his clear brow, I brushed aside the lock of hair over his left eye, feeling the slight warmth of his silky skin.

Her eyes were on me the entire time. Swallowing the resentment that anyone else was here, in our home, in our bedroom, by his side, I stood tall and turned with a mild smile.

"Thanks for this, Rangiku. I'll be back as soon as I can."

Steely eyes met mine unblinking. She had spoken as little as possible since I showed up at her door in desperation. I had needed her hep to understand some of the unfinished work on table, and to prioritize what needed to be done. She was the only one fully informed, the only one Toshiro trusted with the truth, therefore the only one I could trust to look after my vulnerable dragon.

"You're wasting time."

It would be the right thing to do, to smile again and acknowledge that she was right. To be charming, ingratiating would only be smart, a step toward civil relations even if it was all false courtesy. I just didn't have it in me, not now. With a sharp nod, I dropped pretense and left without another word.

My hand patted at my chest, verifying for the 10th time or more that the envelopes to be delivered were in my pocket. Toshiro and I had divided the work to be done, and we saved time by taking care of our tasks independently. But he had not been entirely honest, assigning a great deal more to himself than he had let on. It was unfortunate. I wasn't angry, but had I known more about what he was doing, it would have saved me a good deal of worry. For here in my pocket, among other things, were favors asked and favors called in, all to help Hinamori.

There was much to do. Without Toshiro's ability to move distances without leaving a trace, I would have to be a bit sneakier. After sending messages to Renji and Rukia and making sure Hinamori would be busy elsewhere, I returned to the 5th to finish the day, acting the part of dutiful captain and having dinner with the division. Chatting casually with Mayeda and Hamada brought back a twinge of remorse. It was a good team, the division as a whole and the smaller team of my senior officers. I wondered if that bastard had ever hesitated, ever looked around this very room and made an effort to harden his resolve. I doubted it.

Toshiro had, more than once, expressed amazement at my ability to trust others. I was a good deal more cautious now, but nothing like him. He would call what I did that night foolish, reckless, and naïve. But the work to be done was in my hands. So, I greeted my friends and took them to my quarters, fixing tea while they recovered from their surprise at the layers of barriers I raised around us.

"And just what are you doing?"

"Making tea. I could be persuaded to provide snacks if you're nice to me."

"What the hell is going on, Ichigo?"

"You take sugar, right, Rukia?"

I turned toward them, carrying a tray to the table and smiling as Renji held onto a sputtering Rukia's shoulders. I was going to miss pissing her off, especially now that Renji took the brunt of the punishment every time I got her wound up.

"Look. I need your help, both of you. And I need you to trust me without asking why. I can tell you that what I need isn't immediately dangerous, but might come back to put you at serious risk later. The less you know, the safer you will be in the long run. And I need you to tell me right now. If you aren't on board, there is no blame, no anger, no change in my love for both of you. But I'm in a hurry, so I can't afford to give you time to think it over."

Rukia had simply stared, wide-eyed. Renji's face had cycled through worry for Rukia, anger at me, shock at the implications of what I was saying, and back to anger at me.

"Don't be a dick, Ichigo. Just tell us what to do."

Rukia's big eyes blinked and her stare turned to her boyfriend. A smile crept onto her lips. Not the playful or friendly smile I was used to, not the devious smirk I earned so often. It was sweet, admiring, tender, and the first genuine moment of love they had allowed me to witness. I would take that memory with me, and was grateful for the instincts that made me call on them.

With Rukia and Renji taking on the delivery of envelopes throughout Seireitei, I was free to write one final letter, then lose my shadows and make the long journey to one of Toshiro's secure locations, this one a small, shabby cottage far on the outskirts of District 46. The sad little wooden shack was held up in part by leaning on a sturdy neighboring home, the sagging roof groaning under the weight of the continuous snowfall. It did not matter if the entire thing collapsed, since the hidden 'door' in the unkempt back yard was the only thing of interest.

A series of precise manipulations of reiatsu opened the small 'safe,' a well-fortified and stabilized pocket of what Toshiro called chaos. No one in the Gotei would be able to retrieve anything from here, even if they could find the entry point, and Toshiro had established several such entries around Soul Society and in the Living World. The greatest advantage was that he could access anything he stored here, from any of the access points. He planned to try it in Hueco Mundo, but now that would have to wait.

Pulling out the final items to be secured, I moved them one at a time, carefully making sure the preservation kido was in place on each. Watching my hand vanish into thin air wasn't too unnerving. The feeling, though, I was still not used to. The space on the other side was like a living thing, reaching and touching, sampling my skin and clothes with slithering brushes of power. It was not hostile, and did not attempt to harm, but it also was not friendly. There was nothing identifiable, as if the force on the other side was not a conscious thing, simply reacting without a goal. But if you reached, if you touched back or moved to explore and invite, it responded. The first time I had felt it, I had tried to clasp the tendrils of power, insubstantial and solid at the same time. It had clasped back, and Toshiro had to reach in to pull my hand back out. Now, I simply moved, slowly and steadily, feeding each item into the void and feeling it accepted and moved away from me.

After Toshiro's personal journal made it's exit from this world, I pulled out the jade dragon I had given him as a birthday gift. It would be odd seeing him without it. Ever since the day it came back from the jeweler fixed to a silver chain, it left his neck only long enough for him to shower. I looked at the final item with a smile. I would have left it behind, not even thought of it. Toshiro probably didn't realize how easily replaced an MP3 player was. Well, the little thing did play a role in some of my favorite memories, and few of the precious items saved were mine. I gave it to the chaos to keep, then meticulously locked the door and erased any sign of my presence before making a series of stops in other places on my way back to Seireitei.

Somewhere around District 5 one of my personal spies found me, and soon the team of four shadows was back on my tail. I would not miss them in the least.



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



Though I could not be sure, I think I woke a couple of times. Yes, I must have. I remembered a throbbing headache, and I light off to one side. Rangiku had been in that light, sitting and quietly reading in a big chair that I recognized from Ichigo's music room. I had looked briefly, no Ichigo, and Rangiku said something that I could not clearly hear. So, I tried to sense him, and remembered nothing after that.

The second time was probably just a dream. No headache, no worry, just warmth and Ichigo's lightly spiced scent surrounding me. Snow falling through the weak dawn light. It was beautiful, the white flakes gifted from the darkness above, turning and glinting, catching the peach hue of morning and the flashes of golden light, then drifting through ashen shadows to join the thick blanket lying more and more heavily on the frozen earth. It was my snow, I knew, my memories and expectations, my regrets accumulating across the landscape I was preparing to leave behind.

How strange I thought it to be. I loathed this place. How it was created, how it had destroyed a world and a people so magnificent, how vile the power that held it all together. Time and again I had sought to destroy it, to shred every soul and break every stable connection so that chaos could reclaim Soul Society like the lush jungle reclaiming the ruins of a forgotten and vain civilization.

And yet I loved this place. So many lives, most of them lived out right here as part of the very organization that executed me again and again, that I made the first target of my wrath again and again. I had few friends, and I could spare the ones I chose. So why did I not wish to fight? Why did I wish to preserve the order that I had lusted to destroy for millennia? I had no answer, except the irrational sentiment of love.

With the warmth of my beloved's arm across my stomach, the weight of his head on my shoulder pressing more heavily than the gathered mass of the billions of snowflakes that filled my gaze and my mind, I retreated back into slumber.

It was the next time I woke that I remembered what had happened just before I lost consciousness, what we had been doing and what was to come. I struggled to hold on to the serenity of waking in Ichigo's arms, his lean body pressed to my back, my arms wrapped with his across my abdomen. I focused on the light and the snow, letting memory and thought wash over me harmlessly, gathering knowledge without letting it take root in my heart.

Perfectly still, I could feel the steady, slow breaths of my beloved behind me. He would stay asleep, I hoped, long enough for me to sort out fact from fiction, logic from emotion. I closed my eyes.

The bright winter light followed me, setting the whites and blues ablaze with color. Snow fell less heavily, a scattering of flakes that did nothing to block the clear rays as they bounced and refracted off crystal. Taking a deep breath of the clean, frost-scented air, I let contentment and peace radiate through me, the worries that had brought me here no less real, but far less dominating in the face of the beauty surrounding me.

Mirroring my lassitude, Hyorinmaru was in no hurry to reach me. The great dragon finally appeared, a mirage of reflections against the blue sky, lazy eddies of snow trailing gentle spirals in his wake. I stretched and gathered my thoughts as he circled lower, lower, secure in his ownership of the skies, in no rush to meet the earth. But meet the earth he did, gently sliding into the soft snow like a swan into calm waters. I laughed at myself. I should be a raging, anxiety-ridden mess considering what brought me here. Instead I was turning the world into sappy poetry.

I feel rather out of sorts, Hyorinmaru.

The dragon merely hummed, cocking his head down and sideways to focus one swirling crimson eye on me. I needed to shake off this bizarre feeling of being one step removed from my own life. So I asked directly.

What happened?

Surely you know. You worked yourself past exhaustion, young one.

That's absurd. My reiatsu is fine, not nearly depleted.

You are more than just your power. The form of your soul behaves just as a body, and you have ignored it's needs too long.

I have worked harder, stayed alert longer in the past.

And you paid for it each time.

I paused. It was true, I had put myself in the infirmary more than once, or fallen into nightmares of the past. The only difference is that this time, I simply slept. It was a significant improvement, and perhaps that is why I was not as upset as I should be.

Hyorinmaru, did I hurt Ichigo?

No.

I nearly did.

The shining head dipped a little closer.

Yes.

Am I capable of harming him, then? Is it within my power to kill him?

I cannot be certain.

My head bowed, remembering looking down, the thick ice on my beloved's arms. This was unacceptable. I had put everything at risk. I had put Ichigo at risk. It was a lack of self-discipline. I should have been training more to learn and master these new abilities. I should have been in complete control. But there was an even more pressing concern.

I have lost his trust.

The ground shook with the avalanche of laughter, and I glared at the icy head looming above me.

There is nothing to laugh at. Without him, what is the point of all this?

Forgive me, oh my wise master. It is always amusing to me how emotions undermine reason.

You mock me when I sincerely require your insight.

I do no such thing. You wish my insight? Seek within your own actions and your own fears. A man such as your chosen does not distrust without being given reason.

Are you and I not past the point of riddles?

I felt Ichigo reaching for me, heard his voice, distant, just as it had been after he spoke those words. My mouth opened to insist on a straight answer of Hyorinmaru, to demand to know if I had somehow destroyed the faith of my beloved, as I must have for him to speak so accusingly. But no, my teeth snapped shut. The question was not for Hyorinmaru to answer.



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



He did not respond to my voice, though I could feel by his reiatsu that he was awake. Hoping that he was either meditating or deep in thought, not simply trying to avoid me, I held him and tried to relax. It must be 9 or 10 in the morning now. Toshiro had slept for around 20 hours, and I just knew he would be angry at the lost time. That made it easier to be patient, to put off the scolding.

When I felt his breathing change and a slight tension run through his muscles, I raised myself on one elbow. His eyes were half open, lazily blinking as he gazed out at the deep white cover turning his wild garden into bizarre shapes, lumps of white broken by patches of dark where gnarled branches and clumps of reedy plants protected little, black pockets of earth from the cold shroud.

"Toshiro?"

Such long, thick lashes, the envy of the vainest of men or women, fluttered down in a series of rapid blinks. I enjoyed the sight; as always, I could become so enraptured in little details about him. When his head turned slightly and his eyes slid to mine, he met a fond smile, probably a rather ridiculous look of adoration. Just the corner of his mouth twitched, and my smile widened, recognizing that secret, satisfied precursor of his own smile.

"What day is it?"

Ah, and so soon the moment was gone. I could not complain; the moment was more than I had expected before he was back to business.

"Wednesday. Day nine. I'm guessing mid-morning. So far, no sign of trouble."

"Ichigo."

His tone was cold, and his eyes went back to the snow. I braced myself for his anger, at least frustration.

"There is a lot we need to do. But first I need you to turn your back or leave the room."

"Um . . . okay."

I moved away from him, confused but curious, and rolled to face away. I felt the movement of the bed, the rustle of the blankets, the satisfied sighs and groans in that insanely sexy voice. Nearly groaning myself, it took a great deal of willpower to not turn around. I should have left the room.

"Dammit, you know I'm just picturing it anyway."

"Deal with it. Every muscle is sore and oh . . . ooooh, thank you, God!"

I heard a series of small cracking pops to explain that, his back or neck getting a good stretch. I clenched my eyes shut, tormented by the image of his spine twisting, the muscles contorting along either side tight and writhing under the smooth, golden skin. Oh, it was not right, was not fair that his body could move like that while not pinned underneath me. All I would need to do is turn, reach out, pull that lithe body full of grace and passion into my arms. Scooting quickly across to the opposite edge of the bed, I nearly ran for the bathroom.

My version of a cold shower was water that wasn't quite steaming. I focused on getting clean and thinking of anything except what had just happened, or what Toshiro might still be doing in the room next door. Perhaps it was time to start keeping score. Times I had managed to predict Toshiro's reactions with reasonable accuracy: 5, and I was oh so proud of every one. Times he did or said something completely unexpected that threw me off balance and derailed every thought: something like 142 and counting.

Once I and my poorly timed arousal had calmed down, Toshiro had vanished. I felt his presence downstairs, calm on the surface, tense beneath the layer of peace, but not angry and thankfully no longer worn thin with exhaustion. I dressed in a comfortable yukata. Word had long ago been sent to the 5th and the 10th not to expect their captains before noon, and not to disturb us for anything less than an invasion. Chizuru, also, had been given the day off, and tomorrow. We did not want her to be nearby if anything should happen.

Arriving downstairs, I looked around in confusion. He was not in the kitchen, so I headed for the library and heard running water from the downstairs bathroom. I tried not to read anything into it. He could have joined me in the shower, or waited if he thought I couldn't be counted on to keep my hands to myself.

Pulling out just about every vegetable and two lovely fillets of Arctic Char, I started preparing a large meal. There was no music, and I looked at the perfect but non-functional little replica of my iPod with a disgruntled sigh. The fakes around the house outnumbered the genuine articles; Toshiro hadn't been able to stop himself from saving a large number of the artifacts, books, and even a few paintings. That, I did predict. Dragons are hoarders, after all.

So used to having music, I was singing quietly while I worked. I found myself remarkably free of anxiety about whatever might come, more worried about Toshiro than anything the Gotei or Central 46 could throw at us. It was almost comical to think of it. They would have to send every soldier to capture us, and that still wouldn't be enough. It wasn't just power, it was Toshiro. He had so many plans, layers on layers of deception, action, and reaction.

"Hungry, love?"

I sensed more than heard him, padding down the hall as silent as his snow that continued steadily falling, turning even the windowpanes into frosted works of art.

"Starving. Can I help?"

"Just sit your gorgeous self where I can see you, I'm almost finished."

His hand trailed across the small of my back as he passed behind me. Then he sat on the high stool, leaning both elbows on the counter, his chin on his clasped hands, and stared. After asking him to be visible, now I tried to avoid his intense gaze. He was showing no emotion at all, the mask he wore for the rest of the world in place, the barrier between him and everyone . . . except me. Resisting the urge to fidget like a guilty child under a parent's knowing eye, my mind flashed back to Toshiro sitting on a bed in Las Noches, waiting for me to beg forgiveness for violating his trust and not believing in him. That was the only other time he had ever looked at me like that. Only this time, I had done nothing wrong.

He stayed silently watching, and I made myself relax, made myself resume at least humming the tune I had been singing. Soon, he would finish thinking and stop with the maddeningly mixed signals, the affectionate caress, the dispassionate stare. Soon, he would tell me what the hell had gotten so far under his skin. By the time I had finished cooking, I was no longer faking, but had centered myself to be ready. I gave him a smile I hoped was encouraging as I pulled a stool around to the inside of the counter and set out plates and tea.

A few bites in silence.

"Kano Ashido?"

"Released from his 'debriefing' last night. He's fine, very realistic . . . what's the word? Pragmatic."

"The letters that were on the dining table. Did you deliver them?"

"Yes. Or rather, I arranged for their delivery."

"Arranged? What do you mean?"

"Renji and Rukia handled everything except the final letters."

I watched calmly, impressed that there was no reaction other than a pause to think, a few more bites before the next question.

"How much did you tell them?"

"Nothing at all. And they did not ask."

"This will put them at risk."

"No more risk than they face from simply being my friends."

"That much is probably true. At least there will be no more barriers to their advancement if they survive suspicion."

"So you do think that's it, that Renji hasn't been called to take the exam because of me?"

"Because of you? That is one interpretation, though it is more accurate to take a tactical view then to blame yourself or your friendship. Matsumoto would have been held back, as well, had she been ready earlier. It only makes sense. The old man would not make captains out of possible opponents until certain of your loyalty."

"And yours."

"No. He knows where my true loyalty lies, and it is not now nor has it ever been to the Gotei 13."

"What?"

What the fuck did he just say?

Throughout all that he had done, all he had learned, he had always stood proud of his position as a captain. The history of betrayals, executions, murders had only made him flinch, but never had he wavered in his efforts to find a way to move forward in honor of his commitment to the haori. It hurt him more than I could stand, just planning for our exile was an admittance of failure. Or was I utterly fooled?

"My absolute and immutable loyalty has always been and always will be to you and you alone."

There, for just an instant, a crack in his impassive façade. A flash of something otherworldly, full of fury, wisdom, and resolve. I had seen it before, not this clearly, and shaken it off as fancy. Some part of me wished to deny it, this alien, unreachable part of my Toshiro. But a deeper and fiercer part of me was drawn from the beginning to this. Whether it was his truly non-human origins, or a hint of what he may become, whether it drew from me an ancient and immeasurable love, or the desire for a true equal for the powerful creature I had become, I could not say, and could not care.

I had reached for him, standing to lean across the counter, my hand intending to pull him forward by wrapping around the back of that lovely neck. His hand gasped my wrist and he drew himself back.

"Ichigo. Why did you say those things to me? Explain what you meant, for I do not understand."

"What things, love? If I said something to upset you, I don't know what it was."

Turquoise eyes searched mine, and I hid nothing as the seconds ticked by. Another glimpse past his mask, a slight twitch of a brow in frustration.

"You first questioned my decision to trust Matsumoto but not Hinamori, and condemned me for not consulting you on this."

I felt my eyes go wide and my jaw slack in amazement.

"Then you told me that I was a coward to think of running, and implied that you . . .."

His voice trailed off in a pained whisper, though no emotion showed in his face. I was mystified. The fuck if I'd said anything like that, the fuck if I ever would!

"What?” I snapped. “I implied what exactly?"

"That you would not follow if I left."

I yanked my hand out of his. Never had I felt the urge to hit him, but now it was all I could do not to punch his teeth out. Anger was always my first response, and I slammed my hand onto the counter to control my impulses. His eyes followed my hand, but he did not react.

"Toshiro, you believe I would abandon you?"

"I never asked. All along, I never gave you a choice to stay, or to face this when you do not need to."

Less than a second, my vision went dark and I had him pinned against the wall, left arm across his chest, right hand around his neck. In his eyes I saw only misery, and as I growled, pressing closer, all I felt was rage. Not since Hueco Mundo had I experienced anything like this, unstable and thirsting for blood as I struggled to regain control. Somehow, the fact that he did not attempt to push me away only made me more furious.

Detached, expression blank, yet it took only an instant for him to yield to the force of my kiss, teeth and tongue pushing his head against the wood. In that moment of aggression, I realized what was causing both fury and growing despair. How dare he doubt me after everything we had been through? Question my trust, my loyalty? Expect me to not honor my commitment, my promise to give him my life?

But he had reason to question. I had doubted. Only until I sought him out, only until I looked into his eyes and doubt vanished. But it had happened. I pulled my head back, the flush of his cheeks and lips countering the coldness in his eyes. I knew my own eyes would be terrifying as I hissed at him.

"And when, exactly, did I say such words?"

"Yesterday. When you came to talk to me."

"Uh-huh. Would that be just before you passed out from exhaustion? You heard these things from my mouth and believed them while you couldn't even stand without shaking? Some fucking genius."

I did not look for a response in his eyes, too afraid of my own reaction if he kept that damned mask between us. But this time he responded, a small, tender moan contrasting the fierce clashing of teeth. I knew I was being too rough, forcing his tongue back, taking my anger out on him when he did not deserve it. It was folly, to think I could bring us to an understanding through violence. Knowing that did nothing to quell the need to make it absolutely, unequivocally clear that I belonged to him.

There was blood on his lips when I pulled back, delicate skin split under the assault, his, mine, or both. I spoke with my lips still touching his, my eyes hesitating before meeting his. He needed to know. He had to not just believe that I was his entirely; he had to have the truth carved into his very soul.

"Hitsugaya Toshiro, do you trust me with your life?"

Turquoise eyes widened. Relief and love showed clearly through the storm of emotion before the veil came down again. His breath became cold against my lips, and I knew then that he was deliberately trying to keep distance from me. My determination to destroy that empty space between us doubled as he sighed his answer.

"Yes, beloved. Yes."

The hand at his throat slid round. Like a scalpel slipping under and separating layers of flesh, my reiatsu cut precisely at the threads of his, severing the nearly permanent spell that disguised the white scars circling the golden column of his neck. My fingers were grasping and pulling the hair at the base of his skull, yanking to expose the left side of his neck. The semblance of detachment shattered, and his loud shout of pained surprise made my lips stretch in a grin as my teeth cut through skin. His arms came up, one around my waist pulling me closer, the other running up my back, fingers sliding into my hair. A shaky breath and then he was moaning my name again and again as I poured my reiatsu into the wound, teeth holding him still, just as he had taught me to do when my soul had another name.

What I had not expected was ecstasy. It was a wondrous pleasure when our reiatsu mingled during sex, a pleasure we did not often indulge in. This was something else entirely, nearly orgasmic bliss as my power, the essence of my soul, invaded and carved out a home within the soul of my love. And as I released his flesh, licking the blood trailing down to the perfection of his collarbone, pushing the stained fabric away, still I could feel that part of me pulsing within him, alive and in tune with the fast, strong beating of my heart.

Anger, blame, guilt meant nothing now. My grip on his hair lightened, fingers massaging away any hurt. Giving the bruising marks on his neck one last, long swipe of the tongue, I returned my mouth to his slightly parted lips, feeling the rapid, shallow breaths. I wondered if I, too, looked so deliciously aroused, his now unguarded eyes dark and hazed, almost as if . . . no, I confirmed with a push of my hips that made him shudder and tighten his hold, not quite but it wouldn't take much for either of us.

As I kissed him again, much more tenderly this time, I let my hips flex in time with the pulse I could still feel, the incredibly erotic throbbing of reiatsu merging with his yet distinctly separate, distinctly my own. It was not unlike the feeling of being buried within him, and I thrust more insistently against him as my mind followed that thought, sinking into the intimacy of becoming one in a completely new way.

He was being so passive, so uncharacteristically submissive, hands still grasping my waist and hair, not roaming as mine were, tongue not fighting, hips not adding to the friction between us as I rubbed boldly, the damp cloth separating us only adding heat and tension. But oh, the purring groans deep in his throat, like the pleasure could not even manage to survive the journey to his lips to become sighs. I trailed kisses back down to the deep mark carved into his neck and waited, and hoped.

When finally he moved, and soft lips landed feather light on my skin I nearly came from the anticipation and strain of holding back. Those sweet lips and heavy breaths brushed up and down my neck, and I tilted my head farther, still licking at the bite wound. Then the damned tease barely poked out his tongue, slowly dragging the tip up the taut muscle and down my carotid, then nipping the same trail. I was so close, both hands now gripping his firm backside, insisting that he move with me. I stopped licking and kissing, all my attention on my neck, my cock, and the harsh whine as I held each breath to try to delay the inevitable.

He was doing it on purpose, I was certain, pushing me to the very limit of tolerance. It was proof of the established fact, that all Toshiro had to do was wish it and he was in total control whether or not I had him pinned and bloodied. My mouth opened, I tried to beg him to do it, but even that was beyond my ability.

Insignificant pain was lost instantly in waves of rapture. Awareness of his mouth, his breath, his teeth lost in the feeling of icy reiatsu, power both foreign and gloriously familiar becoming everything, the only thing I could focus on for a second, for an eternity. Then my hands were clutching his ass with bruising strength, my intense orgasm an afterthought, a bonfire added to a roaring conflagration. The last of my sanity shattered as his reiatsu surged around and within me, his own release tearing through us both.

My ragged moans became audible. Toshiro slid down the wall, supporting my weight as my legs folded helplessly. Somehow, he had enough control to keep us from landing in a messy heap, wrapping a leg around me and pushing so that I found myself sitting with my back to the wall, Toshiro straddling my lap. His forehead fell onto my shoulder and we did nothing but try to breathe for minutes.

"That was . . . damn."

His head lifted, revealing eyes clear, happy as they stared at my neck and I knew that despite regeneration, there must be a scar.

"Still so eloquent."

I chuckled as he rose gracefully to his feet and extended a hand. He pulled me up and into a sweet, light embrace.

"Ichigo, thank you."

"Never any need for thanks between us, my love."

He released me with a smile, and turned to walk toward the stairs.

"Truer words were never spoken. The onmitsukido missed their chance."

I followed, chuckling again. They could have done just about anything to both of us and we would not have noticed, let alone fought back. But thanks to the barriers around our home, they never knew the golden opportunity that had passed them by. It must be past 11 by now. Had Central 46 learned the truth by now? Was that directive yet to be read?

That was all the attention I gave such thoughts, trailing behind Toshiro to clean ourselves up. We would join our divisions soon, likely for the last time. Several of the possible scenarios and our responses were already expired, more falling out of mind with each passing hour.

Stepping into the bathroom for a quick rinse, I eyed my reflection. My head cocked to the side, contemplating the pale crescents, the evidence of a bite obvious to anyone who looked closely, and I grinned. The feel of Toshiro's reiatsu grew stronger, the skin of my neck tingling as he stepped up behind me to admire the marks. He frowned slightly looking at the tattoo, then smiled at the new ornament alongside the zero. And I could feel him on yet another level, my senses tuned to the power laced in the more slowly healing wound that would leave a matching mark between two lines of scars like fine chains. Beautiful.

 

Chapter Text

What a mess. I stared at my desk, counting down from fifty because ten was just not going to cut it. I turned away; there was no point in getting annoyed, or in trying to clean up the scattered papers, cups, crumbs, and god knows what else strewn all over the normally neat and clean surface. Tomorrow, if it was still my desk, then I would worry about it.

"Where is she?"

Kano looked at me calmly, looked at my desk, and back at me. His face and eyes were completely blank as he held out a cup of tea. With my face and eyes also carefully expressionless, I took the cup and settled on the couch rather than face the trash pit that was once an organized work space. Not to mention the desecration of one of my favorite memories, the night of Ichigo's captaincy celebration and our private celebration right there, on the smooth, dark wood now stained with ink and trash and tea and probably sake.

"At lunch, taicho."

I considered asking how the morning went. He and Rangiku had obviously been going over paperwork, on my desk instead of hers. Just the thought of her teaching anyone a lieutenant's job was enough to give me nightmares. But I did not have the time to train him, and if she wanted a competent second, it was only fair that she put in the effort and accept the consequences if she trained him to be as sloppy as she could often be.

There was no point in small talk, as if there were time for such a thing, and as if either of us were inclined to chit-chat. Finally, a second I could work with. No screeching, no shopping, no walking into the office to find mostly-naked drunk lieutenants on the floor. Kano and I would have this place running like clockwork in a week. It would be a damned shame if today went the way I expected.

"How much do you want to know?"

"As much as you will tell me, taicho."

I raised powerful barriers around the office, no longer caring if it made anyone suspicious. In fact, if it made them a bit more jumpy, so much the better. Paranoia and fear would lead them to make mistakes.

"As much as I can in two hours, then."



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



Everything was so . . . normal. Hinamori had taken care of morning training and rearranged my schedule, not that I was likely to be around to complete many of those duties. She did not ask why I had taken most of the morning off, and did not ask when she noticed the scar on my neck, on my skin that instantly healed from any cut without leaving a single mark. And I proceeded with my usual casual air.

I had only enough time before lunch to meet one obligation on my schedule, and I gave all my attention to the training session with Hamada's new right hand, a 14th seat only 5 years out of the Academy. Hamada had a fantastic eye for talent; the hyper young man would make a hell of a fighter if he could control his impulses so he didn't get himself killed for nothing. Reminded me of me, kinda. He picked up on training eagerly, with an expression of hero-worship plastered on his face. Poor kid.

Never skip a meal, particularly if it may be your last. The 5th cafeteria was greatly changed since I took over. A rather solemn place it had been, dealing with the betrayal of a captain, lack of a lieutenant, and supervision by the serious and impersonal leaders of the 7th. After perhaps a week of tension and uncertainty, the division had started to pick up on the informal and interactive nature of their new captain. I made a point of sitting at any random table and dragging every Shinigami sitting nearby into conversation. Tactics, rumors, jokes, the mess hall had become more like a respectable pub, a comfortable place to mingle with your comrades.

Every time I felt myself thinking of missing this, I shoved regret out in the snow where it belonged. Someday, perhaps, I would make it all up to them. I lingered long over my meal, enjoying the companionship as I kept one eye on the clock. Timing was everything today. Toshiro and I were no easy prey, and even sitting here laughing with my subordinates was part of the plan.

I sighed, stood, and said my goodbyes cheerfully. Within an hour I needed to be far into Rukongai, checking patrols. The urgent request for Hinamori's presence in the 10th came right on schedule, Rangiku doing her part to keep Hinamori distracted and out of harm's way. I assured my lieutenant that protocol was not that set in stone. It wasn't typical for a captain to check patrols without his second, combat was a possibility, after all. But it was not a law, and she could catch up with me after. It wasn't like I couldn't handle myself.

She caved, and the next plan went into action. No honorable summons to appear before the sotaicho or Central 46. No arrest within Seireitei. So now we would tempt fate.



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



Kano and Rangiku headed off for afternoon squad training, he all business, she with a smile that was only sad for an instant before transforming into her usual exuberant grin. And I was off, pausing for a moment on the high roof of the armory to survey the activity around the division with satisfaction and pride. Drifts lay heavy around the cleared paths, the snow still pristine and shining. Four squads were assembling on the training grounds below, and the sun caught on Rangiku's shining hair as she moved through the crowd. It was a perfect final view, if this was indeed the time to say farewell.

The snowfall had lightened considerably, a reflection of my own mood, I knew. Since resolving things in a most pleasing manner with Ichigo that morning, the storms had relented. My pace was fast, no need to take it easy on my shadows. As far as I could tell, they still did not know that they had long been detected. And the additional four that followed at a greater distance surely thought they did so in secrecy.

My valley was stunning under thick white cover, the creek nearly invisible and trees straining under the weight. Behaving as I always would, I paused to appreciate the view from a high rock spire, the thin air well below freezing at this altitude. Even I felt the bite of the cold, and I wrapped the scarf a bit closer, my fingers running lovingly along my neck, feeling Ichigo as close as my skin. Centered, calm, I drew the sword at my waist and let the sky darken as the storm came almost instantly, frosted winds clearing my training ground.

This is it, Hyorinmaru. Are you with me?

I am here, young one.

I can feel that they'll be making a move.

Agreed. Remember to show restraint if they are foolish enough to wait for you to call Bankai.

As it turned out, they were not that foolish. Stepping to the center of the clearing, I stepped also into a circle of onmitsukido. Every one of the eight was prepared for a fight, steel flashing and kido sizzling the air. I surveyed the circle calmly, the sword I carried held lightly in front of me, not aggressive or particularly defensive. Then I turned my eyes and stance to face her.

I may not respect her rigidity; loyalty is a great quality, but blind loyalty is a surrender of intellect I could not accept. But I had great respect for her abilities, and she was already in Shikai, anticipating violent resistance. I had expected her, at least an 80% chance that if the move came from the onmitsukido, she would personally attend.

"Come for Bankai training, Soi-fon-taicho?"

"Hitsugaya Toshiro, by order of Central 46 you are under arrest. Surrender your zanpakuto and come quietly."

"Just to be clear, you did say arrest, not assassination." I eyed the onmitsukido.

She had not expected even this much conversation, that was clear. A slight pause, and she decided to answer. Prepared for violence, but if she could get me to cooperate, she would. After all, it would be quite the feat to bring in the tensai without a single injury to her team. Perfect.

"Preferably."

I shifted my stance, and my grip on the hilt. Needing her to remain wary, I raised my reiatsu. I couldn't help a taunting sneer at the way the killers around me hid their nervousness with bravado. She, however, did not even twitch, and my respect went up a small notch. I did enjoy the way her eyes went wide, then quickly narrowed as if suspecting a trick when I sheathed the sword, then removed and held it out by the sheath. She was being tricked, in more ways than one.

Barely noticeable, the flick of her finger that ordered one of her assassins forward to retrieve the katana. It was a mistake I had counted on, and the reason I had kept the tension high so that she remained on guard and let someone else take the blade. Had the captain taken the sword herself, she may have been able to see through the deception. Hyorinmaru was powerful, and impossible to replicate with complete accuracy even with him lending his power to the decoy.

Another of her soldiers stepped toward me with handcuffs, reiatsu suppression handcuffs, of course. Had they been the cuffs from Hueco Mundo, they all would likely have serious injuries by now. But standard suppression devices I could handle, and had already prepared for.

"I am a captain of the Gotei 13. You do not have the authority to place restraints on me." My voice was calm, formal, appealing to her own tendency to reason over emotion.

"On the contrary." She held out a folded parchment. "Would you care to review the extent of my authority in this matter?"

I smiled as I took the order. Her subordinate had stepped back and she eyed me warily. It occurred to me that she had never seen a smile on my face, and it would justifiably unnerve her. It was a bit of a shame. She was direct and competent. If it weren't for complete lack of independent thought, we two could work together quite well.

There was nothing to be learned from the order, no details given. And she did have the authority to restrain me or kill me, as if she could. The time I delayed was more than enough. With the handcuffs at a distance, not yet tuned to my reiatsu, I was able to accomplish my goal. She had made a second mistake, and the restraints were now corrupted with a form of power too primal, too natural for the best kido master to detect. Humans had only managed to leash and chain chaos, they had never understood it or even tried to form a partnership with it. But Tatsu were made of it, breathed it, and it answered my call eagerly.

Stepping closer to her, I lowered my reiatsu, returned her parchment, and smiled again as the eight tensed. I decided to stop teasing them, or one of them might lose control and attack. Adding to my good humor, I realized I was looking down at Soi-fon. Even she had been taller than me, and I could admit now how much I had resented having to look up at her.

"I trust you will grant me some dignity, taicho, in return for my submission."

She took my meaning and the bait, mistake three. As she handled the restraints, my will worked through the traces of power I had worked into the handcuffs, tuning the reiatsu suppression spell to her. I could activate it when needed, and the closer she was to the handcuffs, the more effective it would be. As she had just tacitly agreed to escort me personally, rather than leave me in the hands of lesser ranks, she would be quite close enough. My own reiatsu I reined in tight as the cuffs locked onto my wrists, burying and hiding my power to play my part of weakened captive.

Variables were clicking into place, plans shifting and accommodating the changing circumstances. Internally, I sighed in relief as I was taken to the old man's office in Division 1 instead of to the Central 46 chambers or straight to prison. It was a fortunate turn in the possible paths, and I gratefully discarded some of the more violent outcomes that were made unnecessary by their choices.

My cold, indifferent mask he would expect to see, and it was firmly in place despite the urge to laugh at the smug satisfaction radiating off Soi-fon as she led in her team and her prize. As I was escorted through the layers of protection around the sotaicho's office, I carefully released the prepared spell, only a thread of power required and hopefully escaping notice.

The presence of Kyoraku and Sasakibe was expected. Ukitake? Either spared the confrontation with one who called him a friend, or more likely, he was in charge of handling Ichigo. Unohana's absence was not expected. It stood to reason that the only other person living who knew the truth would be here. I wasted no more time on contemplating why she was not present, sparing one moment of flat eye contact for Kyoraku and ignoring Sasakibe.

Perhaps the old man expected me to demand to know why I was arrested, or to issue threats, pleas, who knows? Instead, I did nothing, no words, no glare, no nod of respect to the ancient captain behind the massive desk. The onmitsukido had backed into a loose semi-circle behind me. Soi-fon stood at the edge of the desk to my right, now facing me with that gloating grin. Kyoraku on my left, with a clear path between us and a casual, almost bored air that only increased my awareness of him.

"Hitsugaya Toshiro, you have been charged by Central 46 with intent to commit treason."

My brow twitched in irritation at this second address with no title. Soul Society was not known for due process, and 'innocent until proven guilty' was a foreign concept. But to insult a captain this way, the meaning was clear. The few possible scenarios I had in mind where the powers that be would try to resolve this without disgracing, imprisoning, or executing me were discarded. The old man had not the slightest wish to see me walk out of here still a captain. So be it.

Tick. Tock.

"Have you nothing to say for yourself?"

"I was unaware that a response was required at this time. It is my understanding that a charge of treason, even intent, can only be leveled by or refuted to Central 46."

Well, that certainly pissed him off.

"Do you admit your guilt?"

A stupid question, not one that was designed to elicit an honest response, but an effort to antagonize me in front of witnesses. He was counting on my well-known short temper to lead to a mistake, or provoke an attack that would justify what was not justifiable. This entire portion of the play was dull. But I had something to accomplish here. I needed time and fewer opponents.

"My guilt? As you say, I am not charged with any crime. As for the unprovable crime of intent, perhaps you could explain to me exactly what I am accused of. Treason against the Gotei 13, Central 46, or could we be discussing a higher authority?"

He was the one losing his temper. His eyes widened and he stood, hands leaning on the desk. I felt a surge of fiery reiatsu that had everyone in the room tensing. Even I, prepared for this and confident of my strength, had to repress the urge to raise my power in defense. I had never challenged Yamamoto, had only witnessed controlled demonstrations of a portion of his abilities. The nature of my power was in direct opposition to his, and I suspected that would be to my distinct disadvantage.

"Soi-fon taicho, deliver the prisoner to the holding cell to await the judgment of Central 46."

She stepped toward me, as did Kyoraku, though he froze a second later. Interesting. Was that an attempt to aid Soi-fon, or an instinct to intervene?

My cuffed hands were already at my neck, pulling away the scarf as I lifted my chin. My eyes stayed locked on his as Soi-fon took my arm and moved to turn us toward the door. For a moment, I began to alter the plan as it seemed he may actually let her take me out of here. I supposed it was possible that the old man did not make the connection. It was one moment, thousands of year ago.

"Stop!"

I smirked while my back was to him, enjoying how Soi-fon's own arrogant grin dropped as she spun to question.

"Sotaicho?"

She was ignored, and I turned slowly back to face him.

"Hitsugaya, explain. Where did you acquire those scars?"

I tilted my head to better show off the white ghosts of chains, allowing a look of amusement now that we were moving past deception. Not one of my previous incarnations had been marked, neither with the scars of the chains that helped pull a dragon out of the sky, nor with the bite scar that dragon had shown proudly on its neck. Not one of them had recovered our memories of what had begun this cycle of tragedy.

"Have you forgotten, old human? Do you wish me to remind you now?"

I swept my eyes over the others in the room, lingering when I met Kyoraku's penetrating stare. My words had managed to make Yamamoto speechless, and I did not want him to have time to regain his balance in this duel. I goaded him further, pushing him toward thinning the crowd while he was still confident that I was powerless, driving home the fact that he faced something new, and something very, very old.

"Or shall we send for Unohana Retsu? I am sure she has not forgotten such a grand victory. It is not every day that a pack of rats brings down a dragon."

Startled yells accompanied the enormous increase in pressure. Without being able to look, I knew that several or all of the onmitsukido would be on their knees. Soi-fon stayed on her feet, though crouched and backing up with great effort. It took all my will to hold back my reiatsu, to allow myself to collapse to my knees, baring my teeth as my bound hands pushed against the floor to keep my body from bowing all the way to the ground.

Sasakibe and Kyoraku had taken steps back, bracing themselves. They both shouted, though I could not make out the words. The pressure was enormous, the heat was intolerable, arid, scorching, sucking all life out of the air. With my reiatsu held so tightly, it was all I could do to maintain consciousness, and I only managed that thanks to Hyorinmaru wrapping himself protectively around my mind. Somehow Kyoraku managed a step forward, calling to his old teacher, and I altered my estimate of the sinister captain's power.

As suddenly as Hell had descended, the pressure lifted. Without shame I sagged and gasped for breath, hearing similar struggles behind me. I let myself mentally retreat for just an instant, drawing a trickle of reiatsu to recover. I knew it then. The insane strength and the opposing nature of his power meant that I could not count on matching Yamamoto if it came to a fight for survival. His soul had continued for thousands of years, gaining power and control. My own had been shattered and reforged, strong but forever split. I could not be certain that I could defeat him.

But I also knew beyond a doubt that he could be defeated by my beloved.



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



It was not as difficult as I expected. The second I knew that it was all really happening, I had a moment of panic, a need to race to Toshiro's side. Between the carefully rehearsed plans and the steps we had taken to deeper and deeper trust in one another, it was not, in fact, difficult at all to stop myself and let go of my fear. Toshiro would be fine, he would succeed. What he needed was a partner, not a knight in shining armor.

There were several ways this could go down. Most of the likely scenarios didn't require much preparation on my part, just make myself vulnerable and fail to be killed, captured, or otherwise inconvenienced. Then retrieve Hyorinmaru and either go to Toshiro or to one of several rendezvous points depending on the situation. Not too difficult.

It was insulting. Eight onmitsukido, Ukitake, and Byakuya. Who exactly did they think they were coming after?

There was a 5th Division patrol in district 14 north, and I changed course and speed to avoid being anywhere near them. I sought out a less populated area, a swath of rugged ground near a ravine with scant development nearby. There was little room for error, but I had plenty of time to prepare.

The eight may have thought stealth was still their main weapon until I stopped in the strip of wilderness. They were not completely caught off-guard, and moved smoothly into a more cautious attack. Kido was the weapon of choice, an attempt to knock me out with their combined power, or at least restrain me. The true risk was behind them, though likely they did not realize that they were only a distraction. And I treated them as such.

Timing and theatrics, I wanted to impress upon Ukitake exactly how badly he had underestimated me. Crouched in the center of the eight, I held their gathered power at arm's length until the senior captain arrived. In his hands was a bizarre looking chunk of metal with a variety of buttons and wires which were probably a complete mystery to the man holding the device. And let's not forget the obligatory grossness of what seemed to be bits of flesh and tendon worked into and through the pieces of metal. I paused for a moment to curse that creepy clown for adding another nightmare to my repertoire.

If Toshiro was right, sigh, of course he was, that device was the result of Kurotsuchi's measurements of my reiatsu and designed specifically to counter, suppress or even kill. Too bad he was not here to wield it himself. As it was, I would take some care and try not to kill Ukitake for doing his duty.

Zangetsu recognized the direct threat to his existence as the captain raised the device. The flare of his rage gave me added strength. A deep breath, and I pushed my reiatsu out, shattering kido and driving the onmitsukido to their knees. Exhale, and I raised my hand, drawing out my Hollow mask and drawing down massive pressure to knock the eight out cold, fairly certain I had not killed anyone but I did not pause to check. Another breath and I was stepping into sonido, intending to close the distance and take Ukitake down with direct contact for precise control to avoid hurting him too badly.

Too fast, the ever-surprising captain was so calm and understated that I was surprised to find him already several feet away as I arrived at the space he had occupied. I could not help but smile, even as I saw the device pointed straight at my chest. And then I could not help but scream. It was painful, excruciating, as Zangetsu was not just sealed but ripped violently away. I could barely think through the pain, putting the entire risky plan in greater danger. The old man, the Quincy part of my power, steadied me in time to keep from passing out. I vowed to myself as I fell to my knees that Kurotsuchi Mayori would one day meet a most agonizing end at my hands.

Ukitake approached, cautious but only of the standard physical threat of a trained fighter, convinced the attack had been a success. He kept the device facing me, but he saw a panting, pale, defeated opponent with his power stripped. Poor fool, how could he know the truth that I had hidden so well from that psycho captain of the 12th. He was too close, too unguarded when my reiatsu reached for him, the Quincy reiatsu I had never revealed.

The kido Toshiro had specifically designed for this very situation, my weaker Quincy power pitted against one of the strongest captains, was extremely efficient and effective. His eyes registered shock and anger for barely a heartbeat, then there were nine bodies unconscious around me as I moved fast as thought to smash the hideous weapon invented for the sole purpose of bringing me down. Zangetsu flooded back into the aching void in my mind, and his bone-chilling laugh rang out as he continued gleefully stomping until nothing was left but shards of dark silver and disgusting gooey stuff that was probably going to be stuck to my boot for eternity.

Calming down, I looked up into the blank stare of Kuchiki Byakuya. He, it seemed, was the reserve, a back-up. I had little doubt that the clever noble had arranged to be in that position, and if possible I would avoid confrontation with him entirely. His hand moved, a brief gesture to advertise lack of a weapon, showing me an open palm by his side. I took a step back, and he broke eye contact, kneeling by Ukitake, hand hovering over the fallen captain to verify that his life was not in danger.

He stayed down, but looked me in the eye again and a brief shudder went through him. I knew how unnerving the black and gold gaze of the Hollow could be, especially when we were angry and prepared to kill, but I made no attempt to have Zangetsu retreat.

"Hitsugaya-taicho was taken to the sotaicho's office, though I cannot guarantee he has not since been moved to a cell or to Central."

"I am aware."

I did not thank him or lower my guard. Part of me wanted to, but too much was at stake for sentiment. My caution seemed justified as he drew his zanpakuto, and I stepped back again as he stood.

"I cannot be found conscious and unarmed in these circumstances."

I had already poured power into the same kido I had used on Ukitake.

"Way ahead of you, Byakuya. I hope we meet again in better circumstances."



oooooooOOOOOooooooo



"Sasakibe, go to Ukitake-taicho. I want Kurosaki Ichigo brought here directly once he has been secured. Soi-fon-taicho, stand guard with your men, let no one enter or exit this room other than my lieutenant, Ukitake-taicho, and their prisoner. Have the traitor's zanpakuto delivered directly to Hayashi Kayoko."

It took a moment to get back on my feet. Most of the room was about to be cleared, only Kyoraku and the old man would remain. The fake Hyorinmaru was nearly out, the deception undetected. Hayashi would know, but as long as the old man did not figure it out before then, complications could be avoided.

"Prisoner? Did I hear you correctly, old man; you intend to secure Kurosaki?"

Good, his attention was back on me. Hopefully, it would not occur to him to check the sword now. He did not reply, standing silent until those sent away were safely on the other side of barriers that would prevent them hearing secrets he did not wish to reveal. I did not need much more time; the target was located, and I could make my move as soon as I knew Ichigo was ready. There was a chance to get rid of Kyoraku, improving the odds of our success.

"I assume you have prepared false charges against him, as well. But you have miscalculated in your overconfidence. There is no force within Soul Society that is capable of securing Kurosaki against his will."

"It is not overconfidence, traitor. Kurosaki's reiatsu has been analyzed even in Bankai, and can easily be contained."

I laughed outright, earning shocked stares from both men.

"I am disappointed. You honestly think Kurosaki revealed his true power to the likes of Kurotsuchi? Rescind your orders, old man, quickly. I would hate to see Ukitake killed because you underestimated one of your own captains. Good God, do you not realize who he is? Do you not recognize him?"

Worry and anger flashed across Kyoraku's face. Had it been his decision, he would likely be on his way to Ukitake already.

"Yama-jii, perhaps I should assist in the capture of Kurosaki."

"Do not be taken in." Yamamoto rounded the desk as he spoke, retrieving the staff that masked his zanpakuto as he moved, eyes never leaving mine. "This traitor is the most deceptive enemy you will ever face. Assume every word is a lie."

Kyoraku looked stunned before his eyes narrowed, studying me as I raised a brow. Just how much had the ancient buzzard told his disciple? Not enough to erase Kyoraku's doubts, I was glad to see. The captain was too clever, and not mindlessly loyal. He had seen the rise and fall of the wielders of Hyorinmaru, had likely been an instrument of suppression and execution. But I had brought new information into this confrontation, a new dynamic between the sotaicho and his eternal enemy. If I could not get him out of the room, perhaps I could use my remaining time to increase his misgivings.

"You are on the wrong side of this conflict yet again. Ichigo and I have known the truth for some time now, and have done nothing but serve the Gotei. You are the traitor here, turning your back on captains who have done no wrong. Dare you deny it?"

There was a pause in his step, and my own doubts chimed in. He had hesitated. He had allowed Saito and several others to gain power rather than put them down as soon as they were recognized. He had stayed his hand while I gathered more power than any incarnation before me. I had considered the option of reasoning with the old man, trying to win him over. But the chances of success were too small given our history and his track record of bowing to the will of the throne and the council. My head cocked to the side as I studied his eyes, finding no answer.

"You do not want to do this. Would it shock you to know that I do not want this any more than you?"

He stopped, four paces straight in front of me.

"What you or I want has nothing to do with it, Hitsugaya Toshiro."

I bowed my head with a sigh. He may have seen it as resignation, a sign of defeat. And it was, for now the possible outcomes had narrowed considerably. I allowed a final moment of regret, then hardened my resolve as I looked up.

The five seconds that followed would seem like pandemonium to the few outside observers. It was, in fact, a perfectly choreographed and nearly perfectly executed strike. Ichigo was undetectable in Bankai, they never felt him coming. Hyorinmaru was physically distant, but already answering my call with the enormous reiatsu boost of Bankai. As the barriers around us shattered, a wave of spiritual pressure from without and within ensured that the nearby 1st and 2nd Division members would not interfere, dropping to the ground unconscious or incapacitated. The handcuffs fell away, my hand moving back to toss them a little closer to Soi-fon.

Volcanic heat met my glacial reiatsu for only one horrific instant, Ichigo's body and his power appearing, a solid wall between us as I stepped into one shunpo, following the line of power to my target. They would have expected me to attack, and Kyoraku was a breath behind me thanks to that assumption. My ice shattered the unassuming cabinet that held one well-concealed treasure. I needed one more second, left hand throwing a shield of ice to buy me that time as my right hand wrapped around the gem, severing the layers of protection holding it in place, taking the multiple barriers with it to be removed later.

Feeling the bite of a blade below my left shoulder, I spun to the side and forward, the sword dragging down and around ribs deep enough to hurt but not serious enough to cause immediate concern. The last thing I wanted to do was fight Kyoraku, and I had the next second free as he dealt with the thick layer of ice spreading up the sword from where it had touched me, rapidly encasing the blade and heading for his hand. With luck, he would do what Ichigo had once done and try to break the ice with his other sword or hand, spreading the effect. I did not stay to find out.

One step and I was behind Ichigo, my eyes quickly registering the destruction. Everything beyond my beloved was burnt black between fire searing into bright white, a vision of Hell to my cold soul. The old man was a demon, wreathed in flames, and he was wounded. As fearsome as the sotaicho was, a much greater demon stood before him, Ichigo's power holding the inferno at bay.

I could not stop to assess the damage. Killing the old man would not sadden me, but it would also make the possibility of one day returning to Soul Society that much more unlikely. Kyoraku's reiatsu was reaching for me. He suspected what was about to happen, and hoped to trace and follow. I did not try to deflect it, his power would not be able to follow, not the paths I traveled. My hand grabbed Ichigo's arm securely and I pulled him with me, stepping into the void that ran around and beside all dimensions, the fast currents of primal chaos opening before me.

Ichigo staggered as I brought us to one of the nondescript locations I had already scouted. Peaceful district 5, an unlikely place to run into Shinigami and a very unlikely choice for fugitives. They would not be able to follow our movements, but they would be able to pick up on my reiatsu which I was not about to suppress again. But we only needed a moment to regroup. I surveyed the area, the few souls who noticed our arrival making quick exits.

"In one piece, beloved?"

"Hot damn, that old bastard's strong!"

I snorted. "In one piece, Zangetsu?"

The Hollow laughed, then wrapped his left arm around me and yanked me against his chest. I did not avoid the rough kiss nor deny the forceful tongue, but I gave him only a few seconds before pushing back.

"No time for that, fiend. You know what to do from here. Hyorinmaru?"

"Right where you wanted him, sweetness. You come back to me soon."

He pulled me close again, making me hiss against his lips as his fingers dug into the ice-coated wound along my side. I bit down hard on his tongue in retaliation, which only made him hum and tighten his hold. The pained gasp as he released me and doubled over the fist I had rammed into his gut was satisfying. I spat blood at our feet, doing my best to ignore how aroused I was. Damned Hollow.

"Get your rabid dog under control, Ichigo, and get out of here."

Before I could give in to the powerful temptation to just tackle him there in the street, consequences be damned, I followed my own advice and made the first of many steps through chaos. So far, we had succeeded. If you could call being a wanted criminal and traitor, exiled from all you have ever known . . . if you could call that success. But, we were both alive and free with the most dangerous encounter behind us. The pulse of his reiatsu, a part of me now, was a great comfort as I moved farther from him to do what needed to be done, all to ensure I could return to be by his side.

 

Chapter Text

It was time for another part of the plan I hated, starting with watching Toshiro vanish. Really, he planned his whole thing just to test me. First leaving him to be captured, cuffed, dragged like a common thief in front of judgmental assholes and that ridiculously scary old fossil. Now, even worse, being worlds away while he faced god knows what. We'd just kicked the hornet's nest, and I was the only one running away.

No more time to worry, Soi-fon and Shunsui were far enough away to be unsure if it was just me or both of us, and they were close enough now to pick up on the staggering amount of power this was going to take. District 5, far too close to Seireitei. It wasn't something I could practice ahead of time; it simply had to be done so I would do it.

I concentrated the vast majority of my reiatsu on the task at hand. The resistance was a solid wall until I managed to start opening a path, then the energy shifted to destroy any progress, like attempting to dig into sand that kept pouring in to fill every space just emptied. More power, more, my head feeling like it was going to split, the captains getting too close. Zangetsu growled and unleashed yet more, finally tearing the air.

Gritting my teeth with the effort to hold the garganta, I stepped through and fought to remain several seconds to be certain this was witnessed, leading to the conclusion, if only briefly, that we had gone exactly where they would expect. I lingered in the relative peace and quiet as I gradually let my reiatsu settle. It was a good thing my only task for the next hour or so would be to sit around doing nothing. Between 5 seconds face to face with that monster and his fire, and 5 seconds of holding a garganta so close to Seireitei, I actually needed recovery time. Suddenly, I felt quite mortal again.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


At the moment, I envied the way Ichigo's reiatsu became completely undetectable to the rest of us. After making myself vulnerable by playing along with the reiatsu suppression handcuffs, I had to force myself to bury my power again. I was not invisible, I had to use power to move and to do what I needed to do. But I kept my reiatsu as low as possible and relied on speed to make up for still being detectable. With any luck, Kyoraku and Soi-fon at least would be delayed, either trying to follow 'us' to Hueco Mundo or giving up the pursuit for now.

Stop one was fast. I had already set up the kido that would accomplish my goal at the Central Library. All that was needed was a flick of my reiatsu to set the spells off. That left plenty of time to grab Hyorinmaru, concealed with basic kido and left by Ichigo hidden on a roof near the library. No one had any reason to look, and there was no reason to suspect we would have anything to do with this public archive.

The next destination was very different, and I paused within the comfort of chaos to prepare. The power here was my ally, and made the stripping of the barriers surrounding the Hogyoku mere child's play. I contemplated the gem, recalling what I had learned from Urahara. I was not to be this thing's master. I could feel both hostility and a kind of seduction from it, as if tempting me to use its power and trying to swallow my own simultaneously. But I was strong enough to handle whatever it threw at me, and I could use it for several things. Between the amount of power it contained, and the nature of that power to make desires reality, it would make an impossible task quite easy. Once the kido I had designed was set within the Hogyoku, I made the next stop.

There were guards. Not just the normal guards, of course. Komamura and his lieutenant Iba. Zaraki, with Yachiru in tow and the two that trailed him like puppies, my former team members Madarame and Ayesegawa. Typical of Central 46, their pride and secrecy kept these guards outside of the compound, where they were no threat at all to me. However, they would be justified in entering if the facility was breached, which it was about to be. And what I had planned should keep them busy.

It was logical to expect me to go after the council members themselves. Within the compound, layers of protection and swarms of special guards and onmitsukido directly under the council's command would slow down any invader. It was all useless, but none of the guards knew that I could do what I was about to do. Barriers no longer stopped me, at least not the kind used in Soul Society. Had I been using shunpo, I would still have to move myself and my reiatsu through a barrier, or be stopped by it. Now, I could simply step out of this world and step back in on the other side of any barrier. No reiatsu used, nothing for the barrier to stop.

I could have just stepped in and set off every alarm by raising my reiatsu. But a lesson needed to be taught; a promise and a threat needed to be delivered. The council would be in session, and closely monitoring the events they had set into motion. Right about now they would be receiving reports that Ichigo and I had escaped. Perhaps they were already looking over their shoulders, panic starting to set in.

There had been shouting, and it took a few heartbeats for dead silence to surround me as I stood, sword in hand, in the center of the chamber. I had been there before. They had shouted at me before, shouted for my blood and the blood of my friend. I bared my teeth as I recalled that every single one of those men and women were dead, slaughtered by Aizen. These were new villains shouting for my blood and the blood of my beloved.

I raised Hyorinmaru. Guards lunged for me as old bastards started to flee. I brought the tip of my sword down. Ice exploded around me. There would be some fatalities, a few of the guards had been too close to retreat, a councilman trampled under the feet of his colleagues. The rest bolted as killing frost followed by eruptions of ice spread up, out, destroying and encasing all in its path. It would not stop any time soon. Within the hour, every level of the Council Chambers would be engulfed, annihilated, a massive glacier all that remained.

While alarms sounded and died, I moved on. The Great Spirit Library. I had seen it only once, very briefly, and lusted after it ever since. Had I been able to access this vast repository of knowledge, what might I have learned about the Heavenly Guardian, about Hyorinmaru before Ryu, long before Toshiro? Was the story here, the truth of the Soul King and the atrocities he had committed? Was Raiden still part of history, or had he been erased? And the chain of lives as my soul slowly and painfully healed over millennia, was there a record here of the wielders of Hyorinmaru and how they each met their end?

These and other, more practical questions I posed, pouring my intent into the Hogyoku as the kido I had created specifically for this moment spread tendrils of power into the infinite net of information. With my reiatsu, the power of the Hogyoku, and the power I easily siphoned by keeping a door open to chaos, the kido spread and multiplied, a virus taking over and using any useless data to replicate itself exponentially to seek out the answers I had asked for. Soon I would own the truth, or as much of it as existed. Not only that, Seireitei would own the truth.

Waiting, I stood on a wide platform over an abyss, miles deep walls of circuitry hosting my kido. The more time I could give it, the more I would retrieve. Then I would pull out all of the information I sought, leaving a subtle shadow of the kido to keep working until I could retrieve more results or it was discovered and destroyed. I allowed myself to feel pride in what I had done. It was elegant, effective, and mine.

Perhaps 20 minutes of solitude I had, protected from detection by the security layered around this place, Seireitei distracted by the destruction. I turned with a low growl, glad the door to chaos was open, very glad I had not sheathed Hyorinmaru. But he approached slowly, calmly, sword sheathed and reiatsu low.

"They say all human knowledge from the living and the dead, the mortal and the immortal can be found here. I have often found myself staring down, wondering how such a simple, despicable thing as a human could ever produce any knowledge at all, let alone enough to require such a repository."

"A rather cynical view, but I cannot find reason to disagree."

"What is it you seek from human knowledge? I should think there is nothing here for your kind."

Fan-fucking-tastic. Just how much did the snake know?

"Are you trying to antagonize me, Ichimaru?"

"Not in the least. Mild curiosity, it is a way to pass the time. You are wondering how much I might know about you. Not enough, I confess. Do not forget, I was a spy for Central 46."

I returned his grin with a baring of my teeth. It was not a surprise that he was the one that found me here. As I had noted before, we were quite similar in many respects, which only made me despise the sight of him even more.

"Forgive me for not satisfying your curiosity, but I find this conversation highly distasteful."

"You would prefer I had come to kill you?"

"I would prefer you were not here at all. But I admit I am curious, as well. Are you not going to attempt to arrest me?"

"Why would I do such a thing? I do not flatter myself that you did so for my benefit, yet you and your lover-boy have done nothing but assist me."

My chuckle was rather dark, expressing more disdain than humor.

"And it would assist you to bring me down. You might even have a few years shaved off your punishment."

He stepped closer and I was wary. Pale blue eyes showed as he looked up and then down, wide grin falling into something almost like a smile.

"I think you misunderstand my intentions. Normally, that would thrill me. That bit of kido, by the way, is quite beautiful. Not sure I care for that other trick of yours."

His eyes, back to unreadable slits, turned toward the barely visible crack in reality that I maintained a step away. I spared a sliver of attention, verifying that the Hogyoku had gathered volumes of information already, more trickling in. I sighed in exasperation.

"Enough. I've fallen even further than you, if you had not heard, and one of the many perks is that I no longer have to play these games. If you have a point, get to it."

"My, my. This is why I could never help myself. It is so much fun to push you around."

Just before I snapped, he held out his hand, a slender rectangle of plastic and metal between two manicured fingertips.

"Just ask your boyfriend how to use this."

I didn't bother telling him that I knew perfectly well how to use a computer and an SD card. Likely it was just another taunt, which for some reason I always fell for when it was coming from him. When I did not reach for the device, his smirk widened, and eventually he placed the little chip delicately on the nearby railing. I stared, annoyed but not willing to continue the conversation and open myself up for further ridicule from the likes of Ichimaru Gin.

"Okay, then, guess we're done. Good luck, Shiro-chan!"

Not hiding a snarl as he turned away, I snatched the SD card and cut off the kido. Any obscure bits of information still to be gathered would just have to wait for another time. I would not leave the spell active as planned, not when that damned snake was well aware of its existence. The other end of the kido would disappear after finishing its work, transcribing classified secrets into unassuming books in the Central Library.

"Ichimaru." He paused, half turning his head. "I am no longer bound to the rules of the Gotei. Hurt her again, and there is nothing to stop me from tearing out your heart."

Just once, he let me have the last word.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


It really was quite beautiful, once I let myself forget. It was unlike any desert of the living world, dunes of tarnished silver instead of tones of gold stretching smoothly to infinity under textured black. The desolation was peaceful, not even a breeze to disturb the fine sands, all was static and still as if I lounged within a painting of the empty landscape, alone in the comfort of sensory deprivation.

There was life out there, in the broadest sense of the word. Only the vastness granted the illusion of emptiness, and I would gladly have fallen into that semblance of solitude. I was not alone.

"Sneaking up on me was never a wise move."

"Can't blame a guy for trying."

"Yes, in fact I can. What do you want?"

I turned my head to look at him, keeping still and relaxed. I had mostly recovered from the power drain, but I was not looking to spend more time or power here. Of all the Espada, Starrk was the one I'd least want to fight, and also the least likely to attack me unprovoked. So, I stayed relaxed, arms wrapped around one drawn up knee, other leg stretched down the dune, as the tall, quiet man settled in a mirroring position a few feet to my right.

"What makes you think I want anything from you?"

"Thousands of miles of nothing in every direction."

"Which makes you stand out like a beacon in the night, Cero."

"Do not call me that," I hissed between clenched teeth.

From the corner of my eye I watched his face turn toward me, his expression . . . stoic? No, too disinterested even for that word. Starrk was in a class of his own, unreadable not because of some mask or persona, but because there seemed to genuinely be nothing at all behind his eyes. That could not be the case, but it was the only truth to me. I avoided his gaze, always, because looking into his eyes was looking out at the limitless void of this bleak desert.

"You were never ashamed of the title before."

"I was always ashamed of it. Are we going to discuss our feelings now, Primera?"

"Hmm. You're right. That is unpleasant."

"Where's Lilynette?"

"Off playing with a new friend. Where's Grimmjow?"

"The fuck is that supposed to mean?"

Turning to glare at him, I realized something had changed. He was still less expressive than Toshiro two hours into a captain's meeting, but there was just a hint of humor, a faint glint of enjoyment in teasing me of all people. It occurred to me then, who else could the man possibly tease? Tempting. Toshiro would be kicking me by now, yelling something about valuable allies.

"Ran into him not long ago, didn't you? He mentioned it when he sought me out, wanted to warn me about Las Noches."

"Hueco Mundo's one-man neighborhood watch."

"What?"

I chuckled. "Nothing. Any thoughts on the whole 'haunted castle' thing?"

"I had forgotten how frustrating it can be, conversing with you. Assuming that means what I think it means, then no, not really. I have not looked into it and have no interest."

"Same."

We sat in silence, contemplating the stillness of the wastelands.

"Well, this has been fun. I have someplace to be. Give my regards to your better half."

He said nothing, just watched me stand and move away with those inscrutable eyes. I hadn't expected ever to meet Starrk again, or any of them. But then, I had never wanted to return to Hueco Mundo. And I honestly had no idea what to make of him.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


Whew! All this mayhem and I barely had anything to do with it.

Back in Bankai, I wasn't terribly worried about being spotted. Seireitei was in an uproar. Ah, fond memories of running around in a panic with hundreds of Shinigami chasing me while I stumbled through with barely any plan, just a big sword and a whole lot of nerve. In the distance, I could see a concentration of scrambling figures, tiny as ants next to towering daggers of ice stabbing the sky at every angle.

Show off.

I could feel Toshiro everywhere, decoys, pulses of reiatsu to throw off the majority of pursuers who were not able to tell they were being deceived. There was no need to waste power trying to find him, I only needed to linger a bit at a series of meeting points until he was ready and we would find each other. So, I leaned back in the shadow of the high window and enjoyed the show.

The second rendezvous point I had to skip, most of an 8th Division squad just happened to be swarming around the area aimlessly. At the fourth point, he was waiting. Time was, I could have sneaked up on him, wound my arm around his waist and a hand over his eyes before he knew it. Thanks to his reiatsu infused in my neck, I could feel his presence even in Hueco Mundo. And thanks to my own power just there, between the sinister but seductive loops of white that beckoned kisses to his golden neck, he was the only man in Seireitei that I could not surprise.

He turned as I reached, looking me over once before stepping forward, his chin tucking over my shoulder with a sigh. Leaving him to face all Seireitei once had been hard to take, leading me to take risks with our time-sensitive plans until he had to punch me to free himself. Leaving him a second time, not just miles but worlds away, with all his former allies thirsting for his downfall, I might never let go of him again.

Giving in to temptation and the need to reassure myself, I tilted my head to kiss his neck and felt him chuckle.

"Inappropriate places, high risk of being caught, I'm starting to think you have thrill issues, beloved."

"Says the man who isn't pushing me back."

He cut off the sound, but not before I heard the start of a sweet groan as my lips trailed forward and up to his jaw. To my disappointment, he did push back, hands coming between us. My hands trailed from his back to his hips, reluctantly letting go as he backed up. Yet there was a luscious blush lighting his cheeks and such lecherous thoughts in his lovely eyes. I licked my lips, swiping up every lingering bit of the heat and the flavor of his skin.

"Good lord, do not do that."

I grinned. There was that bold, honest way he admitted weakness. I knew very well the effect I had on him in Bankai. I could push him just a bit and he would crumble, let me fuck him senseless on the floor of this dusty, nameless storage room while enemies surrounded us. That quick fantasy would have to do for now, and I drew a steadying breath as I took a step back.

"You're going to make it up to me later." A raised brow and a twitch of lips. "So. Where do things stand?"

"It could have gone better, but I got what I need. You?"

"Ukitake got one lucky shot in, but your kido worked perfectly. Byakuya was there, too. He looked me in the eye and let me knock him out."

He shook his head slowly, but didn't comment. He held out his hands. In one hand he held the Hogyoku; in the other, two smaller, smoother versions of the odd gem. Those would hold copies of the information he had gathered, I knew. Calling it proof of innocence would be a stretch. Considering the way Soul Society dealt with anything it couldn't firmly control, one might even call it proof of guilt. That didn't matter; Toshiro just wanted the record to be set straight and known rather than hidden.

He handed me most dangerous of the three, my fingers and palm tingling as they closed around it. Odd sensations distracted me, similar to when I reached into chaos and felt it reach back, only this was familiar, seductive, reaching slowly for my power in little surges like heartbeats. Yes, the damned thing was mine whether I wanted it or not. Carefully, not knowing if the thing could be offended, I pushed the feeling back and mentally asked it to remain quiet. Disturbing that it complied.

"Everything okay, beloved?"

I raised a brow, regarding the Hogyoku, then Toshiro. He was watching intently. In tune with the gem recently, he likely felt its response to me, and was waiting to see if I would give in to temptation. And if I did, if I decided to accept the power freely offered, I knew that he would not stand in my way.

"I'm rather glad we're not hanging on to this."

A flash of relief in his eyes.

"Then deliver it to Urahara. I'll give this to Kyoraku, and I'll see you soon."

"I thought it was going to Ukitake?"

"So did I. Today I was reminded that your instincts are often more trustworthy than my logic. It has to be Kyoraku."

"Alright. I think it's a wise move."

It took me a second to realize what he was doing as he slowly removed his haori, folding it neatly and setting it on an old storage chest that he took the time to wipe off with a sleeve. If anyone questioned his dedication, they would only need to see the trembling of his fingers as he ran his hand once over the insignia before turning his back. My heart ached for him, and suddenly I had no desire at all to stay in the Gotei fucking 13. In fact, I thought Zangetsu's proposal of continuing the destruction of Seireitei sounded quite appealing.

"Calm down, beloved. We're almost finished."

He flashed a smile before he vanished, but his eyes were as cold as I'd ever seen. My own haori I stripped and left lying on the filthy floor.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


I made a series of stops in both Soul Society and the living world. No one was following, but I would not put it past Kurotsuchi to find a way to target my reiatsu, off the charts or not. It was not over, just becoming increasingly unlikely that they would ever catch up with us. We had given them great motivation for continuing the pursuit; stealing the Hogyoku right out from under the old man's nose was the highlight of this whole mess, and I smirked as I imagined the rage he must feel.

There could be few places as remote as the small, crumbling temple buried in the jungle of Thailand. It was a forgotten place, not even the tourists had found it yet, but Urahara had. He was already waiting, but I took my time walking up the degraded steps and into the ruins, much more appealing now than they had likely been when painted and gilded for the gods or spirits or whatever humans chose to worship here.

"Ah, Kurosaki-san, alive and well I'm glad to see."

"Nice spot. Everything prepared?"

"Straight to business, then. I suppose I'll have to hear about the excitement second hand. Yes, everything is done to Hitsugaya's exact specifications. And you know how to contact me if you need anything, you'll have quite a lot of credit if the payment is as it should be."

Ignoring the crassness of the whole situation, what with me being a thief to earn payment from the shady shopkeeper, I slipped the Hogyoku out of my pocket and handed it to him. As its creator, he knew it well enough to identify it as authentic, I was guessing. Urahara's gleeful expression was not a comfort, but honestly, I'd rather have the thing in his hands than the old man's or mine. It had not been terribly difficult to steal. If we needed it again, I wasn't sure theft would even be necessary. More likely, Urahara would simply lend it to me just to see what happened.

"Toshiro left quite a lot of data within that thing. You may find some of it useful, or at least amusing."

"How kind of you. Is there anything else I can do for you, Kurosaki-san?"

"Only what we agreed on, particularly in protection for my family."

"You have my word."

I did not thank him, or bid him farewell. The price had been more than paid for all we had asked for. Just as I had arrived, I departed with several random steps in sonido, not out of distrust of Urahara, but just in case he had been followed. He knew my next destination, anyway.

A number of homes had been acquired and prepared by Toshiro over the past two decades, a serious violation of Soul Society law that proved he had never been the straight-laced loyalist many had assumed he was, including myself at one point. The first were just due to his over-cautious, perhaps paranoid nature. Then he began to suspect the truth, and redoubled his efforts to have secure locations for a retreat. And finally I joined him, and he learned the entire story, learned his paranoia was justified, received confirmation that his preparations would be needed sooner rather than later.

To hide two such as we, not just any location would serve. It had to be remote enough to not have several Shinigami assigned close by, no concentration of humans to draw Hollows. But there had to be a decent level of spiritual energy in the area, or else we would be forced to completely suppress our power to remain undetected. Without humans, that meant finding special places where the energy of the natural world was particularly strong. Life thrived in these places, but they were hostile enough to discourage heavy human habitation.

Even to Urahara we did not reveal these locations. Instead, we had asked him to arrange smaller versions of his training cavern, well protected and very well hidden spaces scattered around the globe. It was to one of these I sped, where some final supplies and two gigai waited, specially designed to help conceal reiatsu. I hated the idea of living in one of those creepy contraptions. But it would be best, at least until the furor died down and Toshiro was reasonably convinced we were safe.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


It had been rather entertaining, watching the twists and turns, adjusting plans in response to their choices. After all, I had been building strategies for years, more intensely for the past few weeks. Seeing it all play out along one of many possible paths I had already predicted was gratifying, as if my ego needed any further stroking. There were a few surprises along the way, but nothing that threw off the endgame. Now, as the thrill of the challenge began to fade, the expected sorrow set in. It couldn't be helped, the weakness of letting myself get attached to this life.

Kyoraku had split from Soi-fon, but was now with the concentration of Shinigami surrounding Central 46, pointlessly. Waiting wasn't really an option, and a decoy would bring too many. I grinned as I summoned a Hell butterfly, completely insecure but my little insect would quickly be lost in the swarm of messengers flitting around that crowd. By the time anyone in the 12th monitored the message, it would be too late, even if they understood the contents.

In the forest under Sokyoku Hill I waited, close enough to Urahara's secure cave to have an option for a quick retreat if somehow I could not make an easy escape. He did not make me wait long and arrived with some courtesy, both swords drawn but alone and at a reasonable distance. He did not let down his guard at seeing me unarmed. After all, I had not even had a sword during our last encounter but that had not stopped me from fighting.

"Glad to see you were not too badly injured, Hitsugaya-san. Would you care to surrender?"

"And I am glad to see that your sense of humor is intact. May I ask, how is Ukitake?"

"He is rather annoyed with you and Ichigo. I'd go so far as to say he's pissed off. But unharmed."

"That's a relief. It was one of the riskiest parts of the plan, with many variables including who exactly you would send after Ichigo. I never wished to see Ukitake harmed, and I would have regretted it had it not gone so smoothly."

"You imply that you knew what would happen. I wouldn't put it past you, but permit me to doubt your omniscience."

I shrugged, what he chose to believe was not my foremost concern. He had come forward several steps while talking, and I had done nothing. But I couldn't stay long. His eyes narrowed and his stance shifted as I reached into a pocket and revealed one of the glowing marbles of energy. Calmly, but with eyes never leaving him, I set it on the ground in front of my feet and backed away.

"You obviously know part of the story. This contains all the information I have been able to gather."

"And you expect me to review this information and then what? Join your two-man rebellion? Or just stop chasing you out of sympathy for whatever sad tale you've concocted?"

"I could not care less what you think or do. My conscience will rest knowing I have made an effort to make the truth known."

He walked slowly forward, not sheathing a sword or taking his eyes off me as he knelt and scooped up the gem. He straightened, tensed as I took a step back, reiatsu flaring and I could feel the kido he had already prepared coming to life, a solid, highly powerful net.

"The charge is now treason, not only intent, of course. The murder of a member of Central 46 is nearly as serious. Your best option now is to surrender, let us review this information without causing further damage to your honor."

"Even you do not believe that. Especially you."

Beyond Kyoraku's attempt at a trap, there was a surge of reiatsu as strong as my beloved's. A bonfire, bright as the sunrise and twice as fierce.

Run. Run! Flee before it is too late.

Rend limb from limb. Tear, bite, shatter!

The plan, we must run!

Destroy the tyrant's weapon. Fight!

"And you dare speak to me of honor?" I hissed at Kyoraku as I drew my sword.

Kyoraku had half turned to face the oncoming firestorm.

"Hitsugaya, I swear to you I did not . . .."

We were both driven a step back as impossibly, the pressure increased and we both raised our power to counter.

"Retreat. One final word of advice, though on this I have no evidence. Be cautious. The old man may not be in full control of his own actions."

"What . . ."

'Do you mean' I assumed was the rest of that sentence. Let him wonder; I was already on the move.

There were many ways to use my own alternative method of travel to my advantage. Being able to step around Kyoraku's net of kido was a start, an undetectable approach was another, and a delay was a third. Shunpo and Sonido could be fast or faster depending on skill and use of reiatsu. But neither allowed one to simply vanish from Soul Society for seconds or longer between one step and the next. I paused within the narrow and infinitely wide stream of chaos, moving into Bankai and pulling every bit of energy I could into myself.

Cold logic had been overruled, perhaps willingly, by colder rage. I knew even as I steeled myself to attack that I was taking a risk I had already weighed and deemed unwise. But if I was right about him, Yamamoto would never stop coming after us. He would never allow us to live in relatively peaceful exile like the Visored and Urahara. No, he would keep coming, keep pursuing until his dying breath, because as he had said, what he wanted had nothing to do with it.

Rushing back into the confrontation was like jumping willingly into the fires of Hell. The moment of surprise gained me one solid cut to his left side, across chest and arm. It was an attempt at the heart, failing as he evaded and that horridly familiar blade of flames forced my retreat. I had seen the raw pink of a partly healed wound, dealt by my beloved, likely all the way through his gut judging by the size of the wound in the front.

He did not offer to accept my surrender, just came slowly and inexorably forward, flames gathering and concentrating. Hyorinmaru's ice would not be useful in attack, the inferno surrounding the old man instantly vaporizing any moisture, negating any ice attacks before they even began. Instead, scales of ice coated every inch of my skin, a constantly renewing and continuously destroyed layer of protection.

I was right. This was only his Shikai, he had not even attacked beyond one seemingly casual swing of his sword. I could not defeat him. Hyorinmaru disagreed, and the roaring in my head rivaled the crackling thunder of the wildfire. I had only an instant to curse at the dragon before both of us were concentrating all our attention and power on defense.

The explosion of reiatsu as our blades clashed bent the earth under our feet, a crater surrounded by flattened trees, half frozen and shattered, half scorched to ash. Aggressive instinct had me growling and pushing, though it took nearly everything just to hold with that tower of fire trying to envelope Hyorinmaru so that it could reach for me, devour me again. It was the contrasting instinct for self-preservation that caused the rift to open one step to my right, the blessed escape route.

Flames swirled, a sudden vortex brushing far too close, my own power rushing to combat the searing heat against my right arm, the right side of my face. With a grunt the old man brought his second hand to the hilt and I had no choice but to retreat, one flash step giving me space to breath. The escape route closed, but not before I realized what had happened. The fires drawn across my side had been sucked through the doorway, vanishing like water down a drain. An avalanche of self-satisfied laughter rang through my head, and a surge of confidence rang through my body.

Yamamoto had paused, to analyze what he had just seen, no doubt. He was still insanely strong, even if I could mitigate the force of the fire. Possibilities raced through my mind, open paths into chaos all around him, try to drain him as the constant need to repair my defenses was draining me? What would happen if I dragged him through an open door; would the fight simply continue, or would he lose at least the ability to use the techniques most dangerous to me?

I continued backing up as he moved forward, the pressure between us unlike anything I had experienced, suffocating, exhilarating. The bastard could hide his emotions, but reiatsu was honest and his intentions told me more truth than he would ever want to reveal. He did not wish to do this. The fact that he had not unleashed all of his power on me immediately was his choice, a resistance. I paid attention as suspicions became reality.

"When did it happen, you poor, pathetic creature? When did you sell your soul?"

For such an old, bulky man he moved with fearsome speed. Another eruption of power as I deflected a blow, dodging low, my counter-attack easily deflected. Around us, six rifts opened, drawing away the deadly flames. Quickly, I retreated again, needing a moment to think, to adjust to the changing dynamics of this fight. He pursued, another shock-wave of reiatsu as blades met between us.

"What was worth this price, sotaicho?" I growled in his face. "A share in stolen power? Or simply this position, an honored slave?"

Expected retorts did not come, only attacks. Faster. He had millennia of experience, but so did I. Close to him and his zanpakuto, the blaze still burned, flaring with every clash. Faster. The battle a flurry of movement, an effort to predict and defy prediction. I had heard stories of what he could accomplish with his bare hands, and when his grip shifted I made evading his fist the priority. Faster. Only one long scratch on his leg had been added to the first blow I had landed. Several hits had been negated by the ice protecting my skin.

And then, searing agony. It is not easy to avoid overreacting when injured, the impulses to lash out or to retreat can leave you more vulnerable than the injury itself. Letting myself feel the fiery sword bite into my side as I pivoted, a small part of my mind wondered if the wound was cauterized by the very sword that pierced through the lowest rib on the right, ripping its way out of my side, ice rushing to fill the unnatural gap and halt life-threatening blood loss.

Continuing to move toward instead of away was an act of will and fury. Watching Hyorinmaru's tip enter the old man's chest was satisfaction enough to compensate for the pain. It would not be a fatal blow, not with the gathering of captains nearby, just outside of the blast zone of our reiatsu. But I stepped into him anyway, twisting and pushing with everything I had to force the blade through as much flesh as possible, tearing from entry beside sternum to his left, just below the lighter wound created at the start of our battle, unfortunately not hitting the heart.

I heard him grunt. I hissed as we collided briefly, contact burning through ice, clothing and skin along my left arm, side and hip. The conflagration faltered as the old man stumbled, left arm clutching the wound as my momentum pulled Hyorinmaru clear. It was a colossal mistake, my blade passing through his arm above the elbow. The thrill, the hope for a second, more decisive blow to his neck was short lived.

Oppressive reiatsu concentrated, far too close, as he met the follow-up stroke that should have ended him. I could feel it, the intent building, and I suddenly recalled that this was only Shikai. In a heartbeat, it would be Bankai. I was badly injured, reiatsu at about a quarter of what it was at the start of this, and that only thanks to drawing on the wild energy through the open rifts. It had taken everything just to get one unsuccessful hit. If he called Bankai now, with me so close, I would be incinerated.

Failure. Growling in frustration, I took one step back, retreating where he and his power could not follow, shutting the door on the imminent threat. The sudden lack of pressure and heat was a relief so great I nearly collapsed. As I sagged, the pain brought me back to reality. It had been a mistake, an error caused by pride that could have cost me my life.

I was a Shinigami, a captain of the Gotei 13. The end of one spiritual life had never been a concern, rarely entering my thoughts. What would happen beyond this life? Would I be reborn thanks to the eternal curse I had inflicted upon myself, or would the completion of my memories make this the finale? And if reborn, would Ichigo accept my soul again, though Toshiro was no more? Would I remember my beloved this time, or lose him again?

Wincing as I straightened, I pushed the questions out of my mind. Through some skill and a lot of luck, I did not need to answer them today. My life was still my own. My Ichigo was still my own. Releasing Bankai, bringing my reiatsu down, internalizing it to aid with healing, I focused on where I needed to be, who I need to be with.

 

Chapter Text

 

Not so long ago, in a much sexier reality, two stubborn and competitive men stood at the base of a ski slope. Ichigo had only wished to give his boyfriend a nice day in the snow. Toshiro had seen the entire idea as silly and a waste of time, yet he was not able to resist when the invitation became a dare. Thus, the first bet was made and a tradition was born.


Need for Speed

"How do you even know that?"

"I read the manual. Didn't you? It is a common complaint and an easy fix on the S1000RR."

"You read the manual." I stared, incredulous. "And you learned how to adjust ... what is it you're adjusting?"

"The play in the clutch cable. It loosens as it warms up. Don't you feel the difference? Honestly, Ichigo, I thought you knew what you were doing with these machines."

"I don't know whether I should be pissed off or turned on right now."

"You want me to pull the slack for you?"

"No, I had you by 5 seconds. I'm doing just fine."

"Just being helpful. Tighten down and you'll be able to short shift on that long turn."

"Fuck off, tensai."

"Fine. But when my time on the next heat is 2.7 minutes faster, you'll know I was right."

"2.7 minutes! Not possible. Tell you what. You beat me and I swear by the old man's beard I will do anything you say on this bike."

"Deal. But if you want to keep up you really need to keep your head lower. If your pride will let you, you should follow my line on a few turns. You were so close, but not quite hitting the apex."

I growled. Toshiro wasn't trying to show off, and that made it twice as infuriating.

"I said if you can beat me. Shut it until then."

He was quiet, and I started to worry that I had hurt his feelings. I could let the competition get under my skin. There we were, a beautiful day, an open track, and we were together. We were doing something I had always dreamed of since Chad taught me how to ride his beat up old Yamaha. And Toshiro was in close fitting black leather . . . Yum. Nothing should be able to knock me off cloud nine.

I looked over sheepishly, prepared to apologize, and met the wide, heart-stopping smile so few ever were blessed to witness.

"Before I forget to say it, Ichigo, thanks for this. I'm really enjoying myself."

He slid his visor down and started his bike as I blushed. I could really be a dick sometimes.

The two guys on Ducatis had been listening in. We'd planned on swapping bikes with them after a few rounds, and they were getting a good laugh at my expense.

"Your buddy really knows his shit. How long's he been racing?"

"About 30 fucking minutes," I spat and slammed down my visor.

 


Because it's There

"Let me know when you get to where I am. There's a good rest point coming on the right."

"Oh, thank god. This is a lot fucking harder than the last one."

"That was just practice. We are over three quarters of the way to the top. It will be worth it, trust me."

"With my life, such as it is."

One of the only rules for our adventures in the living world was that we stayed in gigai. It did take a bit of the sting out of the risk, knowing that we couldn't really die from something like wrecking a race-car or falling off a mountain. But loss of the gigai meant losing the bet. And we'd been doing this long enough that we could fool ourselves into fear of mortality, just a little bit.

Toshiro didn't often select the activities for our adventures, so when he did I never turned them down. My choices were mostly high speed, rushes of adrenaline, or centered around the energy of crowds and cities. His tended to be just the opposite, but only on the surface. With his challenges, the reward took a lot more effort, but it was always worth it. Take this for example. We'd been training off and on for months just for today. Starting before dawn, we hiked two more hours from camp and were now fuck-knows-how-long into this climb. Normally, I would call that a recipe for epic boredom.

But Toshiro's challenges were never that simple. No ropes, no water beneath us to break a fall, just a whole lot of rock. When I reached the rest and took the time to look, the adrenaline rush was very, very intense. I felt like a bug on a wall, a few inches of ledge the only thing between me and hundreds of feet of empty air and granite. The view was astounding, dark trees like toothpicks below, the wide river we had boated in on yesterday nothing more than a delicate, silvery chain winding through the green.

My entire body was aching pleasantly from the exertion. Craning my head upward, I could see that we were close. But I certainly needed a rest to make it the last leg.

"Not a bad view."

I grinned at my darling love and took in an even better view. He was gorgeous every day, but when he was in his element he was beyond stunning. The close-fitting outfit hid nothing of his physique, lean muscles and golden skin glowing with sweat and sunshine, beautiful face alight with sheer joy as he carefully stretched and flexed his arms.

"Wait until you see the view from the top, Ichigo. If you manage not to fall, that is."

"Oh, I'm not falling today. I've lost the last three, it's my turn to use you as a target."

"All about the bet, beloved. You are missing the spirit."

"No." I looked slowly out at the vast wilderness and took a slow, deep breath. "No, I don't think I am."

I nearly did fall when his rough, chalk covered hand pulled my head to the side and his lips pressed to mine. It took me a moment to respond, my heart in my throat from the sudden feeling of being off balance, the automatic response to turn and embrace him nearly ending our little adventure. He chuckled against my lips, no doubt feeling the moment of panic. But I had recovered, and carefully moved my hand to the back of his neck to hold him close until I had him moaning into my mouth. When we parted, we were both panting harder than we stopped to rest.

"Trying to cheat, my love?"

"Not at all. Just getting a little advance on my only reward since it looks like I'll be losing the bet. You know, there is not a single soul within a hundred miles of that plateau."

That was the other thrill when Toshiro picked the adventure. Nothing turned him on quite like a serious physical challenge, and this one would be followed by total isolation. We had enough supplies for three nights. I couldn't be sure I would survive three nights of him in this mood, but I was certainly willing to try.

 


Soaking Wet

"And that was the easy section?"

"What's wrong, beloved? Too much for you?"

I gave him a hand up onto the shore and spun him into my embrace before he caught his balance. He laughed along with me between playful kisses.

"Shit!" And he was back knee deep in the Pecuare to catch his kayak and toss it up on the bank.

By the time he was out of the river again I had found the perfect shaded spot. I sprawled, resting on my elbows, watching intently as he peeled off the top of his suit.

Once I had been to this country alone, on duty, temporarily separated from him. Usually I preferred fierce landscapes, high mountains, cold winds. To my surprise, I had completely fallen for this tropical place with it's cool forests, hot sands, and welcoming community. I had tormented myself with fantasies of his face and body kissed by these strong rays. The vision before me put those dreams to shame. I stared unabashedly at the glistening streams of water running down bronze muscles, glimmering diamonds dangling from orange hair even brighter in the intense equatorial light. The Ichigo-loving sun always did fascinating things with his coloring, and only I loved him more.

He smirked, catching my expression of adoration and desire. Plans to get some physical rest before the next set of rapids were happily discarded.

I knew it. I knew once I got him to Costa Rica I would not be able to keep my hands off him. It had started on arrival, I hadn't even been able to wait for him to drop his bag before I tackled him on the hotel bed. Now I had every intention of taking him here on the forest floor, or maybe up against this tree. Why not both?

oooooooOOOOOooooooo

"I don't think that last flip should count. That means a tie."

"Oh, and what is your reason?"

"You know perfectly well what my reason is, my love."

"No, I can't imagine what possible excuse you could have this time."

My tone was flat and serious while my beloved was starting to get worked up. I resisted the urge to laugh. He was so competitive! So was I, but I won these little bets so often that I could take it a little less seriously. I also didn't mind losing. Being his 'target' for training was exhilarating, and I learned nearly as much defending against him as I did when the roles were reversed.

"Listen, you damn cheater, you want to try that last run again? This time I get to fuck you senseless before we launch and you see if that affects your response time."

I leaned in and kissed the frown right off his disgruntled, gorgeous face.

"Deal."

 


A Bit Off Trail

"This is not a race. Just a successful ride makes it a win. If we both wipe out, the one with the most wrecks loses. Okay?"

"Deal."

I was a bit worried about this one. Toshiro quickly mastered any sport that involved strategy, physics, and predictable outcomes. But you can't rely on knowing what the trail will present around the next turn. You can't predict every rock, ridge, and sudden patch of sand or gravel. From this angle, the trail looked like it plummeted straight into a pile of boulders and pine trees, but that was barely the beginning as the trail turns and winds down the mountain, alongside deep gorges and a raging river. I watched him take in the view of the range and then look down, lips pursed.

"You sure? We can practice another week."

"Backing out? I win by default."

"Hell no, I can't take another beating. I still have frostbite from last time."

He snickered and flashed that wicked grin that was usually the last thing I saw before finding myself under 8 feet of snow.

"Alright. Ready position, neutral position, brake before turns with weight on heels and hips, don't lock joints, yield to uphill."

"Highly unlikely we'll run into anyone coming up this route, at least. Toshiro, we can just take it slow. You've never even practiced a trail like this one."

"Dammit, I said I'm fine. It's just a fucking hill, so go."

Well, he'd proven me wrong 9 times out of 10. The speed with which he picked up new skills was frightening, and I usually ended up eating my words at the end of the day.

"See you at the bottom, love."

oooooooOOOOOooooooo

I told the young couple for the third time that everything was cool. My friend was fine, he was new at this and just lost control. Yes, I just got a text, he went off trail a bit and is hiking his bike up. No, they didn't need to wait with me. No, it wasn't their fault at all, just a noob mistake, a lesson we all learn along the way.

When they finally left, continuing up the trail, I took a long look at my boyfriend. He stood at the edge of the cliff nearby, arms tucked in the sleeves of his shihakusho looking extremely pissed. He had heard every word as I had apologized for his lack of skill and made it sound like he was an imbecile. Approaching with reasonable caution, I took in the scene.

"How the hell did you manage that?"

Turquoise eyes glared at me, then looked down to the broad canopy 100 feet below and nearly as far away on the opposite cliff face. There, dangling precariously from thin, leafy branches was a silver and green mountain bike with barely a scratch on it.

"Honestly, Ichigo, I haven't the faintest idea."

I whistled as I leaned over the edge.

"What about the body?"

"Do you have your cell phone?"

I dug around and handed it over. "Ah, you going to call your phone and follow the ringing?"

He had been pecking away at the screen and raised the phone as he walked back toward the trail.

"Urahara, it's Hitsugaya. I'm going to need a new gigai next week."

. . .

"No idea. It is not likely in good shape. What? Somewhere in the Blue Ridge, Virginia, USA."

I stared, mouth hanging open. I could hear Urahara yelling in a tone that would have made me find a good hiding place. But my dragon didn't hide from anyone. A look of disdain and irritation flashed across Toshiro's face. His voice suddenly changed to pure, cold Hitsugaya-taicho. Poor Hat-and-Clogs had met his match.

"No," he hissed into the phone, "I most certainly do not have time to get it myself. If you want it, you find it. Now if you don't mind I lost a bet and I have to go get beaten up by my boyfriend."

With the wisdom of experience, I suppressed the laughter that was trying to escape and stayed silent and calm. His beautiful face was completely serene once more as he handed back my phone. Later, when Toshiro wasn't around, I would send Urahara the coordinates. He sighed as he looked back over the cliff.

"Ichigo, when I went over the edge I panicked. I dumped the gigai almost immediately."

"Well, anyone would if they could, love. If you were human that surely would have killed you. Definitely put you in a wheelchair."

He turned back and quickly stepped close, staring straight into my eyes with an air of excitement.

"Exactly. I was afraid to fall. Me. How ludicrous is that?"

My head cocked to the side. Where was that genius brain heading with this one?

Aha! I grinned. "So, skydiving?"

 


Into the Void

Science had a name or it, and something of an explanation for the odd psychological phenomenon that makes standing at a great height so dangerous. Science always did, and usually I paid attention. But at that moment the last thing I was interested in was reason. No, what I was fascinated with was the unfocused and imprecise desire to jump, no, to fall. Why?

The skies were my second home, where I dominated my enemies and flaunted my power. Never in my life had I felt out of place in the cold expanses of the heavens. Never had I looked at the earth so far below with even a sliver of fear. This false body could be hurt, could be 'killed' in a manner of speaking. I could only feel its pain if I chose to remain through an injury. But I could not die. The fall posed no risk whatsoever to my soul. It did not make any sense, then, that when I had fallen I experienced both a thrill of excitement and a thrill of terror when I should feel nothing at all.

Science did not have a grasp on my rather unusual circumstances.

"You know that look drives me crazy."

My beloved's breath on my neck was the only warmth as freezing winds invaded the open bay of the plane. He had told me that when I was thinking intently it looked as if I was seeing another reality, and a big part of him hated the thought that I was somewhere else and he could not follow. My precious idiot did not understand that he was everywhere, always, there was no thought or feeling that did not come to my mind through the love I held so close in my heart.

Leaning back slightly, I turned my head and captured his lips. I would happily have turned into his arms and deepened the kiss, but he pulled back, glancing around to see if we were noticed. Chuckling at his timidity, I gave him a playful smack and turned back to watch the nebulous clouds swirling so close, reforming after being shredded by this hideously ugly and exquisitely beautiful metal marvel of human ingenuity.

"How much longer?"

"Shouldn't be another 2 minutes."

"You are not backing out?"

"I think we both knew no one would win this bet, my love."

He was right. Not only would neither of us back down from a challenge, we both were eager to do this. I decided to stop trying to understand, and just enjoy. It was silly, really, pretending to be mortal and allowing human feelings to govern my actions. But for me especially, this was new and far beyond rare. Ichigo, at least, remembered living a true human life and understood the fear of death. I had never lived such a life.

Hoping Ichigo didn't notice me jump a little when a loud buzzer went off, the red light by the bay doors changing to yellow, I flashed him a wide grin and he grinned back. I could feel his excitement, my own adrenaline picking up as we went through a final safety check.

The crew had gathered to watch our exit. We had lied, of course, with perfectly forged documentation to prove our non-existent expertise. We had both done our research, and we did not want to mess with the safety requirements placed on beginners. It wasn't exactly a kind thing to do. After all, if one of us 'died' it would reflect poorly on the company and the crew. Well, we would just have to survive.

My beloved waved a thumbs up overhead and I mimicked his action, crouching slightly in anticipation. The green light was a blur as I ran for the sky, leaving only my whooping shout behind.

oooooooOOOOOooooooo

My arm was as heavy as lead. I stared at it in concentration, forcing it up. It took ages to move the sluggish limb enough to lay my hand where I wanted it, palm over bronze-covered clavicle, fingers curling to fit the curve of his shoulder. I sighed as I finally succeeded in this simple task, and relaxed again. Everything was now perfect.

"So, did you actually feel fear?"

"Did you wait to ask me that until we were alone on purpose? Trying to protect my dignity, beloved?"

"Trying to protect my chances of getting laid."

I snickered against his chest. It had been terrible, all the gear, the ground crew, the ride back with others in the vehicle. So many fucking obstacles to fucking. And all we had both wanted from the moment the chutes opened was to tear into each other. He could have told me he hated me and that he was sleeping with Kurotsuchi, I still would have begged for it.

"Yes, I think I did. Despite all the reasons not to be afraid, and even though I know I will feel no fear in the air when it is my power that holds me up, somehow I still did feel it."

It was the point of these reckless adventures of ours, to push ourselves in one way or another. This one had been a particularly rewarding challenge, as it gave me a taste of mortality. Yes, I could fall in battle, and I did not want to die. But a soul that has been reborn countless times has a different perspective on fear of death. Quite like the perspective I now had, a creature that thrives in the air being able to explore the fear of falling.

"Did it live up to your expectations?"

Oh, my darling was clever, deliberately pushing my buttons, reawakening the thrill. He was nearly as sharp now as I, and how I adored him for it. I scooted in closer, draped half over him now and nuzzling the scar on his neck.

"Ichigo," I let my lips move close against his skin as I spoke, "are you terribly exhausted?"

A deep chuckle answered me as his hand pulled gently on my hair, moving my head back so that his lips could reach mine. Mmm, yes, remind me of the thrill of life, beloved. Walk with me as we discover every truth, every fear, every delight. And then hold me close to give the discoveries meaning.

"Ichigo," I whispered against his lips as I moved to straddle his hips, "next can we try base-jumping?"

"Whatever you want, you sexy thing."

 

Chapter Text

Waiting, again. Separated, again. The day would never end, it seemed, and I was more tired than I could remember being since Hueco Mundo. I pushed down the need to go back; Toshiro should be here by now. But it was a conversation with Shunsui, I really didn't have anything to worry about. I found a fairly rock-free patch of dirt near the wall and sat, leaning back and trying to get a little rest.

My thoughts drifted to my division. Hinamori would be going through hell, but Rangiku would be with her. Unless, of course, both divisions were locked down, weapons taken, members under house arrest. That was a very real possibility according to Toshiro, but there was nothing we could do about it. Emiko and Yuji would hold the 5th together. I had given them as many clues as I could without endangering them and could only hope they had enough trust in me after such a brief time that they did not condemn me out of hand. Considering what their last captain had done, I expected the worst and would not blame them for anything they thought, said, or did.

It was funny. I had thought all of this through a hundred times as Toshiro and I made our plans. But it never seemed real until now. And I was torn. It was not possible to care about and respect my division and my scattered friends throughout Seireitei, yet thoroughly hate the Gotei 13. And I did hate. The image of Toshiro's face as he discarded his haori was etched in my mind, the fury and disgust for those who would discard him without as much consideration as he showed for a piece of fabric . . . yes, I hated them.

Rage died as I felt Toshiro's presence and I jumped to my feet. Emotions were yanked again, from joy to terror as I saw him and raced to his side.

"Toshiro? Shit!"

I caught him as he stumbled, steadily lowering him onto the ground. The fact that he didn't fight it, let himself sag onto the hard-packed dirt without protest, told me more about how badly he was hurt than the obvious injuries. His eyes and teeth clenched shut with a long hiss as my arms aggravated burnt skin. I focused my attention on healing, my eyes and the kido telling me more, several burns and cuts, a gash in his midsection that would be fatal for a human, pieces of broken ribs visible in the midst of the torn flesh covered in frost.

"Toshiro! Dammit, what happened?"

"It was Yamamoto."

His voice was strained, every part of him tensed in pain. It would take some time to heal him, his own reiatsu low and not helping much, my own skill mediocre.

"Like I couldn't guess that. Why did you face him alone? Why didn't you run? That was the plan."

Chuckling led to wet coughing, flecks of blood on his lips, his fingers catching my free hand that hovered over the scorched skin of his right cheek and squeezing. That cheek, jaw, ear blistered and raw, hair burnt away. The left side of his face was merely reddened, though his left shoulder, side, hip, and thigh sported holes through clothing, second and third-degree burns showing through. My eye lingered on the lower wounds. Red and blistered, circled by black and seared white, it looked so much worse against the paler skin.

"Sorry, beloved. Lost my temper."

Then I was the one chuckling, though I had to control seething rage at the old bastard even as amusement and appreciation for my brave love broke through. Beautiful eyes closed again, wincing. I had no choice but to focus on the savage cut first, the burns would heal more slowly until I had finished with the major wound. They had to hurt like hell; it was a wonder he hadn't succumbed to shock.

"Is he still alive?"

His hand gripped tighter, only my thumb able to move, brushing his wrist back and forth. He grunted as I felt the healing kido moving bone into place. The ice had melted, leaving the wet wound visible. I couldn't hold back a low growl when I saw the edges, even the inside of the wound was burnt, bright red, dark maroon, and black, cauterized veins reopening, seared cells being forced back to life.

"Yes. Wounded."

That was all he managed to choke out, tensed with head stretched back. It would take time, healing Toshiro. Time meant the wounded enemy would also be healed. If I left, Toshiro would not die and I could finish off the old man. But it was likely Unohana at least would be with him, perhaps Shunsui, too, since that was who Toshiro went to meet. Had Shunsui set up an ambush when Toshiro requested a meeting under truce? I would tear him apart with my bare hands.

"Calm . . . "

Swallowing another wave of fury, if nothing else because it interfered with the concentration needed to heal, I watched helplessly as he coughed blood again and groaned in agony. No, not helpless. Diverting some of my reiatsu, I ran through an incantation in my head. His guard was down, trusting me, and knocking him out cold was easy. Setting his limp hand down gently, I shoved my anger into the background, letting Zangetsu rage and plot revenge so that I could center my energy and give it to my wounded dragon.

 

oooooooOOOOOooooooo

 

It was becoming an unwelcome habit, being incapacitated and burdening Ichigo with my care. This time I woke in a comfortable bed, not as unnecessarily large as our bed back home and covered in thick blankets. The scent and dry crackle of fire made me alert instantly, but I relaxed as I began to recognize my surroundings. There were no windows visible, but I knew the view from the living room would be of thick snow and dark pines. This would be the small loft bedroom of a cozy log cabin, nearly inaccessible at the north edges of Waterton Lakes in the Canadian Rockies, the fireplace downstairs the only source of heat other than emergency propane. It certainly did the job, and I shrugged off several blankets before anything else.

Slowly, cautiously, I stretched. When no pain presented itself, I let my reiatsu tell me what state my body was in. No traces of burns, a little tenderness but no serious pain where I had been ripped open. Not even a headache, and my reiatsu was over halfway recovered. My beloved's healing skill was improving. Of course, I seemed to be giving him plenty of chances to practice.

While I was thinking of Ichigo, he was realizing I was awake. I propped myself on an elbow and looked in time to see him scrambling inelegantly up the steep stairs. Between his anxious, clumsy-puppy haste and the vast relief I felt seeing him, I couldn't help but grin and chuckle.

Rushing the few steps to the side of the bed, he pushed aside the rest of the blankets, the air chilling me pleasantly after being so smothered under comforters. He had tugged open the robe which I assumed he had dressed me in before I even had a chance to move, and I was bare underneath. His hand settled on my ribs, moving slowly, checking the pink scar carefully.

"Ichigo."

A startled yelp escaped me as he sat on the edge of the bed, leaned in, pulling the other side of my waist to examine my left side. I remembered the worst of the burns had been scattered all down the left, and his hand and eyes ran over every surface from thigh up my side. Regaining my wits, I smacked halfheartedly at his shoulder.

"Ichigo! Stop that, I'm fine."

He moved quickly, not that I would have resisted. His hands, soft and rough, large and warm, cradling my face, fingertips tracing lines of lightning over skin new and sensitive, tingling as thumbs brushed my jaw. Lips met and my hands went behind me to push myself up, closer into the tender kisses. My eyes slid shut to heighten the sense of touch, right hand coming forward to caress ribs and slide up his back. Our lips moved in familiar tandem, no need to deepen the contact, and oh how I loved the way he grabbed softly, pulling my lower lip between his. Such a simple action to create such strong feeling, a promise of things to come and yet enough on its own to bring emotional satisfaction, a sense of connection that I had long sought and found only with him.

When my hand slowly worked its way back down, irritated by the cloth between fingers and his skin, to the sash at his waist, he pulled back, hands not allowing my lips to follow. I opened my eyes to see the worried expression on his face, and the desire in his eyes.

"You're still recovering, my love. You should rest."

All that tension, those playful, hard to resist moments when it took all my will not to give in to him, and now that I was practically naked and lying in bed he was going to play hard to get? A twist of my wrist and my hand was pushing aside cloth, so much more pleasing to feel his supple skin.

"I'll rest after I have you. Now get rid of those clothes."

Still he hesitated, so I did the only reasonable thing a man could do. Once I had yanked him violently over the top of me, I crouched over him and at least managed to bare his chest for my hands to explore while I insisted on a more passionate kiss, my tongue doing its best to wrap his in a knot, doomed to fail but awfully fun to try. He leaned up, becoming more aggressive and forcing my tongue back as I pushed cloth over his shoulders. I broke away before he could take full control, pushing him back to take a moment just to stare and admire before falling back down onto his chest, lips finding the sweet spot below his ear and sucking a moan out of him.

The bed was just wide enough for him to flip our positions one more time, and I immediately wrapped arms and legs around him, unwilling to let him try to escape. I resisted when I felt him trying to push me down, but gave in and let my legs drop when I saw that he was only trying to remove the offending fabric. I used the time to claw off the robe that still trailed from my shoulders, then latched onto him again, pulling him down, biting gently along his neck, running hands down his sides, anything I could do to taste, to feel, to claim.

When his weight lowered, when bare flesh met bare flesh and the lovely, hard length of him pushed against me, sliding alongside my own, want became need, need became desperation. My beloved knew I had surrendered, our brief and pointless little battle for dominance was one I did not wish to win, and I heard his throaty chuckle as movement, sensation, and emotion blended into a blissful haze. I moved without thought, only seeking contact, friction, pleasure in any way possible.

All that I had lost, all that I had left behind, I clung to him and sought reassurance, reminding myself of what truly mattered. He had lost just as much, more in many ways. His family, his mortality, his friends, all of it sacrificed for a man he had known briefly. He did not have the memories of our life together, of how our souls had blended seamlessly. All he had was my word and that incomparable heart.

The feel of his smooth skin over flexing muscles, the flavor of his breath as I moaned against his tongue, the wet heat becoming unbearable between us as I rubbed shamelessly against him, these things were just the tangible anchors for the passion, the desire, the love that so easily and completely drowned my senses.

Briefly I wondered when he had moved. When had his mouth left mine and when had his teeth and tongue started playing so delightfully at my chest, tugging and caressing, just the right combination of stinging bites and soothing licks? When had his hand found its way to the rustic little table by the bed, found the lubricant, when had that hand found its way down to circle and tease and prod in time with my flexing hips?

"Oh, my Ichigo," I moaned as his fingers entered, one hand going to fondle his hair while the other enjoyed the bunching and rippling muscles below his shoulder in rhythm with the gliding pressure within. In no time at all his fingertips turned pleasure into ecstasy, greed and lust taking over as I writhed, trying to continue grinding my cock against him while pushing against his hand, every part of mind and body crying with want.

"AHH! Ichigo . . . I . . ."

"Go ahead, love."

He started to move down, no doubt to finish me off with his mouth. My hand in his hair tightened. I summoned just enough control to still my body. Tempting to just cum now and let him work me into a frenzy again. But I knew what I wanted, to be even closer, as close as possible, as soon as possible. With effort, I enforced my will on my body, calming myself enough to make this last a little while longer.

"No! I want you."

I could feel the smirk on his lips came back to mine. His arrogance was justified, and I nipped at his tongue and lips, a fine distraction as his fingers left me and he shifted, my legs spreading wider, tensing to cant hips up and offer myself to him. I let go of thought and control again as he pushed into me, struggling for the first time in a long time to relax, too tight and too eager to make it easy. He stayed close, leaning over me, his hand caressed my cheek an instant before the hard thrust that brought us crashing back together.

"FUCK! Oh, god! Ichi . . . Ichigo . . . love you, love . . ."

He shut me up with fast, brief kisses, little moans with each harsh breath as he held still within me, knowing exactly what I liked, that brutal entry and then time to let my body ache and shiver with delight. How I could still feel like this was all new, how I could miss this when we had sex nearly every day was a mystery and a miracle. It was as if this, being joined physically as well as emotionally, was our natural state, the destined unity of two souls that were never meant to be parted. And when separated, when the world came in between us, all we sought was a way to return to this again and again.

My head fell back as his lips moved lower, letting me gasp for breath as I raised my legs one at a time, thigh dragging along thigh, the scrape of hair, the tensed heat of working muscle, heel dragging up calf and knee, to lock around him as he began to move. As easy as the merging of our lips, the harmony of slow, sinuous withdrawal followed by quick, intense entry, so familiar and so surprising every time, pushing my thoughts further away, pushing my body impossibly further into carnal pleasure. Too close, sacrificing a little depth to flex over me, beautifully painful pressure and friction torturing my cock. He knew me too well, just where to thrust, just how tight to hold, just when to become rougher and faster as my legs, my breath, my grasping hands told him what I wanted.

Blinding ecstasy as I screamed my beloved's name, his hand on my back holding me close as I shook against him. Spikes in pleasure, his hips rolling, pushing and grinding, forcing my orgasm to go on and on. I heard him chanting my name, voice hoarse, and he pulled all the way back just as I started to come down from the heights. Barely aware of my pliant body falling, his hands lifting my legs, swift, harsh the thrusts as he chased his own release and all I could do was cry out and claw at his shoulders, so sensitive that every stroke was the sweetest torment.

He straightened, out of my grasp, my hands falling to grip fistfuls of sheets as he lifted my legs higher. Enough presence of mind had returned for my eyes to focus on his straining body, sheathed in sweat, his face, contorted in rapture as he clutched my hips. Unbearably fine, the feeling of his pulsing release within, the erratic movements testifying that I was not the only one to lose control, the sudden collapse of his weight into my open embrace.

Holding him for days or for seconds, how I wished we could just stay like this as our lungs and hearts settled, as bodies cooled but shared warmth and bliss brought drowsy contentment. My eyes slid closed as I stretched my legs down slowly, hands clasped low around his back, thumbs stroking, all the energy I could spare. I wanted to tighten my hold when he started to lift himself off me, out of me, but I could only sigh and let him go, body still humming with tired delight.

His strong, lean body settled next to mine, pulling me onto my side, even lifting my head to slide a pillow underneath before sorting out one of the lightest blankets to cover us, knowing I would not want too much heat. The strange thought occurred to me that when I was the one taking him, I, too, had enough energy after all that exertion to take care of him. But when I was the one receiving all his ardor, I could barely be bothered to lift a finger as I indulged in the afterglow. Maybe that was why I often preferred it this way, because underneath the persona of dedication and duty, I was inherently a lazy creature content to indulge in the luxury of being cared for.

He looked at me quizzically as I laughed breathlessly, winding his arms with mine between our chests. Then I met his eyes and everything else paused as I gasped in awe. The changes had been sometimes gradual, sometimes startlingly sudden, compounding so quickly that even I, attuned so intimately, was taken by surprise. From the human boy who questioned his own overconfidence and shoved aside doubt with irritating arrogance, to the tormented Espada, both loving and hating his own soul, to the authoritative captain who knew no law but that written by his own heart.

What was he now, this beautiful creature with eyes that now never relinquished a sheen of gold? He was what I had set out to create. My demigod. My powerful, ancient love with a bright new soul that conquered the massive damage the universe had attempted to inflict.

"Toshiro? Are you okay?"

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I smiled, the wide, joyful smile that he had given me. I had expected to wake awash in grief and guilt, regret for what I had left behind. I had felt it, the pain of loss, for only a moment before he was there to erase it all. None of that emotional detritus clung to me. All I felt was happiness that we had found each other, happiness which, had anyone asked me a year ago, I would have denied I was even capable of.

"Do you want to tell me what's going through that brain of yours?"

My smile softened. What was going on in his mind was worth contemplating, though I tended to worry less about such things. His presence at my side was the only proof of his thoughts and feelings that I needed now that absolute trust bound us together.

"Only thinking what a wonder you are, beloved."

He snorted, perhaps taking it as a compliment for his sexual prowess, which was fine by me.

 

oooooooOOOOOooooooo

 

"So, you think the old man is a slave."

"I did think it. After engaging his reiatsu, I know it."

His eyes were fixed on the small, thick-paned window, the scene of deepening snow distorted through frosted glass. At least it wasn't that unfocused gaze into another reality, and his form curled into my side reassured me that he was here. I sipped scalding tea as I thought. I didn't doubt him at all, it made sense. It would explain why Yamamoto had done nothing about Toshiro even though he knew that he was dealing with another incarnation of Ryu, another enemy getting stronger by the day. Until he was ordered to, until he had no choice. Had it always been that way? All the lives between Ryu and Toshiro that had been ended by the Gotei, was it always an unwilling executioner?

"If that was true, wouldn't he be at the door right now? He wouldn't be able to stop once ordered to kill you, right?"

"Who knows? There is no way a human soul could achieve the same level of binding as the Tatsu, even such a powerful and corrupted soul as the tyrant's. Perhaps a weaker, less perfect enslavement means that the control is not as strong. Or perhaps the tyrant's will is not as clear, degraded and nearly destroyed. It is all hypothetical."

What a horrific thing to contemplate. As sick as it made me, what must Toshiro be feeling underneath all his detached analysis? If he was right, then he was probably the only being in existence that might be able to understand what the old man was going through. Part of me wished I had run off to kill the head captain. A bigger part was relieved that I had not.

"That means the old buzzard doesn't, or at least didn't, want to stop you. That complicates things."

"How so?"

Almost, my tongue almost slipped and asked if he was kidding. It seemed obvious to me, but I caught myself and remembered that Toshiro was ruthlessly logical sometimes. The human side of this was likely to escape him. I adjusted my arm around his shoulders, barely resisting the impulse to pull him into a full embrace.

"He could be unwilling enemy, love. If he had his choice, I think none of this would have happened. He would have allowed you to live as you see fit, as long as you stayed loyal."

"You do not know that. Allowing me to gain enough power to be a threat could just as well be motivated by self-interest, a gamble in hope that I could kill the Soul King and thereby free him. If that were to happen, I would still be a great threat to his authority, as would you. Do not forget, he has been a heartless killer in the name of his own ambition for millennia. Once I had achieved his goal and killed the tyrant, he would hunt me down as the greatest criminal in history, leaving him and an empty throne."

"Hmm. Worst case scenario, isn't it?"

His eyes sought mine, head turning, revealing keen interest and mild humor.

"And what is the best case scenario, my optimistic darling?"

"Well, what if we do it? I've seen him show compassion, and my gut tells me that whatever he's been in the past, the old man is not a heartless killer now. How grateful would Ryu have been to one who freed him of his chains? If Yamamoto is a victim in this, would killing the Soul King really free him?"

He looked back to the window, expressionless.

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why would I wish to do such a thing? Why would you? Yamamoto has earned no such consideration. Facing Reio would mean facing the Royal Guard, five warriors stronger than any captain, each with legendary skills. Succeed and unknown consequences would follow, a power vacuum that could destroy more than one world. It may have been Ryu's goal, to return all things to chaos. Why should it be mine?"

"I'm not saying to rush into war against Heaven, love. And I'm not saying to try to destroy Heaven for the sake of revenge or to try to bring back some long-lost world."

"Then what are you saying?"

"That some wrongs can't be overlooked."

He fell silent, that dreaded distant look stealing him away. I fidgeted again, less concerned with the fate of the universe than I was with the discomfort of the gigai I had just stuffed myself into. Necessary, maybe, to help hide our presence without us having to constantly work to repress our power. But the artificial body was twice as irritating when Urahara had loaded it with reiatsu suppression kido or whatever the fuck he used. Touching my reiatsu at all felt like trying to drive a car with the emergency brake on and no power steering. It was nearly painful, but it would take time to train myself out of my instincts.

I sighed and sipped more tea, hand rubbing Toshiro's arm under the blanket, calmed by the weight of him against my side. It all was rather simple to me. Bad guy identified, take him out and deal with the fallout knowing you did the right thing. My love would think through all the convoluted morals, rules, consequences . . . how I was starting to hate that word. And I would give him my opinions, then follow him no matter what he decided.

Perhaps I was too optimistic. I did feel that what I said was right, that it was within our power to end a great wrong, maybe the greatest wrong in human history, and therefore we had an obligation to try. But there was also a more selfish motivation. If we skirted the Gotei to go after the greater enemy, and we were victorious, wouldn't that end the conflict between us and the Gotei? Could Toshiro salvage the life he had grown to love, wear the haori again with a free heart? Or would the ultimate crime of killing the Soul King make us welcome only in Hell?

Well, I didn't know anything about Hell. Maybe it would be warm, at least.

"All of this is premature."

"Hmm?" Startled out of my thoughts, I saw that he had lost the glazed expression and now looked resolved.

"I need to review the information I gathered. Delaying may give them more time to prepare, or staying quiet for a while may make them lower their guard. Without knowing more about Zero Division, without waiting for the Gotei's reaction, all we have to go on is what we can learn from the records. We won't rush into this blind."

"Fair enough. Oh, I found this in your uniform. A bit singed but I think it should still work."

My hand twisted into the blankets to find my pocket, retrieving the little orb and an SD card. He took both.

"That was from Ichimaru. I have no idea what is on it, but I do not think I should look at it here. We will have to go elsewhere, use some other computer."

"We should probably wait a couple of days, then. Not sure we have enough power here for a computer anyway. How do you use the other thing?"

"That's the easy one," he held it up, the pretty little thing glowing softly in blues and whites. "The kido is self-contained, it won't be detectable even if someone were looking for such an obscure signal. It takes a little getting used to, but you can access it as if you were accessing a Hell Butterfly, simple mental link with only a touch of reiatsu to power it. The only hard part is that it is just a storage device for all of the information, and I had many, many topics I pulled information on. There is no index, so finding what you are looking for can be a bit of a challenge."

"I love the way you say these things as if it's completely normal to talk to a glowing ball of energy and download books straight into your head."

"Isn't it?"

"Says the man who tore apart three of my solar chargers trying to figure out how they worked just to prove they weren't magic."

"Yes, but I could build one now with the right materials."

His annoyed scowl made me laugh harder as I tightened my hold, pulling him closer. Toshiro was still Toshiro after all.

 

oooooooOOOOOooooooo

 

Eight days of this lifestyle and I was already wondering how mortals survived. True, most lived in places more hospitable, with the conveniences of community, but still so much time was required just to get through the daily necessities of staying alive. Cooking and cleaning around mealtimes I was used to, though not three times a day every day. Cleaning clothing and bedding had become required and took far too long, especially in these primitive conditions. It would need to become a daily chore to keep the amount of damp cloth hanging around the cabin to a minimum. Simply keeping the habitable space sanitary was a constant effort, and I refused to skip bathing even if procuring water was a challenge.

The outdoor chores were more to my taste, though I found myself, amazingly, getting sick and tired of snow. It would be fine if all I needed was to trudge across it on snowshoes, but digging out the cabin doors and clearing paths to the sheds where freshly chopped wood was drying for use, keeping the roof free of too much weight, clearing off solar panels to catch the rare sunlight, it was nonstop. It was still new enough to entertain me, but I could already tell it would wear thin, becoming a cycle of drudgery.

All this took every daylight hour, while Ichigo helped or went off hunting, fishing, or once taking a snowmobile to the distant town for basic items we had missed due to inexperience living like this. When the early darkness fell, I could finally relax and sift through information while my beloved made me cocoa or massaged my shoulders. And again, I thought how impossible life was. Many humans accomplished such tasks every day, in addition to going to work and taking care of children. They could keep mortality.

"What are you thinking about, love?"

He placed another log, stirred the fire, and then sat on the other end of the couch and patted his lap. I tossed my feet over the edge, kicking my legs to wrap the blanket firmly around my thickly socked feet, and let my head fall into his lap with a contented sigh. His hand stroked my hair, a familiar routine that I never grew tired of.

"Mostly about how I prefer being dead."

"I can't argue with you there. I'd forgotten how fragile and inconvenient a human body is. This morning I stubbed my toe on the edge of the bed. I swear, it hurt so much more than getting stabbed through the chest."

I sniggered. That was not the worst of it. Not even close. Neither of us had been prepared for the nasty shock of the morning after. Until now, we had only experienced sex without the worst side effects. Gigai don't heal much faster than mortal bodies, not without reiatsu, anyway. Sure, I had been sore after a particularly long night, especially before I learned how to relax, how to move, how to enjoy. But that was nothing compared to dealing with the real thing. Not that we'd given up on fucking, but we were a lot more careful after each of us had spent a painful morning recuperating. Now, oral sex was another story, and was quickly becoming a satisfactory alternative – clean, because washing a pile of blankets every day was so not part of my agenda, enjoyable, and relatively painless.

"I might be getting the flu. I had a sneezing fit today. That is so incredibly disgusting."

"Yeah? I have blisters. On my feet and my hands. All those sword calluses don't help at all when chopping wood."

"I think I might have a cavity. How do you even tell? My tooth hurts. That's not normal, is it?"

"The other day a rabbit got out of my snare and I tried to chase it. I collapsed after 50 feet, completely out of breath."

"Did you notice I am wearing socks? And I have a blanket. I'm cold, Ichigo. I am cold!"

We were laughing so hard at that point that I had tears in my eyes. If I had to keep acting like I was alive, I was going to kill myself.

Eight days and no sign of pursuit. We had hidden well, or they were not looking very hard. I had decided that it had been long enough. We would venture to a distant city, and find out what Ichimaru had given me. Another week or so of peace and I might even risk contacting Urahara for news. And perhaps the news would be that we were not the focus of a multi-world manhunt. Then I might feel safe moving to a less challenging location. One hooked up to the electrical grid would be nice.

"We need a break, beloved. Tomorrow morning, we close up the cabin and head for a city. One night won't be too risky if we are careful."

"How, exactly, do we get to a decent city in a day? It takes me hours just to get to town and back."

"Ye of little faith. I had Urahara stash gigai in most of those caves. We leave the bodies here, travel my way. The chances of anyone sensing us in the seconds out of gigai are infinitesimal, and the ones waiting for us will hold a physical disguise for a couple of days to make it safe to move in public."

That had been Urahara's idea, tested on Ichigo on New Year's Eve. Gigai take on the physical form of the soul that occupies them. But Urahara had managed to force a physical form on one that would last a little while, as long as the user kept reiatsu under control. So, we would be able to use these for short periods of time, since our normal physical appearances would stand out to any Shinigami.

"Mmmm, there's my sexy tensai. Maybe we can linger in that cave for a bit."

Damn, I hadn't thought of that. Why the fuck had I not thought of that?

"So, what are my choices?"

So many answers to that question, each more delicious than the last. We might never leave that cave. Visions of debauchery danced through my head.

"Tooooshiroooo."

"What?"

"Where? What cities are options?"

"Oh. Well, Lisbon, Vienna, Seattle, Buenos Aires . . ."

"That one. Sounds warm. Definitely warm there, right?"

"This time of year, yes. Warm but not too hot. An excellent choice."

He started petting my hair again, which I tried to ignore, now quite aroused by thoughts of being free from a gigai and in a secure location with him.

"You've made me a very happy man, my love. Now, get your studying done before bedtime so we can get the hell out of here."

I closed my eyes, relaxing and calming myself before doing as told. There was so much information to sort; I had spent hours on it every day and was perhaps three quarters of the way through. Admittedly, a good deal of it was redundant, and some completely useless. I had set the kido to find everything it could from the Great Spirit Library pertaining to the Heavenly Guardian, Hyorinmaru, the Soul King, Raiden, Zero Division, the founding and rules of Central 46, the authority given to Yamamoto, basically anything that could give us an edge. Picking out the facts from the myths was difficult enough. Then distilling it into the facts worth having took ages.

In the meantime, my Ichigo was showing a remarkable amount of patience. We discussed what I learned every night, and he spent some time going over the information himself in case I missed anything that his very different perspective would catch. The foundation of the truth was there, buried under history and lies, but the details were missing. Still, it would be enough to provide credibility to my own record of the story, if only those who read it took the time to piece things together.

What Central 46 would know by accessing records and orders was that I was a clear threat. They had the evidence of multiple incarnations attacking Soul Society. And they had the directive of the Soul King to eliminate the threat, without any clear picture of the motives of their enemy or any intention of resolving the conflict. They would be always watching for the reappearance of Hyorinmaru and waiting for the wielder to show any sign of rebellion, conspiracy, disloyalty. Thus they had tested, condemned and eliminated Kusaka for showing weakness, for setting ambition above loyalty. In light of their hard-line stance, it surprised me that they had not killed me along with Kusaka.

I found it rather odd at first that the order was not to simply kill and move on. Someone long ago most have reasoned that instantly killing the so-called Heavenly Guardian would only make him be reborn, unknown again. While keeping him under surveillance until he turned traitor gained time with a threat known instead of hidden, and the services of a Shinigami with a powerful zanpakuto for years or decades. All the while the executioner's blade hung over the unsuspecting head of a soldier who did not know that one day he would slip into madness and be murdered by those he served.

It was a sordid scandal, politics at its lowest, and it reaffirmed my commitment to end this cycle by any means necessary. And that brought me back to the Soul King. There was no option to alter the actions of Central 46. This centuries-long war was rooted deep, and the council would never even consider opposing a directive so ancient that it was a founding pillar of their law. Eliminating Central 46, again, would not solve the problem either since the sotaicho answered to the same authority, by tradition, by law, and by something very like the chains that had once bound a dragon in slavery.

What then? Slaughter them all? That would achieve nothing, killing off the pawns and even the power pieces but leaving the king on the board. Innocent was not a term I used lightly, but I could not say that the council was guilty. And perhaps Ichigo's instincts were correct, and even Yamamoto was not a willing party to the crimes of the tyrant. No, my past selves had tried and failed again and again, because they attacked the wrong targets.

I could live in exile, avoid the conflict altogether. But if I died, if I did not retain memory of this life and all the truths I had uncovered, then I would be thrown right back into the line of fire. And beyond my own dilemma, this situation was just one symptom of a disease that infected and choked Soul Society and all of humanity. Souls that should be at peace, moving freely through the cycle of life, death, rebirth were instead trapped too long in a world that stripped them of any power, using the stolen power to feed Heaven, stripped them of any dignity, left them bruised and angry to face a new life without any hope of redemption.

Ryu had known this, had watched it happen, watched the corruption spread until it destroyed all that he knew. All the injustices, the oppression of billions of souls, and all the Hollow horrors spawned from human pain traced back to the Soul King. Sin was born at the foot of the Heaven's throne.

There was no alternative. Ichigo was right.

God must die.

 

Chapter Text

 


 

"Rangiku? I received an order from Toshiro to come as soon as possible. An order. The nerve. And now I can't find him."

Operation distract and console. Hopefully that was all I would have to do.

"Oh, that was from me! People take it more seriously when it comes from a captain. Don't you do that?"

"Of course, I don't! That isn't allowed."

"Really? But it's so effective. You should really try it."

"What did you want?"

Little snot, rolling her eyes at me. Honestly, Momo was a good friend but sometimes she was so much like her brother that I wanted to strangle her. One arrogant pipsqueak was quite enough to deal with. Only my captain wasn't a pipsqueak anymore. No, he was tall, and handsome, and built. Too bad he was taken of the market before that happened. I was sure I could have won him. Ichigo didn't deserve him anyway.

"Rangiku!"

"Huh?"

"Was there a reason you sent an urgent summons? I have work to do, you know. I'm supposed to be checking patrols with Kurosaki-taicho."

"Oh, right. You're a lifesaver Momo. See, taicho gave me two months to bring the slacker squad up to par on cooperative kido. I just can't do it! And he's going to want to see results in two days. Please, Momo, I just need something flashy and easy for an idiot to learn in a day or two. You can help, right? I have them all at the training ground in 10 minutes."

"You called me off patrols to do your job that is probably not done because you've put it off to the last minute!"

Oooo, just knock her out!

"That's not fair. I've tried, but I have my duties and Bankai training which is hard and studying for the captain's exam which is harder and training my replacement who's a real stick in the mud and the third seat doesn't know what she's doing yet and . . ."

"Fine! Fine, I'll help."

"Great! You know where the training ground is, right?"

"Oh, no you don't. You're coming with me or I'm out."

First thing I'm going to do when I get my haori is make her polish every single shoe in my closet.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


Really, the biggest part of this job was just to keep Momo away from Ichigo for a couple of hours. Things would be out of my hands, most likely, once all hell broke loose. We were both lieutenants, she would have to go to the 5th unless they tried to keep everything quiet. And if nothing happened within the two hours, according to my captain, the grand plan would change and it wouldn't matter where Momo was.

I stood, bored to death, pretending to pay attention to the kido she was teaching. The squad was confused about being scheduled for training and instead being taught something rather useless by another division's lieutenant, which played off perfectly. There were no slackers in the 10th, and they picked it up a little too quickly. But I was saved from explaining to Momo why she was needed to teach good soldiers. Ashido appeared at the opposite side of the training grounds, nodded at me, and vanished.

It was really happening. They had arrested my captain. Despite being prepared, I had to stop myself from running to him, to guard his back like always.

She was just finishing talking to two of her students when the first alarms sounded. General quarters, all Shinigami to their divisions, prepare for combat, and await instructions. Fat chance. Momo rushed to me, eyes wide.

"Do you have any idea what is happening?"

"No," I lied unflinchingly, "I'll send word if I hear anything before orders come out."

"I will, too. Good luck."

"Momo." She paused mid-turn. "With Ichigo out in Rukongai, you call on me if you need anything, okay?"

Her eyes narrowed for a second, probably ready to snap something about how she was a lieutenant, too, and could take care of her division without my help, thank you very much. Maybe she heard the genuine concern in my voice.

"Okay, Rangiku. Thank you."


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


My captain would kill me if he suspected I broke his rules on this. I even started to wonder what I was doing. I could sense him one second, gone the next, in more than one place, nowhere at all. Captain-level reiatsu flared like novas in Division 1 and other places, two heading out into Rukongai, Kyoraku and Soi-fon. Three more coming closer from far out, too far to tell exactly who. Many showing up near Central 46. All of them at full strength, seething with intent to kill. It was terrifying, even if I was on the same level now.

I moved to follow Kyoraku and Soi-fon at a distance, figuring those two were most likely to be in pursuit of my captain, keeping my own reiatsu low, just high enough to keep a mental map of where the power players were. Only on the outskirts of the District 2, I had no choice but to stop, raising my reiatsu in reaction to a burst of power that nearly drove me to my knees from a huge distance. Ichigo. Even if I hadn't known his reiatsu, no one else but that bastard or the sotaicho could pump out that much power. By the time I steadied myself, it was gone and I took just a moment too long to recover.

"Matsumoto."

Carefully, I took my hand from my hilt, resisting the urge to back away from the cold steel resting on my shoulder, not quite touching my neck. Then Soi-fon appeared to my right and I wished I had not let go of Heineko.

"You should be with your division. What brings you this way, Rangiku?"

No point in trying to play the fool, not with him.

"Fortunately, we have two lieutenants, and Ashido is with the division. I'm looking for my captain. You haven't seen him, by any chance?"

"Your former captain is a wanted traitor, lieutenant. And you will come with me for questioning."

And so it begins .

"That will not be necessary. I will escort Matsumoto-fukutaicho to her division, where she will remain and await orders."

"She showed no surprise at all. Obviously, she's a party to treason and therefore a prisoner in my custody."

Kyoraku's eyes did not leave me, but a subtle shift in his weight, a twist of the wrist that would guide his sword in a different direction, and we were both on guard.

"Be on your way, Soi-fon-taicho."

"You do not have the authority to make this decision, Kyoraku-taicho."

His eyes left mine, a sideways glare.

"Indeed. Care to test that assumption?"

Good God, what was going on? Was it an all-out war between captains, now? What had my captain and that stupid, arrogant, asshole ryoka done? Whatever, it was worth it to see a red faced Soi-fon grit her teeth and run off with her tail between her legs, no doubt to go report Kyoraku was a traitor, too.

Daddy, daddy! Shunsui was mean to me! I stuck my tongue out at where she wasn't.

"Alone at last." I sighed as the sword moved away, though it was obvious he was ready to put it right back at, or through, my neck in an instant. "What are you doing out here, Rangiku?"

"My job."

"I don't think it's your job anymore, my dear."

That hurt, even if he was right.

Every alarm in Seireitei tore apart the air. We both looked toward the walls, then back at each other. I jumped into shunpo a step behind him, and minutes later slid to a stop beside him on a high roof with a gasp. In the distance, huge knives of ice exploding from the ground, high as any tower in Seireitei, multiplying, tearing the sky in all directions. The central point, frozen chunks of rubble in a lake of ice where the Central 46 Compound once stood. My jaw was hanging open. I knew Toshiro was strong, but this?

"Back to the 10th, Ran-chan, and stay there if you value your life and freedom."

"Shunsui, Toshiro is no traitor, not to the Gotei."

That actually made him stop and look back.

"He isn't accused of treason against the Gotei. It's much worse than that. Steer clear of this; I may not be able to protect you twice."


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


It was not a surprise that the division was confined to barracks within an hour of my return. I was rather shocked when that did not turn into true arrest. No one came for me, no one came for our zanpakuto, and no news. Questions and rumors, those did arrive on schedule. Few in the 10th would even entertain the thought of the captain being a traitor, at least at first. Time would wear many of them down, I knew, no matter how strongly Ashido and I stood.

Day two, after forcing myself to sleep for a few hours, it was Komamura who came to escort us both to Division 1, unarmed but unrestrained. Ashido was left standing, while I was taken into an office. Passing the sotaicho's office, I could see the damage through the massive hole where the door used to be. One end of the office was burnt black, broken furniture in chunks, pieces of floor, walls, ceiling hanging in splinters. I could feel the barrier preserving the space as it was, a crime scene. The office I was taken to was smaller. Surprised again, and starting to feel foolish, I stared at the two captains.

"Have a seat, Matsumoto-fukutaicho. Care for some tea?"

"Um, sure. Thank you, Ukitake-taicho."

"Rangiku, this won't take too long if you can be honest with us. We need to know exactly what you know."

"I hate to be difficult, but that would take a long while, Kyoraku-taicho."

"Let me make it a little easier. Are you aware of the reason, the very, very old reason, for the conflict between Hitsugaya and the sotaicho?"

"I'm not sure what you mean."

He gave a deep sigh, and Ukitake spoke up.

"Let me put it a different way. We believe Hitsugaya shared certain confidences with you, and possibly with Ashido and Hinamori. We're trying to understand what motivated your captain and Kurosaki, but history, as they say, is written by the victors. It is our hope that you can confirm or deny some of the things we have uncovered."

My mind raced. Toshiro and I had discussed many outcomes, many possible reactions and what I should or should not admit to. He had given me permission to completely spill my guts if I thought it would spare me or the division, because he planned on sharing every bit of his story with Ukitake, and leaving it in the public records. But, was this the time to for a full confession?

"Where is the sotaicho?"

"Injured, but expected to make a full recovery in the hands of Unohana-taicho."

"Hinamori knows nothing, not any of it. Will you give me your word to leave her out of this?"

Ukitake looked at Kyoraku. Just how much authority did Shunsui have now?

"As much as possible. You understand she will be suspected of collusion, no other conclusion is possible given her relationship to both Hitsugaya and Kurosaki. But, I will do all I can to shield her."

"My captain would not betray the Gotei 13."

"So you have said. Make us believe you."

I sighed. One way or the other, this was what Toshiro wanted, any chance to spread the truth.

"Have you read the records my captain left in the Central Library?"

A quick exchange of surprised glances. Ukitake was the one who answered.

"All official buildings have been locked down. What should we be looking for?"

"I'm not certain, only that he said anyone could find it, especially if they looked for his reiatsu."

Shunsui placed a large marble on the desk, and I could feel Toshiro's reiatsu strongly emanating from the pretty thing. The swirling, bright blue mist inside reminded me of his eyes, and I wondered if I would ever see him again.

"He gave me this. I have been able to access maybe five percent of the contents so far, more data than I could read in weeks. But it has already told me enough to doubt the official version of events, Rangiku. Take a look if you like. Then I need honesty from you."

"And you will use what I tell you to bring him down."

"I do not know that yet. But without more information, I do not have a choice. Like I said, make us believe you."


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


Two more days before restrictions were lifted, no explanation given. I had told them everything relevant. They did not need the personal details. Ashido knew less than I did, not being around to witness the suffering Toshiro had gone through. He had been instructed to talk to any captain who asked, to hold back nothing Toshiro had told him. That had provided some amusement. They could have saved themselves some time by starting with Ashido.

Also amusing was the look on Gin's face. He had arrived minutes after the news that the division was no longer confined, and I had immediately told him to cool his heels, I had more important things to do. Arriving at the 5th, I expected to find Hinamori seeking reassurance. Instead I found a woman I had met only briefly, and heard of many times.

"Matsumoto-fukutaicho, isn't it? What can I do for you?"

"Ah, Hayashi . . . taicho." For there, draped over her shihakusho, the haori of the 5th. "I came to see Hinamori-fukutaicho."

"Official business?"

"No, taicho. We are close friends."

"Then I'll ask you to return after, let's see, 6:30 this evening. Her schedule is rather full today."

Bitch! Of all the . . .

Stories about this woman came to mind and I bit my tongue. Even Gin had a healthy respect for her, and went to some lengths to avoid her.

"Very well, taicho. Sorry to have been a bother."

"Not at all. Good day."

Nothing to be done, I started back to the 10th. Passing the training grounds, I spotted Hamada Yuji, Ichigo's fourth seat and friend. He saw me stop at the edge of the arena and made his way over after a few words with the soldiers he was with. I tried to gauge his position, still loyal? God knows that idiot didn't deserve loyalty. Except that he had Toshiro's unconditional loyalty, and how could I argue with that?

"Matsumoto-fukutaicho?"

"No time for games, and if you aren't on my side then I don't really care about you. So just tell me, which side are you on?"

He snorted. No smile, barely any expression at all. What an oddball. Not bad looking, though. The scars over his eye were a nice touch, exotic.

"Kurosaki-taicho is a good man. What do you want?"

"Hinamori-fukutaicho, I came to check on her and your new captain chased me off with a stick."

"She's a wreck. Can't say whether she'll pull through or not this time. Taicho keeps her busy. Doesn't tolerate a word about shit like treason, not from anyone. Doesn't tolerate visitors from other divisions, either, for obvious reasons."

Smart, too, and sassy. Maybe I should add him to my collection. Could I keep hanging out with my cute lieutenants once I was a captain? What about Renji? Maybe I should make it a cute captain's club, instead. Mmm, Renji, Toshiro, Kyoraku, Byakuya, oh yes, I could wear down that noble exterior. And okay, Ichigo. He was a bastard, but a good-looking one. Ukitake was cute, too, but too big-brother for me.

"Matsumoto-fukutaicho? You probably should leave."

"Huh? Oh, yeah, thanks for the info."


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


Day eight and the 10th was back to full speed. I still had not seen Hinamori. Every attempt, no matter what hour of the day or night, I was intercepted and met with some excuse, some request to come back another time. But I had bigger problems. Well, maybe not bigger, Hinamori had to be suffering, but certainly more immediate problems. When Shiba-taicho went missing, he was presumed dead. There was some suspicion from the higher ups, but more sympathy and respect from the general ranks. Toshiro's captaincy brought cruel taunts, derision, and it was years of hard work before the loyal soldiers stopped getting in duels and bar-fights to protect the honor of the kid captain. But all that was nothing compared to this.

There was always rivalry between divisions, but this was the first time the 10th had faced outright hostility. Every time I turned around, there was another squad about to get into a brawl, another officer ready to murder a subordinate, another captain to calm down after inter-division fights in the streets. Now I knew what the three divisions went through after Aizen, Tosen, and Gin . . . oh, Gin. He never looked back, never went to apologize to Izuru, never even spoke of the 3rd. His only advice was to ignore everyone, they didn't matter anyway. He never really said 'I'm sorry' to me, either. Guess I didn't matter, too.

I wondered what he thought of my avoiding him, using many of the same excuses Hayashi-taicho handed me. It wasn't fair. I wanted to see him, wanted him to hold me and tell me everything would be fine. He was such a good liar. But he was too smart, and too ready to jump into any plot and take it over. If I spent a single night with him, I would say far too much, and he would figure out the rest without my help. I couldn't risk it. Not with Toshiro's life and future on the line.

What did it say about me that I still loved him, knowing I could not trust him, believe him, rely on him? I had gotten sick of asking that question. And then, the torture Ichigo had put me through . . . finding out that it all began and ended with Gin. That night, after a long talk with Toshiro, I had looked into the darkness and wished that Gin had died when Ichigo fought him in Hueco Mundo. Maybe I hated Ichigo even more because of that moment.

The first summons to an official meeting was almost a welcome distraction. Toshiro had made Ashido an official lieutenant, so we would both attend with all the captains and seconds. I wasn't sure what to expect. Arrest, probably. I hadn't been questioned by the sotaicho or the 2nd, which seemed beyond odd. When I saw the sotaicho enter, missing an arm but very much alive and as angry looking as ever, I braced for the worst.

Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of that meeting. Not one word about Toshiro, not one about Ichigo, as if they never existed. I watched and waited, incredulous, keeping my mouth shut thanks to the whispered warning to do just that. Shunsui stood close, right in my line of sight as I stared at the old man in disbelief, his warning glances keeping me in place.

Then the last bit of sense to it all was thrown out the window, along with protocol. Hayashi was confirmed officially, no vote, no test, just an acknowledgment and silence all around from the captains. Then a confused Renji was called forward and made captain of the 3rd, just like that, and his was the only grin in the room. Iba was next, and as long as I was down the rabbit hole I stopped to think just how odd that pair would be, Iba and Shuuhei.

When I heard the gruff voice call my name, I was so numbed by all that had gone before that I simply shrugged and stepped forward. But I couldn't help but wonder as I took the haori and ran my hand slowly over the emblem, once this insanity ended, would I still be a captain? My sense returned a little as I headed back to my place in line. The glare I aimed at Shunsui was met with a raised brow. He had some serious explaining to do.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


"What the hell is going on!"

"Ah, congratulations, Matsumoto-taicho. Drinks are on me, tonight, though a proper captaincy celebration is in order. Your place or mine?"

"Cut the shit and . . .."

"Save it for the afterparty."

The sudden warning in his voice calmed me down. Of course, he wouldn't talk here, a public bar. I calmed my temper and threw myself into the booth across from him. Well, as long as I was stuck waiting on the evil bastard, might as well take him up on those free drinks.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


The captain's quarters of the 8th were not as grand as the 10th; only Kuchiki had a better set-up than Toshiro, uh . . . me, that is. It was a very large apartment, directly over the offices. Since the offices were set apart from the barracks, it gave the quarters a private penthouse feel. No less than 30 Shinigami had seen us depart the bar, leaning on each other, giggling, flirting, a bit of groping. No less than 10 more saw us stumble through his front door in an embrace. One of those, I knew, watched the apartment for hours. Jealousy was not in Gin's vocabulary. Possession was.

Assumptions would be made, not for the first time about me and Shunsui. The strong barriers he raised around his bedroom would reinforce the rumors. And I can't say I wasn't tempted to make the act reality. Shunsui was an attractive man, on many levels. But contrary to popular belief, I did not sleep around. It was nobody's business that I had only one sexual partner, ever. His expression sobered as he settled cross-legged on the bed so that I could have the chair, and I eyed the expanse of broad chest exposed by his disheveled robes, thinking what a contrast it would be to run my hands through the black hairs. He looked warm. Gin was strong but lithe, smooth and oddly cool to the touch, at least at first.

Hey, a girl can dream. Guys were always checking me out, trying their luck and getting a fist to the face for their efforts. I considered it my duty as a proud member of the SWA to return the favor, and fantasize when and about whom I pleased.

I stared. He stared. I sighed.

"What, is this some pissing contest, first one to talk loses?"

"You lose. You know, Hitsugaya has rubbed off on you."

"Thanks."

"I suppose it is a compliment. I've always had a high opinion of that boy's brain, but no one realized just how clever he really is, or how powerful he could become."

"No one? I could have told you; in fact, I think I did more than once. Stop stalling and explain why I'm wearing this, for starters. What is going on with the old man? How could anyone just be appointed like that? Why didn't he say anything about Toshiro? Why haven't I been questioned?"

"Calm down. I didn't bring you here to refuse to tell you what I can. But first, have you heard from either of them?"

"No. Toshiro said I wouldn't hear from him at all, ever, unless somehow this all ended. And he ordered me not to try to find him or even send him news."

"Well, I will be sending them news soon, so think about it if there is anything you would like to say. Now, where to start. You already know the history, at least, that saves time. Before they left, Hitsugaya managed to raid the Great Spirit Library, stealing a lot of information about his own history along with other things."

"Don't be vague. What other things?"

"The history of the Soul King, though much of that is unverifiable legend. The founding of the Gotei and of Central 46. Information on certain types of kido used to steal and store power, kido to enslave, kido to create a network, a system of roots if you will, that could feed energy to one point on a massive scale. All of that and more to point toward the conclusion he has reached."

He paused, and I almost snapped at him. But the moment seemed to deserve some gravity, and I could see the struggle he faced just to continue. I waited, trying not to let my anxiety get the better of me. Toshiro had started something even bigger than expected. I had thought he would face and win against unfair laws, or go into relatively peaceful exile like others had, or, at worst, end up fighting the sotaicho or Central 46.

"We are still verifying a lot of this, Ukitake and I. There is room for doubt, that Hitsugaya's own prejudices have led him to false deductions."

"Stop it, Shunsui."

"If he is right, if he even believes he is right, then we can only expect that he will attack and try to kill the Soul King himself. With his power, and Ichigo's, he could succeed."

I could feel the blood drain from my face. The concept was too big, too immense to even contemplate. Myths and the things Shinigami are taught flitted through my mind. The Soul King, Reio, the only thing known that could be described as God, the founder of the universe as we know it, and the only thing that held reality together. These were fundamental truths. Toshiro's story should have prepared me. The Soul King, destroyer and creator of worlds, cruel despot who murdered had his own son and destroyed a dragon. But the story had been too big for it to be real to me.

"What? Is that even possible?"

"He told you his history. You know he nearly succeeded once."

"But he didn't. The Soul King could not be allowed to die or all worlds would fall apart. Isn't that right? Doesn't that mean that the King cannot be killed? That fate would intervene? Shunsui?"

I was panicking, I knew that, my hands wringing the fabric of my new haori, cursing the position it might put me in. Gin had turned traitor, made me face my lack of faith in him and breaking my heart. Ichigo had played the part of traitor, forced me to face him and the fear of failing my captain. Now Toshiro. What would I do? What could I do if it came to a choice between him and the safety of worlds, billions of souls?

No. He can't. He wouldn't do this to me.

"Nothing is ever that certain, Rangiku. If he's right, the Soul King is no more a god than I am, no more essential to the universe than any one of us."

"So . . . so, what then? Are you going to let him do it?"

He was silent for a minute, eyes downcast. Then he stood and got two cups and a bottle from a cabinet. Sake even in the bedroom, I knew there was a reason I liked him. I was proud that my hands didn't shake when I took the cup. He couldn't answer, no more than I could.

"Why? He wouldn't do something like this just for revenge."

"There are many reasons I suspect, and more motives are uncovered every day. I wouldn't have believed any of it, if it hadn't been for Unohana. Hitsugaya told you about his memories from his past life, how that soul was forced to obey the Soul King?"

I shuddered.

"He claimed the same is true of Yama-jii. Perhaps not to the same extent, but that the old man is at least partly not in control of his own actions."

"But how . . .?"

"Hear me out first. Part of the information Hitsugaya left behind was of the founding of the Gotei. Even earlier, Yama-jii was given authority over all Seireitei. There are many hints in the history and the laws, hints that the Soul King's power was absolute, that the Shinigami would obey completely. Predictable enough. Then came Central 46, created to limit the authority of the Gotei, they say. Yet in the first documents, the first directives, Central is given control of the sotaicho. Not authority over, control of. It's all there, in black and white, what they are allowed to tell the leader of the Shinigami to do, what he can and cannot refuse to do. Not as laws, Ran, as commands.

"Even then, I would not believe it. I have known Yama-jii for nearly a thousand years. I have known Unohana as long, and she has been with him from the start of the the Gotei, from the start of the Shinigami. Where else would I go, who else would I ask? It was a risk, that she would defend him and his secrets. But I asked myself why she had not been part of the effort to subdue Hitsugaya and Kurosaki."

He paused to refill our cups. Maybe I was drunk. This was all a hallucination and I'd wake up with a hangover and a sense of horror.

"Unohana had been willing to hunt down incarnations of the Heavenly Guardian before. I know, I was there hunting right beside her. But she always knew. She was there when the Soul King was nothing more than the strongest of human souls, not yet declared a god by all. She was there when Reio gave 13 powerful warriors the task of securing the source of his power. And she saw Yama-jii gain the power to stand second only to the Soul King, power that came at a great cost."

"What do you mean, the source of his power?"

"If Hitsugaya is right, and increasingly I find more reasons to believe that he is, then Reio was nothing more than a human soul that found a way to increase his power enough to break free form the cycle of rebirth. And he did it by stealing the power of others, by draining reiryoku from his fellows. One by one at first, then creating a world designed to do nothing more than increase his power, which is used to expand and strengthen the system, an eternal loop.

"And Shinigami live near the center of this system, gaining stolen reiryoku as a side-effect, living longer and growing more powerful with time. The Gotei exists to ensure that souls can make it into the machine that will take their strength, ensure that they stay within reach of the Soul King long enough to increase his power."

"I think I'm going to be sick."

Bad enough to think of a man you respect having his will subjugated. What do you think when you find that the man you feel sympathy for walked into that subjugation willingly, to serve a twisted tyrant for nothing more than the right to be a tyrant himself? That meant nothing compared to the rest of it. Everyone she knew believed to some degree that the Gotei was a force for good. Right and wrong were more than just philosophical abstracts, and we were in the right. But we were not. We were parasites, just like the king.

"Hitsugaya left everything out in the open. The data he gathered and gave to me is very in-depth, an abbreviated version copied directly into the Central Library. I'm certain he has more. He isn't willing to let the secrets be buried again."

"Of course, he isn't! You say that like you wish you could put your head back in the sand."

"Don't you?"

I had nothing to say to that. It was going to take some time to process, and I already knew that when I had, I would regret it, as much or more than I regretted this conversation. Ignorance is bliss. Even now, I had to look away from the bigger picture. It was too much to handle.

"What then, is going on now? Wouldn't the sotaicho do anything to kill Toshiro?"

"I don't know the specifics. But Hitsugaya left part of that answer, too. Central 46 follows a set of laws created by the Soul King, and added to over time by it's own authority. There are also directives, a set of standing orders. One of them instructs Central on identifying, monitoring, and eliminating any Shinigami who has Hyorinmaru as their zanpakuto. That order is given to Yama-jii, but the final step, killing the wielder, has a small loophole in that it is left in the hands of the sotaicho to execute according to the laws of the Gotei. And the execution of a Shinigami by the Gotei is not required until and unless there is a crime or proof of intent to commit a crime great enough to warrant a death sentence. The laws of the Gotei also do not require the pursuit of a criminal outside of Soul Society."

"So the old man is only doing as much as he is required to do. He'll let Toshiro live?"

"It certainly seems that way. And it seems he'll do everything he can to keep the Gotei running as if none of this is coming to light, as if there is nothing at all wrong. Why, exactly, is a question we have not been able to answer. Sentiment? Rebellion? I want Hitsugaya's opinion on this, and many other things."

"What will you do?"

He snorted, a weary and bitter amusement in his eyes.

"About what?"

"Then, what do I do?"

"You trust me to answer that?"

"At the moment."

"Smart girl. Do nothing. Do not give away that you know any of this. Ukitake is working on a way to copy that little creation of Hitsugaya's. I'll share as much with you as I can. Will this all end in a coup without our help? Will I, at least, join one side or the other? It's too soon. There are too many unknowns. But there is one thing Hitsugaya and I agree upon completely - the truth must be known, by as many as possible."

"Including Gin?"

Did nothing surprise him? I suppose anyone would expect that question from me eventually.

"If it was solely my choice, yes, but not yet. I do not trust him, as much as I would like to exploit his intellect. At this stage, with so much confusion, I fear that he would only muddy the waters at best, twist all of it in his favor at worst. But I will not stop you from doing what you think is right."

Oh, damn it all to hell!

"Why couldn't you just say no."

At that, he refilled my cup.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


It was nearly 4 AM when I left the 8th, head buzzing as if I were truly as drunk as I had pretended to be. I felt him following. The plan to stop short of the 10th and walk a bit in the dark to clear my head was discarded. I was freezing anyway, shunpo in the snow will do that. Confronting him on my home turf would make it easier. But not my quarters, not a place where we had spent any time wrapped in one another's arms.

"Ran-chan."

I ignored him as I unlocked the office and stepped inside, leaving the door open. Lighting a few kido lamps, I decided tea was in order. Sleep wasn't in the cards, so warm caffeine would need to make up for it. Gin's reiatsu was nearly impossible to read unless he was really emotional, which didn't happen often. But I could feel both anger and worry radiating from him. Maybe I was just better at sensing now.

He took a cue from my silence and waited, standing in front of my . . . in front of Ashido's desk. Out of his sight for a moment, I sagged against the counter. Only a moment. I straightened, running my hands over my haori. A captain. I did not owe it to him. Yes, his plot had pushed me the final step to Bankai, but it was my decades of work that earned this, and I did deserve it. And a captain can stand on her own, do what is right and necessary.

Cheap tea, quickly boiled water and those dry little tea bags. Toshiro would throw a fit. I took the two mugs into the office where he still waited and I chose the chair rather than chance him sitting with me on the couch. He came over quietly, settled on the couch, elbows on his knees as he leaned forward and looked at me.

"Congratulations, Matsumoto-taicho."

"Thank you, Gin."

Funny, that sounded calm and mature.

"Please, Ran-chan. You've been avoiding me for days. If you won't let me help when you are hurting, at least tell me why."

"I can't remember the last time you said please. Are you feeling alright?"

Surprise, anger, or cold calculation were the usual reasons for the blue of his eyes to show so clearly. And when we made love, of course. At those times he looked at me, and sometimes seemed to really see me. I did my best to stop these thoughts, or at least keep them hidden. He probably saw right through me, but the fact that I was trying to hide my feelings from him at all would tell him volumes.

"We need to talk about all of this, about Toshiro and what is happening, what is coming. There is . . ."

"No. We do not need to talk about that. Or anything."

"Why are you pushing me away, Ran?"

"Pushing you away? That's rich. My moment of weakness is over, Gin. You know, I used to think you hung the moon in the sky just for me. I bought it all. But even if it was all true, I've paid dearly for it and I'm finished."

His eyes were wide now, and I had a rush of guilt and a rush of satisfaction at the pain he showed. I didn't believe it for a second, and at the same time I knew in my heart that it was honest. That's how fucked up he had made me.

"Ran . . . Rangiku, you don't mean it."

Not I'm sorry. Not please tell me how to fix it. Not, god forbid, I love you.

"I mean, get out of my office. I mean, stay out of my division and stay out of my sight. I mean, I am finished."

I was amazed again at how calm my voice was. I was not, however, surprised at his cold reaction. He stood, eyes back to unreadable slits, at least not grinning. His hand twitched, a few inches toward me, then froze, then dropped. And he walked out.

My plan had been to drive him away. My plan had been to keep him at a distance until the time was right, so that I would not be a liability to Toshiro, to Shunsui, by giving away all I knew to a man they did not trust. Gin would forgive such a deception because it was what he would do. But now, as the tears started, I could not say that I ever wanted to see him walk back in through that door.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


My first day as captain could have been a day of joy and accomplishment. There were some good things, the sense of relief throughout the division certainly made me feel better. There were congratulations, there was laughter in the mess hall, there was a renewed energy on the training grounds and in the officers' meeting. And I got to confirm Ashido as my second. I hadn't been sure how I felt about him at first, despite Toshiro's enthusiasm. But working with him, trusting him through the crisis, I wouldn't have picked anyone else.

I stood on the porch of 'my' quarters, wondering how long it would take for me to not feel like an interloper, a thief. Cleaning out your predecessor's quarters is often a bittersweet task in Soul Society, since death is usually the reason for the sudden opening in the ranks. I had given his housekeeper a generous severance. I didn't want her to see what I planned to do, carve out a small space for myself on the bottom floor and leave as much untouched as possible. He would come back, and this was his home.

Drawing in my courage, I stepped inside and looked around in amazement. Then I rushed room to room, upstairs, back down.

That sneaky little bastard.

Empty. Not a stick of furniture, not a spoon, not a stray piece of paper. Empty and spotless.

He must have known I would have trouble with this. I wouldn't have been able to throw out his things, and I wouldn't have wanted to be surrounded by reminders. So, he got rid of it all, taking away the option of wallowing in grief over something like his stuff.

Wait a second. He didn't even leave me the plates, the pots and pans? What about . . . nope, the spices, oils, all the harmless essentials gone. My little apartment barely had a kitchenette, I could have used that stuff! Now my first five paychecks would go to simple home goods. Not to mention, new place, new bed. Okay, some of my things could come over, my antique vanity, the rugs would look great in the living room.

Oh my god! I ran back up the stairs. Not one, but two, count them, two walk in closets! Squealing in delight, I planned out how best to arrange things. Work clothes in one, casual in the other? There was not enough display room for shoes, not to mention jewelry and handbags. Maybe one of the little bedrooms could be converted. Hang on, one bedroom was right behind the back wall of one of the closets, simply knock down a little wall – score!

Later, back in the my old quarters, I dug through piles of old notes until I found what I needed. It was a code Toshiro and I had used when he was 3rd seat, like children in school, to leave notes about Shiba's follies to one another. It was a way to vent frustration, turning it into a game. Getting him to smile, and even, once or twice, to laugh was the highlight of my days back then. Between this shared secret and the extra work we did to keep our captain on task, we had developed a rapport that grew stronger and stronger. I knew he would remember it, not needing a key like I did.

It must be very brief. The more words, the easier to break a code. No room for sentiment or idle chatter, only what he needed to know.

Taicho, The 10th is strong. The old ones are nearly yours.

 

Chapter Text

Still dark beyond the windows, the fire banked and air starting to chill, I was up early. Stirring the coals, I added only two thin logs to make the morning bearable and provide heat for tea and breakfast, reheated apple cinnamon oatmeal. Toshiro had been up late, waking me when he curled up close, chilly body wrapping around me from behind. Then he pretended to sleep, perhaps getting some rest but not sleeping, at least not in the hour or so that I also pretended.

So much on his mind. I guess it had been a vain hope that our successful exit from Soul Society would provide him with space and peace that he had not known in a very long time. The world was always on his shoulders. The thought had occurred to me, we go so far as to take down the Soul King, possibly causing some kind of collapse of reality. Then what? It falls on us to restructure the universe? It falls on him. Always, he carried the lion's share of the burden, the planning, the worry.

I knew it was best to support and stay out of the way when it came to strategy. My skills were more useful when it came to executing the plans. But in this, I would need to step up my game, take some of the weight and do more than just watch for my opportunity. Equals, that had always been the goal. For now, more simple support, in the form of a boring breakfast. As it warmed, I tidied and cleaned what little I could. Toshiro kept the place nearly spotless.

He came down the stairs just as I decided the oatmeal was hot enough and the tea had just started to steep. Already, he seemed deep in thought, sparing me a smile as I kissed his cheek and handed him a bowl. For all my internal yapping at myself, I still felt lighthearted every time I was near him, and I hummed as I poured tea, set a cup near him, and brought my own bowl so I could scoot in close beside him under the blanket he'd drawn over his legs.

"Sick of oatmeal yet?"

"It's only been, what, five days straight? I could take another week, at least."

"Something different tomorrow morning, though. Fresh fruit. Maybe some bacon. And someone else to do the dishes."

He was distracted again, and I intended to let him be as we finished eating.

"Ichigo, I've decided that I agree with you."

"About what, love?"

He sat down the empty bowl on the coffee table and drank down half of the tea in one gulp. Then he shifted a bit to look at me fully.

"Some wrongs cannot be overlooked. So, let's not. Only, I want to have a better understanding of what will come after. There is something to be said for ending a wrong, but we cannot leave it at that."

"You mean to try to fix things, to try to right at least some of it."

"I do not want to destroy for nothing but my own revenge, nor even just to secure our own future. It would only perpetuate the problem, strengthen the corruption. What if . . ." he looked down uncertainly, an oddly timid air, "what if we could find a way to improve the situation? This is an opportunity to help all of humanity. I do not expect to accomplish a miracle, but a lessening of suffering surely is a reasonable goal."

He looked back up as my hand cupped his cheek, and the misgivings faded from those remarkable eyes as I leaned in. I had to kiss him; I had no choice at all. That is what he had been struggling with, what had kept him searching for truth until he found it within his own soul. He may not believe it about himself, but Toshiro was more genuinely compassionate than the vast majority of humanity. And it meant more coming from him, because he would literally move Heaven and Earth to make good on his resolution, no matter what the personal cost and with not one thought given to personal gain. Gently I moved my lips against his, simply needing to be close, to connect. I stayed close, resting my forehead against his, thumb rubbing his cheek as he leaned into my hand.

"You are a miracle, my love. It can be done, and if anyone can figure out how, it's you."

He smiled, all traces of doubt gone.

"No, it's us."

More kissing, his hand in my hair, and he broke away, still smiling.

"Put out the fire and let's get out of here."

"Anxious to be somewhere?"

"Not at all. I'm only worried that it will ruin my reputation when I die of hypothermia."

We could not move fast enough to suit Toshiro, and I could tell it was driving him mad as I took my time dowsing the fire and setting the heater to keep the cabin from freezing, not to mention the gigai we would soon be leaving behind. I had never thought to learn if the artificial bodies could freeze, but I was certain it would be unpleasant to get back into one that had been sitting at 10 degrees for a day and a half. At any rate, I did not hurry. As challenging as living here was, I did not want to return to a pile of ash in the snow simply because I didn't tend the fireplace properly.

He was the one who 'wasted' time to arrange the gigai in bed once we had, thankfully, abandoned them. Who was going to visit this isolated place and wonder why two bodies were lying on the floor? And why would they then be less alarmed finding two corpses in a bed? They did look cute all tucked up in bed side by side, though. Creepy. But cute. I was too relieved to be free again to worry about creepy for long. Even with reiatsu reined in painfully tight, being out of the gigai made me feel like I could breath after more than a week of being strangled.

Watching him leaning over the body that looked just like him, that I had been intimate with. Mmm, from his angle, it almost looked like Toshiro was about to kiss Toshiro, yes, just a little bit closer . . . no, bad Ichigo! Bad!

Think of something else. I found it interesting that we both wore plain shihakusho. Was it just a reishi copy of what we last wore? Did our psyches somehow influence it, knowing the haori no longer belonged? If I concentrated, truly desired and believed it belonged, could I pop out of gigai dressed in an elaborate ball gown and high heels?

Such were the heavy thoughts that occupied my time while Toshiro planned the restructuring of the universe and correcting the wheel of human reincarnation. So far, I was not doing a good job of holding to my resolution to be more valuable to him.

"Ichigo."

"Hmm?"

I blinked repeatedly as he took my hand. He raised a brow. He leaned in close and I shivered. He whispered in my ear.

"Make me beg."

Touching him with my reiatsu free after more than a week, touching him while the raw power of chaos slid over and through us, I was losing control before we even stepped through into the cool, dim cavern. He was making it worse, his hands already undressing me, his leg twining around me so that his own, quite firm I noted, erection was pressed tight against me. He must have been fantasizing much more intensely than I had, and here I had thought he was busy planning. Perverted bastard.

I wrapped one arm around him, holding him close and tight. My other hand went to his hair, pulling his head back, removing his lips from that place beneath my ear that he knew drove me crazy. He glared, his own hands stopped caressing my back, gripping handfuls of cloth.

"Thought you wanted me to make you beg, my love."

Perfectly even, startlingly white teeth bared in a hybrid of a grin and a snarl. I couldn't help but stare, he was too fucking sexy when he was both pissed off and horny.

"Later, just . . . Ichigo . . . dammit!"

I let him go before he lost his temper and turned this into a fight, which I wasn't sure I would want to win. Immediately, his hands went to work removing swords. I couldn't figure out any reason not to go along with the incredibly fast pace, so off went Hyorinmaru and a growing pile of clothing, my hand slipping into a pocket to palm the lubricant I had not forgotten to stash before leaving the cabin.

God, it was so good to feel him again, really feel him. The body was similar enough, but there was something missing with such a thorough lock-down on reiatsu, like a beautiful rose without the rich, honeyed scent. Now, it was back, in every touch and every breath the icy essence of my most perfect, seductive, beautiful Toshiro. Not to mention the allure of feeling my own reiatsu within him, just there, under my lips, marked by pale scars.

I kicked my feet free of fabric that he had pushed down, aware but not caring how strange I might look naked apart from black boots up to my lower calves. Too much work to get the things off, and far more urgent matters to attend to, such as the slightly chilly hands that were running up the back of my legs, lingering and drawing me closer as they moved higher. Meanwhile, his head had come down, pressing kisses against my throat, pushing me away from his, taking over.

Oh, thinks he's going to take control? After that tease? Not likely.

Every time before, I had backed down the second he gave some sign that he wanted to take me, or even if he simply wanted to call the shots while I took him. Not this time. I wanted him, and he had been dropping hints as subtle as atom bombs, pushing me to accept my instincts when they told me to be possessive. Hell, he'd told me to make him beg.

Indulging for another minute, his hands kneading my ass, his mouth sucking delightfully on my pulse, I moved my hands to the right places, one on the front of his ribs, the other behind him. When he paused for a breath, I pushed and spun him around in my hands. Feet tangled, he had not kicked pants away from ankles, and the lack of balance worked in my favor, pulling him close, his hands looking for support grabbing at my thighs and making it easy to restrict his arms with mine.

Left arm tight across his midriff, right hand pausing, taking advantage of his distraction to work open the tube.

"Ichigo! What th . . . HAH!"

Nothing like a slick hand wrapping around your dick to shut a man up.

He did, to my surprise, try to break free, and even though he only used his body's natural strength, I had to tighten my hold on both his arms and his erection to get him to stop. A couple of quick jerks and he moaned, hands on my legs stopped trying to push away, pulled instead.

"That's better, isn't it?"

The struggling had pressed his ass so close, so tight against my cock and then he had wriggled, pushing hard. Now it would be a contest to see which of us was closer to coming undone. He was gritting his teeth, eyes closed as my hand slowed but didn't lighten, tight hol